Mama Says Children ask, “Why our YMCA?”
by Laura Fratus

(Plain Press, October 2004) My son is still waiting for a reply to his letter to the executive director of the Greater Cleveland YMCA.

He still follows me to the mailbox after school, his eyebrows arched into two question marks as I flip through the stack of bills and junk mail that contains no envelope addressed to him.

We were caught off guard by our kids’ reaction to the news earlier this summer that the West Side YMCA branch a few blocks from our house would be permanently closing. My husband had delivered the news almost off-handedly one evening when he came home from work. For him, it was a story in the same category as the failure of a needed tax levy, a corporation relocating offices from downtown to some distant suburb or sunbelt city, another garage broken into on our block. Bad news, certainly, but familiar.

It was different for our son and daughter. For them, it was more like discovering that the cat lying dead on the street was one of their own, a personal loss.

Both children stared for a moment before tears welled up, and then they got angry. Where would they take swimming lessons now, they wanted to know. What about Friday after-school play group? And why? Why our YMCA?

To be honest, it struck me at first as childish melodrama. After all, the programs that they valued had only been around for a little over a year. For most of the decade that we’ve lived in this near west neighborhood, our family had been somewhat underserved by our Y branch. We’d traveled to the suburbs to find what we needed, just as we travel there to shop for school shoes or books or other things not readily available within the city limits.

It had only been after the first threatened closure in fall of 2002 — when the neighborhood had made a frantic lunge to pull the branch temporarily to safety — that the branch had rallied, organized fundraisers, established a youth aquatics program, built up a promising tumbling team.

All, to an adult sensibility, too little and too late to justify such grief.

I had to crouch down a bit, metaphorically, to observe the scene from my children’s viewpoint before I could really understand, and try to help them figure out what to do.

For all its flaws, this YMCA was the place where my daughter got the courage to dive into the deep end, where my son unwound every Friday afternoon after a rigorous week of third-grade math facts and book reports. This was a place from which they could race each other home ahead of me, experiencing a freedom practically unknown to them in an age when allowing my nine-year-old to walk unescorted to the library could be viewed as neglect. And most important, this was a place where, when they walked through the door, they recognized friends from their own school or church. Neighbors.

The loss of this branch has been our kids’ first hands-on lesson in urban disinvestment. Of course, they couldn’t make heads or tails of the rationale behind the YMCA’s decision. Even the mostly fiscally knowledgeable and politically savvy adults were having trouble following the YMCA’s argument that eliminating our inner city branch was the best way to build strong families and strong communities. So after several weeks of listening to grown-up discussions, and looking at the headlines of newspaper stories, my son finally asked, “What can I do to stop it?”

What is any individual, especially an individual so young, to do to stem that ebbing tide?

Some part of me did have an urge to say, “Let’s chain ourselves to the Stairmasters, son.” But I settled on giving him an address and a stamp. At the very least, I thought, he would know that he hadn’t let this happen without even registering an objection. Someone in the YMCA corporation would surely send him a form letter, acknowledging that his voice had been heard, if not heeded.

That the form letter has not been forthcoming is a disillusion to him. But to me, it’s a warning about preparing for the inevitable next time. This is not the first loss our neighborhood has suffered, and it will not be the last. If they are to grow up here without developing into chronically discouraged adult urbanites, our kids will need to identify the elements that make our neighborhood livable for them — our parks, our schools, our lake, our bikeways. They’ll need to launch their own public information campaign to be sure decision-makers know these things are valued. And, when necessary, they’ll need to learn how to become wheels that squeak sooner, louder, and more persistently.

 

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