West Philadelphia: YMCA Acts as Community Safe for Local Residents

Members lift weights and exercise in the West Philadelphia YMCA’s gym (Dante Collinelli/PN)

The West Philadelphia YMCA, located on Chestnut Street near 52nd, feels like a family to Lorraine Johnson. 

“The Y, to me, and to others I know is like home,” said Johnson, who has been a member for 21 years and is 90 years old. “I treat it like my home. If I see trash outside I pick it up, put it in the trash can. The Y is a place of comfort and fun. It is just a place of joy.” 

Justin Spencer-Linzie, the branch’s executive team leader, wants the YMCA to be a safe space for all community members, including younger members who may not have anywhere else to go and older members who are trying to stay healthy. 

“I’m hoping folks can see the Y more than a place for gym and swim,” Spencer-Linzie said. “They see the Y as a place for community gathering, as a safe place, as a welcoming place. A place where they can interact with people of different backgrounds, that they can get high quality service.” 

Members use the West Philadelphia YMCA’s pool to exercise before the start of a class (Dante Collinelli/PN)

They hope to accomplish this through their different programs. The YMCA offers youth sports, workout, swimming, and dancing classes, day care for children, open basketball gyms and is adding a COVID-19 testing center soon, among other services.  

For younger members like Nasser Hansberry, who joined the YMCA about four years ago when he was 17, the YMCA gives him somewhere he feels safe and somewhere to practice basketball.

“For me to actually have my own YMCA membership and for it to be this close and this frequent definitely, a huge part of keeping me out of trouble,” Hansberry said. “A lot of people just not being able to go to their wives, doctors, like it’s very important, but that YMCA here for us to be able to get some things.”

Hansberry also appreciates how the YMCA staff makes the environment feel friendlier, taking seriously the cracking down on things like “drama” and “profanity,” he said. 

A member shoots a basketball at the West Philadelphia YMCA during one of its open gym sessions (Dante Collinelli/PN)

Older members, like Johnson, use the YMCA for a number of activities including swimming. Johnson learned how to swim for the first time at the YMCA when she was 70 years old. 

“What was so nice about that was that the instructors were so wonderful because they knew we women were afraid of water, and we’ve never been into the water,” Johnson said. “They teach you how to come down the steps in the pool and teach you how to walk in the water.”

The YMCA has provided a place for Ralph Mundy, who is 85 years old and has been a member for more than 40 years, to take his family. 

His seven grandkids, including a nine-months-old, participate in activities such as basketball, swimming, and karate. 

“The moment you walk into the door, you feel very comfortable and wanted,” Mundy said. “And most of the staff will greet you or give you a smile, look at you, you know, like they know you’re there.”

Mundy believes the YMCA serves an important role in the West Philadelphia community because it is located in a low income area without a lot of places for people to exercise. 

The 19139 ZIP code, where the West Philadelphia YMCA is located, has a median household income of $30,633 while the median household income of Pennsylvania is $61,744, according to data taken from the U.S. Census Bureau

That same area also has a 34.5% poverty rate, which is more than double the poverty rate for Pennsylvania and more than 10% higher than Philadelphia’s already deeply problematic 23% poverty rate, according to data taken from the U.S. Census Bureau. 

“Are there dance classes, let’s say for kids with ballet, things of that nature to enhance their community?” Mundy asked. “I would say they would probably have to leave, go out of their community for those amenities that I just mentioned.”

Two challenges the YMCA is currently facing in trying to provide these services to the community are the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the hiring shortage it has caused, Spencer-Linzie said. 

“But, you know, without folks to deliver the mission, it’s hard to, right, keep the doors actively engaged,” Spencer-Linzie added. “So, you know, that’s been a challenge.”

This isn’t a new issue for recreational facilities in the City of Philadelphia. The city experienced a lifeguard shortage this summer due to the pandemic. 

The COVID-19 pandemic also slashed the YMCA’s member base from about 20,000 to between 12,000 and 13,000, Spencer-Linzie said, but the number is steadily increasing again with the advent of vaccines.

Justin Spencer-Linzie, the executive team leader of the West Philadelphia YMCA, sits at his desk answering emails (Dante Collinelli/ PN).

It may come as a surprise to learn getting vaccinated against COVID-19 may be as close as the local YMCA.

The West Philadelphia YMCA is partnering with Grapefruit Testing to install a COVID-19 testing site in the back lot of the building, which Spencer-Linzie hopes will be an asset for both community members and current and potential employees. 

They do not have an exact date for when the testing site will open, but when it does, testing will be available Monday through Thursday and on Saturdays. 

“It’s for our staff, it’s making sure that we can be responsible in our community and play our part,” Spencer-Linzie said. “But also that anyone else that may need to take a test or, you know, needs access to a testing site, will be able to have one too.”

As for other future plans, Spencer-Linzie said he’s focused on updating the building’s infrastructure and improving its technology so the building can serve the community for the next 50 to 100 years. 

He mentioned turning a room where they currently have a projector for movies and videos into a room that functions more like a computer lab. 

Regardless of the upgrades made to the building, the West Philadelphia YMCA will remain an important part of the community. 

“We’re there to help one another,” Johnson said. “We’re there to help those children as much as we can.” 

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