The YMCA of Martha’s Vineyard provides much more than the pool and exercise room. While the pandemic closed them down initially, it turned out to be a catalyst for many changes that have expanded the Y’s reach into the community in significant ways.
“It’s been an interesting challenge, but so many opportunities have come out of it as well,” Nina Lombardi, director of operations, says. “It’s helped keep us going at a time when we were supposed to be apart, and we have this organization that brings people together, whether through health and wellness, or childcare, or swim lessons. But everybody was supposed to keep their distance, so the question was, What do we do now? It’s been a challenge, but presented a lot of opportunities to discover how we could still connect people.”
Executive director Jill Robie said that the pandemic helped them realize how important the YMCA is in connecting people within the community.
“It was interesting to learn how people are so connected to the Y. It wasn’t until it was taken away from them that we started to hear what they missed — sitting in the café, swimming in the pool,” Robie said. “Suddenly we had to figure out a way to make connections happen. There was this real need, I felt, to make the Y relevant, even though nobody could come here; how to keep us part of their regular life.”
Initially, when the YMCA closed in March 2020, they thought it was just going to be for a couple of weeks. Soon, like the rest of us, they recognized the reality of the pandemic. Even with all the unknowns — like whether you could get COVID by touching a surface, or if we needed to leave our groceries outside — they took action. Working with M.V. Community Services, the Department of Children and Families, and the school system, they identified 50 kids for emergency childcare, dividing them up into pods of 10 and spreading them out throughout the facility. Through funding that Community Services was able to secure, they were able to give about 50 percent financial assistance to each participant.
Shortly after everything closed, the Y’s group exercise instructors pivoted to teaching on Zoom, with the classes free to the entire community. Lombardi says, “By the first week of April, we had 60 online, live Zoom classes. Some had up to 30 or 35 people. We were conversing before the class — people had their coffee and kids in the background before the classes. Then when the classes ended, people were clapping and saying, Thank you so much. It was such an amazing experience, although bizarre at the same time.”
Some of these classes morphed into something different as the Y’s Healthy Aging coordinator, Betty Robie, realized how important the connection was for the older audience, who were often isolated at home, to have time to connect before and after the class. She would also send them Ted Talks, and they would talk about it like a book club. This connection also enabled staff to identify people who needed groceries, since early on there were folks who were afraid to go to the grocery store. Jill Robie says, “We had staff who would go to the store and then deliver to them. They picked up their mail and prescriptions. That was really nice, because they would have the face of someone they knew from the Y. It was one of those things where you really got to see how deep the roots are for people to the Y outside the four walls.”
This year, summer camp served 50 kids, and the teen center opened with the first day of school. And this fall, the YMCA is set to undertake collaborative work with the Boys and Girls Club and the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival for teenagers.
One thing they said they have learned is the benefit of being highly collaborative with other organizations. “We saw the benefit of it, and we want to continue it in the future,” Robie said. “We got to know each other better, and learned how we could work together and deliver programs for kids. We all see the same kids, just different times of the day, and it just made sense for us to all work together.”
Fall plans include the ability for people who have completed their cardiac rehabilitation program through their insurance to be able to maintain their routine in the Y’s new Better for You program. In addition, they are working on building back up their traditional programming as they emerge further out of the pandemic. This includes the long-awaited reopening of Alex’s Place Teen Center this month, and their first fall session of swim lessons since 2019, with 100 kids currently registered. The afterschool program is back in full swing, with 63 kids registered, as they welcome back new and returning members.
“Josh Aronie will be putting his Food Truck here and providing our café with some grab-and-go food, which people are looking forward to,” Robie said. “And we will continue to use our kitchen, which over the pandemic took on an interesting twist. There was a food insecurity issue, and so some of the kitchens were tapped for chefs to come in and make meals for the Food Pantry and Elderly Housing. Albert Lattanzi was creating several hundred meals a week from the time we closed. We are going to continue to use the kitchen that way through our relationship with Island Grown Initiative.”
Through the pandemic and beyond, the YMCA proves to be a real resource for the Island community, above and beyond a place to exercise.
For more information about the YMCA, visit ymcamv.org.