the window to the soul

Posted by: Michelle    Tags:      Posted date:  June 27, 2012
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I photographed a blind woman the other day. Her spirit and independence took my breath away. I am so happy to have met her. After the shoot, all I could think about was how opposite her and I were, but only in seeing I’m sure. Here I am in a world where seeing things is my life, and here she was where all she saw was complete darkness. People say that you can see someone’s soul through their eyes…the eyes are “the window to the soul.” My subject’s eyes were shut, but I could feel her soul from a mile away, and every emotion I asked her to convey and think about came across her face so beautifully and easily. So I may have to argue that the eyes are not the window to the soul; yet it is one’s mystifying aura.

the moon

Posted by: Michelle    Tags:      Posted date:  June 5, 2012
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In the past couple of years, I have hiked up Stone Mountain to photograph the full moon. I aim to get a red moon, but so far I haven’t gotten one. It’s best to shoot the moon right after it rises. It begins to get brighter the higher it rises, and you begin to lose detail. I’ll carry a 400 mm lens up the mountain along with my camera, a few other lenses, and tripod. I think the bag weighs about 50 lbs and next time I could use a sherpa. I could take the tram, but I like the exercise.
A full moon always rises about the same time as the sun sets. That’s when you know it’s full. Hence, on these days I always hope for a beautiful sunset.

campervan stories

Posted by: Michelle    Tags:  , ,     Posted date:  April 18, 2012
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I’ve had the pleasure of traveling to New Zealand and spending about 2 weeks there. We rented a campervan (in the US that is an RV) and drove that thing from the bottom of the South island to the top of the North island. New Zealand is exquisite, such a rare and eclectic country. In one day, we would see fjord-lands, a forest, waterfalls, the beach, penguins crossing the street, and a glacier. If you can only go to one island, I recommend the South. It’s less populated which means less roads and to me, more serenity.


When it came time to go to the North island, we drove our campervan onto a ferry – then made breakfast. Not sure if we were supposed to be in the campervan on the ferry, but we had some of our best laughs (and now good memories) in there as my friend experimented with deep fried bacon greased breakfast burritos.


The campervan parks in New Zealand are nice. We decided to keep the bathroom on our campervan a closet for our snowboards and not use it so that made things easier. They drive on the left side of the road and the steering wheel is on the right side of the vehicle, with the stick shift to your left, and I am proud to declare I paralleled park that campervan in one try.


It’s one of the best travel experiences in my life, and I highly recommend taking a trip with your best friends and renting a campervan to see a country. I’ll be sure to upload more photos from another hard drive soon..

photographing children

Posted by: Michelle    Tags:  , , , ,     Posted date:  March 28, 2012
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Photographing children can be challenging, but the trick is the same with photographing anyone – you have to capture the in between moments and nuances they give you. Sometimes it’s subtle and sometimes loud, but either way it is typically a fraction of a second so it’s important to anticipate and be trigger-ready.


sand dunes with the holga

Posted by: Michelle    Tags:  , , , , , , , ,     Posted date:  February 28, 2012
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The holga is one of my favorite cameras. It fits a style of my personality, the “I threw it on and ran out the door and somehow it works” look. Holgas have light leaks, and you’ve got to tape them up. And sometimes you don’t and it works out perfectly.. with imperfections. Due to its plastic meniscus lens, the holga’s image characteristic is soft and has a very alternative quality. It’s a camera you can just throw in the bag or get in the ocean with. The holga’s exposure is something like 1/125th @ f/11, but it’s a plastic toy camera so that exposure can vary slightly, especially with age or if you work it like me, getting sand and grit all over it. It takes 120mm or 220mm film and you can shoot a square or rectangle ratio. Bottom line: you’ve got to know your holga and a little bit about film.

I Live the Life of a First Generation

Posted by: Michelle    Tags:  , , ,     Posted date:  January 11, 2012
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We slept on the third of four floors of the house, in the front. I laid awake every night listening to the street. It seemed like no one had a 9 to 5 schedule as I hear sounds of locals speaking in Tagalog, the chains of a bike of a sidecar, horns, a motorcycle accelerating, and the constant buzz of the populated heart of the city. My thoughts went into an evacuation strategy at one point and there really wasn’t an easy way to get out of the house. There is no front door; instead, it’s a pull down garage door then barred security gates you close together and pad lock. I didn’t even know where the key was. Upstairs, all the windows had iron bars separating us from the outside world.

The house was in Tondo, a sector in the heart of the capital of the Philippines, Manila. I was there on short notice because my grandmother passed away unexpectedly from a stroke while visiting family and friends “back on the island”. The houses are stuck together made out of hollow-blocks and tin and all have storefronts. Mine sold hardware, propane, ice water, and the homiest video game you will ever find – a super large old-school TV with a Play Station 2 that neighborhood kids could rent time to play… brilliant, and that was the type of street we were on.

You step out of the store and to my left is a full on butcher shop. In front to the right is a buco stand with a man selling freshly picked coconuts. He had a machete and chopped those coconuts PERFECTLY. So perfect it was handed to you with the hard shell on the bottom half and a thin half-dome layer on top ready to poke your straw through. Again, with a machete. As I look at his toes, I was sure he had no middleman and climbed the coconut trees the night before.

Most nights I woke up around 4 am to the sound of the butcher’s knife coming down on the butcher block. He chopped the meat in the middle of the street for about 2-3 hours, getting ready for the days sale. Blood ran down the curb and was mostly hosed off by sunrise.

Five days after arriving The Philippine Islands, it was time to go home with my grandmother’s casket. I board a Delta Airlines Boeing 747, I sit down, and all of a sudden I feel normal again.

It caught my attention at one the funeral masses when the priest compared going to America as heaven. It was in the context of how the people in the Philippines, the Pearl of the Orient, dreamed to leave the country for America, the dream for a better life, the land of opportunity. And here I am living it.

My parents came to the United States in 1971 with $500 and 1 suitcase. They left all they knew. They left their culture, their way of life, and their families; my mom is one of ten and my dad is one of eight. They came to the “Land of Opportunity.” It is because of this decision my brother and I are first generation here. Which means we are the first American born in our family.

Growing up as a first generation is truly an honor. My childhood was divided with learning English and the American way in school, and learning Tagalog and the Philippine culture at home. The neat thing about this is that I get to blend the two. It had its tough times, but I have experienced life in a way that most of my contemporaries have not. I have two worlds. To me, I would say the two most significant differences that stand out to me between the cultures are respect and food. There are many words of respect in the Filipino language, and signs of respect in actions, especially respecting the elderly. And food is so graciously put in front of guests at all times, no matter how poor the family is giving it.

While in the Philippines, I battled with wanting to blend in. I wanted the anonymity within the country’s people but as much as I could ever try, I stuck out like a sore thumb. The way we move, dress and talk is definitely specific to the States. At the same token, I wanted to just be me, and that is a blend of both cultures – American and Filipino. I suppose a part of me wanted to feel the acceptance of my heritage in the country of where I could have grown up, had my parents not made the bold move.

I think the best thing that being a first generation has given me is perspective. It’s a perspective of something right in front of me but also so far away. It is local, and it is worldly. It is simple and it is exotic. It is yin and it is yang.

Across the International Date Line and 30 hours later I land in America. I look out into the tarmac, and as emotions run through me, I don’t want to forget.



in the spirit of Movember

Posted by: Michelle    Tags:  , , , , ,     Posted date:  December 20, 2011
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Men around the world flaunt a moustache every November to raise awareness about prostate cancer and other male cancer initiatives. I was inspired to create images in the spirit of “Movember”.


surf. jeep. camera

Posted by: Michelle    Tags:  , , , , , ,     Posted date:  December 1, 2011
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One of my best days ever was renting a jeep, then a surf board, and taking off with my camera down a long dirt road in Mexico. Along the dirt road we stopped at beaches, the desert, and for cows crossing the path. And at the end, wild horses and the best roadside fish taco kitchen (a kitchen and some tables). It was delicious and as fresh as it gets; they were out of fish so someone drove away and came back with some for us. Then we got the “check” on a calculator.


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I got to work on a really neat campaign in Atlanta. It is a privilege to work on a photography project that is so inspiring, rewarding, and speaks to our true selves. Day to day so many lives are impacted by the YMCA. They are a remarkable philanthropic organization. We set out to produce compelling images about real people and their story, how their lives have been impacted by the YMCA. From choosing talent stories to storyboarding shoot concepts, from producing to print, and 4 months in the making, here are the images of 28 real people, their real lives, and their stories.


stories written by Susan Mittleman




“The Y isn’t a second home, it’s a first home.”

More than once, the Y has been the saving grace for Belise Michel. The first time was in Florida where, working as a public school teacher, she desperately needed child care for one of her three children. She came to the Y in tears with no money, and they told her not to worry, they’d deal with it later.

“They took him in and took really good care of him,” she says. “They treated him like he was one of their own.” She started volunteering, then working part time at the Y, and eventually was asked to be the childcare director. She turned it down, thinking her career was in the school system.

When Belise developed chronic fatigue syndrome and needed time off from work, it was the Y, not the school system, that supported her and guaranteed her job. During this period she had time to re-evaluate her situation and decided to move to Atlanta.

In 2002 she started working in the nursery at the Buckhead Y. This was the second time the Y changed her life. “When I came here, I knew no one,” she says. She could barely afford to pay her bills. “I used to just come to work, clock in, clock out, go home. It was kind of lonely.”

Then she learned about family scholarships. With her kids now able to participate in so many programs, from Parents’ Night Out to swimming and basketball, the Y became a safe haven. Her family found a new home and new friends. And now, jokes Belise, “I see the Y more than I see my own house. It’s like having a giant backyard.”

Though she hadn’t planned on a Y career, a few years and a few jobs later, she realized this was where she’s meant to be. Today, Belise is the associate youth development director and pursuing her bachelor’s degree at Georgia State University. She loves caring for children at the Y and loves that her children are cared for by others. “I know my children can be anywhere in the building, and I’m not worried about them,” she says. “I know they’re in safe hands.”

Belise Michel
Carl E. Sanders Family YMCA at Buckhead



“The programs at the Y have made a profound impact on our lives.”

As a child, Robert Gaines always wanted to join the YMCA boys club. Family obligations kept him away. He joined the military, served in Vietnam, had children, grandchildren, and got involved in what he calls the wrong things. “I was on the road to destruction,” he says. “I prayed to God.”

Then came a new daughter. He saw a new chance. “Amina came into my life when I really needed her most.” Robert made a deal with God to get straight and live a righteous life. He gained custody of Amina and, he says, “stopped doing all the bad things and started living a good life.”

Robert joined the Y with the intention of working on his heart as well as his soul. After years of poor health from a heart condition, he worked with Y wellness coaches to learn to exercise correctly, watch his weight and become healthy enough to get off his medication. He was motivated by other members, especially those older than him.

He started bringing Amina to the Y when she was three. She loved the play center. Then ballet. Then swimming, gymnastics, karate, and summer camp. She was safe to do her thing while he did his.

Together, Robert and Amina come to the Y at least three times a week. “The Y helped us do a lot of bonding together,” says Robert. “She motivates me to go when I don’t want to go, and I motivate her.” Now they’re working out together, on the treadmill, for instance. The pool is still a challenge. “I do want to get in the pool with her, but I look at my swimming trunks…” Robert ponders. “I don’t know. But, I think now I’m going to try.”

Raising a daughter today is much different for Robert than a generation ago, and he appreciates the advice he gets from staff and other members. He says he’s not worried about taking another wrong turn, because he has a job to do: raise his daughter and give her the best education he can.

Robert and Amina Gaines
Decatur Family YMCA


“The attention and love they show CJ has given him so much pride and security. It’s almost like he is the rock star, and the teens are the paparazzi. I have no idea who they are -but they all know him and it’s amazing to me. The staff was tremendous in helping him overcome his fears of new places and people. The look on his face when I pick him up is priceless. There is no amount I can put on that kind of care for my son. He is amazed by all the attention he receives.”

CJ Hembree
Cherokee Outdoor YMCA


“This is the best part of my week! Participating as a member and volunteer here anchors our family to the neighborhood and the city. You, too, can live this wonderful experience. Just come out and give a little- time. This is much more fun than going to work, and much more important.”

Gus Carpio
McCleskey-East Cobb Family YMCA


“For the first time, I’m not ashamed of myself anymore.”

Colton Hunter began attending Y summer programs when he was four years old. Both parents were working and on advice from a neighbor, they signed him up. “We had no idea the Y had such programs,” says his mother Kim, “He loved it.”

Their son immediately made friends with several counselors during summer camp. And, Kim and Mike Hunter say the staff was always caring and supportive in making their son feel special.

Colton was always a social kid. But as he grew, he became very insecure. Much bigger than most kids his age, he struggled with his weight and body image, though it wasn’t always obvious. He felt awkward and shied away from taking off his shirt at the pool or changing in front of friends. When his parents mentioned this to Y Camp Director Erik Bullock, he seemed surprised but said he’d talk to their son.

When Colton was ten, he came home from camp severely sunburned and Kim came down on him with what she calls a typical maternal tirade. “He was crying,” she recalls, “and said, ‘I took my shirt off because I’m not ashamed of my body anymore. I was having so much fun, I forgot to put sunscreen on.’”

“The combined efforts of the Y directors and counselors made him proud of who his is and not to be uncertain of his character,” says Kim. Since then, the Hunters have tried to give back what they can with their limited time. They try to direct as many friends and families to the Y as possible. They’ve encouraged Colton to think of what he can offer as well. He says he can’t wait to be old enough to become a summer camp counselor.

Besides the annual breakfast with Santa, enjoying the outdoor Y’s wooded surroundings, and friends they’ve acquired, the Hunters say the Y gives them peace of mind. “Safety, guidance, character building,” says Kim, “there’s a never-ending list of reasons to make this organization a part of your life.”

Colton Hunter
Cherokee Outdoor YMCA




“They thought of working at the Y as a privilege.”

The Winborne brothers tend to conduct themselves just a little differently from other kids their age. Sure, they do normal teenager stuff, like hang out with friends and watch videos. They are big into sports. They’re into their church. They sing in musicals.

OK, maybe they aren’t so typical. They stand head and shoulders above their peers, says Chris McMurtagh, Y sports director, because of what he describes as traditional family values. “They’re more polite than any kids I’ve met their age. Yes ma’am, yes sir. If you ask them to do something, they never say no. It’s like a blast from the past. You just don’t find kids as well mannered any more or willing to go the extra mile.”

Those extra miles were put in at Y summer day camp, where Frank worked as a counselor after volunteering the previous summer, and Arthur volunteered after Frank encouraged him to try it. Both brothers learned how much they enjoyed this kind of community service while also discovering more about themselves.

Frank had done missionary service in the past, but spending his summer at the Y was completely different. “Working with kids is great,” he says, “because they all look up to you, and you try to be a good role model and be on top of your game every day. It’s good preparation for the real world.”

Arthur became a role model for younger kids, while unexpectedly finding people he could look up to as well. “I got to know counselors and employees and made good friends with different people, many who’ve already been through what we’ve been through. It is great to talk to them and get to know them.”

Their experiences at camp also helped to improve their grades and study habits as well as their intention to kick start a teen program at the Y. The goal, says Frank, is to let other teens know this place is here and to have teen-oriented activities. “It’s about a place for kids to come and get away from normal school, busy life and have good, clean fun,” he says.

Frank and Arthur Winborne
Carl E. Sanders Family YMCA at Buckhead



“There are no bad influences at the Y. I can go have clean, pure fun.”

Why would a 17-year-old choose to spend her time volunteering at the Y over all the other tempting offers a teenager has? Because this, she says, is where she wants to be.

Courteney Jenkins tells people she lives at the Y. In many ways, she does. She’s involved with teen programs, youth development, child care, and service and leadership programs, clocking more time here than anywhere else except school.

Courteney lives with her mom, who is her best friend. Her dad lives in another state. She’s gone through upheaval and uncertainty, attending four schools in the past three years. In ninth grade, Courteney fell in with the wrong crowd and unsafe behavior landed her in the hospital, seriously ill. During a difficult three months in and out of care, her mother wanted her close by, so she’d bring her to the Y. People there just started looking after her. “Every time I walked through those heavy glass doors of the Y that summer,” Courteney says, “I would get the feeling of home.”

One day, a Y staff member, Cristina Teaver, suggested Courteney check out some teen programs. That’s all it took. A little encouragement and a leap of faith.

In the past two years, Courteney has turned herself around and credits the Y. “The teen programs,” she says, “are centered around connections, working with different kinds of people, helping the community, and moving out of your comfort zone.” Among her many activities, she works at the play center, volunteers with homeless shelters, packs lunches for people with disabilities, and helps at international Y camps.

Courteney says she’s learned to listen to her peers, relate better to boys, respect her elders, and feel compassion for people of all ages, in all walks of life. Over time, the mentored has become the mentor. Hoping to lead by example for others who may find themselves heading down the wrong path, she says, “Be aware of your surroundings, know who’s looking out for you, and who’s not.”

Courteney Jenkins
McCleskey-East Cobb Family YMCA


“When I drop off my kids, I don’t have a second thought! The YMCA means so much to me. It means we made an important decision early in our children’s life that will mold who they will become. Years from now, when I watch my children graduate from high school and college and set out to realize whatever their destinies might be, I’ll know that it all started with a strong foundation and support system at the Y.”

Nikki Conyers-Williams
Arthur M. Blank Family Youth YMCA



“To sum it up, the Y means companionship and motivation.”

When you meet Melissa Algreen, it’s hard to see beyond her smiling eyes and know the hardships she’s faced.

In 2005, Melissa was hit by a car on her way to work in New York City. Her injuries, including traumatic brain injury, were so severe doctors couldn’t say if she’d survive. After six months in a coma and 11 months in the hospital, odds were against her ever being independent of machines. But today, with therapy, determination, and her mother by her side, Melissa is swimming laps around expectations.

She re-learned how to talk, how to eat, even how to swallow. Water therapy proved helpful in her ongoing recovery, so when she and her mother, Rose, moved to Atlanta for treatment (her father still works in New York), they immediately sought out the Y. The Y is where Melissa first learned to swim, and the Y is where, once again, she finds herself feeling alive in the water.

Melissa had just moved from a wheelchair to a walker when she met Susan Nowack, a Y water aerobics instructor. Susan volunteered to work with Melissa on her strength, coordination, balance, and independence two or three times a week in the pool. “I was not able to stand in the water by myself,” says Melissa. “Now, I’m actually swimming.” She’s walking better, too. But that’s not all.

“This young lady laughs more than anyone I know,” says Susan, who rediscovered the little joys in her own life. The women formed a bond of appreciation from the gifts they give each other. “I am able to breathe,” says Rose, who never leaves her daughter’s side. Trusting Melissa in Susan’s hands, she’ll now leave to workout herself.

Early in her recovery, Melissa went through a roller coaster of emotions: grateful to be alive, yet sad to have lost so much. Five years later she has embraced her second chance in life. So have the people she’s met along her path. “Every Y we go to, the same underlying concept holds true,” Melissa says. “It’s an environment of caring and compassionate people who just want to help.”

Melissa Algreen
Carl E. Sanders Family YMCA at Buckhead




“The YMCA has done a great deal in helping me achieve my goals.”

Dominic Rayford is all about the goal. Whether it is basketball, football, track and field, or working out, he loves the challenge of fitness. “I do it all,” he says. “But the one thing that gives me the most joy is helping these kids reach their goals, helping them be successful in life.”

Three times a week, Dominic teaches Teen Fitness, working with kids ages 10 to 15. He teaches them how to play basketball, lift weights, use exercise equipment, stretch, run, and get in shape. But, he’s also teaching them something else. “I honestly feel like I’m helping kids become more confident about themselves,” he says.

Dominic understands things don’t come easily. It wasn’t easy for Dominic to get here. He’d never been to a Y before coming here as part of a work-study program. He lost his mother when he was 13 and lives with his father who raised him and his sister. He praises his father for sticking by his kids, a trait which seems to have rubbed off on Dominic, especially at the Y. “I really like encouraging kids, setting goals, helping them meet their goals.”

Dominic came to the Y to achieve his own goal: earn a degree in business management. To keep his job, he has to keep up his grades. He works hard at both, and the points are adding up.

His experiences at the Y help him grow as a person. “The Y helped me develop into a young leader. It’s brought more confidence out of me as a teacher, helped my communication skills and helped me deal with different types of people. I’ve never been in such a diverse environment as this.”

Dominic says he considers this his second home and credits the Y for helping him stay in school. “I love coming here. The atmosphere is warm and loving. I want to study and be successful in life, so I can set a positive example for the kids I teach.”



“I would love to have a flatter stomach, but I’m too old to worry about any beauty contest.”

“My daughter, Deborah, talked me into joining,” says Elizabeth Light. “She said, ‘C’mon, we’re going to join the Y.’ And that was that.” Elizabeth was 78 or 79… she doesn’t really remember. “At my age, it’s hard to know.”

Elizabeth jokes about her age and abilities, but she’s determined to get stronger, stay healthy, enjoy life, and even get a flatter stomach. After three hip replacements, two shoulder surgeries and an ankle reconstruction, Elizabeth thought the Y would be good place for exercise. “My daughter brings me two times a week, and we get to spend time together. She has lost weight and now is able to keep up with me,” she laughs.

What does Elizabeth do at the Y? She rides a stationary bike and lifts weights, though she can’t exactly get on the floor to work on her abs. “At my age, you’re limited,” Elizabeth says. She’s doing more than her doctors thought she could. “I just feel better,” she says. “A lot of people comment on how well I walk, that I get along better.”

That’s another reason Elizabeth enjoys her time at the Y so much: all the friendly people. “I have a lot of friends there. I don’t know their names, but a lot of them know me. I just kind of laugh about it, especially when Deborah says, ‘All the old men are coming to speak to you.’”

You might say Elizabeth brings light everywhere she goes. She loves to grow things. If she lights up some with personality, she charms others by bringing them flowers from her home garden. It’s her way of saying thank you.

Elizabeth says she’s grateful she can come to Y and for the people there. “It means I am able to stay active, keep my leg and arm strength up and continue to feel younger instead of older.”

Elizabeth Light
Decatur Family YMCA


“I just believe in the Y, which is why I wanted to work there. It is a place where the diversity of our neighborhood is represented and common values and goals are shared. This is where I live, this is where I workout, and I can see people from the Y everywhere I go.”

Barbie Briggs
East Lake Family YMCA



“The Y has helped me see that I want to work with children.”

One challenge after another, Heaven Carson keeps jumping hurdles.

Heaven’s had disabilities all her life, mainly processing challenges. She spent part of her youth in a foster care group home. But when she was 11 years old, she was adopted by a loving family. Not long after, her parents enrolled her in Y summer day camp. And soon, she started making giant leaps.

Though friendly, Heaven was timid because of her disabilities. “When I first started coming to the Y, it was not easy to express myself,” she says now with ease. “Going to the Y gave me ways to communicate with other people. It gave me friends. The counselors and people were amazing. They understood and didn’t ask questions. They just helped out, trying to let me talk to them.”

Heaven grew to love sports, reading and talking to others. She’s been learning sign language since second grade. Every summer she’s come back to the Y, first as a camper, and now as a counselor. Besides having fun, she’s discovered she has something unique to offer.

“I have a knack for working with kids with special needs,” she proudly proclaims. “I let them know I understand, because I’m going through it.” Working with younger kids with disabilities and watching them go through dramatic changes, Heaven realizes she, too, has done the same. “The Y has helped me achieve my goal of changing the way people look at children with disabilities, as well as the way children look at themselves.”

Heaven’s mother, Susan, says her daughter is always proving to herself that she can be better. “She has blossomed. She’s patient and has figured out a way to communicate with other kids.” Susan says Heaven is proud to be the first one in her birth family to have a job, to see it can be done even with disabilities. “That she’s responsible, makes her own money, has her own savings account, all these successes add to her confidence, her self-esteem and set her up for the next challenge.”

Heaven Carson
Cowart Family/Ashford Dunwoody YMCA



“My motto: Be nice to everybody.”

Three mornings a week, Theodore Martin’s booming voice echoes throughout the pool area. Even if you’re not taking his senior water aerobics classes, which average 40-50 participants a day, you can’t help but be encouraged by his energy.
Alongside his group in the water, Mr. Ted, as he’s known, is right there practicing what he’s preaching. “You have to get off your behind and do something if you want to get started!” His enthusiasm is contagious. “You’re talking to people 50 and older. They get in there and can raise their arms where they couldn’t before.”

Though it’s mostly seniors, Mr. Ted welcomes all ages and ailments to his classes: arthritis, bad knees, strokes, people in their 90s and barely walking. “I can show you how to walk across the pool and the next thing, we’re jumping rope,” he says.

He also helps people who never learned to swim overcome fear. “We (older black people) didn’t have pools in Georgia. Most of those black women in that pool did not have a pool to swim in when they were young. A lot are afraid of water. It’s a big thing for them to be in the pool. It makes me feel good that I’m doing something to help somebody.”

Long retired, Mr. Ted is a 15-year Y volunteer. It keeps him busy, and it keeps him connected with the senior community. He says the Y is his social life and a great place to exchange information with other people his age. “So many places don’t have anything for seniors to do. A lot of people don’t realize, if you don’t have anybody and you’re a senior, it’s really rough if you’re not going to church all the time.”

Mr. Ted believes his calling to help seniors is in the water. “Being involved with so many seniors in my water classes keeps me coming back to the Y. They depend on me. I do not want to disappoint them.”

Theodore Martin
East Lake Family YMCA




“We have no family here: the first place we felt welcome in Georgia was the Y.”

Mondays and Thursdays are Claudia Aguilar’s favorite days. Those are Zumba class days at the Y. “It’s fun, it’s really fun!” she exclaims. “I’m a Latina, and I love everything with music.” While not exactly night clubbing, it gets this wife and mother out dancing and socializing, in a workout sort of way. And that makes her feel great.

But the Y means so much more than Zumba for Claudia, her husband, Sal, and her young sons, Abram and Alan. It means family. When the Aguilars moved to Atlanta from California several years ago, they left behind a big, close extended family that socialized most weekends together. Here, they had no such network and just one friend who didn’t have kids.

“When I went to the Y,” she says, “I was so excited.” Claudia found other families like hers. They quickly made friends with members and staff. “Now, I know everybody. They know my kids. When I go there, I really feel comfortable, because I’m welcome at the Y. It’s really nice.”

Though concerned early on about her children making friends, it took only a few weeks for them to feel at home. Between the play center, Parents’ Night Out, Kids Rock, and soccer, her boys developed their social lives while staying healthy and fit. “Because of the play center here,” she says, “you feel really good that your kids are taken care of. You feel ready to workout.”

And workout she does, every day, if not Zumba, then weights. Her husband also comes to the Y and is thrilled to see his wife and kids getting so much out of it. The Y is part of their family life, offering something for everyone. Claudia, who spends most of her time looking after her kids, is happy her family is happy. “My lifestyle is better now. I don’t have a lot of money, but physically and emotionally, I feel complete. That’s big.”

Claudia Aguilar
Carl E. Sanders Family YMCA at Buckhead



“I don’t know what power they had on my son, but if they said tomorrow the sun will be purple, he’d believe it.”

In his rookie year at Y summer day camp, Corbin Thompson learned to tackle his fears and come out a winner.

The first week was horrible. “He cried because kids picked on him and called him fat,” says his mother, Latisha. “He complained about having to walk to the swimming pool, saying walking should be outlawed!” Having tried many times to gingerly motivate her son and make him feel good about himself, she asked the camp counselors to give it a try.

“I was impressed,” she says. “He stopped complaining about the kids: he stopped complaining about walking.” The Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation led football drills with the kids and gave out souvenir T-shirts and posters. Corbin loves football, and this was one of the highlights of his summer.

His mom credits the entire camp experience for giving her son a confidence he never had before. “My son never played tennis. Now he loves tennis. He was afraid to go to Six Flags, crying, ‘I’m gonna die!’ Everything was ‘I’m gonna die.’ The counselors told him it would be fine and to try it. He had the most fun in his life with them.”

Since Corbin is an only child with no father around the house, Latisha was thrilled her son was exposed to so many positive, male role models. “Having a man tell a boy, ‘You could do this,’ really made a big difference.”

By the time day camp ended, Corbin was a social butterfly, lost 20 pounds, changed his eating habits, and changed his views of himself. If kids talk about him at school, it doesn’t bother him anymore. Latisha says, “He’ll tell me at home, ‘Kids called me fat, but it doesn’t bother me, because I feel good about myself.’” For the first time, Corbin can stand up in front of his church congregation and sing.

Corbin Thompson
Arthur M. Blank Family Youth YMCA



“I’m excited about what the Y is working to accomplish and its goal of being altruistic.”

You could say the Y saved Chris Bakke from drowning. That and an angel.
As a young kid in Michigan playing with friends around a lake, some bigger kids pushed them into the water. No one realized Chris couldn’t swim until it was nearly too late. He remembers an angel appeared, put a hand in the water and pulled him out, then vanished.

“The very next day, my mom started me in Y swim lessons,” he says. “There I was, learning to blow bubbles. I progressed through the Y program pretty fast. I joined a swim team and even medaled at swimming events.”

When Chris’ family moved to Atlanta, he moved from the pool to the basketball courts, joining a Y league. Aside from memories of an 11-year-old setting off stink bombs in the gym, his joyful experiences at the Y influenced his future choices.
When he started his own dental practice, he joined the newly-opened East Cobb Y to play basketball. He made good friends and started coaching kids’ basketball, which he continued doing for the next eight years. Eventually, he joined the board, and served as chairman for a year. He raised money for the annual campaign to provide financial assistance, thinking, “Maybe I can give a kid a different outlook on life.”

Chris says he feels blessed to have always had parents or the means to be a member of the Y. “You hear stories every summer of kids drowning and think, if maybe they had an opportunity. I’ve always felt if you can give an opportunity to someone to stay out of trouble one summer, or learn how to swim, you’re potentially changing a kid’s life.”

Now, after 10 years on the board, more into marathons than basketball, and more focused on his own family, Chris often re-assesses whether or not to stay on the board. “It’s hard not to,” he says, perhaps realizing he might just be someone else’s angel.

Chris Bakke
McCleskey-East Cobb Family YMCA


“She started quiet and shy. Now, she’s outgoing and fearless! The Y helps my child succeed in so many ways. She has more confidence in herself and doesn’t mind trying hard until she gets it right.”

Nakeita Clark McCier
Arthur M. Blank Family Youth YMCA



“During these classes Nicholas was learning different skills without even knowing it.”

Nicholas Murphy may not have a penchant for competitive sports, but he certainly knows how to throw a ball, run a relay, kick box to video, play in the pool, and participate in other active games. While he’s having fun, he’s also getting his exercise. And that’s what his mom, Deb, loves about Fitness for Kids.

“It’s doable for everybody and it’s just fun,” Deb says. “I hear the laughter out of these kids. It is so much fun watching them having a great time.” And, she says her son is healthier.

Because Deb adopted Nicholas (and his younger brother, Daniel) from Russia without knowing much about his medical history, she’s always encouraged him to stay physically active. That can be tough for a kid more interested in art than football. Sometimes she says it’s hard to get Nicholas excited about going to the Y. But when he gets there, she says he’s excited, and the adrenaline gets going.

Deb says her once quiet and shy son has come out of his shell since he’s been coming to Fitness for Kids. “Nicholas has a new sense of confidence. You can see he’s getting stronger. I see it in his class work, in public speaking, a lot of growth has come out of this. I don’t even think he realizes it.” She’s tickled by the fact he asks for healthy snacks at home.

Whether someone’s teaching her son to dribble a basketball or about food pyramids, as a single mom, Deb appreciates people at the Y take time to teach her son skills that will keep him strong on the outside and the inside as he grows. She also appreciates that her kids are well cared for, so she, too, can workout. The Y, she says, has become a lifeline for her entire family. “The Y is our family entertainment.”

Nicholas Murphy
Cowart Family/Ashford Dunwoody YMCA


“XRKADE boot camp has been the best experience of my life, when exercise is involved. It has helped me lose 70lbs and has changed my life in so many ways.”

Julie Bell
Northwest Family YMCA




“The rock that’s an obstacle in the path of one becomes a stepping stone in the path of another.”

By 5:30 a.m., Eloise Fain anxiously awaits for the doors to open at the Y. “This is where I put it down,” she exclaims, pointing to the indoor track: five miles a day, five days a week, listening to praise and worship on her headphones. She also takes water aerobics classes, uses weights and cardio-machines and volunteers here, a place she calls her second home. At 57 years old, she’s at the top of her game.

It wasn’t that long ago that Eloise topped the scale at 325 pounds. Besides obesity, she suffered from high blood pressure, high cholesterol and severe depression. She didn’t speak to her family much and could barely look at her own reflection. When diagnosed with diabetes in 2007, her fear of needles finally motivated her to say, “No more.”

She started walking every day, first around her downtown neighborhood. Then she joined the Y. Eloise says she didn’t come to the Y looking for motivation or relationships, but simply to get healthy. She was a loner on a mission. But the atmosphere, she says, unexpectedly brought her joy.

Her wellness coach taught her to manage her workout, her diet, and gave her freedom to do it her way. She saw the same people every day, and they noticed her progress. She noticed theirs, and they encouraged each other. Before she knew it, Y members became her social network, her second family and her support system in times of need.

Since 2007, Eloise has lost 190 pounds and gained self-esteem. She’s completed two AJC Peachtree Road Races, and more importantly, feels complete as a person. She’s off all medications and is closer with her family than ever before. She says her Y family taught her balance and boundaries. They also taught her how to use a computer and an iPod. She’s grown from being an introvert to a great friend and motivator of others.

Drawing on her faith and personal experiences, Eloise will be the first to tell you during difficult times, “This too shall pass.”

Eloise Fain
East Lake Family YMCA


“The Y is a true rock of the community, reaching out to all types of people and being genuinely concerned about the welfare of all. The Y has such a giving spirit.”

Spurgeon and Mary Francis Richardson
Cowart Family/Ashford Dunwoody YMCA



“The YMCA gave him a chance when no one else would.”

In just one year, Tarrel Jones, known as TJ, made big strides at the Y. “He’s doing things I never expected,” says his mother, Dominique Newallo.
“Honestly, I didn’t know TJ would learn how to talk as well as he does. He’s definitely proven me wrong.”

TJ has cerebral palsy and developmental delay. Dominique, a single mom, works and is a full-time student at Spelman College with plans for medical school. When TJ was old enough for day care, Dominique started what became a long, discouraging search. “I went from day care to day care to day care. When I’d tell them TJ was four years old, not potty-trained and in a wheelchair, you could feel the air change.” Nearly 20 facilities turned them away.

When Dominique first walked into the Y, she says it was different. “When Ms. Hall said, ‘Bring him by, and fill out an application,’ I felt a weight just lifted off my shoulders.” She thought, “Thank you, Lord, somebody’s actually willing to give him a chance.”

More than a chance, the Y is a safe, healthy environment in which TJ can thrive. He’s made friends, he writes, he creates art, he does homework, and after his first two months there, he came home, says Dominique, “and counted to 10, in Spanish!” TJ’s verbal and counting skills increased, she says, and he’s become more independent and more confident.

The Y is a place of support for Dominique and TJ. She breathes easier knowing her son is well cared for. TJ spends a good part of his day laughing, while learning. Dominique says she’s extremely grateful for the compassion the people at the Y show toward her son. “I have the comfort of knowing he is in good hands the moment he rolls through the door. I love this place!”

Tarrel Jones
Arthur M. Blank Family YMCA



“The Y has impacted me in nearly every decade of my life.”

For Jo Kroger, the Y reflects her cycle of life. It has always been there in some capacity, serving her needs through a family generation.

As a young mother and wife in her 20s, she took her preschool-aged children to the Y for swimming lessons and gymnastics. It was a place and time for teaching.

Raising five kids in her 30s, Jo was a self-proclaimed ‘color-coded-carpool-chart-mom.’ The Y was a center of activity for her family, with swim teams and gymnastics competitions.

When in her 40s her kids were older and she divorced, the Y became ‘all about her’ and stress relief. She loved going to exercise classes, boot camps and dance aerobics so much, she became a certified instructor and taught three to five classes a week.

Remarried in her 50s, she and her husband worked out together at the Y. She’d stopped teaching, and her focus shifted from classes to weights.

In her 60s, she and her husband went to the Y three times a week, attending different classes. During this period, she had hip surgery, but recovered quickly because she was in such excellent physical condition.

Now in her 70s, she and her husband continue to workout on weights at the Y, but very differently. He has a severe, progressive neurological disease, so she is focused mostly on assisting him. Jo credits the Y for being helpful and supportive to her and her husband during this time, and she believes coming here helps slow the progress of his disease.

Between caring for her husband and for her elderly mother, Jo has little time for herself these days, except for early morning walks. But she is gifted with optimism. “Exercise helps with optimism,” says Jo. “Being an optimist is so much better than the other choices.”

Not sure what her 80s and 90s at the Y will be like, Jo plans to be active as long as she can. “Who knows,” she says, “perhaps I will be the first Decatur Y centenarian exerciser.”

Josephine (Jo) Kroger
Decatur Family YMCA



“The YMCA was a gift to our kids.”

All four Davenport kids found something to latch on to at the Y.

“The purpose of us joining the Y was for the kids to have a good, fun place to go and be with friends,” says their mother, Wendy. Membership has proven to be a gift for the whole family, especially since her husband, Danny, who always played sports with the children, has been very sick. During difficult times the Y has been a place to come and relieve stress, to feel safe and, as the kids say, “to laugh and sweat.”

Lauren loves the rock wall, though admits at first she was scared. Now, she and her brother, Andrew, climb to the top, sometimes so excited they scream out to their mom, forgetting they’re not the only ones there. They also like XRKADE, an active gaming workout that combines entertainment and physical activity. Ryan and Jacob prefer using weights and playing basketball. Jacob feels a sense of freedom here and likes to hang out with his friends, while Ryan enjoys the rush of working out outside of school, in a spacious environment among familiar faces.

For Wendy, a religious woman who recently went back to work after 12 years at home with her children, coming here has been a sanctuary. She can walk the track while keeping an eye on her kids. She also uses this time to pray, to read and to get inspired by friends she’s made who’ve also been through trying times. “I walk in feeling 80 and leave feeling 20 again,” she says.

For the kids, the Y is their playground, a healthy outlet with positive influences. “Every day, my children look forward to going to the Y after school,” says Wendy. “They feel energized and refreshed and ready to enjoy life.”

The Davenports encourage their friends and neighbors to renew or become members at the Y, because they know how much they’ve benefited from being here. “It inspired my family to make exercise a priority, and the rewards are amazing,” says Wendy.

Davenport Family
Northwest Family YMCA



“The Y is the meeting place to help others.”

Mike Huddleston truly believes the Y is about the people, plain and simple.
From his first swim lesson in Little Rock, Ark., at age six, to shoveling dirt 43 years later at the East Cobb groundbreaking ceremony, this 20-year charter member says, “The staff at the Y cares about its members. You can tell they’re not just doing a job. They’re attentive, they help people with wellness programs and take a serious interest in their members.”

Over the years, Mike has been into running, racquetball, swimming, spinning, tennis, and weight lifting. But no matter what activity phase he’s going through, what makes him strongest are the friendships he’s made along the way. He says coming to the Y was a great stress reliever during his late wife’s long illness. Not just the exercise, but support from staff and members helped him get through that difficult time. And much of what he learned during that period influenced his later life’s work.

Though it wasn’t his intention, the Y has become Mike Huddleston’s ministry. He offers an ear, a shoulder, a caring heart to anyone in need. He provides advice and motivation to those who ask, most often to seniors. “I was sought out by some folks who lost spouses,” he says, “because they knew I had been where they are and watched me go through it.” In many ways, his compassion has become his calling and certainly his mode of operation at the Y. “Somebody else might work at the homeless shelter or be a big brother. It’s just part of what I do.”

Now remarried and relocated, Mike’s motivation and commitment to the Y remain strong. Despite a longer commute, he tries to come nearly every day and treasures the people there for motivating him and making it easy and fun. “My life has been healthier and happier because of my active participation at the Y.”

Mike Huddleston
McCleskey-East Cobb Family YMCA



“I think they should call it Camp High Heaven!”

Zoe Chadwick is in her element when she’s around horses. Riding them, grooming them, it doesn’t seem to matter. Spending time with horses is a definite highlight for her at YMCA Camp High Harbour.

Then again, everything at Y camp is a highlight for Zoe. “I love camp!” she exclaims. “I just love it. All the people are really nice and every time I go, I meet a new friend.” Zoe says she loves the outdoors and the freedom of being away from home.

If not for camp, Zoe would spend her summers home alone, watching TV instead of making friends. At home, life was often unpredictable and unstable as her single mom battled problems with addiction. During tumultuous times, Zoe’s grandparents and the Y have been constant, stable elements in her life.

Since she was three years old, Zoe’s come to the Northwest Family Y, where her Nana, Susanne Conlon works. From Mothers’ Morning Out to pre-school camp to day camp and Camp High Harbour, Susanne says the Y provides Zoe a safe and fun environment. “Y camps, soccer and other programs helped Zoe grow into a self-confident, fun loving, mature young woman,” she says.

Now living with her grandparents, who coach and manage her Y soccer team, Zoe is a blossoming pre-teen who leads a very active soccer life, loves art, and rides horses when she can. She goes to school with friends she met at the Y. Camp High Harbour is always on her horizon. Eventually, Zoe says she’d like to volunteer and become a counselor there. “I asked my Nana, ‘They get paid to do that?’”

Zoe’s learned some valuable lessons from the Y. She trusts herself a lot more than she used to. “I’ve learned that it’s not always going to be your way,” she says. She also discovered sometimes things turn out much better than you think.

Zoe Chadwick
Northwest Family YMCA &
YMCA Camp High Harbour


“The Y has been an amazing addition to our family. It is a place of fun, growth and healing. I’m not sure where we’d be without it. I know the Y is the place that will strengthen my body while nourishing my entire family.”

Christie Poole
G. Cecil Pruett Community Center Family YMCA

No comment

YMCA Connects Roy Wright to his Community

He’s a dedicated morning exerciser, donor & volunteer


As a 30-year Buckhead YMCA member, donor and volunteer, Roy Wright says he was looking for a place to exercise but found a whole lot more. “The Y does so much beyond health and wellness. I was not aware of its broad scope before I became a volunteer,” he says.

“What really stands out is the camaraderie and inclusive feel. Working out in the mornings, I see a wide range of people. Everyone is dressed to exercise, so you don’t know what anyone does or how much money they have. There is no agenda. Everyone is there for the same purpose. Everyone is equal.”

Roy joined the Northside YMCA on Roswell Road in the 1970s. The Y became part of his family. His sons learned to swim and played soccer there. He and his sons were an active Indian Guide family. An avid exerciser, Roy was part of the Ys & Shiners, an early morning exercise group. You’ll still find him at the Y most days by 6 a.m.

Roy became more connected as a YMCA volunteer. He’s served as a board member for 20 years and chaired the Buckhead Y board. He was an integral member of the capital campaign committee to build the Windsor soccer complex on Peachtree-Dunwoody Road and the current Carl E. Sanders Family YMCA.

“After a thorough search of several locations, this Moores Mill location became available,” Roy says. “We recognized a real opportunity for community outreach, and this site really filled a need for young families. It provided them a nearby place that was affordable and served the entire family.”

The Sanders Buckhead YMCA on Moores Mill Road is celebrating 10 years of connecting with the community, and Roy says the impact is remarkable. “We opened this YMCA with 1,200 members,” he says. “Today, we have more than 15,000 facility and program members, meaningful outreach programs and active partnerships. I am so proud to be involved with this rewarding community work.”


More than just a game
As a coach, Eric Hartz creates an impact


A dedicated father, Eric Hartz is a six-year, volunteer coach for girls soccer at the Carl E. Sanders Family YMCA at Buckhead. He spends his evenings and weekends encouraging and teaching young girls on the field. More importantly, he recognizes the impact of YMCA sports programs when the players are away from the game and at home, school or with their friends.

The Y soccer program provides a place to build life skills like healthy competition, teamwork, conflict resolution, and participating in enjoyable physical activity. “Soccer is something these kids can take with them for life,” Eric says. “I’ve developed friendships and met new people in Atlanta and during my travels simply by throwing on cleats and joining a game. The joys of soccer are cross-cultural and understood in any language.”

Many members don’t know the soccer program exists, because the Sanders Buckhead YMCA fields are off site. For the past 33 years, the Windsor Parkway complex has been home to Buckhead YMCA youth and adult soccer leagues. In 2009, more than 3,000 soccer players and 1,000 lacrosse players gathered on these fields.

Located at Peachtree Dunwoody Road and Windsor Parkway, the complex underwent its first phase of improvements in summer 2009. The renovations included improving the parking areas, adding a new entrance and curbing and landscaping to enhance the overall appearance.

The capital fundraising campaign for further expansion and renovation continues. Future plans call for a new turf field and Boundless™ playground for children with disabilities, a pavilion and gathering areas, concession and restroom facilities, and field improvements.

Children, teens and adults of all abilities, cultures, faiths, and incomes gather on an equal playing field at Windsor Parkway. The YMCA remains true to its mission and philosophy of being open to and serving all. Carrying on a community tradition, Eric one day will see his grandchildren playing on the Windsor Parkway fields and his daughters coaching a new generation of soccer players and YMCA members.


Finding a Place to Belong
On the tennis courts and in the Y


The YMCA tennis program is a great way to meet friends and stay in shape. Bunny Hudson and Tammy Duncan belong to the Carl E. Sanders Family YMCA at Buckhead because they can be physically active, play a sport they love, and maintain a great social life. Members of ALTA and a USTA Ladies 4.0 weekday league, they play at the Y at least three times a week.

“I ask everyone: Who needs a country club when you have a YMCA?” says Bunny. “My friends may have country club memberships, but they come to the Y for tennis instruction. We have the best coaches, and you really see it when we play our matches.”

Bunny and Tammy agree the Y is much more than a place to play tennis. Bunny’s kids are involved in lacrosse and soccer, and Tammy’s husband is a Metro Atlanta YMCA board member. “We are members, volunteers and donors who connect to our community through our YMCA,” says Tammy.

Both say it is important for them to contribute to the YMCA Partner With Youth annual campaign. “The Y makes my list of charitable contributions for several reasons,” says Bunny. “The scope of activities the Y offers to all age groups can’t be matched by other organizations, and we feel privileged to have the Y as a resource for our family to enjoy. We want to make it possible for other families to have the opportunity to enjoy the Y as much as we do, but we know some people need a little help.”

Members like Bunny and Tammy are the reason why our Y is a wonderful place to belong,” says Joe Ambler, Buckhead YMCA tennis pro. “Bunny and Tammy are model Y members. They are always so positive, and their spirit, sense of fun and enthusiasm rubs off on everyone around them.”


Tony & Frances Ayoub
Grandparents create YMCA memories for kids and grandkids


Tufts of grass flew from behind their children’s feet as they ran across the YMCA soccer field. Inside the YMCA, their daughter’s feet clung to the balance beam as she practiced gymnastics. Tony and Frances Ayoub never imagined these past experiences would spark memories in future generations of YMCA members.

With the Decatur-DeKalb Family YMCA’s rich history of serving the community for more than 50 years, generations have been raised at this Y on Clairemont Road. Grandparents like Tony and Frances benefit from YMCA programs and enjoy getting their grandchildren involved in Y programs.

Tony and Frances joined the Decatur-DeKalb YMCA when he retired in 2002. They like to keep in good shape and in good spirits. “We feel happy we belong to an organization that serves the whole community,” says Tony. “We enjoy the social interaction with people we know and meet.” Tony exercises six days a week with Body Pump, Pilates, step aerobics, and high energy athletic training. Frances enjoys swimming, walking and strength training three days a week.

Two of the Ayoub’s five children now have families with children who participate in YMCA programs. For example, son John and son-in-law Mark Shuford are coaching an indoor Y soccer team on which John’s daughter Lena and Mark’s son William play.

Expanding YMCA programs to their grandchildren, Tony and Frances bring them to the Y during summer mornings and school vacations. The grandchildren make new friends and participate in new activities while Tony and Frances enjoy their Y workouts and friendships.

Tony and Frances bring their extended family to the YMCA because “the staff is responsive, cooperative, helpful, tactful, and pleasant, which attribute to the well- developed and congenial YMCA culture,” says Tony. Whether spending time with their grandchildren at the YMCA or at home, nothing is sweeter than the youthful smiles on their faces. “Their sweet young voices, interest in new activities, and squeals of joy are the cherished memories and experiences of our grandchildren,” says Tony.

Tony and Frances are part of the rich history of the Decatur-DeKalb Family YMCA and continue to bring new memories and experiences for future generations of YMCA members.


Swimming for a cause
How I learned to have fun and make a difference
By Joshua Wojtowicz


My name is Joshua. I am nine years old, and the YMCA has been part of my life since I was little. One summer we came to the pool. It was awesome. I didn’t know how to swim like everyone else, and it made me want to learn how. I started taking lessons from Coach Diana and have been swimming ever since.

I am on the Buckhead Barracudas swim team at the Carl E. Sanders Family YMCA. I also swim in a summer league at Chastain Park. I really like my coach, Danny, because he likes to have fun. But, he makes us work really hard. I get to learn while having a good time in the water.

I worked hard and moved up to practice with the nine- and 10-year-olds when I was just eight. It was a lot harder than the younger group. I practice five days a week, and my swimming has really developed over the last two years. My fastest 25-yard freestyle time is 17.38 seconds.

My brother, Jacob, is five years old and is learning how to swim with Coach Genevieve. I help him when we go to the pool in the summer. Last year, I swam 104 laps in the Aqua-thon to raise money for the YMCA Partner With Youth campaign. I like knowing I can do what I like and help others at the same time.

Before I could swim, I didn’t do much at all. Now that I know how to swim and made the Y swim team, I am amazed to see how much I can do. I have a lot more confidence in myself. I want to go to the Olympics some day, so I have to start training now. I appreciate all of the YMCA aquatic staff, especially Coach Diana, who taught me to swim and Coach Danny for giving me pointers on how to improve.


An Anchoring Point
Justin Kenagy’s 25 years with Decatur DeKalb Family YMCA


When Justin Kenagy struck out on his own as a teenager, he had two items to his name – a 1972 VW bus and a membership at the Decatur DeKalb Family YMCA. “I went through a rough patch in my teens, and the Y was a place I could go to clear my head, exercise and clean myself up. I relied on it.”

Justin has been a member of the Decatur Dekalb YMCA for most of the last 25 years and has seen the dynamic of his member relationship evolve from age 15 to 40. When he returned from college in Savannah, he renewed with a family membership and began recruiting friends. “My six year old daughter learned to swim here. She took gymnastics as a toddler and just this summer she attended horse camp and swim camp. Delia loves the Y, and is currently under the false impression that I’m the strongest man in the world because I lift weights here.”

Beyond family benefits, Justin has discovered the YMCA as a resource for bettering his company and building a sense of camaraderie among his staff. As co-owner of Onyx Consulting, Justin provides YMCA memberships to all his 17 employees in their benefits package. “We encourage all our tech consultants to get their blood pumping as often as possible. Several of our people work out together regularly. We don’t prescribe to the “geek” or “nerd” stereotypes that other tech companies champion. The Y helps us build and maintain a more confident and professional team within our company.”

Justin cites gratitude and a sense of personal responsibility for his choice to contribute in amounts of $1000 through his recently formed non-profit, The Onyx Consulting Foundation. “We created our foundation to raise continuous funding for The DeKalb Rape Crisis Center and other causes relating to women and children in need. The Partner With Youth program falls within this scope, and we’re glad to be a part of such a worthy cause.”

Justin admits it’s no accident his home and second business location are both less than one mile from the Decatur Dekalb YMCA. “All of the things my family needs seem to be clustered around the Decatur area and the YMCA has always been in the center of my lifestyle – like an anchoring point. We’ll always be supporters of the Decatur-DeKalb YMCA.”


The Real McKoy Story
By Susan Jordan


DDY Executive Director Bill McKoy’s first career was in professional football. Drafted after his graduation from Purdue University, he played outside linebacker for the Denver Broncos, the Houston Oilers and the San Francisco 49ers. McKoy says playing team sports helped him develop appreciation for the importance of assessing people’s strengths and understanding how they can best serve an organization.

After football, McKoy worked in recruiting at Ross Perot’s Electronic Data Systems and in human resources at Grady Hospital. Then Metro Atlanta YMCA hired him to initiate and coordinate teen programs.

There was a YMCA in Bill McKoy’s childhood in Winston-Salem, NC, where he learned to swim and went to dances and connected with resident summer camp.
But the real power of the Y was something that McKoy says he experienced much later, in Atlanta, when word got around about the Y teen computer-assisted tutoring program he developed along with a DeKalb County teacher.

“People heard about it and sought us out,” McKoy recalls, in particular the grandmother of a little girl who was old enough for second grade but had never been to school because her mother had neglected to send her. “We tutored her for a year and she was able to pass the test in the school system to get into the second grade in that next year. I think I got it, at that point, about how we were actually a part of the community and directly involved in helping make somebody’s life better.”

McKoy has now spent more than 20 years in YMCA work in metro Atlanta. He left the Metro office to serve as associate executive director at DDY, and then he became executive director of the Robert D. Fowler YMCA when it opened at Peachtree Corners in 1996. Back here at DDY since 2001, McKoy finds the membership of this branch exceptional in its embrace of the Y. “The people at this location express without hesitation how connected they feel here,” McKoy says, “how the Y feels like family, and how welcome the Y is as part of the community.”


Why the Y?
C.F. Bakker joined on a dare
Do you know Sanders Buckhead YMCA Wellness Coach C.F. Bakker? Chances are you do, if you come to the Y in the morning or early afternoon. C.F. is a wellness coach, teacher, counselor, and cheerleader.


C.F. may show you how to use a strength-training machine. He may chat about your family over a cup of coffee in the lobby. Or, he may call you to make sure you are on track to meet your wellness goals.

He’s so comfortable at the Y, most people assume he’s been here all his life. However, he first came to the YMCA on a dare. After C.F.’s friend and minister suffered a heart attack, the minister’s son bought his dad a YMCA membership and asked C.F. and his wife, Julie, to join for moral support.

Julie dared C.F. to join, and bet he would quit within 6 months. Just to prove her wrong, he developed an exercise plan and stuck to it. After two months of gasping while on the treadmill, C.F. decided he either had to give up smoking or give up his Y membership. He threw out his cigarettes and worked out even harder, quickly losing 55 pounds. He’s kept it off ever since.

He kicked another bad habit with the Y’s help, too. C.F. stopped drinking before joining the Y. He credits the Y with keeping him on that path. “I replaced negative behaviors like drinking and smoking with positive, healthy lifestyle habits,” he says. “And even better, I am helping others achieve their goals of living healthier, more active lives.”

C.F. considers himself very fortunate to work at the Buckhead YMCA. “This work is so rewarding and gratifying,” he says. “I honestly feel like I can make a difference. I look forward to coming to work and being surrounded by wonderful people.”


Children get first taste of American culture
YMCA reflects diverse and inclusive community
By Katy Fisher


Disha’s dimples and beaming smile are evident as she enters Parents’ Morning Out at the Ed Isakson/Alpharetta Family YMCA. International families feel safe leaving their young children like Disha at the Alpharetta Y, because they place their child into the arms of caring staff members like themselves. The YMCA reflects the broad, cultural diversity of north Fulton and Alpharetta.

Parents’ Morning Out allows parents the opportunity to run errands while their children experience story time, arts and crafts, recreational activities, music and movement. For many children, it is their first exposure to American culture and their first time apart from immediate family members. Crossing social boundaries can be stressful for parents and these children, who are 18 months to four years of age.

The 40 children in the program are from Asia, India, Latin America, and the U.S. “About 99 percent of these children and families are having their first exposure to American culture at the YMCA,” says Mumtaz Khan, an after-school childcare site director and Parents’ Morning Out teacher. “Parents’ Morning Out helps children – and their parents – to shed their inhibitions while smoothly transitioning to be more social and open to new experiences.

“I was born in the Far East, so I know these parents are protective about their kids. Most are not exposed to anyone beyond their immediate families before they start school. The parents see a mixed staff at the YMCA who keep their children safe and help them cross boundaries and overcome shyness.”

Besides learning English, the children are exposed to various American customs and traditions like holidays. They learn about pumpkins and fall colors, turkey and Thanksgiving, Santa Claus and Christmas through arts and crafts and other YMCA activities.

Recreational playtime also allows for additional inclusive activities. “In the gym there are no boundaries, so the kids just have fun while they play and mingle,” says Mumtaz. Through a variety of activities, the children increase their self-confidence, English and social skills while interacting with other kids their age.

Mumtaz says time and patience are what it takes for these kids to adapt so well to their new environment. Parents’ Morning Out helps parents, children, and other YMCA members become more inclusive, knowledgeable and accepting of other cultures, their traditions and family values.

“The YMCA is a second home to families of different cultures and countries,” says Mumtaz. “Many families are hooked for life because of the safe environment and warmth the YMCA generates to all.”


Meet Five After-School Friends
YMCA Program Offers Safety, Enriching Activities & Hope


Five friends enjoy their afternoons at the Carl E. Sanders Family YMCA at Buckhead, part of an after-school enrichment program. Along with 60 other children ages six to12 from Scott Elementary School and Bolton Academy, they come to the YMCA daily and participate in recreational, academic and creative activities.

Each child is chosen for the program based on good behavior at school. Coming to the Y gives them an opportunity to exercise and socialize in a supervised, safe and caring environment.

“I love to be creative and have an opportunity to express myself. At home, I have no one to play with after school. I go home alone and can’t go outside by myself. I love coming to the Y to do arts & crafts. I feel joyful when I am here with my friends.” Rachel loves having a creative outlet.

“I like having a place to play outside without fear of the crime that surrounds my home. My mom likes the YMCA because it keeps me out of trouble. It also helps me perform better in school because I can get help with my homework. The counselors are encouraging, and I look up to them.” Kayla enjoys just being able to go outside and play on the playground.

“The YMCA is fun, but it’s more than that, too. I have played new sports, learned to swim and joined a dance group. The counselors are important role models to me. They teach me it is important to show character even when no one is looking.” Jailyn is excited about new activities like yoga and hip hop she has tried at the Y.

“I am pretty shy. But at the YMCA, each new activity is an opportunity to learn and challenge myself. The YMCA helps me and my friends. It makes us see a future.” Jaylon excels in gymnastics, but he also enjoys swim lessons.


Celebrating Fifty Years of Service to the Community
By Stacey Stevens


The Decatur-DeKalb YMCA has roots in the community spanning over 63 years. The current building was erected in 1960 however the Y had been running programs out of one room in the Cooper House on Sycamore Street since 1946. It was a collaboration between churches, elementary schools and city parks that allowed the Y to offer Hi-Y & Tri Hi clubs, Indian Guides, basketball and soccer leagues and day camp to thousands of kids in the community. The Decatur Y had the second largest day camp program in Metropolitan Atlanta. In fact, the Decatur-DeKalb YMCA was one the largest branch YMCA’s without a building in the United States.

Fifty years ago a step was taken and a journey begun that has touched generations of individuals in our community. On February 5, 1960, with hard hats and shovels in hand, YMCA leadership officially “broke ground” on a full service facility. John S. Thibadeau, chairman of the board at the time and remembers the day perfectly “It was a day we will always remember. Volunteers and staff had worked hard to prepare of that big day.” Fifty years later and the Y is still a thriving gathering center in the community. In fact, there are 138 individuals who have been a member of the Decatur-DeKalb YMCA for at least twenty-three years. In 2002 the Pioneers Club was created to honor these members. The Pioneers are a committed group of men and women with continuous Decatur-DeKalb YMCA membership for more than 23 years.

Mac Willett, board member for over ten years and current Chair of the Board and member of the Pioneers Club believes that the Y is a home-a home for individuals, for families and for the community. ” It is so rewarding to be leading an organization that has such deep roots in the community. The fact that there are 145 individuals who have been a members of the Decatur-DeKalb Family YMCA for more than 23 years is a testament to the extraordinary people who were part of the Y fifty years ago and those who are part of it today.”

Many Pioneers were instrumental in setting up the groundwork for the Y to flourish, and they continue to play an active role in the YMCA. Larry Fossett is a 45-year member of the Decatur-DeKalb YMCA. He played a major role in starting the youth soccer program at the YMCA. The Decatur-DeKalb Y was the first Y in the United States to offer youth soccer.
“The YMCA embodies all of the things life is about,” says Larry. “You learn as a team to win or lose and build a lot of memories as you go. Each individual is important but we are all stronger together.”

A birthday is also a time to look ahead. To continue in this great tradition, the Decatur-DeKalb YMCA will continue to assess the ever-changing needs of our community as well as how we as an organization are responding to them. “I know that the Decatur Family Y will still be going strong for another fifty years, “ says Mac.


Y volunteer gives to others what he once received
By Dave Owens


I was a Y kid. A high school teacher in North Fulton, I know firsthand from my own childhood experiences that YMCA programs build strong kids. Youth programs are fun, present a great opportunity to instill core values in a safe environment, allow kids to be themselves, and give them a place to accept and appreciate others.

I volunteer at the Ed Isakson/Alpharetta Family YMCA Teen Center. I meet with middle school-aged Junior Leaders every Thursday night during the school year. I also help out as needed supporting the kids’ volunteer projects, chaperoning fun events in the teen center, and chauffeuring on field trips. One of the special joys of mentoring at the Y is witnessing the decency and caring our kids bestow on one another.

One of my best memories is a trip the teens made last year to watch a basketball game. We drove to Philips Arena for an Atlanta Hawks game. I’m a basketball fan, and I looked forward to the game as did many. But, no one was more excited about the game than Adidas, one of our middle school kids.

Adidas is a quiet kid, hard to get to know. One thing I now know about Adidas is that he LOVES basketball. He showed up for the event wearing his red Hawks T-shirt and sweatband, sat behind me talking basketball non-stop while I drove the bus, and broadcast the game play-by-play from the seat next to me at the arena.

It was a good night for me and a great one for Adidas. It was his first NBA basketball game ever.

Now, that may be a cute story, but it is special to me. Driving the bus back from the game that night, I remembered my first pro game – the Philadelphia Warriors versus the Cincinnati Royals. I was on a YMCA field trip from the Krannert Family YMCA in Indianapolis in 1964 or 1965. I was eight or nine years old, LOVED basketball, and I had a great night.

I recall a saying that I’ll try not to misquote. “What a child doesn’t receive, he can seldom later give.” While that may caution us to teach our children well, I now prefer to fashion my own quote from its converse: “What a child receives, he later can give.”
Simply put, I volunteer at the YMCA because I can, because I must. It is fair to say that I was, in part, built this way at a YMCA some 40 years ago.


Ken Ortloff


During challenging times in our lives, we are often reminded, “when one door closes, another opens.” When marathon runner Ken Ortloff sustained back injuries in a car accident, his doctors gave him the news: no more distance or marathon running.

“I had been an avid runner for nearly 20 years, competing in 5Ks to full marathons,” Ken relays. “I needed another stress reliever and a way to maintain fitness. That turned out to be going to the Y’s Master’s Swim. “At first, I was apprehensive to join because I was not a swimmer,” Ken recalls. Carolina, his wife, shares that now he would not miss Master’s Swim for anything! “The friends and relationships he has made at the pool keep him getting up at 5:25 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday! In fact, theirs is a sense of camaraderie that he probably never had with running!”

“The Master’s Swim continues to enhance my mental and physical well being while keeping me humble,” Ken explains. Ken may be humble, but his wife beams with pride! “Not only is Ken now a swimmer, he completed the 100-mile swim by April, working on doing 300 this year. I think last year he did the 100-mile swim by June and wanted to see if he could do another 100 by the end of the year and ended up with over 250 miles! He swims a 5K a few times a week! That just staggers me, a non-swimmer.”

“The Y has helped our family achieve several goals, from achieving and maintaining personal fitness goals to introducing swim and fitness to our young children.” ,” Ken notes. “We’ve had many opportunities to change fitness centers, but all seem to lack the community and spiritual connection we find at the YMCA!


Members support each other and inspire others
You’ll find Susie & Traci at the Y twice a day, every day
Best friends Susie Avzardel and Traci Crowder are familiar faces at the Carl E. Sanders Family YMCA at Buckhead. The YMCA is their favorite place to socialize and remain active.


Both women found a place to belong at the Y because of its outreach program. The Sanders Buckhead YMCA offers memberships to residents of the Atlanta Group Home. All five adults with developmental disabilities living at the group home, located on Margaret Mitchell, come to the Y.

They enjoy a variety of Y activities. Susie likes the cardio machines and strength training equipment, especially the leg press. Traci prefers walking on the indoor track. Turbo Kick, a high-intensity cardio exercise class, is one of their favorite group classes.

“We love when the ladies come to Turbo Kick. They energize the entire class, push everyone to work harder and add a special spark to our Turbo team,” says Tracy Gongola, the Turbo Kick instructor. “All classes incorporate a fun factor as well as a great workout, so everyone – regardless of their age, ability or fitness level – can enjoy a group exercise experience.”

Susie also participates in THE COACH APPROACH®, an exercise support process designed by the Metro Atlanta YMCA to give members the skills to stick with physical activity. In just two months, Susie lost seven pounds, lowered her blood pressure and cut her diabetes medication in half.

“C.F. Bakker is the best wellness coach,” she says. “He encourages me, and he makes me work hard. I know I can do it with him on my side.”

Both women know what it takes to set goals and work hard to reach them. Susie and Traci competed in Special Olympics events: Susie on the swim team and Traci in basketball. Traci practices her skills in the Y’s gym, even claiming to teach Susie a few ball-handling tricks.

Susie and Traci say they are impacted by their YMCA, where they meet new friends, try new activities and maintain healthy lifestyles. They, in turn, inspire their fellow members, wellness coaches and group exercise instructors with their positive attitudes, genuine laughter and daily perseverance.


Margy Smith & Shirley Sutton


Reflecting upon fond memories of their youth in Colorado Springs, sisters Shirley Sutton and Margy Smith recall the integral role the Y played in their lives. For Shirley, the Y was where she learned to swim; Margy fondly remembers going to the Y’s summer sleep away camp when she was in grade school. Now, Shirley and Margy are playing an integral role in Alpharetta’s Y as members and volunteers.

“I chose the Y because it was close to where we live and the facilities were excellent,” cited Margy. “My husband, Dan and I keep coming back because of the excellent facilities, pool, workout room, and the wonderful people who come here. It’s a comfortable place to swim and exercise — and enjoy the company of members, as I volunteer with the senior activities, including Granny’s Bake Sale, Mardi Gras, Senior Fest and other events. I also enjoy Book Club Seniors.

“I started swim aerobics because my knees were bad and I needed to get my body in shape for bilateral knee replacement. Maria Sullivan, my instructor, was able help me get fit; in 2003, I had both knees replaced at the same time. I am more active now, participating in swim aerobics, and training with Coach Debbie, and definitely feel so much better than I did in my 50s!”

Shirley also works out with Coach Debbie twice weekly and walks the treadmill twice weekly per doctor’s orders. “The YMCA has become a part of my life because of the need to exercise,” Shirley explains. “I feel better — it keeps me moving. The bonus is the many friends I have made. I enjoy being involved and volunteering. As Senior Coordinator, I organize the Granny’s Bake Sale, held annually, benefitting Partner with Youth, and other Senior Activities. I’m also active in the Senior Book Club and Knitting.”

Of everything Shirley is involved in, what has been her single best experience with the Y? “Being invited to Summer Camp, where children served lunch and expressed their ‘thank yous’ for the Seniors’ donations to Partner with Youth,” she says, with a smile. Donations were made from Granny’s Bake Sale and Knit Wits Sale.


Offering stability in children’s lives
After-school enrichment program marks 10 years
By Katy Fisher


When Joshua Byrd was 14 years old, he noticed something that would impact the rest of his life: a smile. Growing up in the Roswell area, Joshua craved to be around friendly peers and mentors. He met these friends and adults while attending summer day camp, hanging out and playing sports at Waller Park, one of Roswell’s recreation centers.

Joshua never imagined Waller Park would become a vital part of his life. Since 1996 he has been a role model for children in YMCA summer camps at Waller Park. Today, 26-year-old Joshua is the site director of the YMCA’s Prime Time after-school program at Waller Park and has a great group of co-workers who nurture children and keep the program fun and exciting.

He continues to be inspired by the mentors he had growing up. Joshua lives by the motto, “What would I be if I can’t make the people around me better?” Joshua says he always had adult mentors in his life and simply enjoys returning the favor to kids just like him.

“Being around these kids adds joy to my life,” says Joshua. “When I first started working with kids, I worried about the little things. I’ve learned to see the big picture and enjoy every laugh and smile the kids give.”

For the past 10 years, Waller Park has been the site of a grant-funded, YMCA after-school program. From 2:30 to 6:30 p.m., children have an opportunity to play, make friends, get academic help, and interact with adults in a safe, supervised environment. This enriching program keeps children from being home alone and allows them to have more quality time when returning home to their parents, since homework is completed before they leave the program.

Each day 35 children from Roswell North and Mimosa elementary schools participate in the program which also includes YMCA character development lessons, health awareness and physical activity, social activities, and nature education. “Parents appreciate the YMCA after-school program, because the staff and activities reinforce what they are instilling in their children at home,” Joshua says.

The program is making a difference for local families. “I’ve seen brothers and sisters from the same family come through the program,” he says. “When the older kids see me or other staff members, they greet us with hugs and smiles. It’s a great feeling to know we are making an impact by bringing stability to many families.”
The YMCA program at Waller Park is a gem in the community, a place where kids and staff add joy and smiles to their lives and to the lives of others.


Why I Love The Y


My name is Brandi Alexander and I am a 17 year old junior at Henry W. Grady High School. I began my YMCA career in 2007 when I joined the Leaders In Training program (L.I.T) to help with summer camp. I love working with kids so I knew I was going to enjoy being a counselor. What I did not know was that the YMCA would change my life.

One of the best things about working in summer day camp is that you can work in many different types of camp. I gained hands on experience teaching drama, gymnastics and swimming. Working with kids can be both challenging and rewarding. My favorite part is getting to know the parents. It meant a lot to me when parents would request that their kids be placed in my group.

I usually stay in my comfort zone of teaching swimming, but last summer I actually stepped out of my comfort zone and worked with an 11 year old autistic child named Trent. I have very little experience working with children with disabilities such as Autism. He was absolutely the highlight of my summer because working with him made me realize how important it is to have a voice for those who don’t. Each day, after camp, I would volunteer my time to work with Trent. He is pretty much just a normal kid. The only difference was that he required a little more one-on-one attention.

It was through working with Trent that I better understood the four core values of the YMCA: Respect, Responsibility, Honesty and Caring. These values have become the building block of my entire life because I am a role model for the children that come to the Y. If I exude excellence, then so will they.

I use each core value everyday. I consider Caring to be the most important character value that others should follow. I say this because you can respect someone without caring for them, but you cannot care for someone without respecting them. The same can be said about responsibility and honesty. When you care for someone you have a responsibility and duty to remain honest and loyal.

When summer camp ended, I joined the gymnastics staff. I recently joined the YMCA’s Teen Leaders Club as well. The Teen Leaders Club is a place where differences are put aside and teens come together to plan ways to serve others by volunteering. The club is composed of 10 amazing teenagers that feel strongly about giving back to the community. In this club we take trips to different YMCA’s and visit with other Teen Leaders; we get to meet new people and participate in projects with teens from other places. I hope to further expand my leadership skills by one day participating in the YMCA”s mission trip to Costa Rica.

Kim Castro has been instrumental in helping me to develop personally and professionally during my four years with the YMCA. Each time I am at the Y, I learn something new. I look forward to working with the Y for many years to come!


Girlfriends laugh and live well at the Decatur-DeKalb Family YMCA


The joke says the only good thing to come out of Alabama is Interstate 20. Ruth Sanders and Sally Sears are laughing all the way to the Decatur-DeKalb Family YMCA. These Alabama natives are committed YMCA members. “It can be tough for us to get through a workout, because we run into so many friends we just have to talk to!” says Sally.

They’re both committed to the YMCA and Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church. Sally has lived in DeKalb County more than 20 years and has been part of the YMCA since her son started in youth sports.

“I tell people if they want a place for looks and gorgeous bodies, there are many expensive choices around town,” says Sally. “For me, seeing folks more and less well off, more and less fit, older and younger, firm and not-so-firm, the YMCA is where I can measure myself and improve. I appreciate the richness of the diversity here.”

Dedicated to this community, Ruth has been a YMCA member for more than 10 years. Ruth taught physics to most of Atlanta during a 40-year tenure at Henry Grady High School and Lakeside High School. Former students interrupt her with reminders of the day she met Albert Einstein…and had to show the good doctor which end of the microscope to use.

Sally reported news stories at Channel 5 and Channel 2 for 20 years. She runs into subjects and sources at the Y every day. Now she is finishing work with Druid Hills High School’s construction project and the restoration of Frederick Law Olmstead’s Linear Park along Ponce de Leon Avenue.

Sally and Ruth agree that “the best part of the YMCA is the extended family of people, in its complete range of abilities and accents. We are part of something much bigger at the YMCA. It’s not just a weight room, cardio or group classes: it’s something much more.”

Ruth and Sally know seeing friends and staying in touch are important for good health and long lives. They love the way the YMCA brings them together with so many people they know, or want to know. That’s why they lift the weights, swim the laps and are always eager to stop and say, “What have YOU been up to?”


Meet YMCA Teen Leader Taylor Moore:
I am growing into a responsible, young adult
By Taylor Moore


I cannot say I chose the YMCA. My mother knew of the YMCA’s Christian core values and about the new teen center and wanted me to become involved.
When I was first introduced to the teen program and YMCA Teen Director Ziggy Asfaw, I was not entirely sure what was in store for me. It is often difficult for teenagers to find a place or a certain group of people where we are 100 percent comfortable being ourselves.

I was interested in community service, and after hearing about Mission: Atlanta 2008, I was hooked. There were so many great things happening through the Y, and this sounded perfect for me.

In the summer of 2009, I participated in the Teen International Excursion program to Costa Rica. In an effort to break stereotypes and learn about our common interests, teens from both countries discussed topics that demonstrated similarities and differences about our cultures. By the end of the trip, I forged strong friendships with the Costa Rican teens, known as Ticos. Currently, I am the secretary of the Senior Leaders teen board and will make a second International Excursion trip in 2010 to Jerusalem.

I have been involved at my YMCA for two years and have had many wonderful opportunities presented to me. I am learning so much about myself and others. I have a passion for helping to improve the lives of others, especially young children, but often have had trouble finding ways to do so.

The YMCA has given me the chance to be more involved in my community. Through Senior Leaders, Mission: Atlanta and International Excursions, I am positively changing the lives of others while changing my own life. I am grateful for all the YMCA does for teenagers like me who want to make a change in our community and in the world.
Without the YMCA I would not be the confident person I am today. I know I always will be challenged with new possibilities, to meet new people and learn more about myself. The YMCA taught me how to embrace these challenges and is a place where I always will belong.


Water Haven
By Kyla Ross


It has been 25 years since the motion picture “Cocoon” premiered and the 50 year old pool at the Y is still a place where young and old alike can come to life. It is a place where life skills are developed. Families come together, parents come with children in arms, teaching them the lessons and responsibility of freedom in the water. It is a place of routine. Those devoted to the age-old sport arrive like clockwork, day in and day out, to claim their lane and swim the usual workout. For so many, the water is a source of healing, allowing their bodies to be restored after an injury. It is a place where friends gather weekly for water fitness classes, pacing in the pool, using the resistance of the water to build strength. Most of all, it is a place where all come to feel alive and energized.

Saturday mornings at the Decatur-Dekalb Family YMCA pool are bustling with activity. Kids can hardly contain their excitement waiting for the opportunity to frolic in the water and splash about, trying their new stroke techniques. Major milestones are celebrated, and a sense of confidence is instilled in both the children as well as the parents.

Early mornings at the Y pool have a slightly different flare. By 5:05 AM, swimmers line the deck with their colorful suits and caps. They gear up and hop in. And, suddenly, all is right with the world. That cool and buoyant feeling of the water seems to take the body’s stress and pain away in an instant. It is evident by the smile on their faces as they take a quick dunk, and launch off for the morning swim. Aquatics director and masters swimming coach, Beth Costello, is never happier than when in the water. She speaks of the overwhelming sense of peace felt when in the pool. “It is as if I have come home. Lap after lap is spent breathing rhythmically and repetitively. It gives me a chance to tune out life’s distractions, if only for a brief moment. And, I am left with a calming energy that allows me to tackle the day ahead.“

The swimming community would not be complete without those coming for the camaraderie of group fitness. Swimmers of all ages take the stress off of the joints for a fun and energetic workout in the water. Actress and world traveler, Dovie Wingard, 89, attributes her ability to continue such an active lifestyle to her daily swims. Still an active tennis player, Dovie attends water aerobic classes at the Decatur-DeKalb Family YMCA three times a week and meets with a trainer once a week. “I have been a member of the Y for over ten years. If I miss a day or two, I know that someone from the class is going to be calling. It is like my family.”

So, it seems, that “Cocoon” had it right. There is something magical and special about the water. It brings a sense of youth to all. It is exciting and calming, it is uplifting and refreshing, and it is freeing and fun. May the water always continue to be a source of strength and serenity to young and old for many years to come!


Collaborative brings Clarkston together

Decatur-DeKalb Family YMCA reaches out to refugee families


Transitioning to a new city is a difficult task for anybody, even when your new home is as progressive and open as the suburbs of metro Atlanta. Imagine moving to a new city from a war-torn country seven time zones away, living side-by-side with your sworn enemy and your family decimated from years of geopolitical struggles.

Daunting is an understatement. It might as well be another world, another universe.

For the children of refugees from global flashpoints like the Middle East, west Africa and Eastern Europe – who now call the DeKalb enclave of Clarkston home – there is a tie that binds, thanks in part to volunteers from the Decatur-DeKalb Family YMCA: soccer and social interaction in one of the nation’s most diverse and dynamic communities.

Two decades ago, refugee settlement programs identified Clarkston, situated in central DeKalb, as a good fit for displaced persons from global hotspots. The rental market was wide open as residents moved farther away from Atlanta’s urban core, and Clarkston was the last stop on MARTA’s transit line into the city.

By the 2000s, Census statistics show, local high school students came from more than 50 countries; a local mosque had 800 worshippers; and by some estimates, half the population was from outside the U.S. These residents share common backgrounds: famine, war and other horrors in places such as Sudan, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Burundi. Within a five mile radius, 75 different languages are spoken.

The Decatur-DeKalb Family YMCA, however, makes the transition to Atlanta much easier with donor-supported programs. For the last several years, the Decatur Y has helped break social barriers through its refugee outreach program. Clarkston kids participate in recreational soccer, programs that tutor and mentor, special events and field trips, a community kitchen project, learn to swim lessons, and summer camp.

“These are kids, ages 8 to 14, from very different parts of the world, such
as Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, who initially don’t know very much about
each other,” says Shell Ramirez, International Outreach Director at the Decatur Y.

“The kids work out their differences, says Ramirez. “Soccer is a great mediator; it’s sort of the language they all speak, along with the American kids. It’s like a United Nations meeting, and everyone out there is 10 years old or younger. It’s so cool.”

This year, the soccer program paired American families with refugee families to help ease the transportation needs. “It has been a wonderful experience for my entire family, I have even involved my brother in the program,” says Rich Richmond, YMCA soccer coach.

“Our whole team embraced the refugee families. Our American families cooked a full Thanksgiving meal for a family of eight and, for Christmas, the team contributed money to provide meals, gifts and clothing for the family. The smiles while opening up the many gifts was the best part of sharing this time with them,” says Richmond.


Amy Cook


Alpharetta Y’s Summer Day Camp and After School Program involve children in recreational activities, helping them develop essential life skills. Leading that charge is Amy Cook, Director of Children’s Services, who brought her passion for child development and experience in early childhood education to our Alpharetta branch in March 1998.

“For me, the Y provided an opportunity to grow from a part-time Primetime Counselor to working with Day Camp and After School programs and into my current position. Along the way, I would connect with a special child who needed extra care, enriching both our lives,” Amy explains. “At the Y, I can discuss with parents about specific life skills their child needs to move forward, and I can be direct.

“Our Programs instill the core values of the Y:
- Be respectful to authority.
- Be responsible for your behavior.
- Be honest.
- Care for other people.

We take that framework and deliver it to the children, using teachable moments to recognize ways to help them build trust and friendships,” Amy explained. “You can have all the knowledge in the world, but without life skills, you won’t lead a full life.
“My single best experience with the Y has been being able to hire my former students to work with Summer Camp,” Amy notes.


Try new activities at the YMCA
Mai Kanahara discovers a love for gymnastics


One benefit of the Sanders Buckhead YMCA is being able to try new activities in a safe, supervised and supportive environment. Watching Mai Kanahara in gymnastics class, you wouldn’t know she has taken lessons for less than one year.

With total concentration, she prepares her stance, plants her hands and completes a perfect cartwheel. She lands, points her toes and walks to the edge of the mat to do it again … and again … and again.

When her mom, Asako, enrolled seven-year-old Mia in gymnastics summer camp, she never expected Mai’s reaction. Mai fell in love with the sport.

She completed the entire gymnastics program over the summer and then participated in fall classes. Brittany, one of Mai’s gymnastics instructors, says “It’s so rewarding to work with kids like Mai. She mastered so many skills in a short time. She is a natural!” No matter your age or your interests, there’s always something new to learn at the Carl Sanders YMCA at Buckhead.