In 1992, I took my first class at the Door County YMCA. It was quite an endeavor: waking up early in the winter dark, driving from my Egg Harbor home to Sturgeon Bay, and making my way to the old high school where, after decades of teachers yelling, “Don’t run in the halls,” Y instructors – many of them former students – were now yelling at Y members to, yes, run in the halls (and up the stairs! and through the classrooms! you can do it!).
In this particular Fit for Life class, we changed clothes in the library, stretched our calves in the stairwells, and kept track of our hallway laps with hatch marks on a chalkboard once used for calculus equations. We dropped for pushups in the principal’s office and jumped rope in the gym. It wasn’t glamorous, but by the end of the hour we were sweaty and satisfied. We switched off classroom lights, grabbed the winter coats we’d stashed in students’ lockers and headed home to shower.
Last week, at 6:15 on a cold, dark November morning, I pulled into the Sturgeon Bay YMCA, located on the corner of Highway 42/57 and Michigan Street. I counted 67 cars in the parking lot. In the glow of the windows I could see early risers on treadmills and elliptical machines, cyclists in a spinning class, and the steady up-and-down of exercisers participating in a step class. Inside it was a quiet hum of activity: a dad and son working out in the free weights room, a pregnant woman stretching on the balcony, an elderly couple walking the track and a teenage boy with a pierced nose and earphones sprinting past them. The air smelled faintly of chlorine and two women with wet hair were talking in the lobby, already making their way out the door to start their days. Twenty-three miles up the peninsula at the Northern Door YMCA in Fish Creek, I imagine a similar scene.
If you are visiting Door County or are a more recent resident who has relocated from a larger city, the Door County YMCAs may fall under your radar. After all, with 2,686 YMCAs nationwide, we have come to expect, even take for granted, that we’re able to find a Y when we need one, where we need one. But in Door County, the actual YMCA facilities are relatively new.
Until 1997 (when the Sturgeon Bay Program Center opened its doors), and 1999 (when the Northern Door Program Center opened its doors), Door County’s YMCA programs and classes had no real home, and were scattered throughout the county in whatever space was available.
“The YMCA has always been creative in terms of providing services,” says Sue Crass, Member Services Director, who has worked for the YMCA since 1986. “If there was an interest in a program, we’d work to find a location and an instructor. We started our first swimming classes in the backyard pools of private homes, and then at the Wagon Trail Resort. These first, very basic programs were the beginning of the YMCA in Door County.”
Since its inception in 1844, (the Young Men’s Christian Association was established in response to rising concerns over unhealthy social conditions resulting from the end of the Industrial Revolution), the YMCA has been sensitive to the fact that all communities have different needs and concerns. Though all YMCAs are required to pay annual dues to the YMCA of the USA, to refrain from discrimination and to support the YMCA mission, all other decisions are made by local branches, including what types of programs to offer.
In 1986, the Green Bay YMCA, as a result of its “Town and Country” mission, selected Sturgeon Bay as a center for outreach programming. The first YMCA sign, the now familiar “Y” with the red triangle (the international YMCA symbol, indicating the unification of mind, body and spirit) was erected at the former Sturgeon Bay High School in downtown Sturgeon Bay.
Under the leadership of Board Chair Joe Gagnon and Executive Director Jon Lange, the name was changed from the Sturgeon Bay YMCA to the Door County YMCA as the board realized that members from all over the county were participating in programming and classes. In 1988, the Y assumed operation of the downtown Sturgeon Bay Peterson Pool, and began offering regular swimming lessons.
In 1993, the Door County YMCA established independence from the Green Bay YMCA and in 1996, the Sister Bay Interim Center opened in the Walkway Shops of Sister Bay. But it wasn’t until 1997, after tremendous support from the Door County community, that the Sturgeon Bay Program Center was built. The Northern Door Program Center followed shortly thereafter, in 1999. Sally Pfeifer, longtime Y member and volunteer, was hired as the first Site Director.
Dick Skare, current owner of The Cookery in Fish Creek, and an early YMCA supporter and board member remembers it well. “Prior to building the Northern Door facility, Sally Pfeifer had approached me and asked me to participate in raising funds for the scholarship program,” Skare said. “She, along with Marv and Betty Lotz [Mr. Lotz was a former Chicago area YMCA director who had retired to Door County], were enthusiastic about a Northern Door location. There was a lot of skepticism from the board early on, and a lot of support for the idea, too, but with real concerns over how we could fund it. And, if we could fund it, would we be able to continue to support two facilities?”
“Like most community decisions,” Skare continued, “it took a while to talk it through. We had all determined that there was a need and had been working hard to raise the funds. But everything was a dream until we actually raised the money. Then…the miracle happened.”
The miracle Skare is referring to is the generous donations from local residents Ruth and Hartley Barker, Cynthia and Carl Stiehl, and the Peterson Family. In addition to monetary contributions, the Peterson Family also built the Carla & Ellsworth Peterson Aquatic Center, made renovations to the Lifestyle Center and Free Weight Room, and built a multi-purpose program area at the Sturgeon Bay location. Utilizing these donations and improvements, the Door County YMCA was on its way. Today, the Door County YMCA manages endowment funds of over $2.5 million, employs 17 full-time and 250 part-time people, and boasts a membership of over 6,600. This bears repeating: in a community of 27,000 residents, over 6,600 are YMCA members.
The existence of two state-of-the-art facilities in a community of less than 30,000 residents is an anomaly, and one that is not lost on Dan Powell, Executive Director of the Door County YMCA. Powell arrived in Door County via positions with the YMCAs in Davenport (Iowa), Wausau, Janesville and Milwaukee (Wisconsin), and is no stranger to what it takes to build and maintain a successful YMCA.
“Typically, a community of our size would have a challenging time supporting one facility, much less two,” says Dan Powell. “It is solely through the foresight and courage of the early Y charter board and the generosity of this community that this is possible. Door County is a unique place, and one that is willing to support an organization of this size. We have a commitment to providing programs and opportunities to all areas of the county – despite the hurdles of geography and distance. This community is making that happen.”
The YMCA is committed to addressing the growing needs of our community and to being leaders in recognizing health and well-being issues such as childhood obesity, the time constraints on single parent families and families with two working parents, and the benefits and detriments of modern technology. While in the past the Y may have been known primarily as a place for athletes, the new role of the local YMCA is more comprehensive.
“The YMCA has changed a great deal over the years,” says Powell. “We are moving away from the ‘feel the burn, no-pain-no-gain’ mentality and into a more pragmatic approach to health and wellness. Sure, we have members who are hardcore athletes and that’s fantastic, but the majority of our members are here at the Y making small, intentional changes – like walking, or taking a class – to help bring on larger changes and become healthier.” Powell points to the “Y Not Make Small Changes” poster that encourages cutting out 100 calories a day, or adding 1,000 steps (equivalent to 3 or 4 blocks) each day.
“We are seeing a cultural shift in how people look at exercise and fitness. We now have doctors who are writing prescriptions for walking; they are prescribing lifestyle solutions rather than, or in tandem with, chemical solutions. The YMCA is part of this exciting change. In short,” Powell says, “we are learning that it’s about how you live, not about how much you sweat.”
The Y is so committed to your health that they’ve structured their membership rates to encourage everyone to participate (see a complete chart of rates at www.DoorCountyYMCA.org) and offer seasonal rates to accommodate “summer locals” and monthly rates to accommodate those vacationing in the county. The family rate includes foster children and foreign exchange students, and special provisions are made for non-custodial minor children living in your household. What’s more, the Y is committed to making certain that no one is turned away for an inability to pay.
“We have an exceptional financial assistance program,” says Crass. “In Sturgeon Bay, I’m the one to talk to about our scholarship program, and Michael Fearing is the Northern Door contact. It’s confidential and it’s easy to apply. Our goal is to make our facilities and programs available to everyone, so that we can help individuals and families stay strong and healthy, and continue to grow the habits that encourage success and well-being.”
So who uses the Y? Old people, young children, families and singles. Hardcore athletes, Zen-seeking yoga enthusiasts, the super-fit and the not-quite-so. Holly Feldman, mother of three young children and an active member of the Y sums it up: “The Y is part of our family’s daily life. My kids take after school swimming lessons, gymnastics, dance, Tae Kwon Do, and flag football. Last winter and early spring, I trained for the Door County Triathlon, and received both the physical training and emotional support that I needed to accomplish that goal. I feel like the Y has made us better parents, and has made it easy for me to find activities that keep my kids active and engaged all year long. Am I a fan of the Y? You bet I am.”
So what if you are not a Y enthusiast? Aside from being able to participate in multi-generational, synchronized dancing at family weddings (thank you Village People, circa 1979), why should the YMCA matter to you? Because a community that supports a YMCA is an indicator of a community that values, well…community. Ask real estate agents working with out-of-town buyers, or businesses trying to attract new employees, the YMCA adds instant credibility, especially to a small town. Next to good schools and low crime, access to a YMCA is often next on the list. A YMCA in a small town is proof that the community is active, involved and with the times. It’s like having a billboard that says, “This Community Cares” – about old people, young people and everyone in between. And because the YMCA is so flexible, it often acts as a conduit, working with a plethora of local organizations.
“Here at the Door County Y,” Powell continues, “we work with the United Way, schools, churches, hospitals, you name it. We are willing and eager to partner with local organizations on whatever level and in whatever area we can,” he says. “We work hard to be a leader in terms of creating healthy people and healthy lifestyles. If the discussion is about health and well-being in our community, we want to be at the table.”
Nowadays, thanks to the hard work, vision and generosity of a small group of dedicated individuals, you don’t have to run through old classrooms or learn to swim in your neighbor’s backyard pool. And while it’s fun to look back to those days through the warm glow of nostalgia, one lap around the pool or trip around the track is all it takes to see how far we’ve come.
The YMCA Sturgeon Bay Program Center is located at 1900 Michigan Street, Sturgeon Bay, (920) 743-4949. The Northern Door Program Center is located at 3866 Gibraltar Road, Fish Creek, (920) 868-3660. You can learn more about hours, classes, events and fee schedules by stopping in, calling, or visiting www.DoorCountyYMCA.org.