Celebrating 175 Years of YMCA

By Craig Berens, Chief Operating Officer at Nottinghamshire YMCA


On this day, YMCAs across the globe celebrate our annual Founder’s Day whereby we remember the man who, at the age of just 22, created the largest and oldest youth charity in the world, nearly 175 years ago.

Born on a farm in Somerset in 1821, Sir George Williams was an English philanthropist who, on 6 June 1844, founded the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) to provide a safe place for young people to belong, contribute and thrive in their communities.

Through a network of autonomous branches, YMCA works in locations across the world to improve the lives of young people, families and homeless individuals with a wide range of not-for-profit and commercial services.

Today, the YMCA movement has evolved beyond all expectation, though certainly not beyond all recognition as the organisation’s core values of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility continue to energise everything we do. Inclusivity of every person from all backgrounds and religions now forms the cornerstone of the charity’s work to create equal life opportunities for all.

Looking back on the impact YMCA inspired – and continues to inspire – in my own life and the lives of others around me illustrates the importance of instilling a deep sense of social responsibility and healthy living through youth development.

From swimming aged 8 at my local YMCA in America to attending over-night camp at YMCA Camp Jewell nestled in the Berkshire Mountains in Connecticut and going onto lead a YMCA serving thousands of people – the charity has left a positive spiritual footprint on every stage of my life’s development to date.

Like so many others who engage with our programmes, the deep personal impact of these early life experiences has educated my core values into adulthood. Significantly, it has highlighted the importance of championing a place-based community development approach across multiple organisations to unify our movement under one common vision for the benefit of all.

Depending on whom you encounter, ‘YMCA’ now means many things to different people. To some, it means a coming together of young people from all backgrounds to foster talent and development; to others it may mean a housing lifeline in a time of great need or an opportunity for a child to access the same learning opportunities as their peers. But I believe the key ingredient that unites each personal meaning is the enormous sense of ‘community’ that commands the very heart of this historical movement.

By working together, businesses, government and the social sector can help create thriving and connected communities that ignite a deep trust and faith in people. This holds true whether we are operating on a local, national or even international level as we collectively mould not only facilities and services but a values-centric personality and the sustainability of environments we want to safeguard for the next generation.

Our YMCA movements are all interconnected as we work to further this aspirational ethos, and it is exciting to witness how this notion of place-based community development translates on a regional level.

The work being undertaken to create the new YMCA Newark and Sherwood Community and Activity Village is a fantastic example of how this strategy is helping YMCA to become more inclusive and impactful than ever before in this region.

Speaking to the bespoke needs and issues of social deprivation in the area, the village will become a diverse central locality for young people, local sportspeople and families to come and enjoy shaping their community’s identity together – inclusively.

Our mission is to plant stable societal foundations upon which our communities can grow a nurturing, safe and educational support network for young people to develop in their abilities and make the best life decisions as they enter adulthood.

It is not about making grand unattainable promises, but rather working collaboratively with local organisations to form ambitious yet realistic strategies that will tailor positive change to the real human lives that thrive within our microcosm.

Nottinghamshire YMCA and the communities we support are a small but significant piece in the wider movement’s international jigsaw puzzle. Without each person collectively inputting to build our shared goals, the larger puzzle could not display the wider common vision we are all striving to achieve.

It is a privilege to see the sprawling legacy of George Williams breathing life into our youth services as YMCAs worldwide promote this locality place-based ethos. His legacy shines through the futures of the children who attend our day camps and in the eyes of our once-homeless residents who can sleep safely tonight because of the seeds of social responsibility one man planted all those years ago.

By enhancing this caring and collaborative place-based planning approach, our team is raring to move the next mountain to empower young individuals with the opportunities to make their worlds, and the worlds of those around them, as big and bright as possible.