Graeme Hodge of Y Care International: Working with the global YMCA family

In 1983 the Director of Public Affairs for (the then combined) UK and Irish YMCAs, David Bedford, had a dream, and he  shared it with the Chair of the National Council.

“We ought to use this worldwide infrastructure, of 100 YMCAs, to deliver development and relief programmes among young people.”

Today, more than 40 years on, Y Care is an affiliate member of the YMCA World Council, serving the global YMCA movement and linking YMCAs in justice and poverty-related projects. One current example is a Youth-led programme involving YMCA Sierra Leone and YMCA Ireland.

Y Care CEO Graeme Hodge

Back then, says Bedford, things were less established. “In YMCA terms, Y Care International was quite revolutionary”.

Current Y Care International CEO Graeme Hodge says the organisation’s mission is serving YMCAs as they help young people to “rethink poverty”.

‘Led by the priorities of local communities, we work in partnership with the global YMCA family, in regions and countries most affected by poverty and disasters, enabling young people to fulfil their lives and be catalysts for change’, says Hodge.

Graeme joined Y Care in 2021 when the organisation relaunched in partnership with All We Can, the Methodist Relief and Development Fund. Y Care numbers 30 staff members and international country coordinators. They have a diverse income stream which is gathered from generous individual supporters, churches and individual donors, to support partnership work which is locally-led, and guided by the strategy of local and national YMCAs.

Graeme talks to us about Y Care’s work over the past year and what’s in store for 2023.

  1. How do you identify the YMCAs and the communities you work with?

With the YMCA, in some ways, it’s easy because you have a family network that’s established. Equally, you also have over 100 countries, so how do you choose which and where you work? We’re very conscious that we don’t have the resources or the people to be everywhere. We focus on those in countries at the bottom of the UN Human Development Index (HDI). That’s a big driver for us – identifying where there is the greatest need. Additionally, we believe that working with the YMCA Area Alliances and strengthening them, enables us to support other countries around the world through those Alliances.

We have a new approach to partnership, as we see our partners as leaders of the solutions in their communities. Our firm belief is that people who live locally have the best solutions to poverty and injustice. Our job is to get behind that by not only strengthening that local organisation but also supporting its programmatic work.

  1. Can you provide an example of how you work with YMCAs and communities?

The Y Care work with YMCA Sierra Leone provides an example of how it supports locally led solutions. For instance, Edna Sia Kobba and Hawa Bangura are two women who work closely with YMCA projects in communities in Kissy, Sierra Leone. Edna is a Project Officer at YMCA Sierra Leone and leads the work at ‘Safe in the City’ and ‘Open Space Makers’. Hawa is a volunteer at YMCA Sierra Leone and has been since the Ebola crisis.

Edna Sia Kobba and Hawa Bangura

Edna and Hawa’s work centres heavily on projects which support women and girls who have faced gender and sexual-based violence. Hawa said, ‘one of the biggest issues that young women face in Sierra Leone, in Kissy, for example, is sexual and gender-based violence, especially young girls’.

The two women play a key role in ensuring that the YMCA assists women and girls who have faced gender and sexual-based violence in Sierra Leone. ‘We look for ways and means that the YMCA can assist women and girls in one way or another – it can be through skills, it can be through training, it can be through counselling’.

An example of providing meaningful skills for these women and girls is the soap-making project which happens in Kissy. This sees young women and girls come together to make and sell bars of soap to the community. Through this project, they are learning the practical skills of soap-making, and business skills which include selling the soap, and they also meet other women and girls their age with similar life experiences.

  1. Your recent Partner Conference 2022 in Malawi explored the role of partnerships. What evolved from that meeting? 

Graeme Hodge is pictured with David Nabieu Lassayo, Project Co-Ordinator for YMCA Lungi ; David implemented a mangroves project in Lungi.

In our relaunch of Y Care, one of the key things we’re looking to do is bolster our relationships with partners, one based on collaboration and trust. This redefines how we see partnership. It is their agenda, not ours. We ask, ‘What are your priorities? What’s your strategy? How do we get behind that? If you don’t have a strategy, would you like to develop one? We will then resource the process for you with a local consultant, and once you have that strategy, we’ll get behind it and support you’.

So, we don’t provide the strategy and vision – we ask what we can do to support it. The conference was a way of clearly articulating that direction. Part of that was making a public commitment of that with the YMCA and other non-governmental organisation (NGO) partners, but the other part was creating a network across these partners.

  1. What was the most memorable or powerful moment from the conference?

One afternoon we held a marketplace, and the room was buzzing. As you walked around the space, you’d hear people sharing their ideas. You’d hear their zeal to learn from each other and adapt takeaways to use in their own communities. The exchange of ideas and the cross-pollination of learning and experience were quite phenomenal.

We saw that establish itself in country commitments, where each network of partners from each country made commitments to develop an action plan. They committed to meeting up in a way that wasn’t facilitated by us, such as through WhatsApp for example, to keep the partnership flowing.

  1. How does your work align with YMCA Vision 2030?

We think Vision 2030 is great. It speaks to our partnership model; it speaks to locally led development. I’ve heard [World YMCA Secretary General] Carlos Sanvee talking about how Vision 2030 trying to affect ‘system change’ – that’s what we believe in.

Sometimes, to illustrate the idea of ‘system change’, I quote Martin Luther King on The Good Samaritan. ‘True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. The whole Jericho Road must be transformed, so that men and women will not constantly be robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.’

We want to bring a cross-cutting element across the work and four pillars of Vision 2030, and we’re discussing with Carlos on how best to do so.

What does it take for those partners who choose to work in Meaningful Work, for example, or Community Wellbeing, or the other Vision 2030 Pillars of Sustainable Planet and a Just World? What are their capacity needs and how can we support that so they become the strongest they could possibly be?

Programmatically, we’ll get behind whatever it is that they’re working on. The other key thing we’re looking at is ‘decolonising aid,’ and putting the decision-making in the hands of people directly impacted by aid and programmes. We look at how we can make the process more organic and locally led.

  1. What are your goals and plans heading into 2023?

Our Y Care vision is that every young person’s potential is fulfilled. It is about seeing young people as catalysts, but not as the sole thing that community development is relying on because that’s a huge amount of pressure to place on young people. They deserve the right to flourish in an environment that is supportive of them so they can be agents of change.

We are looking to establish further partnerships. We just re-established work with YMCA Sierra Leone and YMCA Liberia. We are just starting with YMCA Zimbabwe, and we have ongoing work with YMCA Madagascar that we’ll continue for the next two years. We’d also like to establish key support structures for existing partners, new partners and the YMCA Area Alliances. We are open to and actively seeking to engage in dialogue with people to explore decolonisation and what locally led development really looks like.

We’re also asking ourselves the question, how can Y Care support humanitarian aid coordination? That is something we have specialised in and hope to be able to plan and serve the wider Y family going forward.

YMCA has had such a powerful impact across the world. It’s a real privilege to be able to serve the Y family in this way.