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Strategic plan means ‘enhancing’ YMCA mission

Work on the South Hampton Roads YMCA’s strategic plan was supposed to begin in spring 2020, and CEO Anthony Walters and its board of directors had been having conversations around what would be the key elements in it.

Walters already had a few things in mind following conversations he had with stakeholders in 2019 — increased diversion and inclusivity initiatives, continued focus on water safety, making sure voices were heard with social interaction, and innovating more digitally.

“Then you fast-forward to 2020 and the pandemic, we had to put everything on ice,” Walters said during a recent interview via Zoom. “Then it’s well-documented what happens after that. For us, that meant taking a step back into, what can we do? So we pivoted all of our services, and as we pivoted all of our services, we learned a lot, because we had an opportunity to reboot our play.”

Walters said the strategic plan came down to three pillars — community impact, organizational reach and financial resiliency.

By community impact, it means the South Hampton Roads YMCA “will invest in our youth to create powerful changemakers for the future by instilling strong character values through participation in Y programs.”

As part of that, it set goals of serving children by broadening inclusiveness by using school division partnerships for childcare initiatives, water safety by breaking down disparities to broaden access to programs and reduce the risk of drowning, and then family togetherness by introducing programming to bring families together at the YMCA.

The Y, as part of its organizational reach pillar, will be looking to expand access and ensure its resources are used, with the goal of reaching 250,000 people annually by reimagining what membership looks like and expanding upon its digital programming.

Through its pillar of financial resiliency, it aims to maintain its community relevance and provide career opportunities for 2,000 people while supporting service offerings to adapt to changing needs in society. To get there, it wants to build its endowment fund by putting in place an endowment cultivation program to preserve and enhance the Y for future generations. It also wants to grow its reserves by $1 million and grow annual giving by the same amount while increasing its corporate giving, grant support and annual giving.

“How do we make sure we stabilize our efforts and make sure that this Y is going to be around here for a very, very long time,” Walters said. “That’s the job of the leader of the Y is to say, this isn’t about me. This is about my kids, and my kids’ kids.”

He cited a pair of pandemics that were ongoing — the coronavirus pandemic and a racial pandemic.

“We needed a plan to address all of it, and be nimble enough within that plan to speak to belonging,” Walters said.

When he sat down to actually outline the plan, he wrote these words: everyone belongs, everyone reengage. That was important for Walters.

“These political divides, you have racial divides, you have people who feel like they are in isolation,” Walters said. “How do we bring everyone together? We bring everyone together through common language — things that everyone can get behind, things everyone feels strongly about, but also through digital innovations.”

He said it would have been possible to have conversations via formats like Zoom and Google Meet, but it wouldn’t have compared to meeting in person. The digital programs it has been creating broaden the definition of health and wellness to include things like virtual cooking, art and music classes, and mental wellness.

“The plan gets after the spirit of breaking down the wall of divisiveness,” Walters said. “I want you to be important. I want red, blue to be important. I want everyone to be important. I want our walls and our hallways to be a place where unity occurs. And I think our plan addresses that.

“And if you can’t get into the walls, I want the digital space and our virtual space to be a meeting space as well. That’s what I want, and I think our plan does that.”

He said the Y would continue to invest in its facilities. However, the Y has to continue investing in the virtual space as long as it’s a part of people’s comfort zone, and it has hired staff specifically for its virtual offerings, which are a part of everyone’s membership at no extra cost.

“What we wanted this to be, for lack of better words, the virtual branch,” Walters said. “We have physical branches. We want this to literally be a physical, virtual branch where now you have a center that not only has, basically, a group exercise class online, but it also has the children’s enrichment programs online. It has the cooking and those arts online. It has the arts and humanities aspect online.”

“It has everything you’re looking for inside of a center, but it has it online, and with one click of a button, you’re permeating that throughout an entire system. That’s what we want. That’s the dream that we’re working on.”

The South Hampton Roads Y will also continue with the outdoor spaces it debuted during the pandemic, and will allow people 24-hour access for an extra fee. But it is “hypersensitive” to keeping the Y clean and safe for its users.

And it expanded its uses during the pandemic with its e-Learning Academy, something it expects to keep at least through the end of 2021, particularly in places like Franklin where he said the community has requested that it do so.

“We’ll be in e-learning and have that program available for as long as they need it,” Walters said.

He said the Y plans on a robust summer camp offering this summer for kids. “I would argue they haven’t had much fun.”

Then, Walters said the Y has to break down the affordability barrier that he believes is a misnomer.

“That’s been the divide, and I don’t want that,” Walters said.

He said he would explore any collaborations and partnerships to ensure that all of its facilities and resources are used by a diverse and inclusive community, allowing people to come together yet have programs unique for all of its age groups.

“This whole thing has taught us so much,” Walters said. “And it’s not like we said, ‘OK, that program is over, onto the next thing.’ These are all the things that we’ve retained and said we have to keep doing, and we have to find money to continue to support it, and let’s keep fundraising and let’s figure it out. And all the while, we’re hopeful that all our membership returns to support the efforts and the programs and services that we have. This plan is all about trying to sustain that.”