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YMCA: When Y Stands for Diversity & Inclusion

YMCA | KzooConnect

It was a Saturday in July, and our YMCA Membership Director, Andrea Heidtman, had worked with several refugee family sponsors to coordinate the transport of several local Syrian women and their daughters to the Y at Maple Street for an evening of new American experiences.

The women gathering in the main lobby waiting for all to arrive, huddled in groups according to their relation and limited friendships- mostly very small circles. Some were dressed in their traditional garments of brocade satins, most of them more casual; but all were covered in long flowing dress, faces exposed, with timid smiles occasionally flashing.

It was after hours at the Y, and the building had technically closed. The Y had made arrangements to host these local refugee women, who otherwise would never have entered, let alone use a YMCA- based on cultural and religious observances. They were at the Y to enjoy the facility during a WOMEN's WELCOME event, a gesture to hopefully make them feel a part of the greater community.

These women were now able explore and experience the YMCA. And as Heidtman made her welcoming comments, the small groups began to stir and show some excitement; less timid, the eagerness showed on women of all ages. There would be tennis playing. Runs on the cardio machines. Racquetball. Handball. Basketball. And there would be swimming!

As more and more women arrived, sometimes by the busload, the chatter began to escalate, and the eagerness became apparent. They were quickly oriented, and left to their anticipations and eagerness to use the facility.

And they did.

My role that evening as marketing and communications manager was to get a couple quotes from the participants. Snap a couple photos. And share it in the Y’s next newsletter. Unable to take photos. I quietly slipped off my camera, and just experienced it through my eyes and the mindfulness that comes faster and more reflectively when not looking through a camera lens.

And what I saw was more about what wasn’t present.

No barriers.
No judgements.
No suspicions.

Women of all ages interacted with non-refugee women. They talked. They laughed. They shared stories. They made new friends.

Under one roof, for three hours, space became comfortable and safe. Anxieties were eased. Relationships were strengthened.

What I saw was openness.

And what I felt was hope.

Hope that emerged from the powerful force of an intentional invitation and gathering to share space and things.

Hope that with more invites, with more sharing, with more talking, we can build on the movement that looks to unify, not alienate.

Accepting people for who they are, where they come from, what they have experienced, their beliefs and their practices, this is at the heart of the YMCA mission, which looks to foster diversity and encourage inclusivity.

This is the Y, when it stands for being there for ALL.

For a better community.
For a better us.

The YMCA of Greater Kalamazoo is pleased to announce that due to the overwhelming positive response from this event, similar special programming will continue, quarterly. The next after-hours event for women is scheduled for November. Questions about this event can be directed to Member Services Director Andrea Heidtman.

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