Happy 179 years to the YMCA!

Date: 29 May 2023

Join the celebration of George Williams and the founding of the YMCA on 6 June

In the bustling city of London, England, in the mid-19th century, a young countryman named George Williams sparked a movement that would transcend borders, cultures and generations. From a prayer meeting of 12 men grew the Young Men’s Christian Association. Today the Movement reaches 65 million people across 120 countries each year. 

We invite every single YMCA all over the world to participate in our Founder’s Day Photo Challenge to honour our past and celebrate our present. Share one (or more!) photos showing what your YMCA is doing on that special day. We’ll share them on our social media and website – and make them available for all YMCAs. Let’s all marvel at the sheer breadth and depth of what we do.

It will be a day to celebrate our global YMCA! Click here for complete details.

YMCA beginnings
Last year’s birthday celebration of Sir George Williams at the Barishal YMCA in Bangladesh. It featured a portrait of the YMCA founder, courtesy of the daughter of one of the YMCA leaders.

George Williams, a visionary and devout Christian, was concerned about the deteriorating living conditions and moral values among young men working in London’s industrialised society. He sought to establish a safe space where young men could find support, moral guidance, and opportunities for personal and spiritual growth.

On June 6, 1844, with the assistance of a group of fellow young men, Williams founded the first YMCA in the busy, crowded city of London. The YMCA’s mission was to provide an environment that nurtured the physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing of young individuals, regardless of their social or religious backgrounds.

The early YMCA offered various activities and services. Those included Bible study groups, lectures on social issues, recreational sports, and accommodation for young men seeking a place to stay in the city. It quickly gained popularity, attracting individuals passionate about social change and committed to Christian values.

Rapid growth

The YMCA movement spread like wildfire. Branches opened in cities across the United Kingdom and, soon after, around the world. For instance, retired Boston sea captain Thomas Valentine Sullivan noticed a similar need to create a safe “home away from home” for sailors and merchants. Inspired by the stories of the YMCA in England, he led the formation of the first U.S. YMCA at the Old South Church in Boston on 29 December 1851.

George Williams’ concept resonated deeply with communities globally. And he inspired the establishment of YMCA branches throughout North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and beyond.

Over the years, the YMCA evolved to meet the changing needs of society. It expanded its reach to include women, families, and people of diverse backgrounds. Today, the YMCA empowers young people and communities in four key areas. Through YMCA Vision 2030, the YMCA addresses Community Wellbeing, Meaningful Work, Sustainable Planet, and a Just World. 

Through various programmes and partnerships, YMCAs worldwide address pressing issues, including mental health, inequality and lack of access to opportunities. George Williams’ vision of fostering a better world through the YMCA continues to thrive today. And his legacy reminds us of the power of community and collective action.