“I am doing a new thing, now it springs forth … I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” – Isaiah 43:19
Day 133. When we first entered this current altered state of existence, a common phrase was used by many leaders from around the country: “We have entered a period where it is necessary to ‘reimagine’ ourselves, because the ‘old way of being’ will no longer be relevant.” To be honest, though these words engendered great excitement inside me, the “search for a new frontier” also gave me an unsettled feeling. Reimagine? What does that mean? Are we suddenly going to become a tech company? Hardly (and I know that was uncalled-for absurdity), but I really wasn’t sure what the word reimagine meant for our Y – and not knowing was both frustrating and scary. I found myself being haunted by doubt about whether we would discover a new way of work or not, and yet it fueled my drive to continue.
Unfortunately, a big part of reimagining who we were going to become was thrust upon us. Having most of our operations shuttered for this long and the uncertainty of how many of our members will return have significantly reduced the size of our financial capacity, limiting us from offering as many services as we once did. I understood the consequences of scaling back (and it is still painful to think about), but it serves as the impetus to find our way forward, especially when I get weary or less confident. “Reimagining” our Y is our call to action.
For the past year and half, our Y has been investing in the development of the virtual Y experience, known as YMCA 360. I felt very fortunate to have literally fallen into that opportunity, because the founder and originator of the program was a former employee of our Y – Ronn McMahon. Ronn is now the CEO of the Greater Wichita YMCA and, two years ago, he recognized the need for the Y to get into the virtual space. At the time, no one could have imagined how critical this program would become for us. When the pandemic struck, we rolled out the platform in response to the need. Though the platform was not perfected, we felt it was critical to jump in, especially because there were so many other like-products in the market. Thanks to the work of Bruce Caudill, Michelle LaRue, Luke DeMonnin, Michael Marquez, Lynn Wilmot-Stenehjem, and the entire operations team, we rolled out a host of exercise classes and youth programs. The response from our members was quite strong, which, to us, was a great sign that our members wanted to engage with both our staff and our services. Two weeks ago, we made the decision to reinvest in our commitment to the development of the virtual experience, bringing back instructors to create new content to offer to our members.
Reimagining our Y does include the virtual experience, and offering programs to our members is necessary, especially during this period while our branches are closed, but it is only a piece of the puzzle. Capturing the Y experience is an essential part of YMCA 360, and our instructors do a great job of understanding and delivering that component. Though our instructors will work hard to represent the values of our Y through their delivery, drawing people into the small group/communities that are such a foundational part of the Y experience, is not as easy to do. Reimagining how we can create these small groups in a virtual space has been at the core of the work being conducted by Janele Nelson and the design team formed to ensure we appropriately develop the platform. Along with the outside team from FINAO, our Y is envisioning a structure that will offer members, as well as the greater community, a platform to engage in a variety of services. We imagine that we will be able to facilitate the use of expert content, as well as offer emotional support and connection. It is very exciting work that will be vital to capturing the Y experience in the virtual platform.
As we reimagine our Y through the virtual experience, we are continuing to reimagine ourselves in other ways, specifically with respect to our facilities. Understanding how we utilize the thousands of square feet of space we have is somewhat paradoxical. We have beautiful spaces, but people will be fearful about coming inside – and for quite some time, and yet there could be an enormous opportunity to having such great spaces. Throughout this period, Tara Harkness and the Child Care team have been huddling with the school administrators to understand how students will receive their education this fall. Last week, almost in unison, the school districts made the decision to conduct the fall semester online. On the heels of that decision, the State Superintendent for Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal, made the statement: “The districts who make the difficult choice to go online this fall will need to have plans in place to work with community partners to identify childcare options for school-aged students whose families don’t have the option to stay home with a child each day.” Suddenly, it felt very clear to us that we could be in the middle of imagining a solution to one of the most critical issues facing our community, and it felt exactly where we should be: providing the support to families and engaging in vital youth development. The reimagining process needed to simultaneously focus on the business model, something Lee Ann Jansen and her team have already begun examining, as well as building a programmatic plan, something Brian Flattum, Tara Harkness, Jose Gorospe, and Stephanie Roberts immediately tackled. Reimagining the Y and addressing the most pressing community need seems like a natural fit for our Y.
Operating virtually and repurposing our facilities are going to position us, at the very least, to play an important role for our community, but throughout this period, we have also taken a deep look inside our organization and asked ourselves who we really are and who do we want to be when it comes to our claim of serving all. In my role, I recognize that a significant part of our reimagining process must include who we will become as a values-based organization, and that authenticity is essential for our credibility and our relevance moving into this reimagined new world. How we look as a staff team and who we serve are going to be critical questions we must address. It is an essential part of reimagining who we will be.
As challenging a period as these past 133 days have been, I cannot say enough about our team’s response to the call to action. I would say it has been nothing short of miraculous. To work in an environment where your world has been turned upside down, and to immediately reimagine a new way of work in real time, under tremendous duress, is something spectacular. I love the team we have, and the team who is anxiously waiting to return. I always think of our team as one, and am driven to make sure we find our way to that place again; even if we have reimagined ourselves, we will always be a team who is devoted to each other and to our community. God bless you all; stay safe and be strong.