ymca san diego covid
Clockwise from left the Jackie Robinson YMCA, the Eastlake YMCA and the Palomar Family YMCA / Photos by Megan Wood and Adriana Heldiz

As San Diegans head toward a total reopening of businesses and a return to normal life, the YMCA of San Diego County — a local cornerstone of social wellbeing — might not be returning to business as usual.

The pandemic took a devastating toll on the institution that for more than a century has provided youth development and family support. The YMCA lost about three-quarters of its members and program participants during the pandemic, which account for most of its revenue, according to YMCA officials. That, coupled with recent leadership changes, cuts to its workforce and the sale of one of its branches, has forced a significant and difficult turning point in the nonprofit’s history locally.

But community members and leadership disagree on what exactly this moment means for the future of the YMCA. The organization’s leadership has said it stepped up to the plate in trying times; community leaders said the YMCA is failing to meet to communities’ needs and changes at the top are required.

By November, the YMCA of San Diego County, once the largest YMCA association in the country, had furloughed more than 2,000 employees — nearly half of its workforce and one of the largest workforce reductions in the county’s post-pandemic economy, according to the San Diego Workforce Partnership.

Then in January, the YMCA laid off 1,860 of those furloughed, though some have since been rehired. Now, only 13 of 18 YMCA branches are providing the type of services communities relied on before the pandemic.

Pandemic and Leadership Disruptions

In February, the organization’s CEO, Baron Herdelin-Doherty, announced in a letter to colleagues that he would be stepping down this July after more than a decade in the role.

“I have been committed to leading this Y by working together to serve more people in an equal way. Our team has accomplished great things over the last ten years,” Herdelin-Doherty said in the letter.

Herdelin-Doherty’s term as CEO was not without its controversies or critiques.

In 2015, the YMCA corporate board ordered an investigation into mismanagement allegations against Herdelin-Doherty that included misrepresenting membership and revenue numbers and mistreating staff, KPBS reported. Several executive employees at the time, some of them from minority backgrounds, resigned from the YMCA and efforts to increase diversity among high-level staff were unsuccessful.

The investigation eventually cleared Herdelin-Doherty of financial wrongdoing and discrimination, but the report’s findings were never publicly released, KBPS reported.

Herdelin-Doherty declined an interview request, but said in a statement emailed by a spokesperson that “I am immensely proud of my service to the YMCA of San Diego County over the past decade, and the many lives and communities we enriched and supported together along the way.”

Some community members welcomed the opportunity for new YMCA leadership at the top. For those people, like Herman Collins, a political consultant in San Diego, the YMCA’s pivots during Herdelin-Doherty’s term have meant it moved further away from its mission to support health and development for communities. Collins said under Herdelin-Doherty’s leadership, the YMCA tried to compete with the business models of gyms in San Diego but in doing so, lost members and supporters who came for the YMCA’s community-driven vision.

“When you look at the Y, while they’ve made that move, I guess probably some nine years ago, you have lost a lot of luminaries that have been longtime, life supporters,” Collins said.

The YMCA has become an “aged beast,” Collins said, struggling to keep up with the needs of the communities it serves. Problems at the Jackie Robinson YMCA facility have meant some community members have left the YMCA altogether, and southeastern San Diego, already suffering from issues at Lincoln High, is in “disarray,” Collins said.

“You see a community that I believe has lost its social fiber. How that’s replaced, Lord knows how that’s going to come about,” Collins said.

Collins grew up playing baseball at the Jackie Robinson YMCA as a kid, but back then the facility didn’t include a swim program. Today, the Jackie Robinson YMCA is still one of few locations in the county without a pool, which Collins said creates a “major void” in the services offered for the community.

“We didn’t have [public swimming pools] in this community, and as we talked about San Diego being a city at the beach, by the beach and water … you didn’t see young Black kids involved in water and swimming programs. The darn swimming pool got to be part of the backbone of that, and so people fought hard for that.”

Collins said he learned to swim at a young age through another program at the Boys & Girls Club, but other kids in the community who weren’t members didn’t have the same opportunity.

“The Y helped break that barrier and in fact a lot of the reason why African Americans in the community have supported that Y program has been for the swim program, and again it’s no longer there,” Collins said.

The Jackie Robinson YMCA went through major renovations in 2017. Prior to that, the location included a pool but the construction of a new pool is still underway, a YMCA official said. Community members said they were unaware that progress was being made on the pool.

In Escondido, the Palomar Family YMCA is the only YMCA location in the city of more than 150,000 residents, but earlier this year, the organization announced the location is up for sale. The YMCA is hoping to find a “partner-buyer” for the property so that it can continue to provide services in Escondido, but Mayor Paul McNamara said the sale disappointed residents and surprised the city.

“When we all have our images of what the Y does and who they serve and what neighborhoods they’re in, I couldn’t find a better example than the Y here in Escondido and the neighborhood that it’s in and the services that it provides. So why they would suddenly leave is baffling,” McNamara said.

Escondido had the right of first refusal to purchase the YMCA property, which meant it had the opportunity to acquire the branch to guarantee YMCA’s services in the community. McNamara voted in support of buying the Palomar Family YMCA, but in a 3-2 vote the City Council decided against the purchase. Ultimately, selling the Escondido branch – one of the properties in San Diego County that the Y owns rather than leases – was a business decision, McNamara said.

“On a personal level, I’ve lost a lot of faith in the Y,” McNamara said.

Declining membership numbers at the Palomar Family YMCA since before the pandemic meant that “it made the most sense” to sell that location, Shelly McTighe-Rippengale, the organization’s senior vice president and chief development officer, said, though the YMCA does not have plans to sell any other locations. The decision to sell the branch was one of many tough choices the organization had to make during the pandemic, she said.

“We’re looking to our long term, we’re looking to our strength and we’re figuring out other ways to serve in Escondido and in those communities even if we don’t have building,” McTighe-Rippengale said.

Another location, the Eastlake Family YMCA in South Bay, permanently closed during the pandemic. The Pacific Beach location, the Beach and Bay Family YMCA, closed with no plans to reopen.

Other YMCA facilities have been repurposed during the pandemic. The Border View Family YMCA in Otay Mesa West has been converted to a walk-up vaccination station. The Shepard YMCA Firehouse in La Jolla became the studio for the YMCA’s digital programming. While on the market for a buyer, the Palomar Family YMCA has been used for childcare programs, youth transition programs and gymnastics.

Community Concerns

On top of the pandemic, a greater attention toward diversity has shined a spotlight on the lack of Black leadership at YMCA branch locations in San Diego. The Jackie Robinson YMCA has been at the center of discussions revolving around how the organization will increase the diversity of its leadership.

Concerns over a lack of Black leadership roiled the election of a new branch executive director for the Jackie Robinson YMCA in 2019. Currently, none of the YMCA branches in San Diego is helmed by a Black leader, which advocates said is important to make facilities feel welcoming to the communities they serve.

Francine Maxwell, president of the NAACP of San Diego and a southeastern San Diego community member, said residents want to see people who look like them working at the facilities.

“There’s a lack of welcoming spirit. When you used to open that door, whether it was automatic or you had to pull it open yourself, there was someone greeting you. And if it happened to be that you spoke a different language, then there was definitely a staff member there that spoke that language. But when you walk in now, there’s no one greeting you,” Maxwell said.

Anna Arancibia, the Latina interim executive director who had previously worked for the YMCA for 16 years, was named the new executive director for the Jackie Robinson YMCA in 2020. Advocates said the branch named for the Black baseball icon and trailblazer should be led by someone with the same background.

The Jackie Robinson YMCA has long been considered an important center point in the southeastern San Diego community to provide resources, from health and fitness classes to consultations with medical professionals, Maxwell said, but it has also at times been an indicator of remaining inequities across the YMCA association.

“There’s always definitely been a concern of the fact that when you look at the other YMCAs and how fast they rebuilt and the amenities that they’ve had, that this particular Jackie Robinson YMCA with the demographics, social-economic issues, that more attention wasn’t paid,” she said.

Maxwell and her family visit the Jackie Robinson YMCA regularly for holiday events and youth camps, but she said it’s time for the YMCA to innovate itself to better meet the needs of the communities it serves. Improved communication and transparency are among some of the needed changes at the YMCA’s top leadership, she said.

The YMCA’s leadership maintains that the association has remained true to its mission even during changing times. McTighe-Rippengale said the transformation of the YMCA’s services during the pandemic is a prime example.

“The day camp programs, the distance learning support programs, the virtual YMCA – all when people couldn’t come to the gym – are evidence of the Y’s commitment to our community,” she said.

That commitment included sacrifices to preserve the YMCA’s presence in San Diego, like the layoffs and branch closings earlier this year, McTighe-Rippengale said. Now, memberships at the YMCA are starting to pick up again, and with it the hope that some employees can be rehired.

Though the pandemic forced tough decisions, McTighe-Rippengale said, the YMCA ultimately met the challenge and served the San Diego community.

“This moment for the Y has allowed us the opportunity to really look at our community and determine how can we best step up in a time of great need, and I couldn’t be more proud of how our Y has done that over the past year,” McTighe-Rippengale said.

But tension remains between how YMCA leadership and community members evaluate the success of the YMCA’s mission over the years and during the pandemic. What is mostly agreed on are the ideals and visions of what the YMCA could and should provide for its communities: social support, healthy living and youth development.

At the Jackie Robinson YMCA, Maxwell still sees that vision clearly and wants it for her community. Even with the issues at the YMCA, she knows what it can mean for the community when its needs are properly met.

“When you get off that freeway and you see that beautiful facility, it brings hope to you. It’s an inspiration that things like this can be built in your backyard for you to utilize,” Maxwell said.

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1 Comment

  1. I was a Navy sailor back in 1971 and used to go to the Y that was in downtown San Diego. Always wondered what happened to the downtown Y after I left San Diego.

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