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YMCA campaigns to be even more for Kearney

Written by Mary Jane Skalka OF Kearney Hub

KEARNEY — A gym and swim. An indoor neighborhood. The Kearney Family YMCA will be even more after its $7.8 million Healthier Tomorrows capital campaign funds an ambitious 20,000-square-foot addition.

The campaign, ongoing quietly for the past year and set to begin publicly in early 2019, will finance a spacious ground-floor Wellness Center with a wealth of fitness equipment and large windows. A new main entrance, a Learning Garden and a Cafe Corner gathering area will be created. On the second floor, the current fitness center will be replaced with classrooms and child care space for grades 4-6.

Plans were drawn by Donor by Design, a Minneapolis company that works with YMCAs across the country. The Y expects to break ground in 2019 and complete the expansion in 2020. The Y will remain open while the work is progressing.

“This project will help us tell our story,” Executive Director Denny Placzek said.

Dave Chally, co-chair with Karen Rhoads of the eight-member Campaign Cabinet, joked that he could “ramble on for a week” about the project. “This allows the Y to expand not just our facilities, but also our programming. Seeing the enthusiasm of people we’ve visited so far has really been encouraging,” he said.

Unstoppable growth

The Y can’t stop growing. The current building opened in 1994, “but we discovered early on that the building wasn’t large enough,” Placzek said. It was expanded just four years later.

Today, the Y’s membership is nearly 6,000, or nearly one in five people in this city of 33,000. Last year, 560 children took swimming lessons, and 384 volunteers contributed 4,500 hours of service. In addition, last year, 2,300 non-members attended classes, swam and worked out at the Y.

In 2016, as the Y gasped for more space, its board of directors, staff and between 15-20 community leaders began strategic planning. “With Kearney growing like it is, we asked, ‘What do we need to do to make sure the organization is viable for the next 20 years?’” Placzek asked. “People come to interact here. In this day and age, people can get so isolated with their phones.”

The group looked beyond current programs. Surveys showed parents want family craft nights and arts and theater-related programs. “We do a great job for child care up to third grade, but we need areas for grades 4-6,” Placzek said. “Our key area is really the development of kids and teaching them values through our programs.”

Baby boomers and beyond

But as the population ages, the Y realizes it must reach out to baby boomers and beyond. Placzek and the board see the Y as an integrated health wellness center.

“How do we assist growing medical needs in our communities?’” Placzek said. “How do we use preventive care to keep people healthy and lower health care costs? Once a person has a health incident, how do we keep them out of the hospital? Once they’ve finished therapy, where do they go?”

During community interviews and focus group sessions, medical professionals recommended that the Y focus on prevention and become a place for people who have finished rehabilitation but want to retain good health. Placzek dubs such people “health-seekers.”

Once the addition is completed, the Y’s staff will include wellness coaches “who sit down with people, find out what their needs and goals are, what they want to accomplish and develop a plan,” Placzek said.

Added campaign co-chair Rhoads: “For a lot of people, coming to the Y can be intimidating if they haven’t been a part of it before. They don’t know where to go and don’t know what to do. We want to give people the confidence that they can get involved with different equipment. We want to take them by the hand and make them comfortable.”

A bit of history

Internationally, the YMCA was founded as a Bible study group in London on June 6, 1844. The first Y in the United States opened in Boston in 1851. By the 1920s, Kearney officials were interested, but it was another 60 years before the first YMCA opened in downtown space known as “The Storefront,” donated by Scott Morris.

It consisted of a large multipurpose room and a few offices. It offered youth camps and step classes and quickly outgrew the space. In 1994, after an extensive capital campaign, the YMCA opened a new building on a 10.3-acre site at 4500 Sixth Ave. The land was donated by Calvin Johnson of Hastings. Six acres became outdoor fields for flag football, soccer and T-ball.

In 1998, the Y added the family center, the super gym, the Ron and Carol Cope Child Development Center, a board room and restrooms. The front entrance was relocated. It kept growing. It still does.

The Y’s child care starts at age 18 months. This year, 400 kids between kindergarten and seventh grade played flag football. Adults come for swimming, yoga, Zumba, indoor cycling, basketball, volleyball, yoga and more. Health-related programs cover diabetes prevention, weight loss, senior citizen fitness and a new program for those with Parkinson’s disease. The annual Turkey Trot run happens on Thanksgiving morning.

Major gifts so far

In the early phase of the campaign, the Kearney Family YMCA has raised $2.6 million. Several anonymous major gifts have come in, along with a generous lead gift made in honor of The Buckle Inc. Gifts of $50,000 and above have come from First National Bank, Eaton Corp. and Clark Legacy Foundation.

“The campaign wouldn’t be this far along without the support of our Kearney Family YMCA Board of Directors, as well as the support of the Kearney community,” Rhoads said. “Each gift, no matter how big or small, matters.”

Rhoads, the chief financial officer at Buckle for 34 years before retiring, also was part of the 1998 campaign. “The YMCA is an entity I’ve always had a passion for. The local Y is a great facility, a great asset to the community. The project is greatly needed,” Rhoads said.

Chally points out that the Y has given $150,000 back to the community in programs and memberships so all who desire to participate can do so. In his 20 years of leadership at the Y, “I’ve seen how many kids are impacted and how many lives are touched by the Y. No one is ever turned away because they can’t afford it,” he said.

Placzek settles in

On a cold, windy day in December 2013, Placzek climbed to the roof of the Y building and huddled under blankets to inspire Y donations for the Give Where You Live event sponsored by the Kearney Area Community Foundation. He won’t go to those extremes to raise money this time, but he’s no less inspired.

Placzek, 59, was hired as business manager for the Y in 1994 while getting his master’s degree in counseling at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. The Y still was located downtown then and was nothing but a large multipurpose room and a few offices. His office had an 8-foot-long table with plastic storage bins underneath. Still, it offered everything from youth camps to step classes. “I knew nothing about the YMCA, but I learned a lot and worked hard,” he said.

A few months after he began, Placzek moved into the new building and never left. He was named director of business operations in 1996 and promoted to CEO/executive director in 2007. In 2010, he created the Kearney Family YMCA Foundation.

“Denny is constantly looking for what the community needs, how we can work together with other partners,” Chally said. “The Y can help them provide what they may not be able to provide alone.”

That, Placzek said, is the Y’s mission. “Building relationships is what the Y is all about. If we see a need, we take a look and move forward. The best thing for me has been the opportunity to work with so many wonderful people and to know we make a difference.”