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"Why did San Diego County YMCA's board vote in 2013 to have all branches in our region stop issuing affordable youth memberships? Under the new policy, instead of paying just $80 to $100 a year for a child 12 or younger to use the Y’s facilities, users must purchase a family membership at a cost of about $1,000 per year. Are they really saying that if kids' parents aren't interested or can't afford to join, then the Y isn't interested in the kids?" -- Joel Harrison, PhD, MPH

By Joel A. Harrison, PhD, MPH

June 4, 2015 (San Diego) — The following can be found on the website of the U.S. National YMCA Headquarters:

The Y is made up of people of all ages and from every walk of life working side by side to strengthen communities. Together we work to ensure everyone, regardless of gender, income, faith, sexual orientation or cultural background, has the opportunity to live life to its fullest. We share the values of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility—everything we do stems from it. ( )

Education & Leadership

All kids have great potential. At the Y, we work every day to help them set and achieve personal and educational goals. Millions of children and teens build skills and confidence as they explore new interests and passions through the Y. ( )

Closing the Achievement Gap

The Y believes all children and teens  have potential. But research shows that many youth from underserved and low-income families need extra support in reaching this potential. They often start kindergarten underprepared and fall behind their peers as they progress through school. That “gap,” known as the achievement gap, presents not just immediate hurdles for these students, but also long-term challenges for us all. ( )

With the mission naming “children and teens,” why did the San Diego County YMCA board vote in 2013 to have all branches in our region stop issuing affordable youth memberships?. Under the new policy, instead of paying just $80 to $100 a year for a child 12 or younger to use the Y’s facilities, users must purchase a family membership at a cost of about $1,000 per year, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports.

That decision recently led to resignations of two high-profile board members at the Magdalena Ecke YMCA in Encinitas. An estimated 2,400 children at that facility alone are expected to be impacted. (Phil Diehl, “Encinitas YMCA Board Members Forced Out,” May 23, 2015)  How many children altogether will be affected in San Diego County?

As a longtime member of the Copley Family YMCA, several troubling changes have transpired but the ending of the affordable youth memberships is by far the worst.

I have been a member of the Copley Family YMCA , now the Copley-Price Family YMCA, for 11 1/2 years. My family history with YMCAs dates back almost 95 years.

My father was hospitalized for over six months around the age of eight, undergoing several operations at a time when antibiotics did not exist. He was lucky to have survived. Behind my “over-protective” (understandably so) grandmother’s back; but with the support of my grandfather, he joined the local Chicago Young Men’s Christian Association, where he learned to swim, gymnastics and participated in track. I have YMCA ribbons from the 1920s that he won in track and as a senior in high school he was captain of the gymnastics team. In my late teens I was in the backyard trying to do a three-point handstand, unsuccessfully. My father, in his 50s, laughed, came over, did a two-hand stand, then proceeded to walk on his hands around the yard, then to a one-hand stand, and finally, doing push-ups from a handstand. The next day he was quite sore. He had told me about his being a gymnast and I had seen pictures of him as a youth; but never actually seen him in action.

What he learned at the Y stayed with him. I wonder what would have happened if he had not gone to the Y. Would he have been a semi-invalid? I was quite close with my dad; but, given my natural lack of coordination, sometimes wonder if I was adopted? LOL

When I was eight years old my dad signed me up for the San Diego Downtown Young Men’s Christian Association, no longer in existence, at 8th and C. I was at the Y every Saturday where I learned to swim, played volleyball and basketball, did crafts (I still have the lanyard key chain I made), sang songs, the staff read us stories, and showed films. I still fondly remember “Them”, the horror film about giant ants invading the sewers of Los Angeles. That summer my parents sent me to Camp Marston. After only a few days there were boys crying and/or wetting their beds, ending in calling home to be fetched by their parents. I also called home. My mother answered the phone and asked why I was calling, did I miss home? I answered to my mother’s consternation that I was calling to see if I could stay another 10-day session. My father got on the phone, laughed, and said, “sure.” I ended up spending two months at Camp Marston. For the next 4 - 5 years almost every Saturday was at the downtown Y and every summer at Camp Marston.

Besides the sports, crafts, and movies, at that time San Diego was mainly, at least where I lived and went to school, white. Both the Downtown Y and Camp Marston had, though few, minority kids, so, from an early age, the Y played an integral part in my directly experiencing people from all walks of life in a positive environment. I didn’t learn to “tolerate” other cultures, races, and ethnicity; but to thrive in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial environment. I still have the swimming certificates from the Downtown Y and certificates for archery and other skills from Camp Marston. To this day I fondly remember the director, Gene McCormick, who walked around, talked with the kids, and read some of the stories.

My dad and I actually attended the opening of the then new Copley Family YMCA; but I continued at the Downtown Y.

Had the Chicago Y or the San Diego Downtown Y required family memberships, neither my father nor I would have been able to join. My paternal grandparents were immigrant Orthodox Jews. Besides my grandmother’s reluctance to allow her youngest child who had almost died to participate in sports, it was quite a display of open-mindedness on my grandfather’s part to even allow my father to join a Christian organization; but there is NO way he and my grandmother would have joined. By the time I joined the Y my family was quite secular; but my father worked six-day weeks and my mother had her own interests, so it is highly unlikely they would have been interested in joining.

Today, some families may not be interested in joining, not interested in what the Y has to offer; but willing to allow their kids to join and others simply may not be able to afford it, even with the reduced rates based on scholarships offered by the Y to lower income families. I think it great that the Y try to get entire families to participate; but absolutely wrong to make this a requirement. Are they really saying that if kids' parents aren't interested or can't afford to join, then the Y isn't interested in the kids?

Perhaps times have changed and allowing kids under 12 to participate without family members might entail additional staff to supervise them, if so, then rather than eliminate the affordable youth memberships, finding ways to fund and hire the additional staff should be explored. In addition, youth memberships could have restricted hours to accommodate the additional staff. If a few kids turn out to be unruly and the parents can’t be contacted, resulting in Youth Services being called, the contract should spell out that the parents will be liable for any costs and the kid’s membership terminated. However, if such rare occurrences are part of the underlying reason for eliminating youth memberships, it is wrong to penalize all children for the acts of a few, not only wrong; but both counterproductive and contradictory to the Y’s historical mission.

A number of years ago I moved home to take care of my mother when she was diagnosed with cancer. When she finally passed, I was alone, just me and her dog. While taking care of my mother my main source of exercise, when one of her friends would visit, was long walks with her dog and swimming at the Morley Field pool.

Following her passing, I joined the Copley Family YMCA. It was small, run-down; but reminded me of the sitcom “Cheers”, a place where everyone knows your name. Thanks to the Y, I kept in shape, swimming, exercycling, and weight-lifting, and got out of the house, and a chance to interact with people. The staff was superb and members friendly. However, as the completion of the new Y approached, one by one the long-time employees were gone. In their stead were new employees recruited from as far away as Texas and Massachusetts. The new employees appear to be quality people, friendly, and supportive; but I can’t help wondering why almost none of the staff from the old Copley were kept on? Most did go on to other positions within the Y; but I miss them. However, though the new Y is much much larger that the old, the new staff, have managed to make it still feel like “Cheers.”

As a member of the old Copley, County headquarters was referred to as “Corporate,” eventually changed to “Team YMCA.” The old Copley, run-down as it was, was treated to some extent as a step-child. We got hand-me-down equipment and ran on a shoe-string budget. Approximately 36 different languages were spoken, people from every corner of the planet. I loved it. The Copley offered quality daycare and preschool for working class and immigrant families. We had the highest proportion of minority staff, including lifeguards. As in my youth I thrived in the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial atmosphere.

With the building of the new Copley-Price Family YMCA, a state-of-the-art superb facility, “Corporate”, oops, I mean “Team YMCA” no longer viewed us as a step-child; but a positive asset. No longer a stand-alone; but joined with the Mission Valley and Toby Wells YMCAs. I have been to both the Mission Valley and Toby Wells Ys, superb facilities with friendly supportive staff; but with a difference, very few minorities and parking lots with much nicer cars than usually seen at the old Copley. In fact, the average family income of Mission Valley members is double that of Copley members.

My understanding is that the Copley-Price, due to its continuation of subsidized memberships for low income families, is running a deficit as the old Copley did and combining with the much wealthier Mission Valley Y has its advantageous. However, regardless of how one tries to be fair, Mission Valley lives in a totally different world, highly unlikely they can understand the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, lower SES that the Old Copley and the new Copley-Price is continuing to serve. As I perceive it, the only plus in the joining is economic. Copley-Price should once again become independent to continue its historical mission with the flexibility that independence gives. County should explore other avenues to support this.

Corporate, I mean Team-YMCA, seems to have increased the centralization and homogenization of San Diego Ys. This seems to be an overall trend in our society. Public universities have seen large increases in administration with reductions in full-time faculty, replaced by “freeway flyers.” And the salaries of these centralized administrations often exceed that of many faculty, much of the salaries based on the research grants obtained by the faculty. Students take longer to graduate, partly because not all required classes are offered every semester; but the bureaucracy thrives. Another U-T editorial about the Encinitas Y wrote: “they questioned site standardization, turning each Y into a Starbucks-style clone. Ecke and Ayers believe each Y should have flexibility to serve its members.” (Logan Jenkins, “Y were Y icons forced to leave board?, San Diego U-T, May 23, 2015, Available at: )

In a U-T article, the former President/CEO of the YMCA of San Diego County was paid nearly $1 million, nearly double that of other comparable Ys. (Jeff McDonald, “YMCA chief paid nearly $1 million,” U-T San Diego, Dec. 9, 2010, Available at: ). A later U-T article described the pay of the new Y chief, Baron Herdelin-Doherty, as $400,000 per year, “an $85,000 loan that his boss said may be forgiven” and he also “receives a 12 percent retirement benefit—at least $48,000 a year—and is eligible for a bonus of up to $120,000.” (Jeff McDonald, YMCA SAYS TOP   EXEC’S PAY IN LINE WITH OTHER CEOS’, U-T San Diego, Auguat 1, 2012, Available at:

So, the new chief ends affordable youth-only memberships while salaries skyrocket.

The business model is popping up everywhere, universities, other non-profits, and YMCAs. I think “Corporate” was the correct moniker for San Diego County Y’s Central Headquarters. Centralization, salaries and benefits ever increasing; but what is happening to the mission?

I think a recent editorial in the San Diego U-T , though about the salaries of university presidents, is quite on target on the corporate/business transformation of universities and non-profits in general:

Too few presidents give adequate thought to the symbolism and dissonance of extraordinarily generous compensation packages, which are in sync with this era of lavish executive pay and glaring income inequality but out of line with the ostensible mission of academia. Ideally, higher education is dedicated to values different from those that govern Wall Street and corporate America. It supposedly calls students to more soulful concerns, even to sacrifice. But that message is muddled when some of the people who run colleges wallow in payments and perks that would once have been considered vulgar. . . Each profligate compensation package breeds more like it, as schools’ trustees convince themselves that they must keep pace in order to recruit, retain and receive the precious fairy dust of the heaviest hitters. They reason ‘this is a winner-take-all society and that people with extremely high levels of talent are richly rewarded,’ said Richard Vedder, the director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. ‘But I think that things are getting out of hand, especially given the tax-exempt nature of universities,” he told me.’ ‘They’re in privileged positions, and they were given these privileged positions not to enrich themselves but to serve society. These presidents are expected to live quite nicely but not exorbitantly and not extravagantly.’ Their extravagance strikes an especially discordant note in light of the challenges confronting higher education today, and it undercuts their moral authority. . . How do you defend the transfer of teaching responsibilities to low-paid, part-time adjuncts when the president is sitting so pretty? . . . The high salaries are also defended in terms of the fundraising that certain presidents reputedly excel at, covering their compensation many times over. But do they deserve sole credit for those donations? And at nonprofit institutions, should money be the main yardstick and currency? Shouldn’t ethics compete with economics, as they sometimes do when a school invests its endowment? The lofty pay of college presidents is part of higher educations increasingly corporate bent, of the blurred lines between the campus and the marketplace. [my emphasis] (FRANK BRUNI: PLATINUM PAY IN IVORY TOWERS, U-T San Diego, May 26, 2015, Available at:

Can a non-profit with a mission be run as a business with the mission intact? Obviously, the Y is still carrying out many of its mission goals; but it seems they are slowly but surely being whittled away. Having spoken to many of the staff at the new Copley-Price Family Y, they have made it clear that their decision to work at the Y was based on the Y’s mission, with a willingness to accept lower incomes and benefits; but is it fair they “sacrifice” while the central administration gets bloated salaries?

I find it hard to believe, even in the first decades of the 21st Century that there are not competent, quality people, who would gladly lead our County Ys for the mission, considering that a substantial part of their reimbursement. San Diego is an expensive area of the country to live; but salaries together with benefits exceeding $500,000 makes me wonder whether the business/corporate aspect isn’t taking precedence.

As far as the foreseeable future I will continue going to the Copley-Price Family YMCA. It is a superb facility with a great staff. I keep in shape and, though mainly a recluse, get a chance to meet and interact with nice people in a positive multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial environment. However, in the past I have used other facilities equally good with an equally great staff. For instance, when a post-doctoral research fellow in Houston, I was a member of the University of Texas Health Science Center gym which was a superb facility with a great staff; but it served the UTHSC students and employees with NO mission to support neighborhoods and build character in youth.

Currently, the Y retains most of its historical mission; but seems to be slowly moving towards a business/corporate model, reflecting a trend/transformation that has come to dominate U.S. thinking with the perks and resources going more and more to the top and less and less to the core mission.

I suggest the following:

  1. Most important is to reinstate the traditional model of providing affordable youth memberships. The Y can do their best to encourage, subsidize families to join; but in a positive vein, not by refusing youth alone memberships. If additional staff is necessary to supervise kids at the Y alone, then how to fund this should be explored.
  2. Return the Copley-Price Y to independence. On the County’s webpage it states, “supporting our neighbors are fundamental to strengthening communities.” Mission Valley and Tobey Wells cater to a very different membership. In addition, the increased bureaucracy impedes flexibility. The Copley should continue its focus on immigrants, lower SES families, and the nearby neighborhoods of City Heights, North Park, etc. Explore other ways to help Copley-Price fund their programs than merging with the Mission Valley and Toby Wells Ys.
  3. An independent investigation of and public accounting should be conducted of the County Y, salaries, funding, etc. Does County represent a business/corporate model where unjustified salaries and benefits are not going to the people actually carrying out the Y’s mission; but to those in power?

If readers of this OpEd wish to express their concerns to the San Diego County YMCA Headquarters, they can be contacted at:

YMCA of San Diego County

Corporate Office

3708 Ruffin Road

San Diego, CA 92123

Ph: (858) 292-9622

Fax: (858) 292-0045

In addition, on their website is a form for submitting questions/comments at:

UPDATE:  After this ran, we received the following update from Joel Harrison, the author:

"After you posted my article June 4m I received an e-mail from Copley-Price Family YMCA, obviously sent to all members prior to my article. I’ve attached it as it basically states the change in membership is happening nationwide. As worded it still appears that neither my dad nor I would have been able to attend. One thing I thought of that I should have included in my OpEd was saying something to the effect that the younger one gets kids the more influence one has, so 8 years old is better than 12. In any case, I’ve attached the e-mail from the Y. Of course it doesn’t address the amount being paid to the director and, probably, high amounts to others at headquarters."


Joel A. Harrison, PhD, MPH is a retired epidemiologist and native San Diegan. His family has been in San Diego since 1936. Dr. Harrison has been actively engaged in supporting the adoption of a single-payer-non-profit health care system, Medicare for All (see Physicians for a National Health Programs website at: ) and is currently writing articles in support of vaccinations for Every Child By Two, an organization founded in 1991 by Rosalyn Carter (former President Jimmy Carters wife) and Betty Bumpers (wife of former Governor of Arkansas) to promote vaccinations in children. You can find Dr. Harrisons articles at: .

The opinions in this editorial reflect the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of East County Magazine.  To submit an editorial for consideration, contact

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"The business model is popping up everywhere"

Excellent piece, Joel Harrison, and I wish you good fortune in your endeavor. I'm afraid that this corporate-driven business model is an American tradition. I'm reading The People's History of the U.S., by Howard Zinn, and there were some serious riots back in about 1877 because of the financial difference of the highly paid "haves" who directed things and the poverty-stricken "have-nots" who actually did the work and paid the bills. We are going in that direction again, aren't we. A million dollars annually to run a county YM? Give me a break. What's Christian about that. Nothing, that's what.