COVID brought new opportunities for YMCAs

Date: 07 June 2021

YMCA community services were severely affected by Covid and by lockdown, but there were silver linings as YMCAs steered themselves into better positions, by changing their programmes and reaching out to serve their communities.

On 3 June 2021, three YMCA National General Secretaries – one from the US, one from Canada and one from South Korea – shared their experiences.

Stephen Ives, CEO of the YMCA of Greater Houston, USA

… described how heart-breaking it was to furlough 2,700 YMCA staff, as all the 25 buildings used as facilities of the YMCA had to be shut down due to Covid. The YMCA was in a severe financial crisis: it didn’t halt its programmes, but diverted them to respond to community needs with new programmes like food banks.

Membership at the fitness centres and related programmes declined drastically, so YMCA introduced a new Impact Membership with a nominal fee.  Soon, it outnumbered the traditional programme members of the YMCA. Impact Members volunteered themselves for the common good, and participated in various online programmes.  The Impact Membership programme made the YMCA a stronger organisation, deeply engaged in the communities.

The pandemic also ushered opportunities for the YMCA to serve its community and bring itself to people’s doorsteps.  The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis also led YMCA Greater Houston to launch an Equity Innovation Centre which initiated powerful and courageous conversations in the community on race and equity. The changing mission of the YMCA therefore strengthened ties with marginal people of the communities.


Andrew Lockie, President and CEO of YMCA of Western Ontario, Canada

… shared similar stories from one of the largest YMCAs in Canada. With the closure of the branches due to Covid, they too had to lay off about 2,600 staff. Their major programmes were fitness centres and camp sites, all of which had to be shut down with the exception of the childcare centres. The child care centres were kept open, especially for the children of frontline workers, people working in hospitals, paramedics and ambulance services.

Though most of the YMCA programme operations were suspended, as in Greater Houston the YMCA involved itself in a huge operation of food bank distributions for the neediest people. Meanwhile YMCA centres were converted into temporary shelters for those who had lost their homes due to pandemic.

The most important lesson learnt during the Covid crisis was that the YMCA as a movement can move a lot faster than perhaps it imagines in making changes to its  programmes, tailoring them to new realities and new needs in its communities. YMCA Western Ontario said the experience made it feel ever more conscious of being part of a strong, global organisation. Its staff are dedicated, to the point of being ready to serve even though when they are not in the payroll.  YMCA Western Ontario stressed how much it appreciated guidance from YMCA community leaders around the world.


Kim Kyung Min, the National General Secretary of the National Council of YMCAs of South Korea …

… shared his experiences during the Covid period.  Again, he had to lay off staff, and keep some on a reduced salary since the financial contributions from local YMCAs had decreased drastically. The National Council was in a dire situation, but the staff and the volunteers doubled their efforts to serve their communities. Volunteers from the YMCAs were involved in producing face masks, some of which were sent to support YMCAs in China at the time when the Covid situation was the most serious there.

Along with about 500 civil society organisations, the Korean YMCAs launched a successful campaign to put pressure on the government to formulate policies for better wage compensation, better employment policies and better safety nets, and to introduce a universal employment insurance system for employees nationwide.

The Korean YMCAs also mobilised resources from Government Overseas Development funds to support distressed YMCAs overseas. They helped the YMCAs of Thailand and Sri Lanka to support thousands of children, and hired workers to produced face masks.


YMCA Greater Houston, like YMCA Western Ontario, very soon adapted to the new realities of Covid, by supporting emergency food distributions.