Going live at the Y, one step at a time

Virtual resources continue in perpetuity, YMCA plans to reopen on a reduced scale.


The YMCA of Martha’s Vineyard is looking at reintroducing some of its in-person resources, after having been hugely successful with its virtual programming.

Executive director for the YMCA Jill Robie said that once the facility shut its doors in March, members of the community still wanted to have a connection with their friends and neighbors like the one the YMCA provides. And although the exercise and structural element is important, Robie said, “it didn’t seem to be about the exercise as much as it was about connecting and interacting with others.”

With the YMCA serving so many different populations and filling so many different needs, the staff had to think quickly about how they could try to substitute an in-person experience with a virtual one.

“A lot of YMCAs were afraid that virtual programming would cannibalize the in-person programming, but I think it had the opposite effect. Anytime you can make your programming accessible to more people, that is a good thing,” Robie said.

And with that goal in mind, staff and administrators at the Y came together to create online fitness programs with different groups for all ages and abilities. For the Healthy Agers on Martha’s Vineyard, the Y offered (and continues to offer) water exercises, sitting and standing chair exercises, and a comprehensive fitness program for elders.

In only a couple of months since the start of the pandemic, the YMCA online presence had grown to around 52 classes per week, and was serving around 700 people.

As the closure went on, and the elementary schools wrapped up their last week of classes, Robie said, people at the Y started to wonder whether they would be able to offer their camp this summer at all. “Are we going to do camp? Are we not? How do we stay connected to these kids and families?” Robie asked.

By the end of the school year, Robie said that kids were “totally screened out” after spending so much time on Zoom classes. Afterschool program director Tara Dinkle held her online classes, but folks knew they would have to reopen their in-person camp at some point.

Robie explained that because the Y has so many different segments of business and so many different operations conventionally happening simultaneously within the facility, it would be unsafe to roll out all programs together. Given the tight public health restrictions regarding maximum occupancy and distancing, a phased rollout makes more sense for the Y.

With that, the YMCA dipped its toes into reopening with one-on-one lifeguard training in its pool on July 8. “That was really a fast track so we could get lifeguards certified for the beaches,” Robie said.

They are holding a drive-in movie theater, which is seeing great success as a community-centered event, and raising funds for YMCA operations.

On July 20, camp will start up again, and the camp sessions will be coordinated so that campers will be separated from the general membership.

“Under the umbrella of the Y, you have six or seven businesses, each with differing guidance. Some of these programs can’t happen simultaneously,” Robie said. “The camp guidance requires us not to be able to have simultaneous things open to membership when camp is open. We decided we would hold off on opening to general membership until after the camp is over.”

The Ice Arena will be opening on August 3 with tight restrictions, and will be available for skating camps as long as it isn’t doing tournaments or scrimmages.

Robie said Alex’s Place is hopefully going to reopen with the proper guidelines once the facility is open to general membership. “A lot of our decision making with Alex’s Place will align with what happens with schools,” Robie said.

For the YMCA, reopening is a complicated process because there are so many layers of activity going on, and the services it normally provides are essential to the Vineyard community. But Robie said the staff at the Y are all about being able to assess needs, and create programs to fill those needs. “Our programs really fill a specific space in our community, and are pretty hard to replace,” Robie said. According to Robie, the virtual programs have seen an outpouring of gratitude and positive feedback, but the Y is ready to start moving forward.

“We will still offer our virtual programs, because we want to provide access to as many people as possible. If there is someone who normally wouldn’t go to the gym but wants to sit in on a group exercise Zoom, we want to make that an option,” Robie said.

Development and marketing coordinator for the Y Rachel Serwa said the virtual classes are going to be “a part of our new normal for the time being.” She said that for people who might not feel comfortable going back into the building right away, especially the Healthy Aging community, there will always be virtual resources just a click away.

“Betty Robie will be doing her virtual Healthy Aging classes, Asil [Cash] and Amy [Crawford] will be doing their Group X classes. We could have 100 people in a Zoom room participating, whereas I don’t know what those classes will look like when they are back in person,” Serwa said.

According to Serwa, YMCA staff and administrators are ensuring that as in-person programs begin to be offered, safety will be paramount in that process. “We want to follow all the phased guidelines and take no unnecessary risks,” Serwa said. “We can’t wait to start helping those families with camp and getting people back in the gym, but it has to be one step at a time.”