Tom Severson thinks back to all the times he played basketball with his high school buddies at the YMCA in Madison, Wisc., and how the nonprofit gym made him feel like he belonged to a community.
When his parents divorced and could no longer afford a membership, Severson got a job as a referee and then a coach – which included free access to the Y.
Years later, after moving to Missoula and starting a family, Severson raised his son at the Missoula YMCA, starting with swimming lessons and daycare.
So now, as the president of First Interstate Bank and a member of the Missoula YMCA board of directors, Severson understands that for some area families a Y membership is out of reach financially.
“What I’m really getting at is the importance of making a kid feel like he belongs, even if his folks can’t afford to pay for it,” Severson said at a YMCA fundraising kickoff event Wednesday night. “At the Y here in Missoula, kids do feel like they belong.”
Since the YMCA began in Missoula in 1971, the gym has offered discounted memberships to households and individuals who can’t afford it, supported by an annual fundraising campaign.
Julie Hofbauer, the YMCA’s director of development and outreach, said that the eight-week campaign is intended to raise about $300,000, with about $63,000 collected by the end of Wednesday’s kickoff event.
In 2018, $325,114 was raised for the financial assistance program, with the help of 100 volunteers spreading the word to donors and sponsors.
“Our financial assistance program is what sets us apart from every other gym in town, where if they can’t afford (a membership) at other organizations, they’re turned away,” Hofbauer said. “So in 2017, we served 4,116 individuals with financial assistance and that allowed them to either get a membership and get healthy at the YMCA or participate in programs.”
Y members can participate in basketball, soccer, licensed child care, afterschool care, as well as take advantage of the Y’s gyms and pool.
The need for financial assistance has never been greater.
With the government shutdown, Hofbauer said she’s seen a spike in the number of people using the financial assistance.
When Nanette Melzer started working for the YMCA after she and her husband separated, it was hard for her to pay to send her daughter to a summer camp. She had been a member since she was 2 years old, and wanted her daughter to experience the camps the YMCA offers.
“Today, when I talk about how summer camps really empower kids, they can make lifelong friends, it boosts their confidence and those kind of things,” Melzer said. “When I talk about it now, when I hear about it now, looking back I can see that when we were going through a difficult time … it was hard on the kids.”
With the financial assistance program, she was able to enroll her daughter in a summer camp that year, and for the next few years her family was able to participate in other activities the YMCA offered like the Riverbank Run and the Sweetheart Dance.
“We’re so much more than a, what we like to say, a swim and gym. I definitely feel we can still put the word out there and we can share more of what we do,” Melzer said.
The YMCA serves Missoula and 12 surrounding counties, and with help from sponsors and donors, no one who needs financial assistance will be turned away.
“The whole Y goal and aim is, it doesn’t matter if it’s in Wisconsin or Montana, it’s the same focus of making sure kids feel included,” Severson said. “It’s inclusive for everybody, and I think it’s a wonderful thing.”