NORWICH - The YMCA has existed in the Norwich area for more than 100 years, first with the purchase of the S.A. Jones House and lot in 1903, then this century’s ‘New Y’ following its construction and open house in 2002.
The Norwich YMCA remains open, and despite the pandemic, the organization is starting to see growth return to membership with the support of the community.
According to Norwich YMCA Executive Director Jamey Mullen, the YMCA continues to grow in Norwich, thanks to its core values and strong community support. Mullen said over the past 32 years he has had the opportunity to serve the Norwich YMCA, and has been part of some major changes in the Y’s history.
Mullen started working at the Norwich YMCA in 1992 and led programming and activities through February 1997 before being promoted to executive director. Between Mullen and his predecessor, Dave Sherman, they were able to personally witness some of the greatest investments the Y has made in the Norwich community.
“The Y is, and always has been, a very special place,’ said Mullen. “This is a facility where we all check our differences at the door, and know that anyone can come for personal or community needs.”
Mullen said the Y acts as a place anyone can visit regardless of their socioeconomic or health status, which reflects the Y’s mission to promote youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility.
“We have the philosophy that our facility is kind of a tool that keeps the community together,” he added. “Every demographic in our county is welcome and accepted here at the YMCA.”
Growing Despite The Pandemic
Mullen said part of the social responsibility aspect of the Y’s mission was tested as the organization faced COVID-19 in 2020. He said that the organization didn’t feel that it was right to charge people during the height of the pandemic, and the pandemic as a whole has had an impact on how the YMCA operates to this day.
“In 2023 we were still, as an organization, in recovery mode from the COVID years,” said Mullen. “Imagine as a not-for-profit, shutting down the majority of your organization for six months.”
“Fortunately during that time, we were able to continue to offer some of the essential work that we do such as the child care programs, and helping to build our relationship with our friends at Helping Hands, but those were the only two things we could really expand on during those six months.”
Mullen said before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Norwich YMCA had approximately 4,000 members, and currently they have around 2,700 members. He added that while there were members who likely would have continued paying even though they had to close their doors, the organization didn’t feel that it was right.
“After COVID we had to reimage ourselves, and we’ve been doing that,” said Mullen. “At the end of 2023 we wrapped up a new strategic plan with new goals and objectives.”
“We also created a whole new personnel policy to help guide us as we move forward.”
According to Mullen, New York State mandates and minimum wage increases have added another layer of challenge to leading Norwich’s YMCA. He said between mandatory training requirements and more than a decade’s worth of wage increases there are only a few ways the Y is able to move forward including reducing staff and membership rate increases.
“We’re trying to be creative when it comes to revenue sources, and what we can do to keep the Y moving forward while keeping membership affordable for everyone,” he said. “That being said, we do recognize how important it is to continue to make improvements to our facility, and there is a fine balancing act between the two.”
The New Y Is Getting Older
“It’s kind of hard to believe that the ‘New Y’ isn’t necessarily that new anymore, it’s 22 years old,” said Mullen. “Now we’re looking at a variety of upgrades across the entire facility.”
Mullen said the YMCA completed around a half a million dollars in projects throughout 2023, and has another approximately half a million dollars in projects scheduled for 2024.
“In 2023, we approved a $500,000 dehumidification project for our swimming pool area,” he said. “We have also approved an opportunity to retile showers in the men’s locker room, on the pool deck, and a few other areas in the building that need retiling.”
“That is scheduled to start here relatively soon, and we will also be replacing the original wood doors and metal frames that are about 22 years old now.”
Mullen said the Y is planning on replacing their older wooden doors with fiberglass doors which will have significantly longer lifespans. He added that in addition to new doors, the entire administrative wing will receive temperature control upgrades.
“The administration wing which has the child watch, preschool, and nursery school, along with the group exercise room where they have fitness classes will be getting new air conditioning units along with heat exchangers.”
Mullen said these upgrades will help keep the building energy efficient, and will hopefully result in savings in the future. He added that the upgrades to the administrative wing and group exercise room will cost approximately $500,000.
“We’re blessed that our trustees have allocated some of the funds we have received and invested them properly to allow for some opportunities for capital improvements,” said Mullen. “This investment will allow us to protect this wonderful asset that serves as more than just a building in our community.”
Staffing The Y
“I referenced the struggles of returning to pre-COVID numbers, but pre-COVID in 2019 we were at probably 120 employees, and that would include full-time and part-time,” said Mullen. “We had everything from a fitness instructor that worked one or two hours a week, to a full-time 40 hour a week employee, and everything in between.”
“Today, we’re at about 80 employees - we’re trying to do more with less, because that may have been one of the areas that was adjusted as we worked through our budget.”
He said even with a smaller cap for staffing, there is still always a need for new applicants, especially with part-time positions. He added that lifeguards, child care staff, team members for the fitness area, or the front desk tend to have the highest turnover.
“We are blessed to have a core group of staff that has been here and provided continuity and consistency,” Mullen said. “In addition to core staff members, we also have a dedicated group of volunteers who help make events possible.”
According to Mullen, there are hundreds of volunteers who assist at YMCA events throughout the year including the annual Turkey Trot, Gus Macker, Y Camp, youth sports, and the Halloween Parade.
Mullen said in addition to events, volunteers also assist with maintaining the grounds, spreading mulch, and sometimes community partners like Burrell’s Excavating, Norwich Pharmaceuticals, GE, and City Church help as well.
“Businesses and organizations lend their expertise, time, and manpower to help us out because they know we can’t do everything - especially with decreased staff,” he said. “We’re incredibly thankful that our community has gotten creative in the ways they’re willing to help out.”
He added that another challenge for staffing are the new training requirements for staff, and over a decade straight of minimum wage increases.
Fundraising And Community Activism Efforts
“Each year we’re collectively able to raise over $100,000 in funds, which supports the Y through membership and program scholarships, and also helps keep our overall membership cost lower,” said Mullen. “Donors help us significantly, and we leave the campaign open throughout the year. The need is there 365 days a year, and we’re honored to accept any donation to help our work in this community.”
Mullen said the Y is fortunate to have the support from several key foundations that believe in the YMCA and its programs. “In addition to great foundations, we also have some wonderful partnerships with other organizations throughout the community that help us have a positive impact that goes beyond our facility,” he added.
One example of a community partnership is with Helping Hands.
Helping Hands has been working with the Norwich YMCA for approximately four years, and Mullen said this partnership is one of his favorite ways to give back.
He said in addition to being the site of Helping Hands, the Norwich YMCA also appreciates member’s flexibility and understanding on the day of giving.
“There are still activities going on whether it’s karate, swim lessons, or basketball practices - accessing the YMCA is not easy on that night because we have 180 people on average that show up for help.”
“At the end of the evening you just take a deep breath and think to yourself, ‘wow, we did that in a few hours,’ each time it’s meaningful and impactful.”
“Each month you see a different group of volunteers from some of the largest companies and organizations in our community as well including people from NBT Bank, Kerry Bioscience, Chobani, or Amber Perkins’ School of the Arts.”
Mullen said each of the groups understand that there is a need for this assistance in our community, and the Norwich YMCA is honored to bring everyone together.
Thanking The Community
“We’re a community based organization, and we’re starting our 162nd year in Norwich,” said Mullen. “You don’t do that by being lucky, you do that by supporting and working with the community,”
“The Y isn’t one person, I’ve been here for a while, but [I’m] not the Y.”
Mullen said often times when he speaks to people they credit him with some of the long term success of the Y, but the real secret in the Y’s success is the whole team behind it.
“We’ve got 80 employees, 500 volunteers, several thousand members, and a community that accesses our programs in the thousands that may not be members,” he said.”The Y is a reflection of our community, and there are no ifs, ands, or buts about that.”
“We’re only going to be as strong as we can be if we work together, and that has shown to be very strong over our existence. There aren’t too many other independent Y’s in a town with around 7,000 people.”
Mullen said the Norwich YMCA is going to do everything it can to continue to be an asset to Norwich and the Chenango County community.
“We’re honored to work for our community, we’re honored to work for our members, and we’re blessed to have your support - thank you,” said Mullen.
Those who are interested in learning more about the Norwich YMCA may visit its website at norwichymca.com for additional information.