Young people a focus in YMCA expansion plans

06/28/2014 3:54 PM

06/28/2014 3:55 PM

Local YMCA leaders, after spending millions expanding buildings and programs, say they still think there are thousands more kids and adults getting left out of fun and physical fitness.

So once again they are announcing expansions, this time with $10 million in new facilities, more volunteers, more games and more networking and partnerships with school districts and cities. The new facilities include an athletic complex in Andover, set to open in 2015.

At the top of the YMCA’s priorities, CEO Dennis Schoenebeck said, is getting tens of thousands more people athletically active and putting a dent in childhood obesity.

“We wanted to make a big impact and a difference in our community, and you do that in part by engaging kids at a young age, with a lot of kids involved,” he said.

YMCA officials hope to reach out to thousands more young people, offering more facilities and chances to work out and play sports, he said.

The Greater Wichita YMCA, in Sedgwick and Butler counties, already serves 275,000 people a year, including 20,000 sports programs participants. It wants to boost that to 325,000, Schoenebeck said, including 40,000 sports programs participants.

All this follows a big building plan that expanded or added new YMCAs in recent years, including the sun-filled, glass-enclosed Robert D. Love Downtown YMCA, “the finest downtown YMCA in the country,” as Schoenebeck calls it.

The mayor of Andover said the new athletic complex there is going to mean not only more athletics and sports in his city but at least a partial solution to a recent problem: Andover, as it grows, is not only running out of athletic field space but the fields it has are stressed from heavy use. They can heal now, Mayor Ben Lawrence said.

Larger plans by the Greater Wichita YMCA include:

• Cooperating with the city of Andover in building by 2015 a sports complex on 28 acres outside the YMCA Andover branch site and next to Prairie Creek Elementary School, along East Kellogg. The complex will include two turf soccer fields and an indoor sports facility in the first phase. The second phase calls for two more soccer fields and another indoor sports facility.

The facility is good for Andover, Lawrence said, not only because the city needs more fields but because of the popularity of the YMCA in his town. About 80 percent of Andover residents use the YMCA, he said.

• Opening the Farha Sport Center Indoor Fields at the South YMCA, 3405 S. Meridian, in September. That program will include recreational and competitive soccer leagues for ages 3 to adult, a new training center for athletic conditioning and new sports academies for ages 8 to 18.
• Partnerships with the Maize and El Dorado school districts, where schools – at no cost to taxpayers – use new YMCA turf fields during school days, and YMCA members use them on weekends and after 5:30 p.m. on weekdays.
• Recruiting 2,000 more volunteers to help with sports programs.

All the spending and all the effort in recent years is predicated on the notion that lifelong physical activity is good, not only for the health of any person but for the overall health of a community, Schoenebeck said. If people are playing games on organized teams, it’s likely they are healthy in every way, he said.

So planners put a lot of thought not only in how much will be spent in this expansion but how they can engage a lot more people, said Josh Whitson, director of sports initiatives for the YMCA.

“We asked, ‘How can we structure sports, from a recreational level, to match up both with kids’ skills and their interests?’ ” Whitson said.

“Overall, a lot of kids everywhere drop out of sports programs at a young age, and what we want is to create programs where they don’t do that, don’t feel left out, and where they have a joy and a passion to continue.”

Too many kids drop out of sports, even by age 8, because of competitive pressure or because they don’t make a team, or because they lose interest, he said. So the YMCA has tried to conceptualize spending and programs together that will make the local YMCAs a more popular draw.

Much of the YMCA programming, old and new, now focuses on those kids who might get left out: kids who lack coordination, for example, or who lack focus. The YMCA sports programs he’s running now try to put those kids in settings and classes that are structured, supportive, encouraging – and fun, he said.

In old-style physical education classes in school, he said, kids were made to run extra laps as punishment, a tactic he said made kids think running really is punishment. It’s actually beneficial and can be taught as such, he said.

All public programs cost money, but Lawrence, the Andover mayor, said there’s a long tradition in Andover of sharing costs and facilities. When the YMCA first began expanding into Andover years ago – and before it became self-sustaining – it needed gym space, and got it from Andover schools, Lawrence said.

Now, Lawrence said, the YMCA is building turf soccer fields and other facilities, and offering to share space and opportunities for athletics programs eagerly sought by Andover parents and kids.

“Pooling tax dollars and resources makes perfect sense for our schools and our community,” he said.

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