Walla Walla YMCA takes new tack to stay relevant

Executive Director Randy Grant says the local, like the national organization, is working to broaden its appeal.

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The Y's executive director Randy Grant setting up for the Annual Peach Basket Classic on corner of Alder and Colville Street with the tournament director Pat McConn on Friday afternoon. 8/5/11

WALLA WALLA -- There's a particular buzz word in Randy Grant's vocabulary these days.

"Intentional."

It's the driving concept behind a new attitude for the national YMCA organization, said Grant, executive director of the Walla Walla YMCA. As in, "we intend to be intentional about the behaviors of a 'cause-driven Y.'"

Components of the "cause-driven" trend include addressing community needs through youth, healthy-living and social-responsibility programs. As well, collaborating with partner organizations is important to create an environment for such programs to flourish.

Added into the list are pieces such as developing passionate leadership while ensuring access, inclusion and engagement.

There's much more "Y speak" in the official wording of the movement, but it boils down pretty simply, Grant said. "Everyone knows the Y does good things, we have the white hat. But when you become intentional about doing good things, you become great."

In Walla Walla, implementing the national Y's model has brought some changes to the nonprofit organization and will bring more, he added.

Since the beginning, the YMCA in general has been seen as synonymous with fitness, heavily so, the director said. "We've not been encompassing the wellness factor. We're all seeking it, but the best way to make it work is through fun and fellowship and education."

The Y may be in the best spot to support that platform, Grant said. "No other charity in the U.S. is better positioned to work on the health of America."

Take the most recent addition to the Park Street facility's lobby. Right next to the path of healthy bodies headed for the daily workout is a corner room that once housed an employee fridge and staff gathering space. Now it is a satellite office for Providence St. Mary Medical Center's physical therapy services, complete with massage table, privacy screens and therapy equipment.

The setup is really the perfect segue for most patients, explained manager Brian Hurst, who has a stash of cookies on his desk -- somewhat at odds with the traditional Y atmosphere, he conceded with a laugh.

Patients, after three or four weeks of rehabilitative therapy, are able to easily transition to using the same YMCA exercise equipment on their own. By that time, they've come to see people using the Y for personal fitness "are not just bodybuilders and jocks," Hurst said. "It's everyone doing the best they can. It's not intimidating."

And that can mean more people taking personal responsibility for their own health, he added.

"We're not going to be a hospital, but we can be a link," Grant said.

Even more, the YMCA has the opportunity to be an agent for advocating for and changing public policies. Although the Y is experienced and "very strong" at shaping policies to suit needs inside its four walls, "we want to be involved in city, county, state and federal government policy making," the director said. "The Y has to be involved and we want to be there."

That's where national Y language needs to be applied locally. "No. 6 for example," Grant said, referring to a list of cause-driven attributes. ""'Collaboration.' We haven't done that here ... but the more we reach out to the community, the more the community will respond."

Youth programs are a good example, he said. The Walla Walla YMCA has a rich tradition of offering activities to kids, but has missed the chance to diversify by establishing adaptive and inclusive programs for disabled children.

Change has begun, however. The Y recently began offering free access to participants of Friends of Children of Walla Walla, Grant said. Meaning adult "friends" can have a variety of healthy activities to do with their young charges as they mentor and support children who need an adult figure in their lives.

The Y also just opened up a computer program, housed in a cheerful area decorated with kids in mind. The curriculum includes video game programming and animation creation, but it comes with a catch, Grant said -- "We used to make kids do 30 minutes of homework before they could go play. Now we make them do 30 minutes of play before they can get on the computers."

It's one way to introduce younger generations to intentional exercise, and his staff (including volunteers) does the same for adult members by keeping classes fresh and relevant, he said.

It's really for the Y's own good, he said. "You have to stay relevant to keep moving. People can be more worried about being an institution than to be relevant. But if you're only an institution, you die out in a few generations."

That relevance includes just what the No. 6 -- community collaboration -- is saying, Grant said. "There are lots of ways to use the Y for different groups. We're a charity ... I don't think churches, for example, should have to go out and build gymnasiums. And we don't have to be a Pathways or Trilogy," he said, talking about local programs that serve troubled teens.

"We can be here for those groups. We can be here for lots of different groups."

The Y's future in Walla Walla is promising, Grant said. With an orange highlighter, he circled a listing of national YMCA programs that will someday be here, if the idea of relevancy moves forward.

Included are homeschool enrichment classes, youth employment services, diabetes camps, adult volleyball leagues, Earth Service Corps, gang prevention and intervention, aquatics for adults and children with disabilities, parent-teacher collaboration and financial education.

The goal is ambitious, Grant acknowledged, but a good picture of what it means to be "cause driven."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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