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A new day

YMCA merger and revived programs breathe new life into Melrose facility, where membership dipped after scandal

Young gymnasts take a break at the Melrose Family YMCA. More than 100 girls are on teams that compete in league championships. Young gymnasts take a break at the Melrose Family YMCA. More than 100 girls are on teams that compete in league championships. (Photos by Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Kathy McCabe
Globe Staff / April 8, 2012
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MELROSE - “Frustration!’’ 13-year-old Sarah Denning said after falling off a balance beam at the Melrose Family YMCA.

The eighth-grader was attempting a back flip, but could not find her footing. “It’s scary up there.’’

Danielle Jefferson, her instructor, coaxed her back onto the long, narrow beam. “Sarah, let’s do it again,’’ Jefferson said, calmly. “The most important thing is that as you go back, you get your hands on the beam.’’

Denning completed the flip, but admitted the trick isn’t her favorite. “My thing is the vault,’’ she said, nodding in the direction of a tall horse. “I like power events.’’

Gymnastics is a power sport at the Melrose Family YMCA, where more than 100 girls compete on teams that regularly place in league championships. The sport has given the Y a boost as part of the YMCA of Metro North, an organization created Jan. 1 by the merger of the Melrose Y with the Greater Lynn YMCA, which includes branches in Peabody and Saugus.

In Melrose, the merger has brought a new and hopeful day for a 122-year-old YMCA, which takes up almost a whole block on Main Street.

In 2009, James L. Conner, now 54, was a girls basketball coach and the after-school program coordinator. He was charged with 20 counts of sex-related crimes, including rape. He pleaded guilty and is serving a 30-year sentence in state prison.

The scandal resulted in the departure of three top Y officials, including longtime president Richard Whitworth. The facility also gave up its license to run after-school programs, one of its largest revenue streams. The YMCA of the USA asked the Greater Lynn facility to manage the facility, opening the door for the merger.

All employees now receive mandatory training in sex abuse prevention. Along with the city, the Y rolled out Shine the Light Melrose, a sex abuse prevention program offered to the community. The curriculum was developed by Darkness To Light, a national program. The Y has hosted five community workshops and now plans to reach out to youth sports leagues and other city organizations.

“We all have a stake in protecting children,’’ said Diana Brennan, the Melrose Y branch manager, who was hired in 2010. “This Y will be a leader making sure that happens.’’

Brennan praised those who have embraced change. “The staff here is amazing,’’ she said, seated in her office, which offers a view of Main Street. “The tough times they went through made them stronger. They’re committed to the Y. They believe in this organization.’’

With 25,000 members, YMCA of Metro North is one of the largest Ys in Eastern Massachusetts, said Bruce Macdonald, the executive director. “We’re one Y,’’ he said. “We want to offer the best quality services that we can to our communities.’’

Those services range from 94 units of affordable housing in Lynn, to gymnastics in Melrose, to outdoor summer camp in Saugus, to a teen fitness center in Peabody.

Each local Y has retained its own name, but the combined organization shares administrative costs, finances, staffing, and other resources. “It will lighten the load for everyone,’’ Macdonald said.

A gymnastics center is being planned for the Saugus Family YMCA, which sits on 14 acres off Route 1. It would replace a cramped facility in Melrose, housed in a converted garage across from the middle school.

An addition is also planned for the Torigian Family YMCA in Peabody, where membership now stands at 12,000, Macdonald said.

The new Y is guided by three new goals promoted nationally by the YMCA of the USA: youth development, healthy living for adults, and social responsibility. “This isn’t just a place to come lift weights or swim,’’ said Macdonald, a 35-year veteran of Y administration. “We’re developing the person as a whole. We really drive that point home to all of our staff.’’

Membership in Melrose had declined from 5,400 members in 2007, to 3,400in 2010, after the scandal broke. Since then, membership has climbed to 6,007, Brennan said.

“We’re in the fun business,’’ said Brennan, 29, who started working in Y’s when she was a student at the University of Michigan. “We’ve really put an emphasis on family fun.’’

The fun stuff includes a recent Drive In Movie Night, where children decorated cardboard boxes to look like a car - and then sat in them for a showing of the movie “Cars.’’ An Easter Egg hunt was planned for Saturday at the gymnastics center on Tremont Street. Common Ground, a three-hour open-rec program for middle schoolers, is held every Friday.

Some members say they can feel the Y’s new pulse.

“There’s a new vibrancy,’’ said Patty Corrigan, whose family joined 14 years ago. “It lost its way for awhile, but it’s coming back. I love the new direction. It’s all about families.’’

Gina Story, who has a son with special needs, volunteers to teach an exercise class for special needs children on Sundays.

“I brought it up that we needed a fun exercise program to build core strength,’’ said Story, who is a nurse. “A lot of special needs kids have trouble with coordination; they needed their own class time . . . The Y was totally open to it.’’

Kathy McCabe can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.

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One big
Number of members
Number of employees
Number of branches
Notable: 94 housing units; afterschool programs for 300 children.
Melrose Family YMCA
Notable: Preschool, child care, gymnastics.
Saugus Family YMCA
Notable: Outdoor summer camp/ recreation center with three pools.
Torigian Family
Notable: Teen fitness center; youth basketball.
Source: YMCA of Metro North