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Over 150 years ago, the city of Jamestown built their first Young Men’s Christian Association, or YMCA. Through Civil War and World Wars, the Y remained a part of Jamestown, and has expanded today to include the Jamestown Y, the Lakewood Y, Eastside Y, Camp Onyahsa, the Heritage House and other programs for the community.
“I think it’s a pretty big blessing for a community to have a Y,” CEO Mark Eckendorf, asserted. “A lot of communities want Ys and can’t get them. It definitely adds to the community to have a Y.”
They offer programs for everyone from nursery age to retirement, and all those in between. The idea is to bring the local people together in one place, be they students, musicians, lawyers or athletes. At the Y, everyone is family.
“You could have a physician sitting down next to someone who is his patient…everybody mixes. You’re all equal at the Y,” Mark said. “All walks of life, all nationalities, all ages, everything kind of blends.”
Mark originally became involved with YMCAs when he started work as a lifeguard in his hometown of Erie, PA. As he grew older, the lifeguard position turned into a part-time youth director, until a fulltime job opened up in Lake County, Ohio.
“We used to rent out a YMCA camp called Camp Fitch,” Mark recalled from his years in Ohio. “We took around 180 kids for the week to that camp, and they would send me as the camp director.” That week at camp was the highlight of Mark’s year.
“It was only one week, and I thought ‘this was really cool,’” Mark said. “So when I saw Camp Onyahsa’s job open to do it fulltime, I applied here and got the job here in ’84.”
He now serves as the CEO, while his son John works as a lifeguard for the summer camps, just as Mark did those many years ago.
A chance of fate during his years in Jamestown led Mark to discover the history of the local YMCA. “A few years ago, somebody came in with film they found in their Dad’s basement,” Mark recalled. They developed the film and found the images were of the dedication of their building in 1928. They saw something else interesting in those photos as well.
“It was a group of people in 1928 putting something into our building, in the cornerstone…So we pulled it out,” Mark exclaimed. “There was a lot of history in there, some coins and maps, a Bible that they presented to the future kids of the Y. We learned a lot of our history from that.”
After they documented the objects from that unexpected time capsule, they added some of their own history to it, and hid it again for another generation to discover.
The initial YMCA was started in Jamestown in 1858, on the corner of Third and Main. Their membership fell during the Civil War, but the community restarted the Y, and erected a brand new building at the turn of the century. The program grew so quickly, that by 1928 another new building was in order.
“Crowded quarters are seriously restricting our boys’ activities,” the newspaper headline read. The present-day Y was constructed on the corner of Fourth and Pine, a four-story building that had ample room for the boys, the girls, the men, and the women’s activities.
The organization went through spurts and declines throughout the years. When Mark arrived in 1984, the Y was at a low point.
“When I came here the fourth floor was totally undeveloped,” Mark said. He could not understand why they had not finished the building in 1928, but later mused that the stock market crash had caused them to lose their funding.
The dormitories on the second and third floors had lost their appeal when the hotel industry became big, and so by the time Mark came to Jamestown, most of the Y was an empty building.
During this dark time when people left and floors were empty, Mark was promoted. He was named the executive director in 1986, only two years after coming as the fulltime camp director. And Mark immediately got to work.
“We got a grant for housing for physically handicapped people,” he said. “That’s on our third and fourth floor now…The second floor became our teen center, and that took off right away.”
A love of kids and a love to camp brought him to Jamestown, where his passion for and support of the Y brought it back from a building with three empty floors to a program with three separate buildings, a camp, and numerous childcare programs. A campaign to refurbish or build a new building to replace the 1928 one is currently in the works.
“We are studying the future,” Mark explained. “All the buildings are in need of renovations…We’re still trying to figure out exactly what we want to do,” he said. They plan to begin raising funds within the next year to further improve the area YMCA, and continue their tradition of youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility.
The Jamestown YMCA is located at 101 E. 4th St. For more information call 716-664-2802, or visit them on the web at www.jamestownymca.org.
The Jamestown Gazette is proud to recognize our dealers, outstanding corporate citizens of our county. This week, the Gazette especially thanks YMCA for the faithfully carrying The Jamestown Gazette, The People’s Paper, for the benefit of their customers, our readers.