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YMCA gets back into shape With new funding, staff and attitude, Niagara Falls fitness facility hits its stride Merger with Greater Buffalo Y means new workers, programs, equipment

There's something new at the Niagara Falls Family YMCA this year:

People.

The facility almost closed last year. It had lost members rapidly and struggled to pay the bills. But the YMCA has begun to return to good health, two months after it became the eighth branch of the YMCA of Greater Buffalo.

The merger, at first feared by some members, has brought immediate results:

* About 90 new members joined the YMCA during the first three weeks of the year, said Gary Larson, the new executive director.

* Sweeping staff changes have helped usher in new programs.

* Almost half of $500,000 in planned renovations have already been completed at the Portage Road facility. The wellness, or workout, room has been moved to the second floor and expanded, with more than a dozen new fitness machines and several large televisions. There's new aerobics class space, with a shock-absorbing floor and fresh paint on the walls. And the main entrance was revamped, with a modern look and a large welcome desk.

Members say that with a new year came a new Y.

"I think the update is such a plus because it was always so dingy looking," said Joan Reynolds, a 72-year-old Niagara Falls resident who has been a member of the Falls YMCA for 10 years. "It makes you feel proud to belong. People in the past said, 'Oh, that's your Y.' Now it's just gorgeous."

Reynolds was attending an hourlong SilverSneakers fitness class Wednesday with more than a dozen other residents.

The class is one of several new program offerings at the YMCA, another big change, said Larson, because the YMCA didn't offer any fitness classes before the merger.

Now the facility offers classes in areas such as strength training, water aerobics, pilates -- and even jujitsu.

About 25 of the YMCA members who joined this year came there through Independent Health's SilverSneakers program -- another new offering -- which gives free membership to senior citizens and a fitness class three times a week.

Al Gaeta, who will turn 88 next month, has been a member of the YMCA for 25 years and now attends those classes.

"My friends are all gone, so I come here to make new friends," he said. "I have also found it's good for my coordination."

Jeannie DiMeo, one of Gaeta's new friends, can't say enough about the class instructor, Michelle Wolcott.

"She's a wonderful instructor, she caring, she's very good," DiMeo said after a class last week. "She's got a good personality."

DiMeo says she should know because she has been to many fitness clubs and taken other classes, but Wolcott's class is perfect for her.

>Half were rehired

Perhaps one of the reasons the seniors are so thankful for Wolcott is that they have never had an instructor like her at the Falls YMCA before, or ever, for that matter. In fact, members of the YMCA would have been hard-pressed to find someone to show them how to use a fitness machine properly last year.

All of the facility's employees were forced to reapply for their jobs Dec. 31, and while about half were rehired, new positions in maintenance and fitness supervision were added. Others were replaced with more qualified personnel, according to John D. Murray, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Buffalo.

"We have a different set of standards than what was there before," Murray said. "Some people were interested in staying, and some people were not."

He said the important thing is that there are now qualified instructors, and there is staff present in the fitness center.

May Jowdy is one of the new employees. The retired Niagara Falls teacher monitored Paul Einstein on Wednesday as he used one of the new elliptical machines on the second floor.

>Elevator needed

Einstein, 80, had knee replacement surgery in August. He joined the YMCA at the start of the year and has worked up to being able to finish 29 minutes of cardiovascular exercise during a recent visit. He exercises for a minute and then rests for a minute, under Jowdy's supervision. While it takes patience, Einstein doesn't show too much strain on his face as he keeps to his regimen.

"The Y was on a decline," said Jowdy, an eight-year member. "There's more activity now, seven days a week. There are more families in the swimming programs, more children in the building. It's been a total improvement."

Murray said the next phase of improvements for the YMCA will focus on children and making the building more handicapped-accessible.

"The biggest project is the elevator, which will cost $150,000. We have not found a resource yet for that," he said. "We may have to get a few donors to help out with that. It's the biggest single issue."

Murray said right now the elevator is broken, and the only ramp into the first floor is at the far end of the building.

Some of the other changes that will take place are organizational: new guidelines for tenants of the 58 rooms the YMCA rents out, as well as some safety changes.

One service parents and guardians can look forward to is Child Watch, a baby-sitting service offered for children six months to 8 years old while an adult member is working out or taking a class. Renovations for a Child Watch space are being planned.

The few existing programs were given an overhaul. The School Age Child Care program now has structure, which Larson said it lacked before, and now children and youth have a schedule that includes swim classes, arts and crafts and mentoring.

While many changes have happened, one thing that has generally stayed the same are the rates.

>Grant will help

Murray said the list of improvements he would like to see at the Falls facility is long. However, a $150,000 grant announced last month from the John R. Oishei Foundation will help.

That money is to be used solely for additional programming, including materials and training to get new classes under way. Murray said it's the first time the nonprofit organization has ever given a grant to the YMCA of Greater Buffalo, and Larson said it will kick-start things that might have had to wait six months to a year.

"We are always interested in stronger organizations helping organizations that need support, whether it's a formal merger or some kind of collaborative effort," said Blythe Merrill, the program officer for the Oishei Foundation. "In this instance, it appears as though the Y in Buffalo had really done its due diligence to make sure services were provided without interruption and provided a greater level of service to the people of Niagara Falls."

A landmark of the merger is the Falls facility's first Strong Kids Campaign. The $10,000 goal was reached almost as soon as it began, but the YMCA hopes to continue to bring in donations, which become scholarships for children and adults who can't afford the full cost of a membership or price of summer camp. The fund-raiser lasts through March.

"We don't want people to think just because they went over their goal they don't need the help, especially in Niagara Falls," said Communications Director Julie Doerr Skalski. "That just means more kids will be able to join. We'll be able to start up a teen class like we have at other Y's and utilize those dollars."

Skalski said the goal was set low because the organization wasn't sure what support it would receive from the community, but the generous giving and new memberships would appear to send a message that the merger with the Buffalo-based YMCA organization has been received with welcome, and possibly more toned, arms.

e-mail: gnorheim@buffnews.com

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Adding muscle

The Niagara Falls Family YMCA merged with the YMCA of Greater Buffalo in December, becoming its eighth branch.

Address: 1317 Portage Road.

Phone: 285-8491.

History: Originally built in 1904. An addition that includes serveral rooms, a wellness center and the main entrance was built in 1957.

Members: Nearly 600, about 90 of whom joined in the first three weeks of this year.

Executive director: Greg Larson, who recently got the job, lives in Wilson and came from the Kenmore-Tonawanda YMCA branch.

Staff: About 40 full- and part-time.

Volunteers: Also about 40.

Fund-raising: A capital campaign is raising money for scholarships. The facility also is looking for donors to help pay for a new elevator and handicapped-accessibility improvements.

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