Over the past 10 years, the West Cook YMCA has been transformed from a local fitness facility with a pool, treadmills, sports classes and a Single Room Occupancy component into a facility focused on health equity, social justice, and youth/education care, that also has an onsite SRO and all of the fitness-related activities and equipment it had before.
Those changes have been driven by Phillip Jimenez, CEO of the local YMCA. When Jimenez took over the leadership of the YMCA in May 2014, he had a vision for the future of the Y, and during his tenure he has shown the drive and focus to see the vision realized. That transformation was spurred in part by the proliferation of more modern and for profit fitness facilities and by the necessity of adapting programs and purposes during and after COVID.
From the start, Jimenez said he planned to focus on four main areas: Improving the Marion Street facility, the care of SRO residents, serving the broader community, and creative new ways of dealing with the issues all nonprofits face (fundraising, building maintenance, membership recruitment, leadership development).
Ten years on, Jimenez has made progress in all of these areas, despite the inevitable pandemic interruptions, and continues to make improvements. Let’s begin with the SRO units, spartan 10 by 10 rooms that the 50 residents call home. “Thanks to a grant from Loyola Medicine and also from the Village of Oak Park, we are upgrading the facilities,” said Jimenez. “We upgraded the actual room itself. We did new flooring, new painting, any kind of wall or patch repairing, and all new features like lights and beds, shades. We went from an analog phone system to finally a digital phone system. All of those upgrades were all about creating a dignified living experience for our residents.”
Another area that Jimenez has spearheaded is health equity, bringing the YMCA’s myriad health programs to people who had trouble in the past getting full health care. The specific areas the YMCA has been focusing on are diabetes, weight, hypertension, cancer, and mental health.
“We are approaching the health focus of the YMCA with the idea that we’re not looking for impacting a volume number of people,” said Jimenez, “but more the depth of the impact per person. So I think in our culture, right, the idea of volume drives a lot of people’s interest.” Jimenez. He would rather make a difference in the lives of a smaller group of individuals, than in having a less profound effect on large numbers of people.
“We are really focused on finding the best way to impact them,” adding that he wants the YMCA to follow an “evidence-based, no-nonsense approach to really addressing” health issues.
The newest health initiative at the YMCA is the “Healthy Weight and Your Child Program.” This program is being relaunched this year in collaboration with Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and the Illinois Health Public Institute.
Jimenez grew up in Forest Park not far from West Cook YMCA, the son of a single mom who had immigrated from Mexico in the 1960s. Jimenez went to overnight camp at Camp Douglass/YMCA when he was a kid. The fact that his roots run deep in the communities West Cook YMCA serves may explain why his vision for West Cook includes not only Oak Park but also those villages west of the facility (River Forest, Maywood, Melrose Park).
And also, why he insists on a community integrated health approach. “Your quality of life and quality of health is dramatically impacted by the zip code that you live in,” said Jimenez. “So our general approach is to emphasize on those communities that are most at risk for having gaps or, you know, in some cases, complete blind spots regarding health. And we wanted to make sure to, as best as we could, eliminate barriers to access.”
There are cracks that the current normal nine-to-five system doesn’t accommodate someone who has non-traditional working hours, or doesn’t live near a health care facility, or has a transportation barrier, or has childcare issues.
“So what the Y is trying to figure out is how we can meet the person where they’re at,” said Jimenez. “Do you prefer a 6 p.m. session? Do you prefer virtual versus in-person? Great. You need it to be close to where you reside? Great. Those kinds of things are the things that we sort of identify what might be the barriers to a person being successful or able to focus on their health risk. And we’re not saints and we’re not perfect, but we’re trying to reduce some of those barriers.”
Another initiative for the YMCA is their school partnership with Districts 89 (Maywood-Melrose Park-Broadview) and 90 (River Forest). The program works year-round, with programs that run in the summertime and after-school during the school year. “If a child is participating in the YMCA program and getting enrichment and enhancements through the Y, that over time, we’re able to show that a Y kid has got a richer support system and perhaps there might be outcomes that you can draw from or infer from.”
“We also do third-party social-emotional evaluations to make sure we understand what needs students may have,” said Jimenez. “As we start to see the data come in, we can switch up the curriculum and that allows us to really focus in on what that child needs. So, an outcome that is most recent is this past summer, for the second year in a row, our participants at District 90, who normally you might see a traditional learning slide of one to two months in the summer of a particular child. With this program, we were able to measure an increase of three months in math and literacy for our kids who participated in the Power Scholar Academy.” This partnership program has recently been extended from just first through fourth grade to a full K to 8 program.
The most recent initiative for the YMCA is providing temporary housing for asylum seekers. On Nov. 1 Oak Park’s village government reached out to the Y for housing options and the Y responded.
“Our staff and vendor partners really came through,” Jimenez says. “In four days, we remodeled roughly 50 rooms. And people were working nine days and we had vendors respond and work over the weekend in large shifts of four to five installers for flooring.”
The asylum seekers arrived at the YMCA on Nov. 9 – 58 individuals, men, women, and children. “They really tested our limits because we’ve never housed women and children,” said Jimenez. “Beyond Hunger has been providing us with food. We’ve bought [digital] translators for them [most of the asylum seekers were from Venezuela and spoke only Spanish] so that they can go out into the community and start exploring the Oak Park community, learning through the translator device that we purchased for them how to engage and do their own shopping. and we really want them to integrate as fully and as quickly as possible. We’re working for the village on educational opportunities for the children, and of course, immigration status and steps and social services that they may need.”
The West Cook YMCA of 2023 is truly much more than a local fitness facility with an SRO. It has become, under current leadership, a place for health equity, social justice, and youth/education care.