Bulloch County is home to more than 10,000 school-age children. By one provider’s estimate, structured after-school programs exist for 2,000 to 3,000 of them.
A committee of local volunteers, headed by civically active lawyer Bob Mikell, has been talking with the YMCA of Coastal Georgia, based in Savannah, about establishing a Bulloch County branch. The “Statesboro Y” could potentially offer programs for older people and entire families, as well as children and teenagers.
A survey is underway on whether local people see a need for a YMCA, and what services they would expect from it.
“That’s the remarkable, unique thing about this organization is that a YMCA in Statesboro might look and could look and probably will look a lot different than a YMCA in Atlanta as far as its services to the community,” said YMCA of Coastal Georgia CEO Joel Smoker. “The local board gets to drive and dictate and guide the services that the Y offers.”
He and Mikell recently visited the Statesboro Herald for an interview. They emphasized that the YMCA of Coastal Georgia is responding after Mikell and other Bulloch County residents expressed interest. The Y, Smoker said, never does a market study for expansion into a community without first being invited.
“They like it to be community-led and not the Y of Coastal Georgia deciding where they want to go,” Mikell said. “They want communities themselves to find a need and really reach out to (the YMCA).”
Bulloch County Commissioner Walter Gibson and Statesboro Mayor Jan Moore are participating in the steering committee Mikell heads. He also named some other business people and professionals who are members.
Some Statesboro and Bulloch County people entered discussions with the YMCA in the past, but a local branch never materialized, Mikell said.
The last discussion, he said, occurred just before the Boys & Girls Club of Bulloch County was formed. A brief history on the Boys & Girls Club website states that a group of community leaders set out to establish a youth-oriented program in 1998, which led to the Boys & Girls club’s opening in August 2001.
YMCA has evolved
At that time, with the focus specifically on youth-oriented programs, the Boys & Girls Club was perceived as a better fit than the YMCA, Mikell said.
“And quite frankly, back 15 or 20 years ago our organization was still predominantly, you know, a gym-and-swim … but really we’re so much more than that, and that’s been a remarkable transformation in the last 20 years,” Smoker said.
Founded as the Young Men’s Christian Association in London in 1844, the YMCA had affiliate groups in the United States by 1850. Savannah’s, now the YMCA of Coastal Georgia, was founded in 1855. It is the 13th oldest in the country, Smoker said.
Today, the YMCA of Coastal Georgia lists 10 branches, including several in Chatham County. It has 13 facilities in Savannah, Rincon, Brunswick, Hinesville, Darien, Richmond Hill, Tybee and Pooler, according to its 2014 annual report. It also provides a summer day camp program for school-age children in Claxton, but has no facility of its own there.
As the report shows, the regional organization still uses gyms and pools. It offers physical fitness and aquatics programs. But family life, child care, and day camp programs receive far larger portions of the YMCA of Coastal Georgia’s “community benefit” funding as the YMCA provides financial help for families who could not afford to participate.
The regional Y’s after-school and child care programs provide activities for about 2,500 children each day, Smoker said.
He described two YMCA of Coastal Georgia “signature programs” to illustrate the range of services.
From the regular after-school sessions, the Y Readers Program identifies children in kindergarten through second grade who score below grade level in reading and places them with reading tutors.
The Diabetes Prevention Program matches adults with a trained lifestyle coach for motivation and support.
The YMCA derives only 2-5 percent of its operating budget from donations, Smoker said. The YMCA of Coastal Georgia’s recently raised about $700,000, or roughly 3.5 percent of its annual budget of more than $20 million, in a campaign supporting the signature programs.
But most of the Y’s funding comes from membership fees and fees for participation in specific programs. Any administrative costs come from these fees. But any funds raised for a community branch remain with that branch, Mikell and Smoker said.
The online survey at www.surveymonkey.com/s/M59CBVQ asks about needs in the community, what services could help meet these needs, and whether you or any individuals or organizations you know would give to develop a local YMCA.
It also asks if respondents would supply their names and contact information, but this is optional.
More than 500 people have already completed the survey, Mikell said.
A paper version of the survey is also available. Organizers are bringing these to public events such as First Friday and the Mainstreet Farmers’ Market to reach people who may not have easy Internet access.
The survey work will continue for two to three months, Mikell said. If enough interest is shown, a fundraising campaign would follow.
“There’s an important second step, and that is to have a founders’ campaign and ask the community to financially gift the YMCA of Coastal Georgia with some startup money to help establish a facility,” Smoker said. “That’s critically important.”
It would demonstrate to the nonprofit’s board that the community is willing to make a financial commitment, he said.
Although the survey will help determine the shape of the local Y, organizers want youth services to be part of it.
Organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club, the Statesboro-Bulloch County Parks & Recreation Department and the Averitt Center for the Arts are providing excellent youth programs, Mikell said. The YMCA’s goal would not be to compete with any of these, but to establish its own niche, he said.
“This youth development thing can’t be solved by one entity,” Mikell said. “We need all hands on deck, and I think the unique funding model of a Y gives us one more boot on the ground to really help with youth development, and not just youth, family development, too.”
Indeed, the estimate of 2,000 to 3,000 children served by structured after-school programs comes from an interview with Mike Jones, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Bulloch County.
“When you look at the overall number of children that are in Bulloch County, there is definitely a need for more opportunities for school-age children after school,” Jones said.
He has participated in some of the YMCA discussions where he said as much publicly.
However, in the interview Jones also expressed concern about the further division of contributions from donors willing to support nonprofit organizations.
The Boys & Girls Club is currently serving about 400 youth ages 5-18 each day in its summer program, roughly the same number who attended its after-school programs.
Since the club opened almost 14 years ago, it has maintained waiting lists of children beyond the number its programs can accommodate. At least 200 are now on the lists, but the staff stops listing after 15-20 names at each grade level, Jones said.
The organization once served more children but had to cut back during the recession.
In February, a fire destroyed part of the Boys & Girls Club’s teen center gym. This prompted a reduction in the number of youth served in the 13-18 age bracket from 125 to just 25. The insurance policy was not sufficient to cover the cost of demolition and replacement.
So the club’s board is looking toward building goals of its own.
“Especially over the last six years since the economic decline, many of our local nonprofits, including the Boys & Girls Club, have experienced severe budget cuts and decreases in the services we’re able to provide because the local contributions just have not been as strong,” Jones said, “and any time that new nonprofits come into the community, while the services they provide are desperately needed, it does impact all other service agencies in our community.”
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.