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Dear YMCA: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
I jest, but only a little. But I feel impressed to tell you “my YMCA story,” because it’s a good one.
It was September 26, 2014. I had once again been woken up at o-dark-insanity by a child who was less than two weeks short of being officially diagnosed with ADHD and adjustment disorder.
We were experiencing some of our darkest days in the history of our entire lives. Three weeks prior, he had been expelled from Christian preschool for severe behavioral problems. Our days were filled with screaming, meltdowns, physical aggression, and severe defiance. These were the days when he was throwing furniture and pounding his little fists against me. These were the days that I was at the end of myself, so unable to face the day. These were the days before therapy, medication, and people in our lives who didn’t think we were just bad parents who needed to be more consistent.
These were the days of huge problems that had no answers. These were some of the darkest days of my life.
So while I laid there at o-dark-insanity wondering how I was going to yet again entertain this child for what was shaping up to be a 16+ hour day, I remembered that there was a pool at the YMCA.
Prior to this point, I knew very little about the Y, other than it existed and it cost money. Money which we didn’t have much of at this point in our lives. I also knew they had a pool and opened early. I called our local branch, asking how much it would cost for a non-member to swim.
A man named Norman answered my desperate 5AM call and told me a piece of news that assured me that I could make it through the next three weeks: non-members could “try out” the YMCA facilities 3 times per calendar year at no charge.
When we arrived a few hours later, Norman greeted us with the smile that never leaves his face. He informed us about membership possibilities. When I responded, “We can’t afford that,” he asked me if I had heard of the YMCA’s financial assistance program, Open Doors. I dismissed him quickly with the words, “We wouldn’t qualify for that.” He responded to me, “Everyone qualifies!”
While his statement is not entirely true, as Open Doors is based on income, he convinced me to take the application to apply – a decision which changed the course of my life and our family’s life forever.
A few days later, the membership coordinator Justin called me – informing me that we DID qualify for Open Doors Financial Assistance and that our family could have a monthly membership cost of $66. I was floored. I had no idea this was possible. While – at the time – this was still quite a bit of money for us, I knew that I had to start taking care of myself better and the YMCA would allow me to do that.
We quickly began using the YMCA services (mainly the pool and walking track) on a regular basis, often swimming as a family on the weekends. This gave Ezra a lot of sensory support and gave us something to do as a family where we weren’t fighting with each other (at least, not as much).
Ezra started full-day therapy, but shortly after joining our YMCA, I found out I was pregnant with Little Brother. I made it my routine to attend yoga classes once or twice a week while Ezra was in therapy to try to stay healthy during my pregnancy.
Come that following summer (2015, Ezra was almost five now), we made it our routine to head to the YMCA almost every day. I would drop him off in childcare and walk for 45 minutes around the walking track. Then, I would sit in the lobby, drink coffee, and use the free wi-fi to work on my blog or goof off on Facebook until either my 2 hours of childcare were up, or they came to get me because Ezra was struggling behaviorally. (It was nearly always the latter, but every minute he lasted in childcare was simply golden for me.) Then, we would head to the pool and swim for about 45 minutes, which was glorious for my hugely-pregnant self. By the time we got home, it was time for lunch and quiet time / naptime. I owe my 3rd-trimester-stuck-at-home-during-the-hot-NC-summer-with-an-ADHD-4-year-old sanity to this routine.
Me and LB (baby bump) after walking at the YMCA during the 3rd trimester.
LB’s first time at the YMCA (outside of Mommy’s tummy!):
After LB was born, we continued to visit the YMCA as a family – mostly for swimming.
LB’s first time in the pool!
When we joined the YMCA in 2014, the policy was that you picked a branch to be your home branch. Unless you paid extra for a “Metro Membership,” you were only able to attend that branch.
In November of 2015, though, this policy was changed. The metro membership was done away with, and Y members could now visit any Y, any day, any time, within the greater YMCA of Northwest North Carolina regional area.
Upon looking into some of the other branches, I realized that another branch was just as close but had earlier childwatch hours. I hadn’t really been exercising at all since LB was born because school dropoff was just before 8 and childwatch at the Y didn’t open until 9. By the time I got through school dropoff and had returned home, I wasn’t especially motivated to turn around and leave the house again with my infant. But, with this change in policy, now I could go straight from dropping off Ezra at school to the Y, exercise, and get home around 10, still leaving me a good chunk of my day for housework and resting. I began this new routine in January of 2016.
Our “new” branch did not have a pool, but they did have a walking track and wonderful childcare which divided the infants from the toddlers – something our old branch didn’t have because it was a smaller branch. The childwatch windows also ran right along the walking track, making it very easy to check in on your littles at any time without actually disturbing them.
Looking in on LB through the window:
(Disclaimer: I was informed after taking these pictures that photography of children in childwatch is against YMCA policy for the protection of all children – but I’m sharing here because no other children are pictured and to show you how many awesome toys they have!)
In the summer of 2016, I began working on a degree program online. The YMCA is probably THE BIGGEST factor in my success as a student-mama. While I don’t work out nearly as much as I need to or should, I use the free (although sometimes unreliable) wifi and unlimited free coffee and often spend my entire two hours at the Y either working on school work or blogging.
I give myself bonus points when I work on school AND exercise at the same time:
We also regularly use our Y’s “Parents Morning Out” program, which is available at an additional (yet affordable) cost and allows parents to leave the YMCA premises for up to 2 1/2 hours.
We are incredibly blessed that our son’s school (which he switched to in August of 2016 for Kindergarten), our pediatricians and Ezra’s psychiatrist, our church, our favorite Chickfila, our grocery store, two Starbucks stores, multiple pharmacies, the place I get my hair cut, and the home we bought this year are all within about 7-10 minute drive of our Y. So it’s super easy to drop LB off for PMO and take Ezra to his psychiatry appointment, get my hair done, run to the grocery store, or have coffee with a friend while LB is loved on and cared for by the same amazing childcare team that he spends the rest of the week with while I’m utilizing my everyday childcare. He’s completely oblivious to the extra half-hour or the fact that I’m no longer in the building.
Our favorite branch also has an age 5-12 Youth Activity Center that is open in the late afternoon and evenings, on weekends, all summer long, holiday breaks, and SNOW DAYS. The “big kid” childcare room is open any morning schools are out. Technically, we can use up to four hours of childcare per day (two in the morning, two in the evening) at our Y facilities with just the (highly affordable) cost of our membership – which I forgot to mention actually DROPPED after we had LB.
(We don’t normally use afternoon and evening childcare hours because these are challenging hours of the day for both of our boys.)
Special needs kiddos like Ezra thrive on routine and predictability, which makes days off of school (such as holiday breaks, summer breaks, and snow days) incredibly challenging. But now, everybody knows that if there’s no school, we are probably heading to the Y first thing.
Now, special needs mamas, I can hear you asking, “But what about my special needs child? How will they care for him or her?”
I’ll be honest, it’s not been without its challenges and it is imperfect.
Ezra has gained several more diagnoses since we first joined the Y in 2014 (ODD, anxiety, separation anxiety, and possibly autism). He continues to struggle with aggression when around other kids. Ezra has improved SO much with special education at school and behavioral therapy, but it’s still hard for him to stay in control of his emotions. The drawback of the YMCA is that there is a lot of turnover with the childwatch staff of the “big kid” room (many of the workers are college kids who only work part-time) as well as unpredictability with peers (what kids will be there each time).
Trust me, there are many days I’ve left the Y early in tears because he became aggressive with peers or staff and we were asked to leave.
There are times when we’ve had to hang out in that hidden corner of the Y we have selected as our “calm down spot” and ride out a meltdown.
We’ve had to apologize many times to childwatch workers, peers, and other parents.
Childwatch at the Y is NOT “special needs childcare.” The workers are not specifically trained to work with special needs kids (…with the exception of one worker at our Y who – funny story – was one of Ezra’s therapists in day treatment who just happens to work part time at the Y as well. We breathe a sigh of relief whenever she is there!)
Luanne, the Family Life Engagement Director personally came to me early last year after an “incident” and asked me, “How can we help Ezra succeed here? We want you to be able to get a break, but we need some guidance on how to help him.”
That afternoon, I adapted the document that I created for our church childcare workers to fit the circumstances of the YMCA childcare. This included Ezra’s triggers, his warning signs of when a meltdown is about to occur, and things they can do in childcare to prevent meltdowns from happening (such as engaging him in an activity 1-on-1 or pulling him aside to do a quiet activity). This document was then disseminated to the entire childwatch staff at our Y and continues to go out to all new childwatch employees. Every time I have shown up with Ezra and was met with a new childwatch worker, when I mentioned Ezra and the document, they always assure me that they know all about Ezra and his needs.
We also have learned what WE need to do to help him succeed. For us, that means showing up at 8AM, right when they open, rather than 9 or 10. It means not overdressing him, because when he’s running around and gets hot, he gets very aggressive with peers.
Poor kiddo after overheating-induced raging meltdown, in our “calming spot” at our Y:
It means reminding them to turn down music or limit his time on the scooter boards so he doesn’t get too worked up. It means reviewing his rules ad nauseum – every time we go. It means leaving when we know he’s at his limit. It means not expecting him to last two hours if he has had a rough morning or not gotten a full night’s sleep. It means that we don’t do other programs like childcare, monthly kid’s night out, group sports, or day camps – because he’s simply not ready for those things.
-It also means that other branches (which we have tried for various reasons) may not be a good for him. There is one branch that has a Chick-Fil-A style “Adventure Room” that I would think would be awesome for Ezra, but EVERY time we tried it, he got into big trouble with peers.-
It’s not a perfect system. We often have to leave earlier than our two-hour limit when Ezra comes with us. I’m always looking over my shoulder waiting for that tap that says it’s time to come get him. But that’s okay – because even a 30 minute break or an hour is still a breath of fresh air.
The Y has come through for us so many times in emergent situations where I needed childcare for something unexpected.
As recently as last month, I had a horrible night/morning where LB woke up at 3:30 AM and Ezra woke up at 4:30 AM. They were literally bouncing all over my living room and I had no clue how I was going to manage them. So I plopped their pajama-clad butts in the van and just started driving. I had no plan in mind, but after driving around town for a while, I heard this little voice within me asking, “Where’s some place that I can take two crazy hooligans at 5AM?”
And I had my answer.
Because I knew of a place that is open early, is safe, has hot coffee, a walking track, kid-friendly bathrooms, and friendly faces: my YMCA.
They were also doing an “Elf on the Shelf” hunt which made our trip even more exciting:
There are two big reasons I’m sharing “my YMCA story” publicly on my blog:
First, moms need to know about the YMCA. Before I became a member, I thought the Y was just another fitness club with high dues. But they are not.
The Y is not just about swim lessons and after school care. The Y is not just some song by the Village People.
The YMCA is a community. It’s a family. They take care of their members and want to see people healthy and happy.
The second reason is that the community (moms especially) needs to know about Open Doors Financial Assistance. It is this program that covers **40%** of our household membership.
Open Doors is funded exclusively through donations that come in through the YMCA’s Annual Giving Campaign. This campaign kicks off tomorrow, February 1, 2018.
Luanne, Family Life Engagement Director at our Y, came to me at the beginning of this year and told me about the YMCA’s Annual Giving Campaign Storytellers. Basically, a YMCA “Storyteller” is simply a person who shares their “Y story” with friends, family, and potential donors to raise awareness of the YMCA, its programs, and its financial needs.
Before she could even finish telling me, I said, “Done! Yes! Sign me up!”
I am in a unique position as a blogger with a growing audience to share my Y story with other moms who may be unaware of how the Y can really become an ally (or as I titled this post, their “best friend”) in their wonderful messy mom life.
I’ve been doing this for a while now, informally, through images and videos on Instagram and Facebook, but I knew that now was the time to give back, to go above and beyond – because that’s what the YMCA has done for me.
I want to speak specifically to long-time friends, family, and followers of this blog:
There have been so many times when I’ve vented about life on Facebook and received the following responses:
“I wish I lived closer. I wish I could take your kids off your hands for an hour. I wish I could bring you a meal. I wish I could treat you to a cup of coffee.”
I know that sometimes you watch me from afar and your heart breaks wishing you could do something to help.
Now’s your chance.
Because you don’t live closer. You can’t take my kids off my hands. You can’t treat me to a cup of coffee. You can’t give me a morning out to get my hair cut. You can’t watch LB for me so I can take Ezra to see his psychiatrist. You can’t help me succeed in school. You can’t be there for me at 5AM when I have two boys bouncing off the walls and nothing to do. You can’t help out when the NC schools shut down for the 5th day in a row due to icy roads even though there’s no snow on the ground.
But the YMCA does ALL of those things for me. Every week.
So, in lieu of February being my birthday month, for my 31st birthday, I’m asking anyone who wants to make a direct difference in the life of me and my family to give a donation to the YMCA.
By clicking this donation link (or by clicking on the button below), you can give money directly to our local YMCA’s Open Doors program that currently funds 40% of our family’s membership – a membership which covers my personal fitness, our childcare, and the copious amounts of coffee I drink while I’m working on schoolwork at the Y.
All you have to do put the text “Storyteller Aprille Donaldson” under the “Leave a comment (optional):” box and select “Robinhood Road Family YMCA” from the “Designation” dropdown menu. It looks like this:
I so appreciate you taking the time to listen to my “YMCA story.” I hope, at the very least, that it encouraged you today.
Thank you Luanne and Robinhood Y staff for giving me this incredible opportunity to share my story. I pray it makes a difference, like the difference you all make in my life every week.