YMCA changes the odds for Manatee community

dgraham@bradenton.comFebruary 14, 2013 

BRADENTON -- When Teresa Pauley's husband died unexpectedly, she brought her two sons home in shock. Parking in front of her home, she and her older boy walked into their house stunned.

"What am I going to do?" she asked. "I brought my boys home, but when they got home, they were shocked. I was shocked."

Her 12-year-old, however, had only one direction in mind -- with her permission, he turned straight for the Bradenton branch of the YMCA next door, the place where he and his dad always went to play basketball.

Those open doors were what helped Pauley and her sons make a new life for themselves, providing support for the family during the time of grief and giving the youngster a sense of regularity when he had none. Today, she even works there herself.

For Mike Conway, a father of four who unexpectedly lost his 20-year job one New Year's Eve, it was the Lakewood Ranch branch of the YMCA that reached out with support for his family. Before he was called in from vacation to hear the bad news, Conway had been a YMCA volunteer who raised money and solicited corporate funding for the organization, leading special events and building projects for festivals as needed. Suddenly, he found himself in need to the point that his young son offered to take over supporting his parents when he graduated from college in 12 years.

Now that son attends Syracuse University in civil engineering, but Conway reminds him of his promise with a certain smile.

"We're changing the odds for Manatee County," said Sean Allison, Manatee County YMCA president and CEO. "The Y has gone through a lot of change in the past three years. We have increased our ability to reach out and to be the YMCA that Manatee County truly needs."

With Allison now at the helm for seven years, the YMCA board decided two years ago to measure itself in seven key areas of leadership, areas recognized universally as leadership attributes, he said. They have increased their ratings by 15 to 20 percent "through partnerships with individuals who have made our home and community a better place to live," he said.

Their focus centers on social responsibility, youth development and healthy living, with a mission "to put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all."

According to Shawn Simmons, Bradenton branch executive director, "Our mission says for all and we really mean it. We serve the whole spectrum of humanity and we give scholarships. There is a lot of need out there. People are physically and economically challenged."

One of the newest programs at the Manatee County YMCA is slated to graduate more than 30 students this year from Manatee Y Technological High School. Operated at the Dream Center, 922 24th St. E., Bradenton, the free school focuses on character development and individual skills so that students will be successful, according to Principal Lamar Billups. Approval for the school was obtained July 23 and it opened less than a month later, raising $75,000 in that time.

"The Y was looking at branching into the operation of a school of 500 to 700 school-age kids not graduating with a high school diploma or any purpose, or any kind of education or career pursuit. We put together a group of individuals and a leadership team," he said. "Lo and behold, we opened Manatee Y Technical High School on Aug. 20 of this year and today we have 205 students enrolled in our school. Plus all the students enrolled get a free membership to the Y."

The school addresses a real need by providing at-risk youth the opportunity to complete their high school education and get daily career counseling and character development.

At Lakewood Ranch the program began with a child life program, running 110 children through there a day, the CEO said. Now the branch has completed a $2.1 million expansion renovation with a new fitness floor, teen center, group exercise room, cycling room and more.

"They needed much more space for the kids, but once we decided to move them to a space four times larger, we were displacing adults. We had to move to a 20,000-square-foot structure. Lakewood Ranch embraced that. That was last June, Now we serve 8,900 people in the Lakewood Ranch area. It's truly a community center facility. We have a new community room with a marquee on the facility so if you have a group that wants to hold meetings there, you can announce it and the room looks out over the pool."

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