“We’re for youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility.”  - YMCA of Greater Cincinnati.


By Joan Kaup


The above is not just a slogan for the YMCA. It’s a core value they are applying to their efforts during the pandemic. Jorge Perez, president and CEO of YMCA of Greater Cincinnati, advises the best thing we can do for ourselves and for our neighborhood is to stay connected through social media or phone calls. Know someone living alone? Call them. Isolation can be detrimental to a person’s health. After more than 20 years with the Y, Jorge knows first-hand how the Y becomes an extension of family. 


Social and emotional development is as critical as physical development for children and seniors, the two most at-risk groups in our society now. It’s why we teach kids to make healthy friendships and positive relations, how to get along in life. The profound effect of isolation on seniors can be measured. “There is something healing about human connection,” says Perez.


It became apparent in late February that the Y’s programs, inviting people in groups to work out was unsafe, and Over-the-Rhine’s Central Parkway Y closed gradually in response to the pandemic. “We are a community-based organization whose mission is to help people with physical and emotional well-being, but we realized that bringing people together was actually going to harm them.” They sought answers from the CDC. Even before the order to close, all but three centers, including the Central Parkway Y, were shut. Deep, frequent cleaning was quadrupled, and social distancing was implemented.


What are they doing now?

Youth Development
With guidance from the Ohio Department of Education, the Y is helping more than 700 at-risk, low-income school children with homework. Many students are without ready access to wifi or computers in their homes. With schools and libraries closed, it’s hard to stay engaged with schoolwork. If they need food, the Y helps with meals, too.

Healthy living
It is not uncommon for seniors’ social networks to shrink. The Y is community for many of them. Perez has seen firsthand the power of connection. “The YMCA for many seniors is their second home,” he points out. “They hang out and drink coffee there. One of the guys in one of the last facilities to close did not want to leave. He told a staff member, ‘I don’t know where to go. I don’t know what to do.’” Studies have shown that seniors who are physically fit, but emotionally and socially isolated, are not as overall healthy as seniors who have a strong social network but may be afflicted with physical concerns. 


YMCA volunteers are calling senior members to check in. Do they need help picking up a prescription or groceries? Perhaps just a conversation to stay connected? The Y also offers exercise classes via social media: These virtual events have been viewed more than 33,000 times. More than 17,000 people have attended Facebook Live classes. 


Social responsibility

Working with Meals On Wheels and other social services, the Y has distributed more than 8,000 meals to food-insecure families since the pandemic began. Some Ys are also doing food distribution from their parking lots, partnering with the FreeStore/FoodBank, ministries, and other social services. 


Local hospitals needed childcare support for at least 900 children of first responders. The Y worked with Ohio and Kentucky governors’ offices to convert ten of their locations into pandemic childcare centers. This did not include the Central Park Y. “Imagine it with only 50 kids in the entire building…that would be cost-prohibitive to sustain.” 


To keep infants, children, families, and staff safe and healthy, everyone’s temperature is tested daily. Staff greet families at the car or on the sidewalk and take children’s temperatures. They are escorted into the building to their group or ‘pod’ of six children with an adult supervisor. They stay in the same group of six so staff can track any illness or outbreak. If one child becomes sick, they can quickly notify the other families about the contagion. 


“We are learning new skills.”


The YMCA leadership team is learning new skills and rethinking how to work with people. With nearly 80 percent of its staff furloughed, Perez says the Y will likely reopen in stages when it is safe to do so. New staff may be needed, and retraining will be necessary. Space design might need to be altered so exercise equipment is six feet apart for social distancing, and class sizes will probably need to be reduced for the same reason. “We don’t know what the intangibles look like just yet, but we anticipate a different configuration will be needed.”


Perez expressed concern about sustaining momentum in Over-the-Rhine. “How long will it be before people will feel comfortable coming together for a concert in Washington Park?” he asks. “Until a Covid-19 vaccine is available, people will be concerned about exposure. Business will be fundamentally changed.”


How can neighbors help? Perez suggests volunteering to call a senior and not hoarding extra supplies. He adds, “You can bring food, masks, or supplies to any Y. They will get them to the right places. “Continue to look after and take care of one another,” Perez says. “We’ll get through this.”


OTR in Action: 

1. Read more about opportunities to volunteer and connect with seniors over the phone, or how to help support other programs. https://myy.org/give/
2. Join in an exercise class by following the Greater Cincinnati YMCA Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/ymcacincinnati/


Joan Kaup, an advocate and former resident of Over-the-Rhine, served on the OTR Chamber board (11 years) and the OTR Community Council board (4 years). She is a co-founder of Second Sunday on Main and OTR Flags. She began writing stories about Over-the-Rhine for IRhine in 2006, and has been sharing the good news of OTR ever since. 

OTR in Action pairs Over-the-Rhine writers with local owners to share the wisdom and passion of those using their businesses to support the neighborhood, the community and each other.