The call for help went out a century ago.
A committee in the growing capital city of Baton Rouge saw a need for a Young Men's Christian Association and sent a letter seeking to raise in just six days $50,000 to build one.
"What other cities have done," the letter implored, "Baton Rouge can do!"
The YMCA would be an "every man's every day club," a practical, affordable institution, the letter said.
One hundred years later, the YMCA of the Capital Area has grown well beyond that downtown building the association sought to build, with thousands of Baton Rouge-area men and women from all income levels and races growing up with the Y.
"The Y is kind of a melting pot," said Pat Hanchey, the Y's former vice president and marketing director. "When you go to the Y, you see people of all diversities. It’s a really great place. It’s kind of like a church in a way. … There is a spirit of belonging in the Y."
Today, the YMCA of the Capital Area serves 12,000 members with nine facilities in the Baton Rouge region where members take swim lessons, attend summer camps and exercise. But it's more than just "gym and swim," Hanchey said.
"It's a community organization that serves all people," Hanchey said.
The YMCA of the Capital Area also offers classes on healthy eating for families, diabetes prevention and government and civics for teens. Many parents rely on the Y for childcare.
For many seniors, the YMCA has become a social outlet, said Bill Mote, a member for more than 50 years. Mote, 87, joined as a former college football player looking to stay in shape. Today, he continues working out, but he also hits the A.C. Lewis YMCA in Baton Rouge to see his friends.
"It is not only physical," said Mote. "You get the exercises for your health, but it's social. You meet people from all walks of life. It's a congenial outfit."
Mike Romeo, 73, a retired print shop manager who is legally blind, said his friends who meet to work out at 5:30 a.m. all help one another out. He doesn't want to think about life without the Y.
"There would be kind of a hole in it," he said. "Now that I've been retired from LSU, it makes life so much better."
The YMCA movement began in the 1840s in London when founders sought to give young men a place of refuge off the streets. Their idea inspired the first American YMCA, established in Boston in 1851, according to the YMCA of the USA's official history.
In the beginning, these organizations offered affordable housing for young men moving into large cities. By the time the YMCA movement came to Baton Rouge, the organization was focused on teaching every boy and man in America to swim, and physical fitness was a key component of each community's club in addition to teaching courses to teens.
The first YMCA building in Baton Rouge was downtown on Fourth Street. It opened in 1925 and cost $125,000. After the 1940s, when the organization paid down its remaining debt, it grew, with five facilities by the 1980s.
When current President/CEO Bob Jacobs arrived in the 1990s after leading YMCAs in four states, the local organization was recovering from hard times. The 1980s oil bust hurt the Louisiana economy, and the YMCA of the Capital Area retracted to three locations and sold off Camp Singing Water, which opened in 1953.
"The Y was more in a status quo if you will," Jacobs said. "It didn’t have a bad name, it didn’t have a good name."
Jacobs led the YMCA through an "aggressive" strategic plan, raising annual charitable donations from $65,000 a year to $700,000, increasing scholarship funds for children and adults of all economic classes. Corporate sponsors like Exxon-Mobil and Dow Chemicals were two of many that supported various programs.
"It was really ready to take its place in the community, to expand as the community was expanding and take those needs to the various communities and make it more accessible throughout East Baton Rouge Parish," Jacobs said.
Scholarships, which Jacobs called "hands-up, not hand-outs," broaden the base of the Y, he said.
"If we're going to be successful as a community and be able to play together and live together and work together and be a successful community," he said, "we've got to understand the differences and be placed in that atmosphere very early in our life."
Today, the YMCA of the Capital Area's nine facilities cover the region from the Dow Westside YMCA in Addis to the Americana YMCA in Zachary, the newest location.
The local Y operates with a budget of over $12 million, according to its 2014 tax records, which were the latest available. More than 60 percent of the organization's revenue comes from dues paid by its 12,000 members, with additional funding from grants and sponsors. The Capital Area United Way also contributes 1 percent of its funding.
Jacobs, who will retire as president and CEO in April, says it will be up to the new leaders to decide the Y's future. It could expand its services or find new ways to work with local schools.
But the Y must continue listening to the community, he said.
"At the end of the day, it's about helping others," he said. "I think that's what people need to get back to more as a society, people helping people."
The Y's 100th Birthday Celebration
In celebration of its 100th year, the YMCA of the Capital Area is holding numerous events including:
Cake — 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 17. Birthday cake, door prizes and tours at all area Ys.
Celebration Gala — 6:30 p.m. Friday, March 10, Raising Cane's River Center, 275 S. River Road. Event includes dinner, cocktails and entertainment. Tickets are $75 to $150. ymcabr100.eventbrite.com.