Health & Fitness

The Remarkable Williams YMCA Celebrates Its 13th Birthday in 2020

By Elizabeth Baird Hardy

A Note from Trey Oakley, CEO, Williams YMCA of Avery County

“When the staff at YMCA began working with CML on this article in early March, we had no idea what changes were coming. We were primed to offer a full menu of Evidence Based Health Intervention Programs, ready to welcome back our summer residents, prepared for a summer of fun and sun at camp and we were painting soccer fields. Then on March 16th due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I made the call to close the Y for the foreseeable future. Our world stopped. 

While we have faced and will continue to face many trials and challenges during this process, I have learned something. Our staff is resilient, our members are loyal and supportive, and our donors believe in our cause. What makes the Y such a special organization and what separates us from other “swim and gyms,” is the ability to adapt quickly to community needs. Immediately our Y worked with area health officials, the Department of Health and Human Services and our YMCA State Alliance to structure Emergency Childcare for Essential Workers, to deliver food and medication to seniors, to complete thousands of “check-up” phone calls, to assist in delivering thousands of pounds of food to those in need and to provide virtual health and wellness opportunities. 

While our facility was closed for 76 days, our commitment to our children, older adults, and families never changed.  We are now open for aquatics, outdoor group exercise and summer camp. Please check our website for schedules and any updated information regarding the reopening of our Wellness Center and Athletics. Through all of this, our vision has not changed. We are here to create a community where people have the opportunity to live healthy, all youth can be safe and reach their potential, and the elderly have the support they need to live independently. We are proud of year 13 and are excited about the next 13 years.”


In 2007, when the Williams YMCA of Avery County first opened, its facility next to Cannon Memorial Hospital included modern but modest fitness space in a single building. Over the past dozen years, the Y has expanded, exemplifying its own core principle: to nurture potential. With new and improving spaces, resources, and programs for everyone, the Y and the community it serves had plenty of reasons to celebrate as it turned 13 in April 2020.

According to Bonnie Clark, Associate Executive Director of the Y, “The last couple of years have seen explosive growth,” and while much of that growth has been behind the scenes, some of the exciting changes are now getting the spotlight. Some updates are physical, as the main lobby undergoes a makeover. The new space is vibrant and welcoming, just like the Y itself. The John M. Blackburn Indoor Athletic Facility, located behind Cannon Memorial, and the Chapman Center both provide space for athletic, social, and community functions as the Y embodies its mission: “To put Christian principles into practice through programs that build a healthy spirit, mind and body for all.” Spaces within the Y continue to expand and adapt to offer a wide variety of programs, from the Arthur Youth Center to the Chapman Teen Center.

In recent years, the Y has provided resources for everyone, while seeking to improve the overall health of our community. The Healthy Living Programs have been some of the most vital elements in the Y’s efforts, with a wide array of options. These popular programs have offered tools for coping with specific chronic conditions like arthritis, Parkinson’s, high blood pressure, and diabetes. The LIVESTRONG program has provided exercise-based support for cancer survivors at all stages, while other programs have included tools and support for weight-loss and fall prevention. Some programs have focused exclusively on exercise, others have been classroom-based, and some have incorporated both.

When in session, each of these programs offer the opportunity to gain lifelong skills and habits, with meetings that fit members’ schedules. For example, last year’s participants in the Delay the Disease Parkinson’s program met twice a week for twelve weeks and saw improvements in their weakness and balance, along with emotional and psychological benefits. The two weight-loss cohorts last year reported an amazing collective loss of over 200 pounds in just twelve weeks. The Diabetes Prevention Program, according to Assistant Director of Healthy Living Lauren Wilson, has been especially necessary in our area for overcoming the barriers of addressing diabetes and has produced tangible results: those who can reduce their weight by just five to seven percent can cut their diabetes risk in half, and last year’s program members averaged a loss of 11 percent. Wilson has loved watching participants do what they thought they couldn’t, like a senior adult whose range of motion gradually increased by meeting small, achievable goals that added up to huge improvement in range of motion, confidence, and quality of life.

In 2020, some of these successful programs have been put on hold, but will likely resume in the near future and be joined by new ones, including Healthy Weight and Your Child, which addresses the issues of childhood obesity. Wilson, who “lives and breathes” the Healthy Living programs, is delighted by “seeing people overcome their challenges and barriers,” and she looks forward to the return of past programs, new programs and those expanding to other sites.

The Y also has plenty to offer for those who may not need to target a specific issue, but still want to improve their overall fitness and have fun at the same time. The excellent aquatics center has reopened and continues to offer a wide variety of classes and a fantastic pool for swimmers of all levels. Once reopened, the wellness center provides members’ use of state-of-the-art equipment and offers a “coach approach”: four 30-minute sessions with a wellness coach, offering guidance on specific machines to match goals and instruction to help improve form and avoid injury. Tennis, volleyball, and other sports that have taken place in the Blackburn Center are likely to resume in the near future. Clinics will also once again be offered to help student athletes improve and gain experience for team sports like soccer.

The YMCA will continue to offer other opportunities for children from infancy to teens. These free, grant-supported programs provide resources ranging from STEM-based enrichment and homework help to Summer and Snow Day Camp and hot dinners in the After-School Program.

Clark stresses that the Y really is for everyone, and that scholarships, subsidies, and other resources make it possible for any member of the community to take advantage of the Y. “The Y is about overcoming obstacles,” Clark says. “It’s the great equalizer,” where all ages and backgrounds can grow and improve, and even with the recent changes due to COVID-19, the next thirteen years look to be just as exciting as the last.

To find out more about the programs at the Y or to become a member and take advantage of all the Y has to offer, check out the website at

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