The Y Is a Judgment-Free Zone

“Every day we have teens who come into our YMCA Family Centers with two bags—their school bag and also this invisible ‘bag of life.’ They bring all their stressors with them: I don’t fit in, I’m being bullied, I have to get into college, the idea that maybe both Mom and Dad are at work and no one is really looking out for them,” says Chad Garmon, Director of Christian Initiatives and Community Partners at the YMCA of Central Florida.

Teenagers deal with everyday life stressors, but to add to that, they have never known a time when things like terrorism and school shootings weren’t common. They grew up during a recession. They are, unfortunately, accustomed to insecurity on multiple levels. So it isn’t too surprising that about 30 percent of girls and 20 percent of boys have had an anxiety disorder, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health.

This anxiety could have stemmed from the invisible “bag of life” that Garmon described. So he is on a mission to support the Y of Central Florida’s goal of impacting the lives of 600,000 Central Floridians by 2020, and he hopes a partnership between the church and Y will help accomplish that goal.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services considers coping, resilience and good judgement to be important mental health habits. HHS also suggests that these qualities be adapted to help youths “achieve overall well-being and set the stage for positive mental health in adulthood.”

But in a day-to-day filled with pressures like peer judgement, bullying and the constant contact of the social media craze, discovering coping mechanisms can be difficult enough. Having the safe space, and mentors, to help do so can be even harder.

Garmon shares the story of a member at the YMCA’s South Orlando location who went from never picking up a golf club to making it all the way to district-level tournaments this year after participating in the Y’s golf program. “It wasn’t just that the South Orlando Y team taught her golf, but they taught her caring, respect, responsibility, honesty and faith—the Y’s core values,” he says. “They demonstrate all of these attributes as adult mentors in her life who gave her the ability to achieve her skills.”

The same is true of Anya, another Central Florida teen who transferred from a small, charter high school, with a class size of less than 15, during the last month of her junior year to being one of about 900 in her public school class. Anya described the first day at her new school as being very overwhelming.

“Eleven buildings, two campuses, I had no idea where I was going and kids weren’t all that nice when I’d ask for help,” she says. “I didn’t have any friends there, but I had the Y after school and the Y was a place I could go where everyone was always smiling. It’s a judgment-free zone.”

Anya was involved in the Leader’s Club at the Dr. P. Phillips Y, which is a group of kids who meet once a week and learn how to be leaders through community service. She was grateful to have a place, particularly while she was in high school, where she didn’t have to be afraid to strike up a conversation. Even more, she started attending Y summer camps at Central Florida’s Camp Wewa when she was 10 or 11, so the Y was a familiar environment for her.

“I would do two or three overnight camps every summer,” Anya says. “It was home for me. The friends I made there have been unforgettable, and I still talk to one of my counselors on a daily basis even nine years later. The Y has given me so many mentors who I don’t know what I would do without.”

She had a safe space with adults who she knew cared about her. But it wasn’t just care that she received. Anya says, “The adults at the Y, they just love you. Unconditional love.”

The Y was a place she could pursue her faith, too. This summer, after she graduated high school, Anya led the kids from the Y of Central Florida up to the Christian Values Camp in North Carolina. The local Y takes 50 to 100 kids to this camp each year, but this is the first time Anya has led a group.

Setting the stage for a positive adulthood and a positive future for generations to come, Anya says she’s so grateful to have been given the love of so many mentors. She adds, “Now I just want to do that for other people.”


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Written by Hannah Grantz

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