YMCA Storyboard Campaign

Real Lives, Real Stories. The following storyboards reflect how the YMCA has impacted the lives of 28 people. As part of the Y’s annual fundraiser effort, this unique photo-storytelling project culminated with 2×3 foot posters permanently adorning the walls of nine metro Atlanta Y’s. By telling these stories through artistic images and words, the work speaks to anyone who has ever found inspiration from the kindness and courage of others.


“The Y isn’t a second home, it’s a first home.”

More than once, the Y has been the saving grace for Belise Michel. The first time was in Florida where, working as a public school teacher, she desperately needed child care for one of her three children. She came to the Y in tears with no money, and they told her not to worry, they’d deal with it later.

“They took him in and took really good care of him,” she says. “They treated him like he was one of their own.” She started volunteering, then working part time at the Y, and eventually was asked to be the childcare director. She turned it down, thinking her career was in the school system.

When Belise developed chronic fatigue syndrome and needed time off from work, it was the Y, not the school system, that supported her and guaranteed her job. During this period she had time to re-evaluate her situation and decided to move to Atlanta.

In 2002 she started working in the nursery at the Buckhead Y. This was the second time the Y changed her life. “When I came here, I knew no one,” she says. She could barely afford to pay her bills. “I used to just come to work, clock in, clock out, go home. It was kind of lonely.”

Then she learned about family scholarships. With her kids now able to participate in so many programs, from Parents’ Night Out to swimming and basketball, the Y became a safe haven. Her family found a new home and new friends. And now, jokes Belise, “I see the Y more than I see my own house. It’s like having a giant backyard.”

Though she hadn’t planned on a Y career, a few years and a few jobs later, she realized this was where she’s meant to be. Today, Belise is the associate youth development director and pursuing her bachelor’s degree at Georgia State University. She loves caring for children at the Y and loves that her children are cared for by others. “I know my children can be anywhere in the building, and I’m not worried about them,” she says. “I know they’re in safe hands.”

Belise Michel
Carl E. Sanders Family YMCA at Buckhead

“The programs at the Y have made a profound impact on our lives.”

As a child, Robert Gaines always wanted to join the YMCA boys club. Family obligations kept him away. He joined the military, served in Vietnam, had children, grandchildren, and got involved in what he calls the wrong things. “I was on the road to destruction,” he says. “I prayed to God.”

Then came a new daughter. He saw a new chance. “Amina came into my life when I really needed her most.” Robert made a deal with God to get straight and live a righteous life. He gained custody of Amina and, he says, “stopped doing all the bad things and started living a good life.”

Robert joined the Y with the intention of working on his heart as well as his soul. After years of poor health from a heart condition, he worked with Y wellness coaches to learn to exercise correctly, watch his weight and become healthy enough to get off his medication. He was motivated by other members, especially those older than him.

He started bringing Amina to the Y when she was three. She loved the play center. Then ballet. Then swimming, gymnastics, karate, and summer camp. She was safe to do her thing while he did his.

Together, Robert and Amina come to the Y at least three times a week. “The Y helped us do a lot of bonding together,” says Robert. “She motivates me to go when I don’t want to go, and I motivate her.” Now they’re working out together, on the treadmill, for instance. The pool is still a challenge. “I do want to get in the pool with her, but I look at my swimming trunks…” Robert ponders. “I don’t know. But, I think now I’m going to try.”

Raising a daughter today is much different for Robert than a generation ago, and he appreciates the advice he gets from staff and other members. He says he’s not worried about taking another wrong turn, because he has a job to do: raise his daughter and give her the best education he can.

Robert and Amina Gaines
Decatur Family YMCA

“For the first time, I’m not ashamed of myself anymore.”

Colton Hunter began attending Y summer programs when he was four years old. Both parents were working and on advice from a neighbor, they signed him up. “We had no idea the Y had such programs,” says his mother Kim, “He loved it.”

Their son immediately made friends with several counselors during summer camp. And, Kim and Mike Hunter say the staff was always caring and supportive in making their son feel special.

Colton was always a social kid. But as he grew, he became very insecure. Much bigger than most kids his age, he struggled with his weight and body image, though it wasn’t always obvious. He felt awkward and shied away from taking off his shirt at the pool or changing in front of friends. When his parents mentioned this to Y Camp Director Erik Bullock, he seemed surprised but said he’d talk to their son.

When Colton was ten, he came home from camp severely sunburned and Kim came down on him with what she calls a typical maternal tirade.  “He was crying,” she recalls, “and said, ‘I took my shirt off because I’m not ashamed of my body anymore. I was having so much fun, I forgot to put sunscreen on.’”

“The combined efforts of the Y directors and counselors made him proud of who his is and not to be uncertain of his character,” says Kim. Since then, the Hunters have tried to give back what they can with their limited time. They try to direct as many friends and families to the Y as possible. They’ve encouraged Colton to think of what he can offer as well. He says he can’t wait to be old enough to become a summer camp counselor.

Besides the annual breakfast with Santa, enjoying the outdoor Y’s wooded surroundings, and friends they’ve acquired, the Hunters say the Y gives them peace of mind. “Safety, guidance, character building,” says Kim, “there’s a never-ending list of reasons to make this organization a part of your life.”

Colton Hunter
Cherokee Outdoor YMCA

“I would love to have a flatter stomach, but I’m too old to worry about any beauty contest.”

“My daughter, Deborah, talked me into joining,” says Elizabeth Light. “She said, ‘C’mon, we’re going to join the Y.’ And that was that.” Elizabeth was 78 or 79… she doesn’t really remember. “At my age, it’s hard to know.”

Elizabeth jokes about her age and abilities, but she’s determined to get stronger, stay healthy, enjoy life, and even get a flatter stomach. After three hip replacements, two shoulder surgeries and an ankle reconstruction, Elizabeth thought the Y would be good place for exercise. “My daughter brings me two times a week, and we get to spend time together. She has lost weight and now is able to keep up with me,” she laughs.

What does Elizabeth do at the Y? She rides a stationary bike and lifts weights, though she can’t exactly get on the floor to work on her abs. “At my age, you’re limited,” Elizabeth says. She’s doing more than her doctors thought she could. “I just feel better,” she says. “A lot of people comment on how well I walk, that I get along better.”

That’s another reason Elizabeth enjoys her time at the Y so much: all the friendly people. “I have a lot of friends there. I don’t know their names, but a lot of them know me. I just kind of laugh about it, especially when Deborah says, ‘All the old men are coming to speak to you.’”

You might say Elizabeth brings light everywhere she goes. She loves to grow things. If she lights up some with personality, she charms others by bringing them flowers from her home garden. It’s her way of saying thank you.

Elizabeth says she’s grateful she can come to Y and for the people there. “It means I am able to stay active, keep my leg and arm strength up and continue to feel younger instead of older.”

Elizabeth Light
Decatur Family YMCA

“They thought of working at the Y as a privilege.”

The Winborne brothers tend to conduct themselves just a little differently from other kids their age. Sure, they do normal teenager stuff, like hang out with friends and watch videos. They are big into sports. They’re into their church. They sing in musicals.

OK, maybe they aren’t so typical. They stand head and shoulders above their peers, says Chris McMurtagh, Y sports director, because of what he describes as traditional family values. “They’re more polite than any kids I’ve met their age. Yes ma’am, yes sir. If you ask them to do something, they never say no. It’s like a blast from the past. You just don’t find kids as well mannered any more or willing to go the extra mile.”

Those extra miles were put in at Y summer day camp, where Frank worked as a counselor after volunteering the previous summer, and Arthur volunteered after Frank encouraged him to try it. Both brothers learned how much they enjoyed this kind of community service while also discovering more about themselves.

Frank had done missionary service in the past, but spending his summer at the Y was completely different. “Working with kids is great,” he says, “because they all look up to you, and you try to be a good role model and be on top of your game every day. It’s good preparation for the real world.”

Arthur became a role model for younger kids, while unexpectedly finding people he could look up to as well. “I got to know counselors and employees and made good friends with different people, many who’ve already been through what we’ve been through. It is great to talk to them and get to know them.”

Their experiences at camp also helped to improve their grades and study habits as well as their intention to kick start a teen program at the Y. The goal, says Frank, is to let other teens know this place is here and to have teen-oriented activities. “It’s about a place for kids to come and get away from normal school, busy life and have good, clean fun,” he says.

Frank and Arthur Winborne
Carl E. Sanders Family YMCA at Buckhead

“To sum it up, the Y means companionship and motivation.”

When you meet Melissa Algreen, it’s hard to see beyond her smiling eyes and know the hardships she’s faced.

In 2005, Melissa was hit by a car on her way to work in New York City. Her injuries, including traumatic brain injury, were so severe doctors couldn’t say if she’d survive. After six months in a coma and 11 months in the hospital, odds were against her ever being independent of machines. But today, with therapy, determination, and her mother by her side, Melissa is swimming laps around expectations.

She re-learned how to talk, how to eat, even how to swallow. Water therapy proved helpful in her ongoing recovery, so when she and her mother, Rose, moved to Atlanta for treatment (her father still works in New York), they immediately sought out the Y. The Y is where Melissa first learned to swim, and the Y is where, once again, she finds herself feeling alive in the water. Melissa had just moved from a wheelchair to a walker when she met Susan Nowack, a Y water aerobics instructor. Susan volunteered to work with Melissa on her strength, coordination, balance, and independence two or three times a week in the pool. “I was not able to stand in the water by myself,” says Melissa. “Now, I’m actually swimming.” She’s walking better, too. But that’s not all.

“This young lady laughs more than anyone I know,” says Susan, who rediscovered the little joys in her own life. The women formed a bond of appreciation from the gifts they give each other. “I am able to breathe,” says Rose, who never leaves her daughter’s side. Trusting Melissa in Susan’s hands, she’ll now leave to workout herself.

Early in her recovery, Melissa went through a roller coaster of emotions: grateful to be alive, yet sad to have lost so much. Five years later she has embraced her second chance in life. So have the people she’s met along her path. “Every Y we go to, the same underlying concept holds true,” Melissa says. “It’s an environment of caring and compassionate people who just want to help.”

Melissa Algreen
Carl E. Sanders Family YMCA at Buckhead

“The rock that’s an obstacle in the path of one becomes a stepping stone in the path of another.”

By 5:30 a.m., Eloise Fain anxiously awaits for the doors to open at the Y. “This is where I put it down,” she exclaims, pointing to the indoor track: five miles a day, five days a week, listening to praise and worship on her headphones. She also takes water aerobics classes, uses weights and cardio-machines and volunteers here, a place she calls her second home. At 57 years old, she’s at the top of her game.

It wasn’t that long ago that Eloise topped the scale at 325 pounds. Besides obesity, she suffered from high blood pressure, high cholesterol and severe depression. She didn’t speak to her family much and could barely look at her own reflection. When diagnosed with diabetes in 2007, her fear of needles finally motivated her to say, “No more.”

She started walking every day, first around her downtown neighborhood. Then she joined the Y. Eloise says she didn’t come to the Y looking for motivation or relationships, but simply to get healthy. She was a loner on a mission. But the atmosphere, she says, unexpectedly brought her joy.

Her wellness coach taught her to manage her workout, her diet, and gave her freedom to do it her way. She saw the same people every day, and they noticed her progress. She noticed theirs, and they encouraged each other. Before she knew it, Y members became her social network, her second family and her support system in times of need.

Since 2007, Eloise has lost 190 pounds and gained self-esteem. She’s completed two AJC Peachtree Road Races, and more importantly, feels complete as a person. She’s off all medications and is closer with her family than ever before. She says her Y family taught her balance and boundaries. They also taught her how to use a computer and an iPod. She’s grown from being an introvert to a great friend and motivator of others.

Drawing on her faith and personal experiences, Eloise will be the first to tell you during difficult times, “This too shall pass.”

Eloise Fain
East Lake Family YMCA

“The Y is the meeting place to help others.”

Mike Huddleston truly believes the Y is about the people, plain and simple.
From his first swim lesson in Little Rock, Ark., at age six, to shoveling dirt 43 years later at the East Cobb groundbreaking ceremony, this 20-year charter member says, “The staff at the Y cares about its members. You can tell they’re not just doing a job. They’re attentive, they help people with wellness programs and take a serious interest in their members.”

Over the years, Mike has been into running, racquetball, swimming, spinning, tennis, and weight lifting. But no matter what activity phase he’s going through, what makes him strongest are the friendships he’s made along the way. He says coming to the Y was a great stress reliever during his late wife’s long illness. Not just the exercise, but support from staff and members helped him get through that difficult time. And much of what he learned during that period influenced his later life’s work.

Though it wasn’t his intention, the Y has become Mike Huddleston’s ministry. He offers an ear, a shoulder, a caring heart to anyone in need. He provides advice and motivation to those who ask, most often to seniors. “I was sought out by some folks who lost spouses,” he says, “because they knew I had been where they are and watched me go through it.” In many ways, his compassion has become his calling and certainly his mode of operation at the Y. “Somebody else might work at the homeless shelter or be a big brother. It’s just part of what I do.”

Now remarried and relocated, Mike’s motivation and commitment to the Y remain strong. Despite a longer commute, he tries to come nearly every day and treasures the people there for motivating him and making it easy and fun. “My life has been healthier and happier because of my active participation at the Y.”

Mike Huddleston
McCleskey-East Cobb Family YMCA

“I don’t know what power they had on my son, but if they said tomorrow the sun will be purple, he’d believe it.”

In his rookie year at Y summer day camp, Corbin Thompson learned to tackle his fears and come out a winner.

The first week was horrible. “He cried because kids picked on him and called him fat,” says his mother, Latisha. “He complained about having to walk to the swimming pool, saying walking should be outlawed!” Having tried many times to gingerly motivate her son and make him feel good about himself, she asked the camp counselors to give it a try.

“I was impressed,” she says. “He stopped complaining about the kids: he stopped complaining about walking.” The Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation led football drills with the kids and gave out souvenir T-shirts and posters. Corbin loves football, and this was one of the highlights of his summer.

His mom credits the entire camp experience for giving her son a confidence he never had before. “My son never played tennis. Now he loves tennis. He was afraid to go to Six Flags, crying, ‘I’m gonna die!’ Everything was ‘I’m gonna die.’ The counselors told him it would be fine and to try it. He had the most fun in his life with them.”

Since Corbin is an only child with no father around the house, Latisha was thrilled her son was exposed to so many positive, male role models. “Having a man tell a boy, ‘You could do this,’ really made a big difference.”

By the time day camp ended, Corbin was a social butterfly, lost 20 pounds, changed his eating habits, and changed his views of himself. If kids talk about him at school, it doesn’t bother him anymore. Latisha says, “He’ll tell me at home, ‘Kids called me fat, but it doesn’t bother me, because I feel good about myself.’” For the first time, Corbin can stand up in front of his church congregation and sing.

Corbin Thompson
Arthur M. Blank Family Youth YMCA

“There are no bad influences at the Y. I can go have clean, pure fun.”

Why would a 17-year-old choose to spend her time volunteering at the Y over all the other tempting offers a teenager has? Because this, she says, is where she wants to be.

Courteney Jenkins tells people she lives at the Y. In many ways, she does. She’s involved with teen programs, youth development, child care, and service and leadership programs, clocking more time here than anywhere else except school.

Courteney lives with her mom, who is her best friend. Her dad lives in another state. She’s gone through upheaval and uncertainty, attending four schools in the past three years. In ninth grade, Courteney fell in with the wrong crowd and unsafe behavior landed her in the hospital, seriously ill. During a difficult three months in and out of care, her mother wanted her close by, so she’d bring her to the Y. People there just started looking after her. “Every time I walked through those heavy glass doors of the Y that summer,” Courteney says, “I would get the feeling of home.”

One day, a Y staff member, Cristina Teaver, suggested Courteney check out some teen programs. That’s all it took. A little encouragement and a leap of faith.

In the past two years, Courteney has turned herself around and credits the Y. “The teen programs,” she says, “are centered around connections, working with different kinds of people, helping the community, and moving out of your comfort zone.” Among her many activities, she works at the play center, volunteers with homeless shelters, packs lunches for people with disabilities, and helps at international Y camps.

Courteney says she’s learned to listen to her peers, relate better to boys, respect her elders, and feel compassion for people of all ages, in all walks of life. Over time, the mentored has become the mentor. Hoping to lead by example for others who may find themselves heading down the wrong path, she says, “Be aware of your surroundings, know who’s looking out for you, and who’s not.”

Courteney Jenkins
McCleskey-East Cobb Family YMCA

“The YMCA has done a great deal in helping me achieve my goals.”

Dominic Rayford is all about the goal. Whether it is basketball, football, track and field, or working out, he loves the challenge of fitness. “I do it all,” he says. “But the one thing that gives me the most joy is helping these kids reach their goals, helping them be successful in life.”

Three times a week, Dominic teaches Teen Fitness, working with kids ages 10 to 15. He teaches them how to play basketball, lift weights, use exercise equipment, stretch, run, and get in shape. But, he’s also teaching them something else. “I honestly feel like I’m helping kids become more confident about themselves,” he says.

Dominic understands things don’t come easily. It wasn’t easy for Dominic to get here. He’d never been to a Y before coming here as part of a work-study program. He lost his mother when he was 13 and lives with his father who raised him and his sister. He praises his father for sticking by his kids, a trait which seems to have rubbed off on Dominic, especially at the Y. “I really like encouraging kids, setting goals, helping them meet their goals.”

Dominic came to the Y to achieve his own goal: earn a degree in business management. To keep his job, he has to keep up his grades. He works hard at both, and the points are adding up.

His experiences at the Y help him grow as a person. “The Y helped me develop into a young leader. It’s brought more confidence out of me as a teacher, helped my communication skills and helped me deal with different types of people. I’ve never been in such a diverse environment as this.”

Dominic says he considers this his second home and credits the Y for helping him stay in school. “I love coming here. The atmosphere is warm and loving. I want to study and be successful in life, so I can set a positive example for the kids I teach.”

Dominic Rayford
Decatur Family YMCA

“The YMCA gave him a chance when no one else would.”

In just one year, Tarrel Jones, known as TJ, made big strides at the Y. “He’s doing things I never expected,” says his mother, Dominique Newallo.
“Honestly, I didn’t know TJ would learn how to talk as well as he does. He’s definitely proven me wrong.”

TJ has cerebral palsy and developmental delay. Dominique, a single mom, works and is a full-time student at Spelman College with plans for medical school. When TJ was old enough for day care, Dominique started what became a long, discouraging search. “I went from day care to day care to day care. When I’d tell them TJ was four years old, not potty-trained and in a wheelchair, you could feel the air change.” Nearly 20 facilities turned them away.

When Dominique first walked into the Y, she says it was different. “When Ms. Hall said, ‘Bring him by, and fill out an application,’ I felt a weight just lifted off my shoulders.” She thought, “Thank you, Lord, somebody’s actually willing to give him a chance.”

More than a chance, the Y is a safe, healthy environment in which TJ can thrive. He’s made friends, he writes, he creates art, he does homework, and after his first two months there, he came home, says Dominique, “and counted to 10, in Spanish!” TJ’s verbal and counting skills increased, she says, and he’s become more independent and more confident.

The Y is a place of support for Dominique and TJ. She breathes easier knowing her son is well cared for. TJ spends a good part of his day laughing, while learning. Dominique says she’s extremely grateful for the compassion the people at the Y show toward her son. “I have the comfort of knowing he is in good hands the moment he rolls through the door. I love this place!”

Tarrel Jones
Arthur M. Blank Family YMCA

“We have no family here: the first place we felt welcome in Georgia was the Y.”

Mondays and Thursdays are Claudia Aguilar’s favorite days. Those are Zumba class days at the Y. “It’s fun, it’s really fun!” she exclaims. “I’m a Latina, and I love everything with music.” While not exactly night clubbing, it gets this wife and mother out dancing and socializing, in a workout sort of way. And that makes her feel great.

But the Y means so much more than Zumba for Claudia, her husband, Sal, and her young sons, Abram and Alan. It means family. When the Aguilars moved to Atlanta from California several years ago, they left behind a big, close extended family that socialized most weekends together. Here, they had no such network and just one friend who didn’t have kids.

“When I went to the Y,” she says, “I was so excited.” Claudia found other families like hers. They quickly made friends with members and staff. “Now, I know everybody. They know my kids. When I go there, I really feel comfortable, because I’m welcome at the Y. It’s really nice.”

Though concerned early on about her children making friends, it took only a few weeks for them to feel at home. Between the play center, Parents’ Night Out, Kids Rock, and soccer, her boys developed their social lives while staying healthy and fit. “Because of the play center here,” she says, “you feel really good that your kids are taken care of. You feel ready to workout.”

And workout she does, every day, if not Zumba, then weights. Her husband also comes to the Y and is thrilled to see his wife and kids getting so much out of it. The Y is part of their family life, offering something for everyone. Claudia, who spends most of her time looking after her kids, is happy her family is happy. “My lifestyle is better now. I don’t have a lot of money, but physically and emotionally, I feel complete. That’s big.”

Claudia Aguilar
Carl E. Sanders Family YMCA at Buckhead

“My motto: Be nice to everybody.”

Three mornings a week, Theodore Martin’s booming voice echoes throughout the pool area. Even if you’re not taking his senior water aerobics classes, which average 40-50 participants a day, you can’t help but be encouraged by his energy.

Alongside his group in the water, Mr. Ted, as he’s known, is right there practicing what he’s preaching. “You have to get off your behind and do something if you want to get started!” His enthusiasm is contagious. “You’re talking to people 50 and older. They get in there and can raise their arms where they couldn’t before.”

Though it’s mostly seniors, Mr. Ted welcomes all ages and ailments to his classes: arthritis, bad knees, strokes, people in their 90s and barely walking. “I can show you how to walk across the pool and the next thing, we’re jumping rope,” he says.

He also helps people who never learned to swim overcome fear. “We (older black people) didn’t have pools in Georgia. Most of those black women in that pool did not have a pool to swim in when they were young. A lot are afraid of water. It’s a big thing for them to be in the pool. It makes me feel good that I’m doing something to help somebody.”

Long retired, Mr. Ted is a 15-year Y volunteer. It keeps him busy, and it keeps him connected with the senior community. He says the Y is his social life and a great place to exchange information with other people his age. “So many places don’t have anything for seniors to do. A lot of people don’t realize, if you don’t have anybody and you’re a senior, it’s really rough if you’re not going to church all the time.”

Mr. Ted believes his calling to help seniors is in the water. “Being involved with so many seniors in my water classes keeps me coming back to the Y. They depend on me. I do not want to disappoint them.”

Theodore Martin
East Lake Family YMCA

“I think they should call it Camp High Heaven!”

Zoe Chadwick is in her element when she’s around horses. Riding them, grooming them, it doesn’t seem to matter. Spending time with horses is a definite highlight for her at YMCA Camp High Harbour.

Then again, everything at Y camp is a highlight for Zoe. “I love camp!” she exclaims. “I just love it. All the people are really nice and every time I go, I meet a new friend.” Zoe says she loves the outdoors and the freedom of being away from home.

If not for camp, Zoe would spend her summers home alone, watching TV instead of making friends. At home, life was often unpredictable and unstable as her single mom battled problems with addiction. During tumultuous times, Zoe’s grandparents and the Y have been constant, stable elements in her life.

Since she was three years old, Zoe’s come to the Northwest Family Y, where her Nana, Susanne Conlon works. From Mothers’ Morning Out to pre-school camp to day camp and Camp High Harbour, Susanne says the Y provides Zoe a safe and fun environment. “Y camps, soccer and other programs helped Zoe grow into a self-confident, fun loving, mature young woman,” she says.

Now living with her grandparents, who coach and manage her Y soccer team, Zoe is a blossoming pre-teen who leads a very active soccer life, loves art, and rides horses when she can. She goes to school with friends she met at the Y. Camp High Harbour is always on her horizon. Eventually, Zoe says she’d like to volunteer and become a counselor there. “I asked my Nana, ‘They get paid to do that?’”

Zoe’s learned some valuable lessons from the Y. She trusts herself a lot more than she used to. “I’ve learned that it’s not always going to be your way,” she says. She also discovered sometimes things turn out much better than you think.

Zoe Chadwick
Northwest Family YMCA & YMCA Camp High Harbour

“The YMCA was a gift to our kids.”

All four Davenport kids found something to latch on to at the Y.

“The purpose of us joining the Y was for the kids to have a good, fun place to go and be with friends,” says their mother, Wendy. Membership has proven to be a gift for the whole family, especially since her husband, Danny, who always played sports with the children, has been very sick. During difficult times the Y has been a place to come and relieve stress, to feel safe and, as the kids say, “to laugh and sweat.”

Lauren loves the rock wall, though admits at first she was scared. Now, she and her brother, Andrew, climb to the top, sometimes so excited they scream out to their mom, forgetting they’re not the only ones there. They also like XRKADE, an active gaming workout that combines entertainment and physical activity. Ryan and Jacob prefer using weights and playing basketball. Jacob feels a sense of freedom here and likes to hang out with his friends, while Ryan enjoys the rush of working out outside of school, in a spacious environment among familiar faces.

For Wendy, a religious woman who recently went back to work after 12 years at home with her children, coming here has been a sanctuary. She can walk the track while keeping an eye on her kids. She also uses this time to pray, to read and to get inspired by friends she’s made who’ve also been through trying times. “I walk in feeling 80 and leave feeling 20 again,” she says.

For the kids, the Y is their playground, a healthy outlet with positive influences. “Every day, my children look forward to going to the Y after school,” says Wendy. “They feel energized and refreshed and ready to enjoy life.”

The Davenports encourage their friends and neighbors to renew or become members at the Y, because they know how much they’ve benefited from being here. “It inspired my family to make exercise a priority, and the rewards are amazing,” says Wendy.

Davenport Family
Northwest Family YMCA

“The Y has helped me see that I want to work with children.”

One challenge after another, Heaven Carson keeps jumping hurdles.

Heaven’s had disabilities all her life, mainly processing challenges. She spent part of her youth in a foster care group home. But when she was 11 years old, she was adopted by a loving family. Not long after, her parents enrolled her in Y summer day camp. And soon, she started making giant leaps.

Though friendly, Heaven was timid because of her disabilities. “When I first started coming to the Y, it was not easy to express myself,” she says now with ease. “Going to the Y gave me ways to communicate with other people. It gave me friends. The counselors and people were amazing. They understood and didn’t ask questions. They just helped out, trying to let me talk to them.”

Heaven grew to love sports, reading and talking to others. She’s been learning sign language since second grade. Every summer she’s come back to the Y, first as a camper, and now as a counselor. Besides having fun, she’s discovered she has something unique to offer.

“I have a knack for working with kids with special needs,” she proudly proclaims. “I let them know I understand, because I’m going through it.” Working with younger kids with disabilities and watching them go through dramatic changes, Heaven realizes she, too, has done the same. “The Y has helped me achieve my goal of changing the way people look at children with disabilities, as well as the way children look at themselves.”

Heaven’s mother, Susan, says her daughter is always proving to herself that she can be better. “She has blossomed. She’s patient and has figured out a way to communicate with other kids.” Susan says Heaven is proud to be the first one in her birth family to have a job, to see it can be done even with disabilities. “That she’s responsible, makes her own money, has her own savings account, all these successes add to her confidence, her self-esteem and set her up for the next challenge.”

Heaven Carson
Cowart Family/Ashford Dunwoody YMCA

“I’m excited about what the Y is working to accomplish and its goal of being altruistic.”

You could say the Y saved Chris Bakke from drowning. That and an angel.
As a young kid in Michigan playing with friends around a lake, some bigger kids pushed them into the water. No one realized Chris couldn’t swim until it was nearly too late. He remembers an angel appeared, put a hand in the water and pulled him out, then vanished.

“The very next day, my mom started me in Y swim lessons,” he says. “There I was, learning to blow bubbles. I progressed through the Y program pretty fast. I joined a swim team and even medaled at swimming events.”

When Chris’ family moved to Atlanta, he moved from the pool to the basketball courts, joining a Y league. Aside from memories of an 11-year-old setting off stink bombs in the gym, his joyful experiences at the Y influenced his future choices.
When he started his own dental practice, he joined the newly-opened East Cobb Y to play basketball. He made good friends and started coaching kids’ basketball, which he continued doing for the next eight years. Eventually, he joined the board, and served as chairman for a year. He raised money for the annual campaign to provide financial assistance, thinking, “Maybe I can give a kid a different outlook on life.”

Chris says he feels blessed to have always had parents or the means to be a member of the Y. “You hear stories every summer of kids drowning and think, if maybe they had an opportunity. I’ve always felt if you can give an opportunity to someone to stay out of trouble one summer, or learn how to swim, you’re potentially changing a kid’s life.”

Now, after 10 years on the board, more into marathons than basketball, and more focused on his own family, Chris often re-assesses whether or not to stay on the board. “It’s hard not to,” he says, perhaps realizing he might just be someone else’s angel.

Chris Bakke
McCleskey-East Cobb Family YMCA

“During these classes Nicholas was learning different skills without even knowing it.”

Nicholas Murphy may not have a penchant for competitive sports, but he certainly knows how to throw a ball, run a relay, kick box to video, play in the pool, and participate in other active games. While he’s having fun, he’s also getting his exercise. And that’s what his mom, Deb, loves about Fitness for Kids.

“It’s doable for everybody and it’s just fun,” Deb says. “I hear the laughter out of these kids. It is so much fun watching them having a great time.” And, she says her son is healthier.

Because Deb adopted Nicholas (and his younger brother, Daniel) from Russia without knowing much about his medical history, she’s always encouraged him to stay physically active. That can be tough for a kid more interested in art than football. Sometimes she says it’s hard to get Nicholas excited about going to the Y. But when he gets there, she says he’s excited, and the adrenaline gets going.

Deb says her once quiet and shy son has come out of his shell since he’s been coming to Fitness for Kids. “Nicholas has a new sense of confidence. You can see he’s getting stronger. I see it in his class work, in public speaking, a lot of growth has come out of this. I don’t even think he realizes it.” She’s tickled by the fact he asks for healthy snacks at home.

Whether someone’s teaching her son to dribble a basketball or about food pyramids, as a single mom, Deb appreciates people at the Y take time to teach her son skills that will keep him strong on the outside and the inside as he grows. She also appreciates that her kids are well cared for, so she, too, can workout. The Y, she says, has become a lifeline for her entire family. “The Y is our family entertainment.”

Nicholas Murphy
Cowart Family/Ashford Dunwoody YMCA

“The Y has impacted me in nearly every decade of my life.”

For Jo Kroger, the Y reflects her cycle of life. It has always been there in some capacity, serving her needs through a family generation.

As a young mother and wife in her 20s, she took her preschool-aged children to the Y for swimming lessons and gymnastics. It was a place and time for teaching.

Raising five kids in her 30s, Jo was a self-proclaimed ‘color-coded-carpool-chart-mom.’ The Y was a center of activity for her family, with swim teams and gymnastics competitions.

When in her 40s her kids were older and she divorced, the Y became ‘all about her’ and stress relief. She loved going to exercise classes, boot camps and dance aerobics so much, she became a certified instructor and taught three to five classes a week.

Remarried in her 50s, she and her husband worked out together at the Y. She’d stopped teaching, and her focus shifted from classes to weights.

In her 60s, she and her husband went to the Y three times a week, attending different classes. During this period, she had hip surgery, but recovered quickly because she was in such excellent physical condition.

Now in her 70s, she and her husband continue to workout on weights at the Y, but very differently. He has a severe, progressive neurological disease, so she is focused mostly on assisting him. Jo credits the Y for being helpful and supportive to her and her husband during this time, and she believes coming here helps slow the progress of his disease.

Between caring for her husband and for her elderly mother, Jo has little time for herself these days, except for early morning walks. But she is gifted with optimism. “Exercise helps with optimism,” says Jo. “Being an optimist is so much better than the other choices.”

Not sure what her 80s and 90s at the Y will be like, Jo plans to be active as long as she can. “Who knows,” she says, “perhaps I will be the first Decatur Y centenarian exerciser.”

Josephine (Jo) Kroger
Decatur Family YMCA

“When I drop off my kids, I don’t have a second thought! The YMCA means so much to me. It means we made an important decision early in our children’s life that will mold who they will become. Years from now, when I watch my children graduate from high school and college and set out to realize whatever their destinies might be, I’ll know that it all started with a strong foundation and support system at the Y.”

Nikki Conyers-Williams
Arthur M. Blank Family Youth YMCA

“The attention and love they show CJ has given him so much pride and security. It’s almost like he is the rock star, and the teens are the paparazzi. I have no idea who they are -but they all know him and it’s amazing to me. The staff was tremendous in helping him overcome his fears of new places and people. The look on his face when I pick him up is priceless. There is no amount I can put on that kind of care for my son. He is amazed by all the attention he receives.”

CJ Hembree
Cherokee Outdoor YMCA

“I just believe in the Y, which is why I wanted to work there. It is a place where the diversity of our neighborhood is represented and common values and goals are shared. This is where I live, this is where I workout, and I can see people from the Y everywhere I go.”

Barbie Briggs
East Lake Family YMCA

“This is the best part of my week! Participating as a member and volunteer here anchors our family to the neighborhood and the city. You, too, can live this wonderful experience. Just come out and give a little- time. This is much more fun than going to work, and much more important.”

Gus Carpio
McCleskey-East Cobb

“She started quiet and shy. Now, she’s outgoing and fearless! The Y helps my child succeed in so many ways. She has more confidence in herself and doesn’t mind trying hard until she gets it right.”

Nakeita Clark McCier
Arthur M. Blank Family Youth YMCA

“The Y has been an amazing addition to our family. It is a place of fun, growth and healing. I’m not sure where we’d be without it. I know the Y is the place that will strengthen my body while nourishing my entire family.”

Christie Poole
G. Cecil Pruett Community Center Family YMCA

“The Y is a true rock of the community, reaching out to all types of people and being genuinely concerned about the welfare of all. The Y has such a giving spirit.”

Spurgeon and Mary Francis Richardson
Cowart Family/Ashford Dunwoody YMCA

“XRKADE boot camp has been the best experience of my life, when exercise is involved. It has helped me lose 70lbs and has changed my life in so many ways.”

Julie Bell
Northwest Family YMCA