The countdown has begun. In one year, the Yates Family YMCA will be demolished and the new Winston Family YMCA will host its Grand Opening. Young and old members alike wax nostalgic over the Yates Family Y, the First Coast’s flagship YMCA, located on Riverside Avenue. Because of its downtown proximity, it has been the health club of many of Jacksonville’s civic and business leaders, and it’s outreach programs have run deep and strong in the surrounding urban neighborhoods.
“We are all here to improve our wellness,” says John Anderson, a 35-year veteran member. But he explains how the Yates YMCA is so much more than that. “The highest praise I can give it is everyone is family. We are blessed to have two families. Our biologic and our Y family.”
Anderson originally joined the Yates YMCA to help heal an injury to his left knee in the late 1970s. He joined the Dawn Patrol workout group, for which he now volunteers as the co-leader with fellow member Bill Klima. “Getting to know these guys began to transcend fitness. It was about fellowship. And then that was transcended by family,” says Anderson.
Maureen Vandergriff, another longtime member, agrees with Anderson. “This place always makes me feel comfortable and welcome.” Vandergriff volunteers weekly as a greeter at the front desk. “I enjoy it thoroughly,” she says. “I volunteer in order to show them that I appreciate the way they treat me.”
Anderson describes the Yates YMCA as a classic iceberg. “The real Y is the 5/8ths under water that you never really saw very much unless you wanted to look. The 3/8th was exercise and fitness and playing ball and all that,” says Anderson. “The outreach in the community and all the various programs that this Y was pioneering…It was natural to see this as the mothership for everybody.”
It was through a Yates YMCA outreach program that incoming chair of the Metro Board, Peggy Bryan, first became involved with the YMCA. Peggy’s husband, J.R. Bryan, was a member of the Kappa Hi-Y Club at Robert E. Lee High School in the late 1950s. The Hi-Y clubs were sponsored by the YMCA as service clubs for high school boys.
Peggy became their mascot her senior year in 1962.
“We cherish our memories of Hi-Y. It gave us a higher cause,” says Bryan. “It was good clean fun, away from your parents to grow into yourself a little more.”
The veteran members all have mixed emotions about closing the doors to the Yates and opening the doors to the Winston YMCA. All agree that the building is dated. Much of the building is unusable, the roof leaks, the boiler room often floods and sometimes the showers don’t work.
But the building holds so many memories.
“I’m anxious to see the new Y, and I feel it’s going to be something good, but this is home, so I have mixed emotions about if it’s going to be like it’s always been or if it’s going to be better,” says Vandergriff. “Whatever it might be, you have to adapt to it in some way.”
Staff has been busy gathering items to save from demolition and coming up with unique ways to represent the Yates YMCA at the new Winston. Newspaper articles are being placed in scrapbooks. Dedication plaques and unique items like the Fallout Shelter sign will be kept. The center of the basketball court with the Y logo will be preserved and reused in the new basketball court.
But the real spirit of the Yates YMCA is in the people. “The pride is here and it’s going to progress to there because it’s ingrained in here with the people who have been here and the ones who aren’t here anymore. That’s still part of it and that is what is going to carry on,” says Vandergriff.
Yates Family YMCA Milestones
1909 – Camp Immokalee is established and Jacksonville’s first local YMCA opened downtown on the corner of Duval St. and Laura St. with membership of only 12 men.
1955 – The grand opening of the Central Branch YMCA on Riverside Ave. is held, later to be renamed the Yates Family YMCA.
1958 – The youth aquatics program is launched.
1959 – The father-son Y-Indian Guide Program is launched.
1962 – YMCA is 100 years old in America.
1965 – YMCA First Coast branches top 20,000 members.
1968 – YMCA desegregates facilities.
1969 – The Yates Family YMCA opened a half million dollar addition.
1971 – YMCA permits women to join as members.
1987 – The first Corporate Challenge is held, which becomes the First Coast Games.
2015 – YMCA breaks ground on the Winston Family YMCA which will replace the Yates Family YMCA as the First Coast’s flagship Y.