YMCA of Greater Omaha celebrates 150 years

Published: Dec. 6, 2016 at 9:43 PM CST
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As the Omaha YMCA showcases its year-long 150th birthday celebration, one thing staff members with the non-profit point to as a reason for its longevity centers on the ability of the organization to evolve with the community.

From the early days of teaching English and job skills to immigrants – to 2016 where instructors and volunteers help people delay the progression of diseases, the place known as a gym-and-swim has developed an extensive list of options for members.

Changing with the Times

On a Thursday afternoon on the 2nd floor of the Maple Street Y, the class coordinator greets arriving students.

Susie: “I’m glad your back.”

Tony: “I’m glad I’m here, too.”

Susie: “We’ve got a great workout for you. How was Tuesday’s class?”

Tony: “Good.”

Susie: “Get comfortable, because we’re going to get started.”

Susie Winegardner along with volunteer nursing students will lead the hour-long class.

Susie: “Nice to see you. You just need one weight. We’re going to do squats, rows and pushups. One weight. I promise. Welcome to class Bonnie.”

Joe, one of the participants, hands out fliers promoting the UNMC Skate-A-Thon on Jan. 27, 2017 – a fundraiser for Parkinson’s research.

Susie: “I started with [Joe] in July of 2014.”

Reporter: “And it was just him?”

Susie: “He was my only client and then he knew someone who had Parkinson’s and he brought her with him. Then Roger showed up. And Ernie. And suddenly it was this cascade of people.”

Each of the 18 people in class today has one thing in common – Parkinson’s disease.

“Why is this hand out in front of you? In case you fall,” explained Susie. “Most of the people here were forced to retire early because of handwriting. And these were directors of corporations that could no longer work. What science has found is when you get heart rate up through cardio exercise, your brain gets warm and it’s ready for new neuro-pathways. At that point, is when you want to do those skills that Parkinson’s robs you of – the handwriting, being able to use your opposite right and left – that’s critical and that’s what is robbed with the Parkinson’s disease.”

The thing about Parkinson’s disease is the symptoms – the tremors, the loss of balance – get worse over time.

“I love working with people who have those health challenges,” said Susie. “I can help them live a really full life.”

The class’ title falls under the category: Delay the Disease.

“It’s grown by word of mouth. Someone will know someone. That’s how the class has grown. This class got so big I had to break it out. So they started at Southwest and Sarpy County. Most people come in a little frightened. We’ll do their initial assessment – and one of the tests is simply sitting up and down in a chair. Some people can’t do that. By the time we have taught them with new dynamics of how to stand up and how to walk so you don’t trip over your own feet – they have cut the time off of their walking speed. They’ve increased their speed immensely. They’ve increased their self-confidence. Less falls -- better balance.”

At first, Bert Samson, who grew up in North Omaha, thought she could overcome Parkinson’s the same way she faced blindness in her left eye as a child – with determination. “I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2013. And I kept working because most of my job was with computers. But paperwork -- I couldn’t keep up with it because my handwriting and the tremors became worse as the disease progressed. I had to retire. When you first come, you’re so intimidated because everyone is doing things you can’t do normally. But after a couple weeks, everyone cheers you on. It’s encouraging to know that there are others who are where you are.”

“Exercise is huge,” said Delay the Disease instructor Susie Winegardner. “They’re finding amazing delays in the progression of the disease. They’ve finding you can recover a lot of your neuro-connections in the brain and your coordination to your hands. They’re finding that by getting your heart rate up by exercise, it can reduce the tremors. And it increases the cognitive function. It is the drug that cannot be reproduced. It’s wonderful for people.”

For Bert Samson, 71, the tremors got so bad she couldn’t hold a pencil. “It was hard to hold the receiver on the phone. It was difficult to hold utencils without dropping them. I had to be very careful because I didn’t know when it would get really bad.”

After six months of exercising her body and mind, Samson recognized the changes. Her instructors noticed when she put pencil to paper.

“She cried,” said Susie. “She couldn’t even do a circle. When I gave the challenge for the Y-150 – of the 150 pushups and 150 whatever, I asked people to keep track of it, knowing that they probably wouldn’t. When Bert came in the first time and said, ‘Here’s my exercise log.’ I didn’t even look at how many push-ups she did. I looked at her handwriting and said, ‘Oh my gosh – look at this!’ She thought I was talking about the push-ups, and I was talking about her handwritten log. I had to apologize to Bert and said the work is good but this is even better.”

“My neurologist tells me to keep doing what I’m doing because it is working,” said Bert. “The more you can use your brain while you are active, all of the jumping – it creates new channels for the brain to be used in. If you’re not active, it becomes dormant and nothing can grow in it. That’s why she tells us to be active every single day. It won’t stop the disease, but it certainly slows it down.”

“At about 9-months, they have hit their stride and they hold steady,” explained Susie. “And that’s all I can ask for is that they hold steady and not decline. This is the disease that its gift is that it keeps taking away, unfortunately.”

This year – the class lost 3 members to Parkinson’s.

“Our class sadly gathers at some of the funerals, and we have celebrations and post pictures,” said Susie. “We give the families posters of all the participants. And universally, all of the surviving family members have said that this is the one thing they wanted to go to -- even when they couldn’t get out of bed. They wanted to come to our class.”

While reflecting on the progress of the class and the bonds that have formed, Susie Winegardner has gained a newfound perspective.

“Best thing I’ve ever done in my life. I feel like everything I’ve done in my life has brought me to this place at this time. And I thank the Y for that.”

Preserving the Legacy

150 years in business brings with it plenty of milestones.

For the Omaha Y, staff soon realized they had lots of material about the organization’s history in the metro – but it wasn’t very well preserved.

Until now.

“I don’t know I’m a walking encyclopedia of the Y. I have a lot more knowledge than I did a year ago…and the history of the Y,” said Vicki Hallberg, who retired from the Y after 37-years.

Six months later, she got a call. “They said, ‘We have a project. Are you interested?’”

Vicki jumped at the chance to help document and catalog 150-years of history that had been stored in a third floor closet at the Y headquarters.

The mystery boxes now have some organization as they become part of the University of Nebraska Omaha archives.

“I knew the YMCA started out teaching bible study, but I didn’t realize they had the Y schools where they taught people accounting, window dressing, calligraphy – a lot of shorthand things they could apply in their life and go out and get better jobs. When you completed Y school, you would get this certificate and it would help men get jobs. Back then, not everyone could go to college so they had this alternative training to get jobs.”

Because many documents are fragile – they’re copied and turned into digital files so the public can see it.

Preservation is a time consuming process.

One can come to UNO's reading room to examine the history.

Much of it is online, too.

“What makes it unusual here is that it is that old of a collection,” said Amy Schindler with UNO’s Archives & Special Collections. “Omaha is a relatively young city – only 160 years old. So to have a collection that’s 150 years old – that’s pretty great for us.”

And just when the archivists thought they knew everything about the Y, something would be uncovered.

“People would talk that they remembered when men would swim in the nude. They still did that in the 60’s,” said Vicki.

“I had heard that nude swimming was common,” said Amy. “I was surprised I had a couple photos.”

“They are strategically posed,” said Vicki. “You get more a back view. But yes – they swam nude. The filter systems weren’t that good so clothing would clog up the filters.”

From quirky photos – to curious stories, there were all sorts of surprises in the yellowing paper. “They were doing marriage classes? I found that really interesting,” said Amy. “And it wasn’t just one class, it was a 6-month series of courses on how to have a successful marriage -- everything from choosing your mate to have a successful marriage after that. I was thrilled to see that they had saved as much as they had. Brochures…and board minutes annual reports going back to the 19th century. And that’s really important when you want tell the full history of an organization. You want material not from just the last 50-years. That was really great.”

Organizers believe this is only a part of what could be displayed and saved regarding the Omaha Y’s history.

“We know there’s more than this out there in the community,” said Vicki. “They have things that could be a part of this archive that we don’t even know about yet.”

“We have some photos from the early 60’s where branch managers are standing outside of their branches,” said Amy. “All of these branch managers are standing in a similar location in front of their building and looking off in the distance in a similar way. I’m trying to get all the branch managers now to do something similar. I always knew the railroad was part of the Y. What surprised me the most is what the Y did in the early founding days was teaching people and that hasn’t changed. We still do those things. We still mentor them. They were providing a service to the community that was needed at the time. We still do that today. The needs of the community have changed and the y changed with it.”

The History

Omaha was a rough and tumble place in the mid-19th century and there was nothing really beyond bars and saloons to entertain young men.

In 1868, bylaws for the Young Men's Christian Association were introduced to Omaha, giving young men something else to do other than hang out in bars and brothels.

The YMCA provided lectures and social events for men. The YMCA was interested in improving the spirit, mind and body of young men.

“The first few years the primary focus was meetings. Leadership meetings, lots of religious study classes - bible study,” said UNO history major Marcia Bennett.

As the city grew the YMCA grew offering more programs to young men.

“It was all kinds of recreational activities, but then also education was the major focus classes for literally everything advertising scuba diving you could find all kinds of classes to take, during the Great Depression there was a really wide variety just so they could train people to do everything just to get them a job,” said Bennett.

The YMCA changed to reflect the needs and interest of the community. In November of 1890 the interest was in Nebraska football. The University of Nebraska played its first football game against a team from the Omaha YMCA.

Before they were the Huskers, they went through several names. In 1890 they were known as the “Old Gold Knights" and the very first game for Nebraska was played in Omaha against the Omaha YMCA team. Omaha YMCA lost 10 to nothing.

One hundred and fifty years later, the YMCA is still here and still a big part of the community. Now, the Young Men’s Christian Association is attracting more than just men.

“We're including women we're more inclusive we've gone into the fitness area for women,” said Vicki Hallberg.

The Omaha community has different needs now and the YMCA is meeting those needs.

Daycare is a major concern and vital need of the community and many people are now into health and wellness.

“One of the best things about the YMCA is that every day we evolve with the public that needs us so the community everything they need we have been able to evolve in,” said Chris Tointon President and CEO of Omaha YMCA.

There are 10 YMCA centers across the Omaha metro area. YMCA officials said as the city evolves, the YMCA will continue to evolve to meet its needs.