The Young Men’s Christian Association of El Paso is the city’s oldest non-profit, established here in 1886, the same year that the automobile and Coca-Cola were born.
Back then, the YMCA was a Bible study aimed at keeping men out of trouble at a time when gunslingers walked El Paso’s dusty streets, then home to lively saloons and houses of disrepute.
Today, the saloons and gunslingers have been replaced by a modern city brimming with young families, and the Y is best known for its gym, swim, youth sports and summer camp programs. Last year alone, more than 7,000 kids went through the Y’s swim programs.
But the Y is a lot more than “gym and swim” – it is a charity, said Bill Coon, the CEO of the YMCA of El Paso. The Y operates a program for cancer survivors as well as a safe exchange and supervised child-parent visitation program. Last year, the non-profit also helped residents complete more than 1,200 tax returns.
Despite the aggressive expansion of for-profit gyms across the city, Coon said the Y remains relevant and has plans to expand. Right now, it operates three branches: the Loya Family branch on the Eastside, Bowling Family branch in Northeast El Paso and the Westside Family branch, and the Snow Athletics complex in New Mexico.
Coon grew up in Elk City, Oklahoma, then a city of 10,000 people. His father worked in the oil fields.
He intended to become a minister after he graduated from Southwestern Oklahoma State University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. But he discovered that ministry was not his calling.
“I tried to be a minister in college, and that was a failed experiment,” Coon said. “I decided that my ministry could be where I worked at and really that ministry is being served at the YMCA in what we do here every day.”
It was while in college that Coon started working with the YMCA.
“My first job – you’re going to laugh – was as a roller skating guard,” Coon said, quick to add, “No satin shorts or anything.”
Now Coon has more than 20 years of experience working for the YMCA. He has also worked with the American Heart Association and American Cancer Society.
For two years, he was also chief professional officer of the El Paso Boys and Girls Club, where he helped turn around the group’s finances.
He has worked in various positions with the YMCA of El Paso and was made the non-profit’s president and CEO in 2013.
In his Y office with a big Sooners banner behind him, Coon talked with El Paso Inc. about where the non-profit plans to expand, how it paid down its big debt and why other gyms are not its fiercest competition.
Q: How did the YMCA come to El Paso 129 years ago?
The YMCA was started in London, England in 1841, and it later came across to America – Boston first.
Q: During the Industrial Revolution.
Yeah. It came to America via the shipping lanes and then it traveled west via the railroad tracks. The third oldest organization in El Paso is Union Pacific. If it wasn’t for them, we would never have been formed here.
I’ll skip a whole lot of history, but the YMCA was created to meet the needs of the community. Back then people did not need a place to work out – they all did hard labor – so it was a Bible study class.
Q: What might explain the Y’s longevity in El Paso?
It is because we meet the needs of the community and have the ability to adjust our services. We are not run by the YMCA of the USA in Chicago; we are run by local people, and they know what the local needs are.
Q: Most non-profits would say the same thing: that they meet the needs of the community.
The ability to adapt is the big part. We don’t just handle one aspect of life.
Q: Has the Y in El Paso ever been in trouble financially over the years?
Absolutely. We had to sell the Central YMCA, which is now the Pat O’Rourke Recreation Center, because we were in a financial bind. We let debt get hold of us.
I’m very proud to say that, last year, we retired every single ounce of our debt. That was huge.
Q: How much debt did the Y have?
Well over $1 million.
Q: Yikes. How did you do it? I don’t know how many non-profits can boast having no debt.
We’ve done it by increasing programs and watching expenses. If we need to cut back, we cut back. But we cut back smartly and make sure we are meeting the needs of the community.
Q: Does the Y have any big plans for the future?
We do. We will be expanding and we’ve got some new programs going on. I’ve spent the past year and a half training staff to make our swim lessons better.
Studies show that more than 50 percent of Hispanic children do not know how to swim. We offer swim lessons for all ages. YMCA was the first to offer organized swim lessons.
Q: How many participate in the Y’s swim program?
Last year, more than 7,000 kids went through our swim program alone. We taught 22,000 last year on how to be safe around water. There were no childhood drownings last year in El Paso. We are adamant about teaching water safety.
Q: How is the Y expanding?
We have a possible land donation on the far Eastside. I can’t release where that is yet, but it is out where all the growth is.
Q: As far east as Loop 375?
A little further.
Q: So Horizon City.
In that area.
Q: What are the Y’s plans for the land?
We will build multi-use fields. In three to five years, we plan to launch a capital campaign and will build a full facility out there to meet those needs.
Q: How many people does the Y employ in El Paso?
Today we are at about 250 employees, but we will double our staff in June. You’ve got day camps and swimming lessons. In El Paso, one of the huge needs is swim lessons. We also have well over 200 kids a day in our day camp at all three of our branches.
Q: I’ve heard that the YMCA invented basketball and volleyball. Is that a myth?
No, it is true. James Naismith was a YMCA program director in Springfield, Massachusetts. It’s cold in the winter there and Naismith had 18 guys he had to keep active. So he overfilled a soccer ball and hung two peach baskets up on the balcony. Volleyball started similarly.
The YMCA also invented Father’s Day. We were key in the development of the USO and the Armed Services YMCA.
Q: How does the Y stay relevant today?
You’re going to ask me: Who is my major competition? I’ll tell you that it is not necessarily EP Fitness or Planet Fitness; it is your cell phone or tablet – the screens you have. If we didn’t have that, kids would be outside playing and doing stuff.
We know the trends and meet the needs.
People know us as “gym and swim.” We’re not. We’re that too, but we look at the whole body, the mind and the spirit.
Q: What programs does the Y have here?
We do have “gym and swim.” We have the swim lessons, swim team, aerobics, weight rooms and gyms. That’s what we are known for, but let me tell you about some programs we are not known for.
One is our supervised visitation safe exchange program. Say you have a divorced husband and wife and there is a lot of friction when they are together. The custodial parent comes and drops off his or her child, leaves and then the non-custodial parent comes and visits with the child.
That way they don’t have to meet at a McDonalds or something. The YMCA is a family place, so when you come and visit, you can jump in the pool, go play basketball go out in the field and run – you have a lot of activities to do.
Three years ago, we brought the Livestrong at the YMCA program to El Paso. It’s a 12-week, free program for adult cancer survivors.
We also have received a grant from the Paso del Norte Health Foundation to help reduce binge drinking.
Q: Is that a problem in El Paso?
It’s a huge problem – huge. I live out on the Eastside, and we went to the Pebble Hills Police Station and compiled all the calls that had to do with noise, alcohol and parties and such. In one year, they had received 3,100 calls – that’s eight a day.
Q: How do you hope to reduce binge drinking?
We are in the process of developing those strategies. We are working with other partners and top leaders in this field, researchers at Johns Hopkins, on how to do this.
Q: I heard the El Paso Y is looking to get back into child care.
We quit doing it in the early ‘80s. In the last three years, we have gotten into afterschool care in the schools. We are now at 10 sites in five different school districts around El Paso.
Q: The YMCA launched a rebranding campaign in 2010. How successful has it been?
It has been very successful. We knew as a charitable organization – a lot of people don’t know we are a charitable organization – that we were somewhere around 15th on people’s lists of charities because we never told our story. So the rebranding was retelling our story and what we do.
We just kicked off this year’s Strong Kids fundraising campaign, and we went out and got the stories of our members. Some of those stories made me cry.
Q: The new brand emphasizes the “Y,” as in youth, rather than the “M” and “C,” men and Christian.
I’m a Christian and our mission statement is to put Christian principles into practice. But we are not out preaching – we are not out trying to save souls – that’s not what we do at the YMCA. That means you are welcome here no matter what your religion. But we don’t apologize for the “C.”
Q: How is the YMCA in El Paso funded?
Roughly 60 percent is from membership, roughly 25 percent is programs and another 15 percent is through donations.
Q: How has fundraising been?
Tough. It’s not just about raising money, but also sharing the mission.
Q: How much do memberships cost?
It depends on your income. The highest category is $68 a month for a family. At $65,000 annual household income, we’ll start reducing that.
Q: How many members do you have and what is the trend?
We probably have about 6,000 facility members and about 10,000 program members.
Membership has flattened out across the United States. That is the trend right now. Part of that is competition – the other gyms in town. But also people are being a bit choosier about where they spend their dollars.
Q: How do you compete with the EP Fitnesses and Planet Fitnesses of the world?
First and foremost, we are a family facility. It’s our facilities. It’s our programs.
You said you had a 3-year-old. If they’re not in one of our programs, there’s a babysitting room. And they are not sitting in front of a television; they are being active.
You can bring your 8-year-old to the facility and while you’re working out or playing in the racquetball courts or basketball courts, they can be swimming in the pool because we have lifeguards.
You have the option of using any facility in the United States when you travel.
Our goal for the Strong Kids fundraising campaign this year is $240,000. We gave out $400,000 to more than 5,000 people last year for membership and program scholarships.
We want the YMCA to be for all. Find somebody else that is giving away $400,000 out of their budget.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105. Twitter: @ReporterRobby