Michael Henry: ‘I am where I am today’ because of the YMCA

Date: 30 January 2023

Michael Henry

Meet Michael Henry from YMCA Cape Town, South Africa. A long-time YMCA volunteer and programme manager, he recently answered the call for a staff placement with the World YMCA. Soon everyone will see the results of his work; since November, he has been organising existing YMCA Vision 2030 case studies and gathering additional information. The case studies will provide information and inspiration on implementing and activating Vision 2030 in YMCAs at all levels.

Michael recounts his past decade with the YMCA and explains why once people discover the YMCA, they often become members for life. 

How did you first get involved with the YMCA?

I started with YMCA Cape Town ten years ago as a volunteer. I liked the work the YMCA was doing in prison – teaching life skills to prisoners – and I wanted to get involved. Although I eventually left the YMCA for employment elsewhere, I soon joined the board of the YMCA Cape Town. After leaving the board, I returned as a staff manager, and now I am a programme manager.  I’ve had a lot of different jobs! It seems many in the YMCA throughout the world have that same experience.

What are your responsibilities as a programme manager?

The YMCA Cape Town has five daily programmes that fall into two categories, namely Y-Justice and Y-Zone but all programmes run by YMCA South Africa are universal. Everyone can go to a different province and get the same programmes in their own language.

Available for primary school-age children, YZone assists young people with their homework and connects them with interactive learning through fun workshops. YJustice has two main aims: Help people who have come into conflict with the law get their lives on track and assist those who risk coming into such conflict to avoid taking wrong turns in life. We have three YMCAs in South Africa that work with people in prison; they offer reintegration classes and assistance once they have left prison to enable them to become productive members of society.

Does the YMCA have a strong presence in South Africa?

In general, yes, but at my local Y, we receive very little community support. A lot of people don’t know what we do. They think of the YMCA song, or they think of accommodations, which only three South African YMCAs offer, but they don’t know about our programmes unless they live in close proximity or have a family member who is or was involved somehow.

Most of the programmes are run externally. We serve schools close to the YMCA for YZone, and teams travel to the schools.

What interested you in the staff placement at the World YMCA?

When I returned as a staff member at the YMCA Cape Town, local and international partnerships were my goal for our YMCA. I saw the information for the World YMCA, and I was interested immediately. It’s my first time in Geneva, and I’m glad to be here!

Although you have left the YMCA a couple of times, you keep coming back! What is it about the YMCA that speaks to you?

I first encountered the YMCA as a prisoner, incarcerated at the same prison where we run our Y-Justice program. A few years later, I met the former programmes manager at the gym at the drug rehabilitation centre I was at, and he would often talk about his work and I remembered seeing them at the prison. I liked what they were doing and somehow knew that I had something to offer. He was getting ready to travel abroad at that time; when he returned, he sent me a message; asking if I’d like to volunteer. I got involved, and I never left.

The work is meaningful, and I believe the organisation can do much more in South Africa and the world. I am essentially a product of what the YMCA does and is capable of doing. Before the YMCA I was homeless and an addict but with the guidance and support of the Y, I am where I am today.

The global community of the YMCA is something that surprises me. Whether it’s South Africa or elsewhere, people seem to stay a long time and in different capacities. In South Africa, because we are tribal, we have ‘old guys’ that we call the ancestors; they’re still actively involved in their 70s and 80s. The sense of community and being involved in the YMCA is my favourite thing.