The YMCA of Ithaca and Tompkins County has given kids of all ages an equal chance to walk, run, play, and even skate.

The YMCA of Ithaca and Tompkins County has given kids of all ages an equal chance to walk, run, play, and even skate. 

Okay, so Ithaca is not, say, Atlanta or New York City, or any other city that sees a lot of its home-grown athletes go on to the Big Time, but we do have our share of kids who come up through the ranks and play high-level sports. Some play at the community college level, some Division 2 or D3, some D1 and a handful – like Ithaca’s Dustin Brown and Spencer-Van Etten’s Jeff Foote – have gone on to play at the highest level.  

Many of these athletes have been fortunate enough to come from means, and their parents have been able to send them to camps and clinics, some have played years of travel lacrosse, hockey or softball. But let’s face it, some kids do not get such opportunities. One of the main goals of the YMCA of Ithaca and Tompkins County is to “level the playing field,” as the saying goes, to provide “scholarships” for young people to be able to participate, and that is one of the things that makes the Y such a gift to the community. 

I sat in Frank Towner’s office at the YMCA on Graham Road to talk about the upcoming (sold out) gala to celebrate the Y’s “150 Years of Building Stronger Communities in Ithaca and Tompkins County,” and believe me when I tell you that Frank gets fired up when talking about the agency he has led since 2011 (after starting there as a volunteer and having been employed there since 1995).  

Having arrived early, I sat in the Y’s waiting area and watched the influx of people coming and going. There were several folks in attendance well into their eighties, and the sense of community they clearly experienced was palpable as they left the swimming pool after an Aquasize class and said their goodbyes. I saw a gentleman with a disability, and I thought about the times I accompanied groups of individuals with disabilities from the Ithaca Youth Bureau on their regular trips to the Y. 

I saw Carol Whitlow, a longtime friend who brought her three (now grown) children to the Y for many years. Whitlow said “I love the family atmosphere here, and I know that it gets a lot of adults off the couch.” As if on cue, a tired-looking mom followed her bouncing, excited 5 year-old into the pool area, knowing she would soon be energized.    

In his office, Frank showed me some literature detailing the agency’s timeline, dating back to 1868. The first capital campaign was launched in 1907, and in 1908 the first building was erected. The first teen dance took place in 1949, and 30 years later, fire destroyed the building.  The Y bounced back by opening the current building (on Graham Road) in 1982, and since then, the agency has stayed on its mission. 

“We have been seen as a ‘gym and swim’ facility, but we’re really a full service health facility that works to connect people,” Towner said. “Our 150-year anniversary event is more than just a fundraiser, it’s a celebration. Our ‘150’ theme has involved 150 people at a Chamber event, a 150 Healthy Kids event, 150 jumps into the pool, 150 magnets, 150 shamrocks […] It has all been themed at 150.” 

Towner is proud that the Y has been able to provide so many opportunities to so many members of the community. 

“Our Scholarship Program has raised over $166,000, creating over 2,250 scholarships,” he said. “We need to continually re-engage in fundraising, and we are on our way to our next goal, which is an additional $50,000 by Dec. 31.”   

Looking past the big celebration, Frank said, “A leader needs to see how to move things forward, I’m pleased to steer the stewardship of the agency and I will put forth an effort to put a planned giving program in place to give people an opportunity to assure the Y remains a sustainable organization.”  

As we said adios, I made a note to self that despite the fact that Towner had done hundreds of interviews to extol the virtues of his beloved YMCA – and he will no doubt do hundreds more – he can on any given day look out and see folks who would have no other place to work out were it not for the collective efforts of those who love the Y. That keeps him going.


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