Founded in 1857, the Athens YMCA has been around before the first organized game of football happened and well before the Georgia Bulldogs came to be.
It was at a town meeting held at Athens’ First United Methodist Church’s on March 26, 1857 that a committee was appointed to form what would become the nation’s third YMCA.
“Athens ought to be proud that we’ve got this YMCA here,” James “Jimbo” Laboon Jr., a 75-year member of the organization told the Athens Banner-Herald. “It’s been so active and it’s still so viable today as it ever has been and I think we’ve got the willpower to keep it going strong for many more years.”
Laboon has witnessed the YMCA’s growth and important changes such as the rebranding of the organization in 2010, when it distanced itself from the exclusionary-sounding “Young Men’s Christian Association” to “the Y,” and when in 2014 Athens Y was taken over by Shae Wilson-Gregg, its first female CEO.
Despite the many changes the YMCA has gone through since its inception, including several location changes, there are some traditions that remain.
When it comes to sports, football season is in the fall. In winter, basketball, and spring, baseball. During summer, it’s camping and other outdoor activities.
Then there is the atmosphere.
Current CEO Wilson-Gregg said the YMCA supports a family atmosphere. Throughout the day, the organization hosts a varying range of demographics across the Athens community.
In the mornings, ages can range from 6 weeks to 90 years and by the afternoon, adults on lunch break will swing by for a quick exercise. After school, the building becomes a hub for families and students.
Last, and most important, are the people, like Raquel Durden.
“I’m kind of a product of the YMCA,” she said.
At an early age, Durden joined her local YMCA in Wisconsin as a place to hang out with friends and spend time swimming. Throughout her life, she looked to the YMCA to build relationships and exercise.
Several years later, she was diagnosed with cancer but she battled it with lots of exercise. Durden attributes a lot of her strength to the YMCA and its instructors for motivating her to keep coming back.
“The Y is huge and it gives me something. I have to wake up. I have to go do this [exercise],” she said. “I’m blessed.”
Durden’s story is just one of thousands that the Athens YMCA can tell in its 160-year history.
There is something infectious about being a part of something that is so much bigger than you,” Wilson-Gregg said. “This place is so much bigger than me and just to be a small puzzle piece in this large thing is an honor.”
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