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By Frank Thomas Croisdale

The height of celebrity is when someone is universally known by just one name. In the hierarchy of fame people like Elvis, Madonna, Bono, Cher and Beyonce sit at the top of the heap. Businesses don't necessarily follow the same rule, but one local institution is so cool it only goes by one single letter -- the "Y."

The Young Man's Christian Association, or as the Village People intoned with full-body sign language -- the YMCA, has been a part of Niagara Falls almost as long as the city has been around. In fact, formed in 1852, the YMCA Buffalo Niagara is the second oldest in all of America. The branch that sits at the intersection of Main and Portage is so recognizable that one could argue that it defines the city as much as long time businesses like the Como, Gadawski's and Beeton's Cycle do.

Almost everyone who grew up in Niagara Falls over the past century has a direct connection with the "Y." For me it was a haven during my high school years in the early '80s. I spent nearly every Friday night there during that time frame -- swimming in the pool, lifting weights, playing pick-up basketball and running laps on the indoor track that circled the gym on the upper level.

It was at the "Y" that I was connected to one of the most memorable moments of the 20th century. It was late on the Friday evening of Feb. 22, 1980 when I came off of the basketball court with a group of my friends and a radio playing behind the front desk announced that the U.S. men's hockey team had beaten the Russians at the Olympics in Lake Placid.

The game wasn't shown on television until the next day and we stood stunned at the ramifications of what the win meant. The Cold War was at the beginning of the end and the plucky hockey team comprised of college kids had just knocked off the greatest team on the planet. Somehow, standing dripping with sweat inside of the "Y" while heavy snowflakes floated to the ground outside, the realization that they had done it, the team had pulled off what would become known as the "Miracle on Ice," left us with a sense that anything was possible -- if you only believed it so and let your work ethic evolve from that belief.

In a sense that's what the YMCA has always been about. The organization fosters belief in young people and gives them a very concrete way of weaving that belief into a work ethic that builds both the muscles and the soul. The Niagara Falls Branch of YMCA Buffalo Niagara has begun their fundraising effort for the 2011 Strong Kids Campaign under the leadership of Campaign Co-Chairs Donald E. Burns and Albert Parker.

The effort is an important one for the "Y" because although the organization is structured with memberships on a sliding scale fee they adhere to a mandate that: "The YMCA Buffalo Niagara does not turn anyone away due to an inability to pay."

Niagara Falls is a poor city struggling to reinvent itself and bolster its business base. As a result, many kids live below the poverty level here and these are the kids that need the guidance and resources of the local "Y" the most.

Each year thousands of people in Western New York benefit from financial assistance from the YMCA. Annually, more than 15,000 children and families will benefit from the Strong Kids Campaign, providing financial aid for people who wish to participate in YMCA programs such as school age child care and summer camp, or to purchase a membership.

"The Strong Kids campaign enables the kids and adults in our community who need the 'Y' the most to participate in the varied programs available," Burns said. "The 'Y' believes all kids deserve the opportunity to develop their potential, their future and to foster health and well being."

"The generous financial assistance the Strong Kids Campaign counts on from our members, businesses and the community helps people of all ages, from all walks of life, be more healthy, confident, connected and secure," added Parker. "When donors give to the 'Y,' the gift has a meaningful, enduring impact right here in our own neighborhood."

The "Y" has also always been on the cutting edge of providing health benefits to its members. Recently, due to the efforts of Al Muto, our local branch has purchased a Bodpod. It is an egg-shaped devise that accurately calculates a person's body fat index. The high-tech devises have been used by NFL and NHL teams and work well to help combat the epidemic of obesity that American youth are now facing.

In addition, the "Y" will soon debut state-of-the-art Precor Elliptical, Precor AMTs, Star Trac Stepper, and a Concept II Rower equipment. That will augment an impressive array of services that include:
School Age Child Care
Summer Day Camp
Multi-Purpose Room
Wellness Center
Free Weight Area
Racquetball Courts
Steam Room
Indoor Running track
Child Watch
Residence for Men

This week the "Y" will sponsor the Turkey Trot, featuring 13,200 runners. Established in 1896, this 8K race will mark its 116th start on Thanksgiving morning, making it the oldest continually running footrace in North America. The Niagara Falls branch is looking for volunteers to help with the race.

Michele Altman is on the Board of Management for the "Y" and she has a good handle on what the organization means to the community.

"Having raised two of my own children in our great city of Niagara Falls, I know how important it is to keep our kids busy and off the streets. My hope is to get our message out to our community and to see our membership rise. When people are invested in our community, such as the 'Y,' everyone benefits!"

YMCA Executive Director Greg Larson believes that community support of the Strong Kids program is essential in helping the next generation of underprivileged kids develop their skills to their full potential.

"We are fulfilling our mission to ensure that our programs and services are made affordable for everybody through financial assistance. Last year we awarded over $100,000 and we are on pace to do the same for this year."

What's one of the best ways to help the kids of Niagara Falls? The answer might seem like another question, but it's really just a simple "Y."

To donate to strong kids please visit www.ymcabuffaloniagara.org/opportunities/strongkids.html, or call 716-285-8491 for more info.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Nov. 22, 2011