Feeling thankful at the YMCA

Staff and members talk about life turnarounds

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

You could say Bridget Badder was "born again" at the YMCA. She compared her life before becoming part of the YMCA to living in the middle of a hurricane. She was starving herself during her sophomore year at the University of Miami, struggling with her body image, desperately trying to become a "size two." She was having trouble studying because of her obsession. Her life was a mess.

Understanding that she needed to get out of that storm, she left school for a year and came home to Oak Park. It was during her year off that she began her life-changing relationship with the West Cook YMCA at the corner of Randolph and Marion streets, working there as a lifeguard.

"I was able to get myself on a healthy exercise plan," she said, "and started to like the way I looked with muscle. Being able to exercise 45 minutes a day helped clear my mind and put away negative thoughts. I learned how to maintain the ideal shape for my own body."

Being part of the Y community here in Oak Park, Badder's self image changed in more ways than just her physical body. Presently employed as the Morning Member Engagement Coordinator with the organization that helped turn her life around, she said, "Working here, meeting other people and hearing their stories, I know a) I'm not special, b) I'm not alone, and c) I can go and talk to several people here if I'm having a bad day. It's amazing how many genuine and caring people are here — staff and members.

"I'm grateful to the Y for showing me that despite all our differences, we have lessons to learn from everyone," she said. "The definition of community is exhibited here every single day. Anyone who comes to the Y and has an experience that changes them for the better will tell you the same thing."

Badder lived through a real hurricane while studying at the University of Miami. Because the storm knocked out power for a few days, there was no light pollution and that allowed her to see the stars against the black night sky.

"It's gorgeous," she recalled. "The way I feel right now is that some weeks are going to be hurricane weeks, but there's always an eye in the storm to give you a little break. Then there's a little bit more of the storm, and there's always an end. And after the storm, there's a beautiful starry sky to admire. I look back and say I wouldn't have gotten a chance to experience this had I not gone through all of the hell before."

Matt Thompson was way overweight. A full-time musician, his lifestyle included late nights, junk food, alcohol and cigarettes. The "crisis" that fomented his "born-again" experience was becoming a stay-at-home dad. His wife, a teacher at Lane Tech, went back to work at the end of her maternity leave following the birth of their first child. "I was a 30-year-old teenager," he said. "I got home from a tour with my band, and the next day she handed me the baby. It was a dramatic gear shift."

The Y became an oasis for the now full-time parent. Taking advantage of the child care provided by the Y, he could have a little time for himself. He met other stay-at-home dads, made friends, and began creating a support community for himself.

Like Badder, Thompson went through a major change in his self image. He never thought of himself as an athlete, but participation in fitness classes allowed him to drop 60 pounds and become so physically fit that he has since completed seven marathons. Also like Badder, he now works for the Y, on a part-time basis, as a trainer.

Thompson is especially grateful for the instructors at the Y who at times invited him and at other times pushed him to try things he'd never dreamed of doing before. He articulated the paradox of his transformation by telling the story of a woman in one of his classes who came into the Y one day and told him with tears in her eyes that her husband had complimented her the night before on how she looked.

"She thanked me," he recalled, "and I replied that she should thank herself because she was in here day after day working out." He paused, then acknowledged the part he played. "But somebody has to light the fire."

Thompson said what makes the Y a special place is its culture.

"This so not just a health club," he observed. "I've been in health clubs where everyone remains anonymous. Our society is getting more and more detached. It's safer when you are detached. If you're accountable it's a lot harder. If you skip a week of workouts at the Y, people ask about it. We're not nosey, but we'll have members who ask, 'Where's so and so?'"

Bessie Smith, or Miss Bessie as everyone calls her, came to the Y extremely depressed because her husband had recently died from prostate cancer at the age of 55.

"I was totally depressed," she recalled. "I was sleeping at the foot of the bed. And then God told me to get up, that it was time I start thinking about other people."

She responded to a West Cook YMCA ad in the paper for a volunteer to help file records. She began getting support through members and staff who were going through the same thing she was. She began finding a new purpose in her life by reaching out to staff, members and SRO residents who were going through their own hard times.

"Thinking about other people helped me work through my grief," said Miss Bessie. "I get excited because God gave me a purpose in my life, and my purpose is here. I've got peace where I didn't have peace. That's why I'm thankful for the Y. If it had not been for the Lord directing me here, I might still be sleeping at the foot of the bed."

A little over a year ago, Jeremiah Preece's life felt like it was unraveling. He had just become the single parent of his four children, had relocated to Oak Park from Omaha, and was trying to get started in a completely new vocation.

"The Y helped us find another way to connect with people from Oak Park," he said. "It gave me a place to work out and release stress and anxieties. The staff is good with my kids. They engage my kids and know their names.

"I'm thankful for the Y because when we moved here, I didn't have an income yet, and they gave us a scholarship so we could afford membership. Also the Y gives us a lot more than a fitness center for a family. This is a family."

Jenny Jocks Stelzer didn't need a hurricane experience to be thankful for what she has experienced at the Y. She had always been a runner and was in great physical condition. After joining a fitness class, she recalled, "I realized I was missing three things: 1) a way to really push myself, 2) variety in my workouts, and 3) the fun and motivation of working with other people."

The missing piece for this English professor and mom was community.

"The awesome instructors, the rest of the Y staff, and my lovely fellow members, who continually inspire me with their strength and dedication, keep me coming back every day. I love my Y family, and I love the fitness, health, and happiness that it brings me."

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