‘It’s the programs and services that make the Y so special compared to other organizations.’

When Brian and Anne Wheelock think about the YMCA of Greater Saint John, they picture family, community and being a part of something bigger.

After moving to the port city in the early 80’s, they found a home at the YMCA of Greater Saint John and have never looked back.

“I like to think it’s the programs and services that make the Y so special compared to other organizations that provide fitness or other activities,” said Brian. “It’s a sense of community. This organization is special because it means access to a variety of programs for all sort of people whether they are financially able to or not. I like the mission and the ability to make an impact.”

“The Y is a one-stop-shop,” adds Anne. “You can get every kind of program for adults, children, families, single people. You don’t have to go around and try to piece together different activities. I feel the Y is a safe place. It’s a place where the members really matter and its been a comfortable place for me because of that.”

Today, Anne and Brian are the honourary chairs of this year’s Strong Communities Campaign. The YMCA Strong Communities Campaign is an annual fundraiser focused on providing access to YMCA programs and services for children, youth, adults, seniors and families whom face financial hurdles.

“When we were asked to be honourary chairs, this may be our way to contribute right now to the ongoing health of our Y,” said Anne. “We can try to help continue that support, even during these difficult times.”

The Wheelock’s love of the Y began early when they were children. Brian went to Y camps as a youth, as did Anne at the YW.

In 1972, fate would bring the two together on a blind date in Halifax and it was a match for the ages. Anne became a fitness member at the Y in Halifax and the Wheelock’s young daughter Margie joined the pre-school program at the Y.

The entire family loved the Y and when they moved to Saint John in ’84, that continued.

“When we moved here, I just thought it was a natural thing to continue our association,” said Anne.

Both kids, Margie and Scott, got into Y swimming and Anne continued with fitness, actually becoming a volunteer fitness instructor here.

Anne believes she then became a volunteer when one of her newly made friends from the fitness program asked her if she was interested in helping out.

“It probably would have been one of my friends that drew me in first and then as I got to know some of the Y staff, it was another point of contact.”

Brian, now a retired brain surgent, got more involved with the Y programs as time allowed. He became a fitness member and was eventually selected as chair of the Y’s endowment board.

The Wheelock’s served in many other volunteer capacities with Anne being on the Red Triangle committee and also continuing to give her time as a fitness instructor.

The pair says they were drawn to volunteer with the Y.

“It was very much a social place,” said Anne. “I was very interested in fitness and it was a great way for me to come in, be a part of group fitness and to meet some other people, which was very helpful when you come into a new community. Quite a number of our friends were part of the group fitness experience as well.”

Anne added that volunteering had many benefits for her and Brian too because they knew they were giving back in a valuable way.

“If you look at all the programs that the Y runs and the services that the Y provides, there is no way that you could operate those if you didn’t have committed volunteers,” said Anne. “And the nice thing is that the Y accepts you as a volunteer if you have a little time to give – a small gift as far as your talents – or a lot of time. The Y welcomes everyone not just as members, but also as volunteers so I like that idea that it gives people a sense of belonging.”

One of their fondest volunteering experiences at the Y was during the 2016 Syrian refugee effort that was led by the Y’s Newcomer Connections. For more than 25 years, YMCA Newcomer Connections has welcomed newcomers to the community, assisted immigrants and refugees with their settlement needs and helped facilitate their integration in the community.

“It’s a welcoming place for immigrants,” said Brian. “Getting involved in immigration services has been a real plus for this Y.”

Anne added that by having such a vast amount of programs and services, the YMCA is a driver for attracting new residents to Greater Saint John.

“I think that there’s such a wide variety of programming and services that it really is a draw to people moving here – especially coming from larger centres where they are used to that kind of facility.

Brian says the inclusiveness, safe Y locations, and wide variety of programs and services for all ages is a big selling point. This, combined with a history of more than 165 year, has the YMCA sewn into the fabric of Saint John. Many people have their own Y story and this is why many residents feel inclined to give back.

“It’s certainly makes an enormous difference for some people,” said Brian. “There are lots of stories that tell us about the difference it’s made and a lot of those stories come from people our age. So, it’s pretty clear the Y has a long history in Saint John.”

This year’s Strong Communities Campaign fundraising goal is $525, 000. Last year, $500,000 was raised, exceeding the goal of $425,000.

In a year in which the world was dealing with a pandemic, Brian says the generosity of the community speaks to just how important the Y is.

“I think the involvement by the community in funding the Y’s activities is a testament to the fact the community agrees that obviously this is a special organization,” said Brian. “We see that through the continued philanthropy of many organizations and individuals. The community is incredibly generous and always has been.”

When a donation is made to the Strong Communities Campaign, youth, adults and seniors in the Greater Saint John area are given access to Y programs and services that they normally could not afford on their own.

Because of this fund, every year thousands of people in our community receive Y memberships. Children are able to attend summer camps and have access to mental health programs. Parents are able to send their children to our licensed Child Care and After School programs.

Anne said donors can relate to the Strong Communities Campaign because they can see how funds go back into the YMCA and are helping people who need it most.

“There are many ways in which they would benefit,” said Anne. “Maybe there will be programs that are offered that they are interested in. In the broader picture, they are helping the Y to meet the needs of the whole community. And in that respect, it means that our whole community becomes richer.”

Many donors have had some type of connection to the Y in the past, but that’s not a prerequisite. The Wheelock’s encourage anyone who isn’t familiar with the Y, but would like to be, to simply try it out for themselves.

“They can benefit by the programs, they can benefit by their exposure,” said Anne. “Generally speaking, there’s a gradual transition from being a participant to being a donor. And there’s a comfort level, quite often, that has to be reached.”

“It’s not always about the money, sometimes it’s about the awareness of where the Y fits into our community,” said Anne.

Along with all they’ve already given to the Y, the Wheelock’s are also Heritage Club members.  The Heritage Club was established to recognize special individuals and families who have made a major or estate gift to the Y’s Endowment Fund.

“I’m hoping that if the Y can put the expectation of our commitment through the endowment that it will help the Y to make future plans and to really ensure the sustainability of the Y in Saint John,” said Anne.

“I want to see the Y continue to be a leader in providing programs and services to all who seek those things in the community,” added Brian. “One of the most important things to me is to ensure the Y continues to be in the community.”

To learn more about the Strong Communities Campaign, visit: https://swnb.ymca.ca/donate/strong-communities-annual-campaign/

To donate, go to: https://swnb.ymca.ca/donate/