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Local YMCA leaders double down on community outreach during pandemic

ABC 7 San Francisco logo ABC 7 San Francisco 10/24/2020 Jennifer Olney
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One of the Bay Area's oldest non-profit organizations is emerging as a vital lifeline for families as they navigate the era of COVID-19.

A lot of people think of the YMCA mostly as a gym, but it is also a major provider of social services that are helping Build a Better Bay Area.

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That mission is now in overdrive as the Y changes its focus to cope with the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and poverty.

Some of the Y's Bay Area branches were already handing out bags of groceries to those in need and now demand is soaring.

"We've seen a 70% increase in that need across the board for the entire branch" said Tacing Parker, senior executive director of the Bayview Hunters Point Y in San Francisco. Some days there is a line around the block as people wait for food.

The Y is also giving out diapers and other desperately needed household items. Parker showed us backpacks full of school supplies and "basic need" kits with things like soap, face masks and deodorant, all destined for neighborhood residents.

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The Bayview Hunters Point Y is a critical anchor in the community and it is well prepared to take on the challenge of COVID-19 largely because of the vision of Chuck Collins.

Collins who is a local successful real estate developer turned social justice crusader took over leadership of the San Francisco YMCA over 17 years ago.

"There were no two more important communities to me at the beginning of my tenure as CEO of the YMCA of San Francisco than Chinatown and the Bayview," Collins said.

Collins raised money for upgraded modern facilities in both neighborhoods and partnered with other organizations to provide an array of great programs available whether or not families can afford them. His work earned him recognition as one of the most admired CEOs in the Bay Area. Now he is moving to a new role at the Y.

"It's very important for us right now to not lose this moment, to really deal with racial injustice and to really think through the lens of justice. And that's the type of work that I want to do moving forward," Collins explained.

As Collins moves out of the CEO role his successor Jamie Bruning-Miles is taking over. Bruning-Miles has worked with Collins at the Y for the past six years and was already leading the organization's response to the pandemic.

"We had to fundamentally shift what we did, who we are and what we do to meet emerging community needs for three counties that we serve, San Mateo, Marin and San Francisco County" Bruning-Miles said.

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The challenge is enormous. The YMCA is a non-profit organization and a lot of the money for its social programs comes from gym memberships. So when gyms shut down because of COVID 19 that meant no income and 60% of the staff was furloughed. The Y pivoted to provide even more social programs and donors are coming through in a big way.

"We had individuals step up at a level we've never seen before" said Bruning-Miles. The Y set a goal of raising $2 million but ended up raising $3.7 million in just three months.

The money goes to a COVID-relief fund that supports programs that include "learning hubs" like one ABC7 News visited at the Chinatown Y.

The learning hub is open to children from kindergarten through middle school. They are all in distance learning programs at their schools. So they get their lessons online then spend their day at the Y. Families pay what they can afford and many children attend for free.

The learning hubs primarily serve families that do not have internet access or parents who are not able to assist their children with distance learning.

There are 40 children in the program and they are assigned to pods of no more than 12 students each. Strict health rules are enforced to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Students will get to do their school work as well as get time to play and exercise.

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"We want to provide a space where they feel a little bit normal" said Mandy Liu, Senior Director of Youth Programs.

Just a few weeks after the school year started the Y got the okay to re-open some of its gyms to just a few members at a time and that creates a whole new logistics challenge.

Students and gym members are kept completely separate with different entrances to the building and locked doors in between the two groups. Everyone who enters the building goes through a health screening each day.

The Y is also expanding family support and mental health services which are in greater demand than ever since the start of the pandemic.

They are also partnering with other organizations to provide all of these services but there is a continuing need to keep raising money. If you would like to help you can do so here.

See more stories and videos about Building a Better Bay Area here.

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