Athol YMCA to open new community center

Athol Area YMCA Executive Director Jennifer Gordon (left) and Senior Program Director Desirae Burke at the Y Community Center, which will hold its grand opening May 15. The center is located at 486 Main St. in Athol.

Athol Area YMCA Executive Director Jennifer Gordon (left) and Senior Program Director Desirae Burke at the Y Community Center, which will hold its grand opening May 15. The center is located at 486 Main St. in Athol. PHOTO BY GREG VINE

The area that will provide seating for the cafe at the Y Community Center.

The area that will provide seating for the cafe at the Y Community Center. PHOTO BY GREG VINE—

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 05-12-2024 5:00 PM

ATHOL – What started out as an effort to establish a teen center in Athol ended up morphing into plans to open the multi-generational Y Community Center.

The need for such a facility became clear during the pandemic, when the Athol Area YMCA did its best to continue providing programming for its broad clientele in the face of social distancing requirements.

Desirae Burke, senior program director for the Y, led the effort to not only find a location for the proposed center, but to speak with teens about what they wanted in such a facility, along with the programs and amenities it should offer. After searching for several months, Burke decided that 486 Main St., former home of Hometown Realtors, would fit the bill. In January, work began on transforming the approximately 6,000-square-foot space into offices, meeting rooms, a community room and an event space.

“The reason we were looking for a space is because we had kind of outgrown the space at the Y,” said Burke. “We have so many programs going on all the time that it’s hard utilize the gym or utilize the pool because we have so many things that are already happening there.”

She noted that an area that had been used as “teen space” ended up facilitating expansion of the Y’s fitness department.

“I think it was the pandemic that really caused a shift in thinking of how best utilize the space we had to work with,” said Y Executive Director Jennifer Gordon. “We had to spread everybody out. A lot of the areas of the Y that were formerly used for either wellness or the pool were transformed into either preschool or childcare. And the wellness then shifted to the studio downstairs. We realized then that we needed to start looking for other locations.”

That search included input from those who would be most likely to use the center.

“They had big opinions,” said Burke of the teens. “And they have needs that they voiced, so they were actually very helpful in the process. They came out and painted, and they’ve done some of the work here.”

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Burke then made an important point about the new center – that it will be available for the entire community.

“They’re giving back, in a sense; they’re giving for themselves but they’re also giving to the majority of people who are local,” she said.

Burke and Gordon agreed that the teens who utilize the Y, and now the downtown center, come from varied backgrounds. Burke said that while there are spaces at the new center where small groups of teens can sit and socialize, they are also encouraged to get involved in other activities. Burke added that the facility gives young people the opportunity to better understand peers who may come from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

“It’s nice to see conversations between groups of teens who might never interact at school,” Burke said, “But in this space it’s different.”

Gordon said the entire community can benefit from the kind of interaction the center offers.

“I think it brings teens together with adults with whom they may not have had positive interactions. Things like maybe having a police officer come here and speak, when maybe a child’s only interaction with a police officer before was having a parent getting arrested – or seeing them negatively in some other situation,” Gordon said. “We want to do a lot of work in bringing the community together and breaking the stigma around a lot of things – around substance abuse, around mental health for example.”

Some of the activities taking place during the remainder of this month include chair yoga, a foster parents support group, a pop-up play space, a ‘flower power’ display at the Fourth Friday event, a plant swap, senior coffee hour, and bike safety workshop.

The grand opening of The Y Community Center at 486 Main St. will take place at 4 p.m., Wednesday, May 15. For more information contact theycc@ymcaathol.org.

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com.