The first YMCA was started in London, England, in 1844 when a young man named George Williams left the countryside and came to London looking for work. He found it at a dry goods store. The young men working there lived on top of the store. In an effort to keep his co-workers out the bars and brothels, he started a Bible reading group. It caught on like wildfire, and thus was begun the first Young Men’s Christian Association. Williams later married the boss’s daughter.
Doing missionary work in London at that time was a retired sea captain named Thomas Sullivan. He liked what he saw and took the idea back to the United States. The first US YMCA was started in Boston in 1851. Again, it caught on like wildfire. Physical fitness became an important part of the American YMCA. Basketball was invented at a YMCA in Springfield, Mass. Volleyball was another YMCA invention. The YMCA teaches more kids to swim than any other organization. It is the largest provider of day care in the US.
There are over 2,000 corporate YMCAs in the United States. They range from small, storefront operations to multi-branch, multi-million dollar operations. There are a few student YMCAs on college campuses, and there are a handful of state associations who mostly work with teenagers. There are approximately 30 YMCAs in Virginia.
The Virginia YMCA, headquartered in Lynchburg, is often referred to as the State YMCA. With a very small staff, the Virginia YMCA concentrates its efforts on leadership development activities for teenagers. That translates into the sponsorship of school-based service clubs known as Hi-Y, Tri-Hi-Y, and Youth & Government.
Hi-Y, which stands for High School YMCA, was started in Chapman, Kansas, in 1889 when a teacher discovered some of his students smoking a cigar that they had stolen from the local drugstore. In response to his asking why they did it, they said “there’s nothing to do.” So he challenged them to get involved in community service. They, in turn, challenged him to help them. In the early days, Hi-Y was a boys-only club. The girls started their clubs in the 1920s and called them Tri-Hi-Y. Now most clubs are co-ed. Youth & Government clubs focus their service on government and politics.
As an extension of the club program, the Virginia YMCA operates model government programs to teach students about the inner workings of Virginia state government. The largest and oldest program is the Model General Assembly, begun in 1948. MGA is a statewide youth legislature for high school students. It takes place annually at the Capitol in Richmond. Students draft legislative bills, suggesting changes to the Code of Virginia. Bills are presented in committees and on the floors of the Senate and House of Delegates.
The Virginia YMCA and the Young Lawyers Division of the Virginia Bar Association co-sponsor the Model Judiciary Program. MJP is a series of local mock trials and appeals and expose students to Virginia’s court system and their citizenship roles in it.
Teen Leadership Conferences provide middle school students with a one-day mini-MGA to acquaint them with Virginia’s legislative process.