Mind & Spirit

How YMCA Helps to Strengthen Communities

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The YMCA may be best known for its gym equipment and exercise facilities, but that’s just the beginning of this community-building organization. Discover how the Y continues to impact the region, through its core mission.

The YMCA has developed programs to engage young people in a positive environment, through activities like weekend gatherings and volunteer projects.

The YMCA has developed programs to engage young people in a positive environment, through activities like weekend gatherings and volunteer projects.

Hanging on the wall over Brent Pentenburg’s desk is a sign that reads, ‘Strengthen Communities.’

It may not mean much to an outsider, but to Pentenburg, the YMCA of Rock River Valley’s chief operating officer, it means everything.

“The YMCA is more than just a gym,” Pentenburg says. “The Y’s purpose and cause as an organization is to strengthen communities. We hope people come and encounter a relationship with Jesus, but also walk away a more respectful person, a more loving person, a more caring person and a more responsible person.”

The nonprofit YMCA may be best known for its fitness opportunities and programming, but those assets are proving an important leverage for strengthening the Rockford area’s communities and its youths.

The Y recently launched Project 505, which is designed to give free memberships to as many as 505 local teenagers. The goal, Pentenburg says, is to keep young people connected to the Y’s positive programming, and thus, away from harmful activities like gangs, drugs and crime.

Project 505 is funded through the Y’s annual fundraising campaign and from a $25,000 grant awarded by the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois.

“We realized there was a need in our community to do something about teen engagement, teen involvement and teen development,” Pentenburg says.

As part of the program, the Y’s I.D. Pennock Family facility, in downtown Rockford, is now open until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. The later hours help allow teenagers to spend their evenings at the Y while enjoying physical activity and engaging with their community in a positive manner.

“In order to participate in the program, we ask for four hours of volunteer service a month,” Pentenburg says. “This helps the students mature, and it teaches them about the importance of giving back to their community. We want to let them know it’s better to give than to receive.”

So far, the 290 students currently in the program have donated about 1,800 hours of volunteer service.

But the YMCA can’t fulfill its mission all on its own. Pentenburg says the Y is vigilantly recruiting volunteers to help mentor these young people.

“Our goal is for all 290 kids to have a mentor,” he says. “Without that relational investment, oftentimes kids don’t have anyone to lean on. That adult pouring into these kids’ lives is an important part of their reaching adulthood in a mature fashion.”

The YMCA is also branching out through its Togetherhood initiative, which invites Y members and students to participate in volunteer service projects.

Recently, 60 students involved in Kids’ Time, the Y’s before- and after-school programs, made 400 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that were paired with other items and given to the Rockford Rescue Mission and Meals on Wheels. The kids have also helped send care packages to military families overseas.

“In partnership with Youth For Christ, students collected 3,000 pairs of shoes to donate to those in need,” Pentenburg says. “Kids’ Time students also did another food drive to collect items for Thanksgiving meals.”

Further working to strengthen its community, the YMCA is playing a critical role with the Transform Rockford initiative and its mission to strategically revitalize Rockford from within. Aligning YMCA’s programs, volunteers and amenities with this movement is a primary goal, says Pentenburg.

As he sees it, getting more people involved with the YMCA directly impacts Transform Rockford’s Healthy Lifestyles initiatives, which link regional success to healthy choices, informed decisions and comprehensive healthcare services.

“We believe that, if our community is not successful, then the Y is not successful,” Pentenburg says. “Transform Rockford only makes our community better and gives our community something to strive for.”

Pentenburg also sees an important intersection between the Y’s programs and Transform Rockford’s Families & Neighborhoods “spoke” team, which believes strong families build strong neighborhoods, and vice versa.

Research coming from that group found that, where churches and schools thrive, where neighbors support each other, and where residents have access to basic amenities and institutions, residents feel a strong sense of community. Such findings play right into the YMCA’s mission, says Pentenburg.

Learning from the work coming out of Transform Rockford, the Y has launched the Roger Reno Mobile Community Center. The mobile unit’s staff visits children in their neighborhoods to promote character development, physical activity and nutrition services to underserved populations in the Rockford area. Tutoring services are also available.

“It’s almost like a mobile gym, and it has things you’d find in a P.E. closet,” Pentenburg says. “It’s a truck and trailer, and we go to different sites such as housing authorities, schools or neighborhoods.”

Earlier this year, the Y took another step into the community as it assumed operations of Mercyhealth’s Children’s Learning Center, located at the Mercyhealth Hospital-Rockton Avenue, in Rockford.

“It’s off to a good start,” Pentenburg says.

In Loves Park, Ill., the Y operates a Little Learners preschool at its Northeast branch; the Kids’ Time afterschool program operates at 24 sites around the region.

Total up all of the YMCA’s programming and you’ll find the Y is serving nearly 48,000 people – the most it’s ever served, says Pentenburg. Because of this growth, the organization is looking to expand its operational base.

The downtown location has undergone a $2.5 million renovation that’s brought new equipment, a youth interactive center, a Subway restaurant and space utilized by SwedishAmerican Health System.

A new branch, the Puri Family YMCA, is scheduled to open this spring on Rockford’s far east side. Once complete, it’s expected to have a fitness center, exercise studios, youth family area and child care. Going forward, Pentenburg hopes to see the YMCA open smaller facilities in Machesney Park, Ill., and Rockford’s west side, as well.

“We want to make sure people have an encounter with the Y, and at the end of the day, we want to impact and transform their lives, whether it’s an introduction to Christ, an opportunity to live a healthier lifestyle by having the options of exercise and programs that enhance the body, or by developing new relationships and having the opportunity to belong to the community,” Pentenburg says. “Wherever the Y can come in and serve our community best, that’s what we’re going to do.”

Pentenburg encourages those who are interested in volunteering to contact the YMCA. Volunteer support is always needed.

“We have opportunities to be a volunteer fitness instructor, a volunteer greeter, a volunteer youth sports coach, or even a board or advisory committee member,” he says. “The Y wouldn’t be the Y without those volunteers”

For more information on the YMCA’s programs or to become a volunteer, visit rockriverymca.org.

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