A Publication of WTVP

The YMCA celebrates 170 years of service.

In 1844, George Williams and 11 friends watched as young men flocked to London, searching for employment against the booming backdrop of the Industrial Revolution. Troubled by the bleak conditions of the city, they decided to start an organization that fit the practical, social and spiritual needs of these men. One-hundred and seventy years later, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA—more commonly known as the Y) continues to serve children, families and adults in 10,000 communities and 119 countries worldwide.

To mark the June 6th anniversary, the YMCA looked back on its years of historic accomplishments. Both night school and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes got started at the Y. The Peace Corps was modeled after a Y program, and the organization was instrumental in the 1941 creation of the United Service Organizations (USO), which supports U.S. troops and their families. Even the national holiday, Father’s Day, was invented at the YMCA!

The Y has also had a significant impact on the world of sports. In the late 1800s, an instructor at a Y in Springfield, Massachusetts struggled to engage a particularly difficult group of young men after several others had failed to ignite their enthusiasm. Given two weeks to come up with an indoor winter game, he hung peach baskets to the bottom of a second-level running track, and the result was basketball. Volleyball and racquetball were also invented by YMCA instructors.

As Kirsten Shields, director of membership engagement and marketing at the Greater Peoria Family YMCA, explains, the YMCA is much more than a pool and fitness center. “A lot of people think of us as ‘swim and gym,’ but we do so much more.”

The earliest record of the organization in Peoria appeared in 1853 in the diary of a young man who wrote, “I attended a meeting of the YMCA tonight.” At the time, the City of Peoria was just eight years old, with a population of slightly over 5,000. In 1862, the Greater Peoria Family YMCA was legally incorporated, and it has been assisting the local community ever since. “It started as one of the first of 17 associations in the country that actually brought the YMCA movement to national prominence,” says Dan Chonowski, the Greater Peoria YMCA’s CEO and president. “It has evolved to be flexible and meet the needs of our community… but the overall mission remains the same.”

While the Y is far more than a pool and a gym, it has emphasized aquatic fitness over the years, both nationally and locally. The world’s first indoor pool was built at a Y, and the concept of group swim lessons was first introduced at the Y. This summer, the Peoria Y started offering free community lessons for beginning swimmers of all ages. “Swimming is a life skill,” said Shields. “It’s essentially a life-saving skill that lots of people don’t have. We’re trying to provide that to those who wouldn’t be able to do it.”

Peoria’s YMCA offers before- and after-school programs and summer day camps for youth, as well as providing financial aid programs, community service opportunities, and other programming benefiting children, teens, adults and seniors alike. Many of these programs focus on fitness, but others incorporate artistic and practical elements, from youth music classes to women’s self-defense lessons.

One new program, CATCH, works with physical education teachers to improve fitness programs in elementary and middle schools, while Teen Reach offers tutoring, recreation life skills, physical fitness and employment training to local students in grades six through 11.

According to Chonowski, the Peoria Y serves about 350 youth each day when school is in session. “We allow people to be able to work and know their kids are in a really safe location where they are getting a lot of physical activity,” said Shields. “We really are just about keeping the families together, playing together and having fun together.” iBi

To learn more about the Greater Peoria Family YMCA, visit For additional information, visit