Who Is The YMCA



The YMCA was founded in London in 1844, largely in response to the appalling social conditions brought about by the industrial revolution. The first American YMCA was founded in Boston in 1851. Ever since, YMCAs have been woven into the fabric of American life, constantly evolving to meet the needs of men, women, and children everywhere.

All YMCAs are governed and operated locally by volunteer boards. There is no central organization which directs activities. This makes YMCAs responsive to local needs and dependent on the hard-work and generosity of people committed to their community and the YMCA mission.

YMCA staff, organizers, and volunteers have achieved much in the last 150 years. Without their contributions and innovation, America would be a far different place. How different? You’ll be amazed . . .

Dr. James Naismith


It was December 1891 in Springfield, Massachusetts. Luther Gulick, the physical education director at the International YMCA Training School, had a problem. His rowdy students rebelled at the traditional, and boring, indoor activities offered during the long winter. Gulick spoke to one of his young instructors, James Naismith, about the matter. Now Naismith had a problem: Gulick had given him just two weeks to invent a game that would engage his students.

Naismith quickly decided the new game had to be physically demanding and simple to understand. To prevent injuries common in rugby and football, no contact would be allowed. The ball would be passed but not carried. Elevating the goals at each end of the court would lend the game art and skill. The height of the goals, 10 feet, was determined solely by the height of the Y’s elevated indoor running track.

During his gym class, Naismith posted 13 rules on the wall and began teaching a brand new game to his students: basketball. The first game was played with a soccer ball and two peach baskets used as goals. The men loved it, and Naismith’s invention spread like wildfire.

Not only was basketball invented at a YMCA, basketball’s first professional team also came from a Y. Beginning in 1892, the Trenton, New Jersey YMCA fielded a basketball team. In 1896, its team claimed to be the national champions after beating other YMCA and college teams. The team then severed its ties with the Y and played the 1896-97 season out of a local Masonic temple, charging for admission and keeping the proceeds!

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Feeling that basketball was too strenuous for businessmen, William Morgan blended elements of basketball, tennis, and handball into a new game at the Holyoke, Massachusetts YMCA in 1895. He called it “mintonette”. During an exhibition game at the International YMCA Training School the following year, a new name was coined: Volleyball. In 1922, YMCAs held their first national championship in the game. This became the U.S. Open in 1924 when non-YMCA teams were permitted to compete.

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In 1950, Joe Sobek didn’t care for handball, and couldn’t find other squash players of his caliber to play with. After experimenting with the existing games of paddleball and platform tennis, he came up with the idea of using a strung racquet similar to a platform tennis paddle (not a sawed-off tennis racquet, as some say) to allow a greater variety of shots. After drawing up rules for the game, the game of raquetball was born. Sobek went to nearby Ys for approval by other players, and at the same time formed them into the Paddle Rackets Association to promote the sport. The original balls Sobek used were half blue and half red. When he needed replacements, Sobek asked Spalding, the original manufacturer, to make the balls all blue, so they wouldn’t mark the Y’s courts!

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Prior to 1926, softball had been played for many years under such names as kittenball, softball, and even sissyball. In 1926, the YMCA state secretary, Homer Hoisington, noticed both the sport’s popularity and its need for standardized rules. After a gathering of interested parties, the Colorado Amateur Softball Association (CASA) was formed; during a CASA meeting, Walter Hakanson moved to settle on a standard name for the sport, and softball was quickly adopted. Shortly after, the Denver YMCA adopted a declaration of principles for softball, envisioning it as a non-commercial recreation open to all ages and races and demanding good sportsmanship. When the Amateur Softball Association of America was formed in 1933, the Denver YMCA team represented Colorado in its first national tournament, held in Chicago.

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Camping has been a part of YMCA activities for more than a century, and the first continuously used camp was founded by a YMCA.

The oldest YMCA camp, now known as Camp Dudley, began in 1886 by Lake Champlain in New York. Sumner Dudley, long active in both the New York and New Jersey YMCA movements, was asked in 1884 to take young honor YMCA members camping. In 1885 he took seven boys for a week’s encampment at Orange Lake, New Jersey. The next year Dudley moved the site to Lake Wawayanda in New Jersey. In 1908, the camp settled on the shores of Lake Champlain in New York.

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Swimming and aquatics have long been associated with the YMCA, and tens of millions of people across the country learned how to swim at a Y, including Olympic medalists Mark Spitz, Greg Louganis and Janet Evans, as well as President Ronald Reagan. It wasn’t always this way: for many years swimming was seen as a distraction from exercise and gymnastics.

The first reported YMCA swimming bath was built at the Brooklyn Central YMCA in 1885. By the end of the year, it was reported that 17 YMCAs had pools. Pools then bore scant resemblance to the pools of today: The Brooklyn Central pool was 14′ x 45′ and 5′ deep. Early pools, in addition to being small, had no filters or recirculation systems. The water in the pool just got dirtier until the pool was drained and cleaned, which some Ys did on a weekly basis. The medical community generally regarded pools as a health threat.

Two developments helped change attitudes towards pools. The first was the development of mass swim lessons in 1906 by George Corsan at the Detroit YMCA. What Corsan did was to teach swimming strokes on land, starting with the crawl stroke, to build confidence. Prior to Corsan’s methods, strokes were only taught in the pool and the crawl was not taught until later. Corsan also came up with the ideas of the learn-to-swim campaign and using bronze buttons as rewards for swimming proficiency. In 1909, Corsan’s learn-to-swim campaigns resulted in the first campaign to teach every boy in the United States and Canada how to swim.

Ray L. Rayburn is responsible for the second development which changed attitudes towards pools: water filtration and recirculation using roll-out pool rims, a system which could maintain water quality.

The combination of these developments popularized swimming and swim instruction at YMCAs. In 1932 there were more than 1 million swimmers a year at YMCAs. In 1984, YMCAs became the largest operator of swimming pools in the world.

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The term “bodybuilding” was first used in 1881 by Robert Roberts, a staff member at the Boston YMCA. He also developed the exercise classes that led to today’s fitness workouts.

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Jazzercise, a famous aerobic exercise program for women, was started in 1969 in Evanston, Illinois by Judi Missett, a dancer. Missett began teaching Jazzercise in 1972 at the La Jolla, California YMCA. Jacki Sorensen, another well known aerobic dance instructor, is frequently but erroneously associated with Jazzercise

John R. Mott


The Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded in 1946 to John R. Mott, a leader of the YMCA movement in America, and to Emily Greene Balch. Mott’s award was in recognition for the role the YMCA had played in increasing global understanding and for its humanitarian efforts. In 1993, the Jerusalem International YMCA was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for its work for promoting peace in the Middle East.

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Transitional housing at YMCAs continues to play a vital part in American society. Staying in a YMCA room has been mentioned in song and literature, and the list of people who stayed at Y residences range from Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s restaurants, to Charlie Rich, the country music star, and black activist Malcolm Little, later known as Malcolm X.

Dormitories were seen as giving young men a place of refuge from the evils of the world. In 1898, Young Men’s Era, a Y publication, declared that dorms were more in keeping with the YMCA mission than many other activities.

The first known Y dormitory was noted in 1867, when the Chicago YMCA had a 42-room dormitory in Farwell Hall. Intended for young men who could not afford more ample accommodations, it was, in the words of Dwight L. Moody, to be a Christian home for young strangers coming to the city.

It was 20 years before the second dormitory was built at a YMCA, this time in Milwaukee. In the meantime, though, several YMCAs maintained emergency dormitories for the unemployed. The Harrisburg, Pennsylvania YMCA opened a Y dormitory in 1877 in a renovated hotel.

By 1910, 281 Ys had about 9,000 rooms available, and in 1916 the Chicago YMCA Hotel opened with 1,821 rooms. By 1922 Ys had approximately 55,000 rooms, and in 1940 there were about 100,000 rooms at YMCAs. No hotel chain featured more rooms!

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Toastmasters International was invented in 1903 as an older youth public speaking program by Ralph C. Smedley, education director of the Bloomington, Illinois YMCA.



Father’s Day in its present form was created at a meeting at the Spokane, Washington YMCA in 1909 by Louise Smart Dodd. The Y and the Spokane Minister’s Alliance swiftly endorsed the idea and helped it spread, holding the first Father’s Day celebration on June 10, 1910. President Wilson officially recognized Father’s Day in 1916, President Coolidge recommended it in 1924, and in 1971 President Nixon and Congress issued proclamations and endorsements of Father’s Day as a national tradition.

Did You Know…

YMCAs serve almost 21 million men, women, and children across the nation?

America’s 2,686 YMCAs are collectively one of the largest not-for-profit community service organizations in the U.S.?

YMCAs are the nation’s largest providers of health and wellness programs?

With more than 2000 pools in the U.S. alone, YMCAs maintain the largest number of swimming pools in the world?

YMCAs are the largest providers of child care in the nation?

All YMCAs are governed and operated locally by volunteer boards. There is no central organization which directs activities?

YMCA services are supported by the efforts of nearly 550,000 volunteers across the nation?

The red YMCA triangle, proposed by Luther Gulick in 1891, symbolizes the unity of spirit, mind, and body?

YMCA Facts and History Courtesy of the YMCA of the USA