Greater Wichita YMCAs celebrate 125 years

In the 125-year history of the Greater Wichita YMCA, the types of people going through the doors have changed dramatically.

Go to a Y today and you'll see young and old people, men, women and children working out — swimming, doing aerobics, playing basketball and using the exercise equipment.

Many have been coming for years.

If it weren't for the YMCA summer camps and latchkey programs, Josh Kester says he's not sure how his childhood would have turned out.

"I probably would have stayed with my grandparents a lot," said Kester, who, at age 19, works with the Y's Stars After School Program. Through the Y programs, he said, he went on field trips, learned to swim and play cards.

Austin Ray became part of the Y's Black Achiever program at age 7. Now 20, he works with the Y's after-school mentoring program.

"The Y was my first and only job," Ray said. "I began working here when I was in high school. The Y gave me an opportunity to take control and do something with my life. It gave me an opportunity to work and meet great people and learn a lot of new things."

When the Wichita YMCA was established Jan. 10, 1885, by Wichitans like philanthropist A.A. Hyde, they probably had no idea how a men's social and athletic organization would evolve.

In most cities, about 5 percent of the population belongs to the Y or participates in a Y program.

In Wichita, about 35 percent of the population participates, according to Dennis Schoenebeck, the Y's general executive for the past two decades.

"Wichita has one of the top Ys in the nation," said Jim Everett, president and CEO of the Treasure Valley Family YMCA in Boise, Idaho. "The Wichita Y has the highest penetration rate of getting people involved than any Y in the nation.

"People have a need to belong and be part of something and share a common set of values. And when you can get that kind of interests and commitments to service with 140,000 members in a community the size of Wichita... well, no one else has that kind of reach into a community."

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer said the YMCAs are vital to Wichita's quality of life.

"It's the opportunities to be able to participate in programs. A lot of the programs they put on are at no charge," he said. "I would say we probably have some of the best Ys in the nation because of the quality of the equipment, environment and the interaction the staff has with the citizens."

On Jan. 10, 1885, the Young Men's Christian Association, led by A.A. Hyde, the developer of Mentholatum and a prominent philanthropist, received its charter.

The first Y had two rooms, rented for $25 a month on the second floor of a local grocery. It had about three dozen members — all men, all white. Proof of church membership was required.

In the industrial age, as young men left farms to work in factories and offices, it filled a need by keeping their bodies fit and their minds away from brothels and saloons. It was a place to develop future leaders.

"The Y was the Facebook of its day," said Jay Price, director of the public history program at Wichita State University. "It was social networking, and you would see an overlap between it, members of the Masons and Chamber of Commerce."

A contributing founder

In 1886, Wichita was a boom town. Local Y leaders bought land at First and Topeka and had plans to build an elaborate stone showplace.

The building was ornate, filled with bric-a-brac and stained glass. It served as a dormitory and featured vocational programs for its members.

But in 1891, an economic bust hit Wichita hard, and by 1897, the struggling nonprofit was forced to sell to the Scottish Rite Masons.

Hyde, who had been a banker and owner of various real estate holdings, saw his wealth quickly dissolve when the economy hit bottom. He mortgaged his home to pay off the Y's debt.

That's when he began experimenting with a menthol-based salve, which he prepared on the family stove. By the turn of the century the Mentholatum Co. was prospering. Hyde became one of the nation's leading philanthropists.

He was known for his charitable works to more than 60 organizations. He helped found Wichita's YMCA and YWCA, and helped build the YMCA camp in Estes Park, Colo.

Hyde also helped fund a separate YMCA for Wichita's black population. The Water Street Branch YMCA was founded in 1908 and renamed the Hutcherson Branch in 1942. In 1966, its name was changed again with the opening of the North Branch.

He also helped establish Camp Hyde, a 125-acre site 20 miles southwest of Wichita.

Schoenebeck said Hyde, who died in 1935, helped establish the Y's legacy of providing programs to meet the community's needs.

Expanding its services

After World War II, the Wichita YMCA started expanding services for growing families.

"Women had gone to work and the need for child care and family programming sprung off," Schoenebeck said. "The Y became more of an evolution than an institution."

The Y has since become the largest child care provider in Wichita, currently serving 84,000 children in Sedgwick and Butler counties.

The Y brought Wichita many firsts: Boy Scout troop, gymnasium, swimming pool, basketball team, volleyball team, rescue squad for water emergencies, programs for camping, handball games, parent programs and night schools.

By the early 1990s, the Wichita YMCA boasted three branches: West, Central and East. All were aging.

In 1992, a $9 million capital campaign was launched to build a new East Branch, expand the West and renovate the Central Branch.

The YMCA now has eight branches, including new ones in El Dorado and Andover, an annual budget of $36 million and roughly 140,000 members.

"We also have a community development branch that is, in essence, a branch without walls," Schoenebeck said. "We have 120 service locations with programs in schools and local community centers."

Schoenebeck credits the YMCA's success to trust.

"What the community expects from us is a place that is family-friendly," he said. "They expect us to be inclusive of everybody, regardless of income and ethnicity. They expect us to be clean. We compete with the comfort of people's homes and we want them to think that the Ys are convenient, accessible and fairly close by."

Everett, the president of the Boise YMCA, said Wichita's YMCAs have succeeded because "they have more of a laser focus on membership. The sheer magnitude of the people they reach is what impressed me as much as anything, and they do it in a quality manner."