Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) - American Education
An international organization with 26 million members around the world, sponsoring social, physical and educational activities for youths and adults of both genders as well as all religions, races and ethnic backgrounds. The YMCA was founded in London in 1844 by the British humanitarian Sir George Williams (1821–1905) to provide prayer meetings and Bible study for destitute young men on the streets of London. By 1851, the concept had spread to Europe and the United States, with the first unit in the United States founded in Boston in 1851. Similar groups formed in New York, Philadelphia and other cities, and by 1854 there were 26 associations in North America.
The American Civil War all but ended the movement, but a number of evangelists, including DWIGHT L. MOODY, managed to revive it in the late 1860s and 1870s, and a series of well publicized conventions spurred the formation and growth of a national movement. Inspired members fanned out into cities across the United States to preach on street corners in slums, distribute tracts in boarding houses, hospitals and jails, and conduct Bible classes and prayer meetings. The YMCA began putting up buildings with libraries, auditoria for lectures, and Spartan, albeit adequate hotel rooms to provide temporary housing for destitute young men. In the 1890s, it expanded its program to include regular evening classes, which soon became known as “a college of the people” and included courses in elementary school subjects for boys who had gone to work before they could obtain a basic education. Other courses in English and American citizenship were added in some cities to accommodate young immigrants; by the end of the century, the “Y” was even offering vocational education for boys who wanted to improve their lot by learning skilled trades.
By 1913, the association was enrolling nearly 75,000 students a year in courses ranging from accounting to public speaking to wireless telegraphy. In every major city, buildings rose to accommodate the Y’s ever-expanding activities. By 1916, the Y had a membership of 600,000, and its buildings were complete with libraries, gymnasia, swimming pools and other facilities. It opened summer camps and pioneered physical education at a special school of physical education it established in Springfield, Massachusetts, to train teachers to promote physical fitness among the young. It was at this YMCA Training School that basketball and volleyball were invented. Now known as Springfield College, the YMCA Training School eventually made physical education the heart of YMCA activities.
The YMCA also trained thousands of students on college campuses to serve as missionaries overseas. In addition to missionary work, many established new YMCAs that were eventually turned over to local control. During World War I, it sponsored war relief activities, and in World War II, it joined with six other organizations to form the United Service Organizations (USO) to provide entertainment and social services to millions of American servicemen around the world. As it reached out to more and more Americans, the YMCA evolved into an ecumenical, quasi-public organization, serving Catholics and Jews as well as Protestants and, by the 1950s, women as well as men. Its success as a universal service organization all but ended its original religious role. Among the main programs of today’s YMCAs are swimming, aquatic exercise, aerobics, fitness classes, child care, day camps and youth sports. Many also provide emergency shelter, day care for the elderly, job training, rehabilitation classes for the disabled and youth counseling. Each of the 2,400 branches functions independently and is governed by volunteer board members who determine policy according to the needs of their community. Serving about 13.5 million people a year, the organization maintains a national council at its headquarters in Chicago.