One year in, YMCA feels community support

Photos by Ryan Howard
Among the pleasant surprises experienced by the Forest Lake YMCA in its first year of existence is the number of teens who use the facility’s exercise and weight-lifting equipment, an anomaly for Ys in the Twin Cities metro area.

As the Forest Lake YMCA approaches its one-year anniversary in the city, the organization’s local team is reflecting on how the facility has exceeded expectations while looking ahead at future goals.

“It’s been a really good first year,” said Sharna Braucks, the executive director of the Ys in both Forest Lake and Lino Lakes. “I think it really shows the community need that was there.”

Membership at the YMCA has exploded, with more than 4,600 membership units purchased by area residents in the first year. When the YMCA organization was planning the facility, planners anticipated about 3,400 memberships in the first year – about 35 percent fewer than the amount the facility got. The organization doesn’t have concrete figures on exactly how many people use the facility on those memberships, which range from single-person memberships to large families, but Braucks pointed out that if the average membership served three people, then more than 12,000 may have regularly served by the Y so far.

“It’s exceeded expectations and it continues to grow,” said Joan Schimml, the YMCA’s senior director of communication and marketing.

Photo by Ryan Howard
The YMCA’s splash pad has been getting a lot of use from local families this summer.

Though YMCA members come in all different demographic groups, Braucks said the heaviest users are usually small families. Parents enjoy the child drop-off service that allows them to work out for a couple of hours by themselves, and kids are big fans of amenities like the pool and the splash pad.

Another demographic that’s been using the facility a lot has been teenagers, a fact Braucks called “atypical” to many other YMCAs in the metro. Every Y has teenagers using the basketball courts pretty regularly, she said, but the Forest Lake facility’s second floor is a regular host to a gaggle of teens working out on exercise equipment.

“That’s our hope in any community, that we’re giving young adults a healthy option and a good choice for that after-school option,” Braucks said.

Many of the YMCA’s most avid users aren’t even members. As part of the deal that brought the YMCA to Forest Lake, the center’s community rooms are available for reservation to all community members; Braucks said the rooms are usually booked solid with either Y or community activities each week, with local events as diverse as weddings, family reunions and organizational meetings taking place in the spaces.

In its year in Forest Lake, the YMCA has already netted several community partnerships. Working with the city, the YMCA is offering a Park Play Days Program at Beltz Park this summer, and the organization has teamed with the Lakes Center for Youth and Families to assist with the group’s mentoring program. Another big YMCA partner is the Lakes International Language Academy; the two groups have shared each other’s facility space for a variety of programs throughout the year.

One of the most promising partnerships at the YMCA is a team-up between the facility and Fairview Health to offer a new program called Well Together. As part of the program, two Fairview physicians spend their Tuesdays at the Y, and program participants meet with them for an hour. The physicians ask questions about overall wellness, mental health, nutrition, sleep habits and more. Then, working with input from the doctors, a personal trainer at the Y will work with the participants on individualized health plans to help them increase their overall wellness. Fairview and the YMCA hope that the program can help instill lifestyle choices that will help participants avoid chronic illness.

“It’s really a new and interesting program that many insurance companies are really interested in,” Braucks said, adding that while the full cost of the 12-week program would be more than $900, YMCA and Fairview grants have brought the participant bill down to $139. “Hopefully, one day, this is something more YMCAs will be able to do, but Forest Lake is the first one to do it.”

Looking ahead, Braucks wants to increase the Y’s community partnerships and do more for seniors. She noted that while area seniors already appreciate the Y’s joint-friendly vortex pool workout, the YMCA wants to increase its engagement with seniors, including expanding outreach into living facilities like Cherrywood Pointe.

“If it’s not inside the Y, we want to go where they are,” she said.

One popular feature of the Y has proven to be its vortex pool, which functions like a lazy river for kids and a joint-friendly walking tool for adults.

For all the success the facility has had this year, Braucks and Schimml said, it has the welcoming of area communities to fill. Braucks said that Forest Lake residents account for less than half of its memberships, resulting in a pool of users from a diverse roster of communities. With people coming to the city from as far away as Scandia, North Branch and Taylors Falls, she said, she knows the demand for a facility in this area was real.

“You see all these people and think, ‘What were they doing before the Y was here?’” she said.

Community support has not come merely through memberships, however. A community board helps organize the facility’s activities, and volunteers have signed up to help out with mentoring programs and other activities. The community has also donated $67,000 to the nonprofit in the last year, allowing the facility to provide membership scholarships to in-need residents and engage in programs like its Get Summer program, which will allow 150 teenagers without a pre-existing YMCA membership to get a free membership over the summer.

The facility’s leadership said they have felt the full embrace of residents since the Y opened.

“It feels like we’ve been there for years,” Schimml said.

Learn more about memberships, programming and volunteer opportunities at ymcamn.org/locations/forest_lake_ymca. The facility is holding an all-day open house on Monday, June 19, the one-year anniversary of its opening day, in which all visitors will be able to use the facilities regardless of membership status. The Lions’ food truck will also be on site.