Before the YMCA

Stop into the Door County YMCA in Fish Creek just after the Gibraltar school day ends, about 3:30 pm. Watch the backpacks pile up by the front door, and the kids scurry off in all directions to the gym, to dance class, or to the pool.

Take in this sudden burst of energy that fills the halls, watch the weight room fill up with high schoolers and adults getting off of work. The scene is unremarkable, until you remember that just 10 years ago, none of this was here.

Young kids participate in the Fish Creek YMCA’s after-school activities.

Where did all those kids go? Where did high school kids go to work out? Where did adults go to stay in shape?

Those questions only begin to illustrate the impact that the Y has had on the Northern Door community since it opened its doors a little more than 10 years ago.

Before the Y added the Fish Creek program center, residents in the northern part of the county had only sporadic options for working out indoors. To play basketball or volleyball, you had to head to Sturgeon Bay or hope to gain access to the cozy (that’s being generous) gym at the First Baptist Church in Sister Bay.

Gibraltar High School principal Kirk Knutson says it’s difficult to overstate the impact the Y has had on school options.

“Whether we look at students with disabilities, or elementary physical education classes, there are just a lot of programs that have been enhanced by the YMCA,” he says. “Our facilities can’t always offer what theirs do.”

Today the first generation of Gibraltar athletes to grow up with the YMCA are in high school, and it’s no coincidence that Gibraltar squads are more competitive than they’ve been in decades. While much credit is owed to renewed support for athletics from parents, athletes, and coaches, the Y has played no small role in providing youth with more opportunities to play and train than ever before.

Sally Pfeifer, who served as Northern Door program director for 20 years, was involved in the early stages of the fundraising and planning for the Y. She and husband Jeff raised two athletic daughters with a lot of help from Y programs.

“My girls were big into the dance program too,” she says. “The Y provides an opportunity for kids to hang out and learn a skill. The Y in general has given kids things to do before getting into high school sports and added a lot to the feeder programs.”

Knutson says 60 percent of Gibraltar high school students participate in at least one sport, far above the state average of 37 percent.

A football team that once got manhandled is now competitive and nurtures legitimate playoff dreams. The soccer team is a conference powerhouse, and the track team produces state challengers. Baseball made a trip to sectionals two years ago, and basketball posted its first winning season in over a decade last year.

No, Gibraltar isn’t bringing home state titles, but opposing teams can’t chalk up Viking games as automatic wins anymore. The kids can compete. Even such simple goals weren’t imagined as talk of a Y began in the mid-1990s, when various Gibraltar teams were enduring losing streaks measured not in games, but years.

“It gets kids interested in exercising and a healthier lifestyle in general when they’re young,” explains Bill Herbst. He has been Gibraltar’s athletic trainer for 15 years and has seen first-hand the difference the facility has made. “As a whole, the athletes are stronger and in a little better condition because there is so much more accessibility.”

Whether it’s access to the pool, controlled weight work, or just having a facility available over the weekend, Herbst said the Y is invaluable in helping athletes rehab from injury as well.

“From a rehab perspective, they have almost everything you could want,” he said. “It’s been a great asset for me. I can send kids there and know they can work out in a safe atmosphere.”

But the Y has had an impact far beyond athletics too. Pfeifer says one of the biggest surprises has been the role the Y has filled in connecting generations.

“Each day you go in and see people of all different ages come in either socially or to work out,” she said. “Retired folks talk to kids in the lifestyle center, getting to know each other. You wonder when all of these people would have interacted and talked to each other before?”