When a Building isn’t Just a Building
All kinds of human services are delivered in buildings, including some nondescript, institutional edifices that can appear cold on the outside. But of course it is what goes on on the inside that matters. Take the South Omaha YMCA, for instance. I cannot even find an image of it on the Web, which is just as well since it’s a dull, quasi-governmental-looking structure that hardly hints at the warm embrace that staff extend to visitors or at the fun activities and programs offered to members. When a building truly engages a neighborhood and community the way this one does, it isn’t just a building anymore, it’s something much more personal.
When a Building isn’t Just a Building
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
South Omaha’s renaissance unfolds on many fronts. From scores of new businesses to construction of a new community center, library and athletic stadium to the expansion of Metropolitan Community College’s south campus, the area’s booming again after a three-decade lull.
Facelifts also contribute to this turnaround. The most obvious makeover is to the 24th Street business district, whose once thriving streetscapes-storefronts dimmed but now overbrim with color and activity in a plaza-like marketplace.
More recently, a $1.25 million renovation to the LaFern Williams South YMCA at 30th and Q has infused new life into a community anchor that had seen better days.
The Y’s flip is not easily observed until you go inside, but it’s accounting for a surge of activity not seen there since the building’s heyday.
YMCA of Greater Omaha COO Linda Butkus said compared to a year ago the South branch has seen a 30 percent increase in member scans, a 25 percent increase in member revenue and 209 more individuals join as Y members.
“We’re seeing more use, we’re getting more memberships, were expanding beyond just kids to serving more families and adults as well,” she said, “and I think the renovations are the reasons for the increases.”
Three phases of capital improvements are complete. Interior upgrades encompass a redesigned lobby, a new gymnasium floor, enhanced lighting, fresh carpeting and paint, a refurbished fitness room, a large computer room, a new security system and a new chiller. Outside, a new parking overlay is done and a new roof in-progress. In line with the physical changes new programs have been implemented.
Butkus said, “We have more for individuals to do in the way of programming, we have more fitness equipment and the overall feel of the facility is much better. It was a dark and old interior. Now it’s very nice, it’s very bright. The amenities have been upgraded. It feels good to be there. It’s been a complete facelift. When you walk in you go, ‘Wow.’ That’s the feedback we’re getting.”
Photos by Joe Shearer/The Gateway (UNO)
Miles Busby distributing sacked lunches to children
Volunteer and member working on a mural
Volunteer Farren Ronning at clothing exchange
South branch executive director Brian Owens said the Y’s commitment has resulted in “a buy-in” from area residents. “It’s given people a sense of pride to say, ‘You’re investing in our community.’” He said members lost to other branches are returning now. To accommodate higher volume he’s expanded the hours of operation.
He said to stay in touch with the expectations of a diverse clientele “we’re being very intentional and diligent about launching our programs. We’re going out and asking our member base, ’What do you want in this building?’, instead of us telling them what they’re getting. That’s been pretty successful so far.”
Responding to the ever growing Latino population fitness classes infused with merengue and salsa are offered. ESL and Spanish language classes are possibilities.
“Our Latino base has grown tremendously,” he said. “That’s our demographic and we’re ecstatic that we do have that buzz in the Latino community.”
Smaller than some Ys and lacking a pool, the branch accentuates what it has that others Y don’t. Owens said, “We have a smorgasbord of cultures who frequent this branch” — Latinos, Sudanese, Native Americans, whites. “We have that unique opportunity to be able to cross cultures and to share with one another, and that’s a great scene.”
Brenda Kremlacek’s three boys attend the South Y, where, “they’ve met a variety of ages and nationalities, and that’s good,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of progress with the boys’ attitudes. They look forward going. They have a lot of good friends.”
The absence of a swimming hurts but Owen said the branch compensates with “the largest gym in the (Omaha) association.” That gym sees heavy use for hoops, via basketball programs/leagues, and fitness/martial arts classes. He’s hoping when the nearby Kroc Center opens in 2009 his members will be able to access its pool.
He feels his Y’s proximity to the neighboring South Side Terrace Homes and “its 800-plus young people” is an advantage for attracting and retaining youth and family members. He’s keenly aware the facility’s long drawn many users from the Omaha Housing Authority’s South Terrace complex. The low-income housing project includes many at-risk youths who access the Y’s after-school and summer club programs and Kids Cafe, which provides free nutritious meals and snacks. An OHA liasion offices at the Y.
One of South Side’s own played a key role in pushing for the building, which was owned and operated by OHA from 1977 until 2007. The facility’s provided recreational, educational, community and social agency services and programs its entire life. It fulfilled the vision of LaFern Williams, a South Side tenant and community activist who “was very instrumental in convincing the powers-that-be” to construct a recreational/childcare facility for residents, said OHA executive director Stan Timm. Her dream of a safe haven for children was realized and the building became the LaFern Williams Center after her death.
The center also housed the award-winning Center Stage Theatre, whose alums include actor-director John Beasley. Owens said, “This facility was one of the most happening scenes in the ‘80s.” By the start of this decade the Center Stage was no more and the building showing its age and a decline in usage. A half-dozen years ago Beasley resurrected live theater there by forming the John Beasley Theater & Workshop. Even with the JBT’s success the center was not the beehive activity it was before. In 1999 the Y leased the ground floor to present an array of programs and activities. The name changed to South Omaha Community YMCA. Other tenants have included Educare, Head Start and South Omaha Weed & Seed.
When OHA could no longer afford the cost of maintaining the building, plans called for the center to be sold. An outcry led by South Side residents made the structure’s fate a public issue. That’s when the Y stepped in to buy and renovate it with the help of a $1 million challenge grant from the Peter Kiewit Foundation.
As an enticement for Beasley’s company to remain, the Y showed some love by installing new seats and carpeting in the auditorium housing his theater. Owens said having the theater there “is a unique opportunity and presence. Mr. Beasley’s a renowned artist and his productions are tremendous. We wanted to make the upgrades to let him know we respect him and appreciate what he provides.”
Additional plans for the auditorium call for the addition of a drop-down projector to accommodate Power Point II presentations, which Owens hopes will attract organizations to use the facility during the day for meetings and trainings.
As a nod to the legacy of the woman who made the center a reality, Y officials renamed it the LaFern Williams South YMCA. While Owens never met Williams he said, “we’re honored to carry Miss LaFern’s name and her mission to be a beacon or a cornerstone for this community. I’m proud to be that steward that fights for those whose arms get tired. I don’t take that lightly.”
He said the deep meaning the place has in the community is reflected by the fact it’s only been tagged once in the seven years he’s been there. “I think that has a lot to do with respect. That this is kind of off-limits. This is the hub. This facility has such a lineage and a history. A lot of young people’s parents, brothers, aunts, uncles participated here. It’s like we take care of our own.”
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