Author: Jessie Holmes
When a lot of doors in North Carolina closed at the onset of COVID-19, local YMCAs kept theirs open for the people who needed them most. Traditional membership programming was suspended, but in its place were blood drives, food drives, and even efforts to sew and provide personal protective equipment. But perhaps most impactful was the emergency childcare they offered.
“We did a lot of work in the community helping with children who were out of school, especially initially with essential workers,” says Sheree Vodicka, CEO of the NC Alliance of YMCAs. “As schools remained closed, we opened academic support centers all over the state that helped children attend school online.”
American Rescue Plan Offsets Revenue Loss
Throughout the pandemic, Vodicka was in communication with 25 YMCA associations across the state, containing over 100 branches, all responding to the unique needs of their communities. At the same time, she says, membership revenue sharply declined and some branches laid off staff. Even now Vodicka says membership levels aren’t where they were pre-pandemic.
“The lingering effects will continue for several years.”
It’s why Vodicka calls grant money from the American Rescue Plan Act a “godsend.” President Joe Biden signed ARPA into law in March 2021 to mitigate the public health and economic impacts of the pandemic. North Carolina YMCAs collectively received $11.4 million from the state’s portion of ARPA. That’s about $100,000 per branch.
New Early Learning Center Opens in Conover
You can see the impact of that investment, and the children who benefit, at the new O. Leonard Moretz Foundation Early Learning Center in Conover. Nat Auten, the President and CEO of the YMCA of Catawba Valley, says they were able to realize this long-planned project without making compromises thanks to community donors and the promise of ARPA funds. The completely renovated building opened in Fall 2021, followed recently by the completion of a larger playground.
“What these funds mean to us is potential,” says Auten. “The kid who was ready to start school. The kid who grew up to become the next CEO of the YMCA. I mean that’s my story. I started with the YMCA program.”
That may be why this project is especially meaningful to Auten, whose YMCA story (or “Y Story” as members call it) dates back to age seven as a YMCA camper in Shelby. Now Auten is making sure the next generation also has a safe and nurturing environment in which to grow, with even better facilities.
“We were able to better serve them by creating a lot of intentionality in the design of our early learning center,” says Auten.
That includes larger and more modern classrooms, a commercial kitchen to prepare and serve more meals, and additional security mechanisms at the front entrance. The program’s capacity also increased from 85 children to 105, so more parents don’t have to choose between their job and reliable childcare.
Supporting the Aquatics Program in Rocky Mount
In Rocky Mount, the Harrison Family YMCA used its $100,000 grant to help pay for a vital capital repair to its aquatic center, which serves every age group in the community. The aging dehumidification system had started to take a toll on the quality of environment.
“One of the large issues we were having was the amount of moisture in the air causing the pool deck to be wet,” says CEO Jacquelyn Price. “Also [for] your lifeguards who are working out there, the temperatures were too warm.”
Price says they had put off the project due to the pandemic’s economic impacts, but ARPA funds helped them finally replace the system in late 2022. A dehumidification system is an invisible yet essential component for indoor pool facilities that controls air quality and protects against mold and corrosion. Price says the importance of maintaining this facility can’t be overstated. In fact, it was the first thing they reopened early in the pandemic.
“We were able to go ahead and open our natatorium at half capacity,” says Price. “It not only allowed people a way to come in and work out safely, but it also gave them that social outlet they'd been used to getting here at our organization.”
It’s also an important resource for local schools throughout Nash and Edgecombe counties, providing pool access to teachers like April Whitehead. She’s the director of an Exceptional Children’s program and brings her students for adaptive swim lessons.
“It’s something we definitely can’t teach at school,” says Whitehead. “And the lifeguards and the staff and the swimming instructors here have all been amazing working with the students.”
Continuity in Community Programming
The projects enabled by ARPA funds in Rocky Mount and Conover provide a small window into the much larger statewide impact spread out across 113 YMCA branches, multiplied by the communities and people they serve. Despite major financial and social disruptions caused by COVID-19, these grants are helping provide continuity for the programming that many North Carolinians have come to rely on at their local Y.