Tony Collins of the YMCA of Central Ohio describes the ways his organization is “leaning in” to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As workers at the Downtown Y prepared last week to convert the gym and first-floor common spaces of the 96-year-old building into temporary housing for homeless men, the CEO of the YMCA of Central Ohio encouraged those who normally work out in that space or at another Y facility, all of which the agency has closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, not to cancel their memberships. Consider the dues an investment in the community, says Tony Collins, the organization’s CEO and president.

“Please,” says Collins. “That is our passionate plea to our community: to continue to invest in the Y so that we can continue our impact in the community.”

It’s an impact felt by 100,000 Central Ohioans, he says—a number that includes 6,000 children in daycare, preschool and afterschool programs and 85,000 community center members as well as immigrants accessing the agency’s New Americans Welcome Center, campers, people engaged in classes for those with chronic diseases, and the homeless, among others.

The Y last week installed beds in the gym at the Downtown facility at 40 W. Long St. to relieve pressure on the organization’s Van Buren Shelter in South Franklinton and decrease the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus. The Van Buren facility, Collins explains, is set up as a year-round emergency shelter for women and families, with additional space for 90 men during cold weather. Recently, as many as 700 people were sleeping at the shelter.

The men in the additional space are being moved to the Downtown Y, at least for the time being, so families can observe social distancing guidelines. “Our hope is that will allow us to space out the women and families in the emergency shelter and help reduce the spread of the virus, as it impacts the shelter,” says Collins. “When it impacts the shelter,” he adds.

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Men will also move to the Downtown Y from Community Shelter Board facilities, Collins says, as that organization seeks to space out its population as well. “Our shelters are already at high peak numbers because of the affordable housing crisis,” Collins points out. By Sunday, the Downtown Y staff expected the facility would have beds for 204 homeless men.

But providing shelter for those without homes is only part of the Y’s mission, Collins says. He describes the organization as “leaning in” to the coronavirus crisis on a number of fronts.

The Y’s extensive child care services have been suspended, but the organization is applying for a license to provide emergency child care for first responders and health care workers who will be needed in the coming weeks and months and who cannot fulfill their duties by working from home. “As this emergency ramps up and we see more pressure on the hospitals and those people have to go to work, we want to make sure that there's emergency crisis child care provided,” says Collins.

In other initiatives, the Y is exploring ways to use its facilities to support the work of other nonprofit agencies. Last week, the Hilltop Y served as a distribution point for the Mid-Ohio Foodbank. Child care staff are developing online and phone-based programs to help kids stay connected to the centers, and the agency hopes to continue its health and wellness programs online and by phone during the coming period of social isolation.

“It's a war,” he says. “That’s what this is, it’s the war on this virus—we all have to attack it.”

But without collecting fees to keep the operation afloat, Collins says, all of those services are at risk. The Y depends not only on gym memberships but also child care fees, as well as donations.

“We're the original social enterprise,” he says. “This is a crisis for everyone, and I have incredible empathy for everybody going through this, whether it's the people who cut hair, servers in the bars and everybody is just being impacted. I just need folks to remember that nonprofits are struggling as well.

“We're trying to figure out how to continue this operation,” Collins says. “If we don't find some relief and some support, it's going to have a dramatic impact. And not just us—give to a nonprofit. The YWCA is going through the same thing. The food bank is doing a phenomenal job of making sure we have the food resources we need. But our nonprofits need support right now. They need people to invest in them.”


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