Soheila Hayek: ‘The YMCA is life-changing and God’s work’

In these final days of 2022, World YMCA president Soheila Hayek reflects on her recent trip to YMCAs in Mexico and Brazil.

I was blessed to have the opportunity to be present at the 120th Anniversary Celebration of the YMCA of Sao Paulo, Brazil, and the 130th Anniversary Celebration of the YMCA of Mexico.

Whenever we talk about humanitarian institutions that have been around for more than a century, we have to wonder why and how. I saw firsthand why these institutions are still around and thriving.

In YMCA Leide das Neves Social Project Center in Sao Paulo, children as young as six from favelas where crime and drugs are a fact of life show signs of abuse and recount details of it to the staff and counselors at those centers. It made me very emotional to walk into a little house where these abuses got acted out, and children received help to cope, as did their parents.

Circus school Vila Re, Sao Paulo YMCA

The work that these centres do goes beyond this fantastic intervention. These children and youngsters got picked up before school, dropped off from school back at the center, got their breakfast and dinner at the YMCA, and had lunch at school. In addition, they learned about nutrition and the importance of eating fruits and vegetables, table manners, keeping their environment clean, and many other soft skills, day in and day out. Walking into their activity room and seeing them play different instruments and create native dance routines and parades was uplifting. They had a chance to be lighthearted at the YMCA and, even temporarily, forget about their challenging living conditions.

Circus school Vila Re was another touching program for those in need of social assistance. Three generations were present. The grandparents who, years ago, were the children who received help there, now volunteered their time there. So did their grown children, while their grandchildren were paying members of the circus program, making it possible for others to participate for free.

It was heartwarming to see youth with mental disabilities at a YMCA in Iztacalco, Mexico, learning the skills to work safely in a kitchen. The day I visited, one of the young men in the program received news that he had been successfully placed at a local restaurant as a paid staff member. I saw the pride on his face, and the joy with which the staff and volunteers at that center shared that news. Humankind at its best can be seen at these YMCAs.

Camp Camohmila in Tepoztlan, Mexico

Camp Camohmila in Tepoztlan, Mexico, was another triumph of humanity. Children from neighboring villages without access to schools were brought to that sleepover camp by their parents. They stayed free of charge Monday through Friday. They received all their meals, got help with their homework, gained access to all the camp’s facilities, including the game center and swimming pool, and got free dental and vision screening and glasses. Professionals and volunteers ran this camp, and I was surprised to learn that all of them were children who grew up at that camp. Now, with Master’s degrees in education, psychology, engineering, etc., they made a point to return and give the care and guidance they had received as children to the children at that camp.

In each of these instances, the cooperation between volunteers and staff, the intergenerational collaboration, and the rising of humankind above their limitations to achieve something bigger and more significant than themselves for others touched me. At the end of the day, what we do at the YMCA is life-changing and is God’s work.

At YMCA Mexico’s celebration dinner, I told the story of a man stuck in his flooded home who prayed to God to save him. He then received a knock on his door from rescuers with a boat who said they were there to rescue him. But he refused, saying he was waiting for God to save him. The waters rose, and he was obliged to climb onto his roof and was surrounded by water. He was scared, so he prayed for God to help him, and just then, a helicopter came by and dropped him a ladder for him to climb, and he refused again, saying he was waiting for God to save him. The helicopter left, and a big wave came and took him, and he found himself in heaven with God. He complained to Him, saying, I put my trust in you and waited for you to rescue me, and I die? God told him, I heard your prayers, my son, and I sent you rescuers with a boat. However, you refused and wanted me to help directly. I sent you a helicopter and a ladder, but you still refused, waiting for me to intervene directly. So, I did what only I can do directly – I brought you to me!

I believe that all of you who are working at YMCAs around the world are the rescuers with the boats and the helicopters with the ladders that God sends out to people in response to their prayers. You do God’s work; you are His hands on earth.

May you never forget that though you may not know it, you could be the most important person in another’s life. Keep being the special person that you truly are!