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More than a gym: Under Christian Engle, the Y is going regional and adding services

By Sara Bongiorni
The YMCA of the Capital Area will open an early childhood education program at its A.C. Lewis branch in early 2022—a first for the YMCA in Baton Rouge.

Christian Engle | Photo by Tim mueller

It’s a notable early step in a wide-ranging effort to expand the YMCA’s role in promoting community health through initiatives to fight hunger, build affordable housing and extend the reach and scope of wellness services for children and adults.

“We will start with early childhood education and go from there,” said Christian Engle, president and CEO. “We’re trying to widen understanding of what the YMCA can be.”

Potential projects under discussion include affordable housing that would be co-located with the YMCA so residents have ready access to everything from wellness services to after-school programs.

The nonprofit is exploring construction of a commercial kitchen to prepare and distribute food to children and others in the wake of anti-hunger partnerships that began during the pandemic.

It’s looking for ways to team with hospitals, health clinics, grocery stores, schools and others to form community hubs that might provide services from dentistry to fitness classes to childcare.

Meanwhile, the Y is also expanding its geographic reach. It began operations in Lake Charles and Hammond a year ago and is looking at potential new sites in Denham Springs and Gonzales.

“Our role is to be a conduit for good health. Our message is that we are who we need to be to support the community,” Engle said. “We are a community resource and a charitable organization, and our mission is to have the biggest impact we can on our communities.”

Central to the message: The YMCA is a lot more than the gym down the street. “It’s a component, but it’s not who we are,” Engle said.

Evolving for maximum impact is not new to the Y. The organization began in London in 1844 with Bible study for young men. Over time it moved into childcare and housing—the nation’s 2,400 YMCA locations are its largest provider of childcare—and, in the 1970s, fitness.

Wellness, including health classes like diabetes prevention, has become an increasingly important focus over the past 20 years or so. Expanding mental health services to young people is among its current global initiatives and one of interest to the Y in Baton Rouge.

In step with those changes, the regional organization has expanded programming to support for Parkinson’s patients and to fight childhood obesity under Engle’s leadership. It has hired a registered dietician to bolster the impact of wellness and nutrition offerings at sites like its Howell Place branch in north Baton Rouge, where BREADA hosts a farmers market.

The pandemic created new community needs and the chance to respond to them. The Y teamed with the Baton Rouge Health District to open daycares and day camps for the children of health care workers and first responders after the pandemic closed schools in spring 2020.

It partnered with public schools to offer space for virtual learning, setting up socially distanced cardboard cubicles for more than 300 children at several branches when schools remained closed in late 2020. When a vaccine became available, its branches served as public vaccination sites.

The expansion into anti-hunger work involved partnerships with local nonprofits like the Three O’Clock Project, which provides after-school snacks and summer meals to children, to distribute and even warehouse food. The Y’s food-insecurity efforts continue. During a recent week, the organization distributed about 200 boxes of produce through its branches.

“The pandemic gave us the chance to show what we can do for the community,” said Engle, who got his first job out of college with the YMCA of Santa Barbara and has been with the organization ever since, some 31 years.

Engle wants Baton Rouge to think big when it comes to what it wants the Y to do next. He has gathered renderings of about 30 recent iterations of the YMCA in cities from Texas to Canada as real-world examples of what’s possible in Baton Rouge.

The YMCA of Seton in Calgary, Alberta, for instance, includes a 25,000-square-foot branch of the public library inside it. In New York, University of Rochester Medicine has partnered with the Y to co-locate medical clinics and fitness centers. The YMCA in Nashville last month announced a 60-story residential tower with a 100,000-square-foot Y.

At the University of Washington in Seattle, the campus recreation center is a YMCA that is also open to the public. In Colorado Springs, a local YMCA shares a site with an urgent care clinic and physician offices.

There are also real-world examples of YMCAs that combine affordable housing with programming from swim lessons and summer camps to support services for homeless veterans. The Gateway Family YMCA in Elizabeth, New Jersey, owns and operates affordable housing for families, transitional housing for homeless vets and dormitories for single men and women that connect residents to addiction-recovery programs and job training.

Engle has personal understanding of YMCA housing initiatives. The Central Connecticut Coast YMCA, where he spent eight years before moving to Baton Rouge, owns shelters and affordable housing that make it Connecticut’s largest housing provider.

He sees no reason why community partnerships in Baton Rouge can’t create similar hubs of housing and services—or something entirely different. “In some communities, what’s needed might be a community theater, while in another it might be a fitness center or housing,” Engle said.

He adds that the local Y is positioned for impact: There is a location within 12 minutes of about 95% of the capital region’s population.

“The idea is to link healthy opportunities, but conversations about what that will look like will be different in every community,” he said. “These conversations are happening now.”