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Friends Abroad

It’s a Y World: Explore Cultures, Expand Reach with YMCA’s “Friends Abroad”

As relationships become more global, understanding the intricacies and interdependencies of the world's many cultures, communities, and people has never been more important.

This is why the YMCA of Metropolitan Denver participates in YMCA’s “Friends Abroad.”Through this unique international exchange program, our members, program participants, volunteers, and staff who are travelling abroad can visit and connect with other YMCA “Friends Abroad.” At the same time, “friends” from YMCAs around the world can visit the YMCA of Metropolitan Denver and experience our own programs, activities, and culture.  

Each program participant receives a YMCA International Pin and Information Card and is welcomed into the destination Y to exchange ideas and discover common goals. When they return, Denver YMCA friends are asked to write a brief description of the Y they visited and share their experiences with their friends at home.

Through this outreach, our YMCA travelers are able to learn about the world around them and build relationships with people they may have never met, while promoting and strengthening the YMCA values that we all share.

Become a “Friend” and become inspired

YMCA of Metropolitan Denver encourages our members, program participants, volunteers, and staff to participate in this program and reach out to YMCAs worldwide when they travel. To learn more about this learning opportunity, contact Debbie Ford.


YMCA of Quebec

by Bob Divers, DIG Volunteer

Recently I returned to Montreal, where I had lived and worked 14 years ago. During that time the local Y, West Island YMCA, was not only a place for me to exercise but a community of support while I was living in Canada. Going back I took advantage of DIG’s Friends Abroad program to learn more about YMCAs of Quebec and share my Colorado Y experiences. On my visit to the Downtown Montreal Y, Stephane Vaillancourt, President & CEO of YMCAs of Quebec, shared the long history of Ys in Quebec along with the diverse ways they serve their members and their communities. 


The first YMCA began in Montreal in 1851. Today there are 10 YMCA facilities across the province of Quebec, a summer camp in Katakana, a community center operated in Quebec City, and more than 30 other program hubs focused mainly on youth programming. 


The YMCAs of Quebec provide the services we know well, like fitness programs, swim lessons, and after school care. Additionally, they have unique services like a language school, day care, and Youth Zones. The YMCA International Language School is the largest in Montreal, teaching more than 6,000 students nine different second languages. There are seven daycare and nursery school facilities. The Youth Zones provide a place for teens to gather after school, find role models, volunteer, get involved, gain self-confidence, and have fun rather than hang out on the street or watch TV at home. Until early afternoon, the Youth Zones are gathering places for seniors in the community. 


The YMCAs in Quebec have also taken on a role with students who are temporarily suspended from school, by providing them support toward success. Through this program, over 3,000 at-risk students were able to continue their education in 2016.  


The YMCAs also provide counseling and referrals for the homeless and marginalized in their communities to help them turn their lives around or get much-needed services. People seeking asylum in Quebec can live in a YMCA residence while they get the support needed to start their new lives. The YMCAs work with over 500 government agencies, municipalities, schools and school boards, health care agencies, and community groups to develop and deliver their services. In some cases, they have consulted with the municipal governments to locate their new YMCA facility such that it addressed the municipalities’ concerns along with meeting the YMCAs objectives. 


Stephane and I realized while we are part of YMCAs in different countries and communities, we have similarities in our mission and goals. This was a great opportunity to learn and grow from each other’s experiences. I also took advantage of my visit to get in a workout at their new downtown facility. I’m happy to say the YMCAs in Montreal are still welcoming and as wonderful as ever. 






Pat visits EnglandYMCA in Wimbledon, England

by Pat Lawler, DIG Volunteer

At first glance, the YMCA in Wimbledon, a suburb of London, looks like our Susan M. Duncan Family YMCA in Arvada, although in an older building. There are the usual programs for children, the familiar exercise machines, a gym, and basketball courts. But there is also a cafeteria and rooms for boarders, a tradition for YMCAs in England and Wales. 

Rebecca Stockman, area director for YMCA South London, and her colleague, Stuart Creed, strategic lead for health and well-being, welcomed my husband, John, and me during our recent visit to the UK. 

Over lunch in their cafeteria we discovered more differences, stemming from different historical, cultural, and political frameworks in which the English Ys evolved. We knew that the YMCA as an organization was founded in 1844 in London to serve young men who had come to the city to work. Early on the mission focused on support, housing, and safe places. While that tradition has expanded to include what we see today in our USA Ys, we were surprised to find several distinct differences.  

Although their YMCA is also a nonprofit organization, there are no fundraising campaigns. Rebecca and Stuart explained that raising funds is not part of their history and that the Ys are supported by taxes. Similarly, the functions of the Y have been defined in part by what activities local governments have accepted over the years. 

They went on to explain that Ys in England and Wales have a lot of autonomy from the national organization. “The provision of quality accommodation” is at the forefront of their mission. We also found that focus on youth, changing people’s lives, working with the homeless, and outreach in communities were strong ideals. Their slogan demonstrates this purpose: “Come as you are; we’ll meet you at your point of need and support you to come to know life in all its fullness.”  

After a tour of the building and lunch, we shared the September DIG newsletter and our YMCA Friends Abroad pins and received in return YMCA key chains. After sharing and listening, all four of us realized how dynamic and unique our YMCAs are throughout Colorado and London. 


Julie Hill Visits the Polish YMCA

A Visit to the Poland YMCA 

By DIG Committee Member, Julie Hill

I recently traveled to Poland with my husband Chris, who is a board member of the Polish Freedom Foundation. While there, I visited the YMCA of Poland and met its president, Adam Goncerz, who told me about the Polska YMCA programs, camps, and activities across its 18 branches. Visiting with the Polska YMCA was an opportunity to learn about its history and present-day activities. The Polska YMCA began when the American YMCA came to Poland with General Haller’s Army during the First World War to serve soldiers and prisoners of war. With the help of the American YMCA, Poles formally founded their own YMCA in 1923 with programs mainly focused on education, patriotism, and participation of young people. Its motto, “Serving Poland through Character, Education and Health,” was very much in keeping with the country’s needs. 

During World War II, the Nazis closed the Poland YMCA, but the Polish movement continued to work in France, England, Romania, and Africa. Immediately after the war, the YMCA restarted its activity. But after four years, the YMCA of Poland was once more closed, this time by communists. They began again in 1990 and 1991. The welcoming visit underscored how YMCAs around the world are all different, but they all include the same mission: To improve the lives of it citizens. Its a Y World.  


Meeting “Friends Abroad” In Albania

By DIG Committee Member, Julie Hill  

I recently had the opportunity to visit the YMCA in Tirana, Albania, while honoring the 25th anniversary of the re-establishment of relations between the United States and Albania. The US embassy in Tirana had reopened after more than four decades, restoring the historical ties between the two countries. During our visit, the President of Albania, Bujar Nishani, awarded, my husband, Chris, for his role in reestablishing the embassy. President Nishani stated, “Ambassador Hill was the first American diplomatic representative in our country after more than four decades. The long-waited day when the US embassy was reopened in Tirana marked a decisive turning point in the restoration of historical and spiritual ties between our countries and peoples.”

Today, Albania is a thriving democracy. Here, the Tirana YMCA is a non-governmental, non-profit organization that empowers young people by assisting and strengthening community development. The Y is part of a cooperative movement of YMCA Europe with direct partnerships with the World Alliance of YMCAs. 

We met with the Y’s Eglantina Lula, sharing the Denver YMCA’s programs and ideas and discovering our common goals. Like our YMCA, the YMCA in Tirana provides services promoting health, community education, environmental and social well-being, capacity building, public awareness, and youth leadership. 

I presented Eglantina with a Denver YMCA International Pin and she reciprocated with the Albanian Eagle “flying” to the Denver YMCA. Our meeting was the first step in building friendship, support, and future collaborations between our two organizations. 



Meeting “FRIENDS ABROAD” in South Africa

by Joe Sprague

While traveling in South Africa, I had the privilege of visiting the Soweto YMCA in Johannesburg. There I experienced first-hand the purpose of our Friends Abroad program – sharing ideas and common values. In learning about their culture, I saw a life-size, framed photograph of Nelson Mandela at the Y’s gym, where he trained as a boxer. And I had the pleasure of observing the internationally acclaimed singing and dancing group AFRICA UMOJA in rehearsal.

Moreover, I saw how this Y, just like the YMCA of Metro Denver, reaches out to bridge gaps in their community. I learned about the Y-Justice program, which engages at-risk young people and gives them ways to transform their futures. Through a Y-Zone program, they give kids positive interactions in after-school care, building their self-esteem, and providing support to single-parents and busy families. And through Y-Fit, they provide a lowcost means for people to exercise and live healthy, while raising money to support other aspects of the Y.

My visit showed me how, despite being oceans apart, YMCAs serve their communities in the same ways. It showed me that we all share values – and even memories. I met again a staff member who had been to the 18th World Council in Estes Park in 2014, and remembered the warm welcome she received from the Denver YMCA greeting committee at the airport. It made me realize again: It is a Y world.



Greetings from Buenos Aires, Argentina 

On June 3, 2014, I had the pleasure of meeting Norberto Rodriguez, Secretary General of the YMCA of Argentina, who gave me an overview of the tremendous work of their YMCA. I was welcomed with open arms, and he too was excited to learn about the YMCA of Metropolitan Denver.

I learned that one of the guiding principals of the YMCA in Argentina is to assume responsibility for educating the nation’s impoverished youth. The Y operates seven schools in Argentina reaching 2,500 students, and they are very close to establishing their own university. They also operate technical schools to help students prepare for and secure their first jobs.

In addition, the Y runs an intensive cultural program to develop citizenship with a diverse and global perspective based on the core values of the YMCA – justice, love, peace, and solidarity.

The Y of Argentina has two locations in Buenos Aires, branches in Santa Fe (Rosario) and Literal (Entrarios), and a proposed facility in Salta. The main facility in Buenos Aires is also the administrative headquarters. This facility features a travel agency, full-service restaurant/cafeteria, hair salon, golf education facility, two gymnasiums, and two swimming pools.

Visiting the YMCA of Argentina was an opportunity to see how the YMCA impacts local communities regardless of where they are. It was clear that, while the needs of each community may vary, the Y’s mission to improve the lives of its citizens transcends all borders. 




The Christchurch, NZ YMCA

On March 31, my husband Ron and I had the opportunity to stop in at the Christchurch YMCA in New Zealand, which was just around the corner from our hotel! What a surprise! We were able to meet with the CEO, Josie Ogden Schroder, to learn more about this YMCA. Four years ago, Christchurch was heavily damaged from a large earthquake that hit the area. The YMCA was affected and was closed for one year.

After re-opening, the board and staff were looking for ways to help the community in its recovery efforts. What came out of their work is Street Art at the YMCA. The exhibit encompasses several rooms at the YMCA and explores the growth of street art from its humble beginnings in New York to becoming the biggest single art movement the world has ever known.

They were able to recruit well-known street artists from New Zealand and internationally to share their talents. The exhibit is open every day and is free to the community. When the festival closes in May, the space will become a permanent home for street art exhibits and activities, including a 200-seat community theatre, which was another aspect of community life   lost due to the quakes. This is a terrific example of how YMCAs are actively engaged in their own communities!

Along with this new exhibit, the YMCA also has student housing, conference facilities, fitness programs, and youth programs that include leadership training, outdoor education, camping, sports, holiday programs, and more.

Linda & Ron Diederichsen