Oswego’s YMCA: its importance, its struggles, and its hopes

OSWEGO — The pandemic of 2020 has taught us what many knew all along, but what many simply took for granted: some things are important, and some things really aren’t.

And what has become obvious over the course of these past few months is that this city’s YMCA is one of those very important things. It is what should now be seen as part of a new definition of infrastructure, those elements of society without which we cannot function. The YMCA should now be considered in the same breath with our hospital, our schools, our local government, our communication systems, and our police and firefighters, as well as what we typically think of as infrastructure, our roads, bridges, airport, and water treatment plants.

Not only is the YMCA extremely important to the physical and psychological health of many of our citizens, it has become crucial to our economic and educational recovery in one aspect especially: child care.

I spoke with Kerrie Webb, CEO of Oswego’s YMCA, recently about all they’ve been through over the past few months, and the importance of their child care program became apparent.

“We do the before-and-after care programs in all of the Oswego City School District elementary level and out in Mexico,” Webb said. “That is the School Age Childcare program, a licensed program through the state, in which families can drop their children off up to two hours before school starts, and then also, when the kids get through with school, they can come to probably the cafeteria or the gym, and we have staff there to watch and engage the kids until their parents pick them up between five and six at night.”

While child care has always been one of the Y’s main sources of income, according to Webb, people still need a way to pay for it, and during this pandemic, that ability has been problematic.

“We’ve always had the ability to work with DSS (Department of Social Services) and scholarshipping and different programs that are offered through Children and Family Services to help families be able to pay for their child care,” Webb said. “So, if we can get some more of that in place, that would be great. A hurdle you face with that is, it’s kind of a reimbursement program, and the timeframe of receiving that (state and federal) funding after you’ve already provided the service is extremely delayed. There was CARES Act funding that came through for child care for emergency care, and that allowed families making a total income of $79,000 or less to qualify for assistance, and we did have some families utilizing that, but locally, the county office was so delayed in receiving money from the state, they had to suspend it for a little while until they got some state money to be able to reimburse and help us out. It’s frustrating, but at the same time, it’s extremely understandable because no one’s ever dealt with anything like this. So, to really have different entities working together to actually solve a problem is not easily done.

“I do think the government is very well aware on a state level and a national level how many people and children and seniors and individuals are served by YMCAs,” Webb continued. “It’s in the millions. So, there’s an impact that’s much greater than what we see locally.”

Nevertheless, locally speaking, schools are in the midst of making plans for reopening this fall, and without quality child care, parents are going to find themselves stuck in an economic quandary, unable to go back to work as businesses and their former jobs reopen. Businesses then, ready to reopen, may find their former employees are unavailable to return, and the problem will snowball from there. All of this screams for the YMCA, one of the only categories of businesses still closed under New York’s reopening restrictions, to be allowed to once again offer the services the schools, parents, and businesses need.

The Y is presently working with the school districts. “We’re working on our proposal to them of what our programming would look like in their buildings,” Webb said, “because we know families are going to need care.”

The Oswego Y is ready, Webb said. In fact, she said, it’s been ready for months. Could they have already opened safely? In her opinion, “without a doubt. I had a 25-page safety reopening plan that was in place and ready to go. We had all of our signage up. We had all our communication stations up. We changed bathrooms so that certain things aren’t open and available. We’ve taken lockers out of spaces. We could definitely do it. I don’t have any doubt that it can be done. We have a new waiver for members when they come in. We have markers on the floor for social distancing for classes. We already went through safety guidelines and cleaning training for our staff for how to maintain spaces and what it’s going to look like. So, we’re ready. We are definitely ready. Ours is a phased opening just like anything else. Phase one was just going to be the fitness center, and if that worked out, then we’re going to open up the classes, still at 50% capacity and using a reservation system, so that you can watch who’s in what space and how many people at a time, limiting the amount of time that someone can be in the building to 90 minutes. So, there are systems in place to do this all safely. I do feel that once the state feels comfortable with how they’re going to reopen schools, then we’ll be allowed to do that. I feel that if other places can be open and people are socially distanced and able to interact that way, they should be able to do it within these walls as well. The state has noticed that they need the Y to run before-and-after care for the schools.”

And so, Webb believes, reopening “is going to depend on the governor and what guidelines are put out for how we re-open.”

In the meantime, the Y is hanging on. Financially, this pandemic and the state’s ensuing restrictions have “had a tremendous impact,” Webb said. “Ys are independent associations and organizations, and we’re self-funded. We’re not funded by the government. We’re not funded by YUSA. I actually pay monthly dues to YUSA and monthly dues to my New York State Y Alliance to even be open. So, we run this facility and organization strictly through membership drives. We’re very grateful throughout this entire pandemic, and what we’ve been going through, that we have had members become sustaining members and continue to pay their membership as a charitable donation to our organization at this time. It says a lot to us; it says a lot about our community; it says a lot about our members. We’ve received some nice out-of-the-blue donations from different people saying, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing. Thank you for doing the emergency child care for our community. Thank you for the milk drives. Thank you for giving away food.’ And they see it in a different light than just as a fitness center.

“We have revenue from our emergency care,” Webb continued. “That has now ceased and switched over to our summer day camp program. So, it’s still running the same hours of operation, but basically it changes to who oversees the program from different state departments. I don’t see extra funding coming from the government on this one right now.”

Most of the Y’s income is derived from membership and fundraisers, both of which have been hit hard by the effects of the pandemic.

“Before COVID we were at roughly 1,600 members,” Webb said. “Currently, we are at 1,100. Five hundred are on hold or cancellation. Some flat out canceled with knowing that they lost a job and not knowing when they’re going to return.

“Members were able back in March, and even currently, at any time that they want to they put their membership on hold, and the membership will come off from hold when we reopen.”

Members will not owe any back dues for the months they were on hold.

Compounding the Y’s financial difficulties are the economic realities of their members and local businesses that have made fundraising rather tough.

“It’s very difficult to approach people knowing they’re in a very difficult situation financially currently as well,” Webb said. “We have a very giving business community and they always support us, but our businesses are hurting too. So, it’s very difficult to ask them for assistance, or to support us, when we know that they need help in keeping their doors open as well.

“The loss of revenue and the impact this has on us will hit us well into the end of second quarter of 2021,” Webb added. “And honestly, when you look at the impact and where things are, because we can’t do dragonboat races this summer, we’re not going to be able to do our Harborfest race, we’re not going to be able to do all these fundraisers that we typically do because of the issues of social distancing. That’s hundreds of thousands of dollars that are lost, and that’s what we rely on to be open.”

Knowing that, “We furloughed about 83% of our staff,” said Webb, “and then in order to anticipate reopening for the end of June, we had called back staff. So, currently we probably brought back about 25% of staff. But it doesn’t make sense to have people in a building when there’s not programming and jobs for them to do right now.”

Just as it didn’t seem to make sense to continue building their long-hoped-for pool.

“We have no access to the pool,” Webb said. “That is not going to be touched until we know that we can get stable through where we’re at right now. It’s just not a financially responsible decision to take something else on when we aren’t even open as a facility at this point.”

But, looking to the future, hopefully the near future, Webb talked about the Y’s priorities for reopening.

“We did a member survey and overall,” Webb said, “the number one thing that came back from members was that they wanted to make sure safety protocols were in place.”

Those protocols include “all of our cleaning procedures, we even shared what types of cleaning products we’re using to show that on the label it shows that it’s a COVID-19 product, and then there’s mask policy, and social distancing policy. We’re going to be taking temperatures and pre-scanning children before they come in. We’re not going to write down their temperature because of the HIPPA (privacy) issue, but we will be saying yes or no if they have a temperature. We will be turning people away if we feel that they are physically ill and they shouldn’t be in the facility. So, we’re taking it very serious.”

People will not have to exercise with masks on. “No, we are not doing that,” Webb said. “I find that a greater risk. Staff will have to wear masks. I’m encouraging members to wear masks until they get in place to where they’re going to be exercising, but I am not requiring masks be worn while they exercise. Now, if that changes, and the governor says that we have to do that, then that’s what we’ll have to do. But currently, that is not what has been stated, and there are no guidelines from the CDC that state that, so, we are encouraging but not enforcing that. We have a lot of seniors and a lot of people who are just getting into a fitness routine and may have other health risks. So, when you put a mask on and you’re exerting yourself, you’re breathing in, your heart rate changes already. So, I just feel that can be a little more dangerous, and I’m not comfortable doing that. I do believe that when you come in here, you’re coming in here just like when you go in anywhere else, with a risk factor. So, it’s on your comfort level. If you’re comfortable being around other people, then you’re more than welcome. But it is a risk, and that’s what people have to realize.

“We’ve been here since 1855, on this block, in this community,” Webb noted. “We’re excited. We’re ready. We’ve done a ton of improvements in the building, and we want everybody to see what we’ve done. So, hopefully those doors open soon.

“I’d like to open, like yesterday,” Webb said with a laugh. “I miss our family. I miss the people that are supposed to be in this building that we build relationships with and we look forward to talking to and seeing their smiles. I want my people back in here.”

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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