Powerful Schools YMCA Closing, Leaving the Community Behind

by Erin Okuno, Idil Danan, Heather Hart

This coming summer southeast Seattle will have fewer summer school options for elementary school students partially due to the closure and withdrawal of the YMCA of Greater Seattle’s Powerful Schools programs. In 2014, the YMCA took over the local Powerful Schools organization and merged it into the Y’s slate of education programs. At the time they signaled they were interested in supporting and expanding into the Rainier Valley and South Seattle. Yet, less than four years later the Y has abruptly decided to close Powerful Schools, leaving hundreds of elementary school students and families without summer school and next school year without afterschool programs.

When the Y took over the Powerful Schools program it was heralded as a great merger for the Y and the region. Former Seattle Times columnist Jerry Large wrote: “The joining of the YMCA and Powerful Schools is the kind a community can celebrate. Both organizations have evolved since their beginnings and gotten much better at addressing social needs, particularly helping families and children thrive.” The celebration was short-lived. In early 2018 the YMCA abruptly decided the financial cost of keeping Powerful Schools running was too much for the organization to bear. The YMCA states they are losing $1.3-million every year running the program. CEO Bob Gilbertson said at a parent meeting that philanthropic and government funding has shifted away from funding the program.

While we empathize with the Y for these financial losses rarely do youth-serving programs fully cover their own cost, especially when serving communities with lower socio-economic status, which the Y knew when they took over Powerful Schools. We also question the Y’s priorities since they are currently fundraising millions of dollars for capital campaigns in the University District, Auburn, and Kent. If staff energy and time can be given to these campaigns why wasn’t the same level of attention and priority given to sustaining programs serving more diverse communities[1] through Powerful Schools? This is contrary to their mission to “embrace diversity, reflecting the people and needs of our communities.”

After the announcement of Powerful School’s closure fifty-seven concerned parents and community members signed a letter expressing our concerns about the closure and to ask for explanations. CEO Bob Gilbertson, VP Jeff Rainy, and Board Chair Tom Hull agreed to meet with us. At the meeting we had several asks of the YMCA in light of the closure:

  1. $20,000 per school site in mitigation funding to ease the transition for schools and families.
  2. Follow up at individual school sites.
  3. The YMCA Association board commit to adding two-community embedded representatives to their board to foster a greater connection between who the Y is serving and the board.

It took almost two-weeks for CEO Gilbertson to reply and only after a reminder email. In his terse response, Mr. Gilbertson said: “The Y will not provide $20k per school that is operating Powerful Schools programs. It has already provided in excess of that amount to operate the programs this year,” and the burden of follow-up communication fell to parents and principals. These answers are not surprising and still disappointing. The Y still hasn’t replied to a March 30 follow-up email asking for details about next steps.

The YMCA is showing its privilege as a white-led organization with little connection to the South Seattle Community. The merger between Powerful Schools and the Y was heralded as a way to help families thrive but has instead harmed communities of color. The Y is choosing to leave when things are hard rather than fight to stay and support children they said they wanted to help. Now families and schools are forced to figure what we will do for summer and after-school care. We’ve done this dance before and in the long run, our community will figure out how to support our kids because we are resilient and we take care of our own.

We are sharing this information so the YMCA’s leaders and other mainstream organizations who operate in our community understand their roles and responsibilities and are held accountable. Coming into a community and believing you are helping and doing good, but then leaving when financial resources dry up is not helping. Transparency, communication, and staying true to community driven missions and visions is what is needed. We are holding the Y accountable because they have a responsibility to serve without being a savior. While our community is strong we shouldn’t have to fight for scraps from large outside organizations who leave after a few years.

The Y has a chance to make-right by our community by honoring our reasonable requests. $20,000 in mitigation funds per school is a small percentage of the $1.3-million they will save next school year by shuttering Powerful Schools. That $20,000 will help schools bridge the gap in services. This isn’t about money, it is about respect for our families, our school communities, and being of service to communities they chose to serve. The Y also needs to diversify their board and reach deeper into the community to find board members who are rooted in the communities they serve to keep their programs and organization truly mission-driven.

The YMCA needs to make right by our SE community and honors our asks. Our children and families deserve better than being left to scramble to rebuild programs after YMCA leaders made decisions without community input. They should do what is right and respect our community by diversifying their board and leadership and providing mitigation funding.

Idil Danan, Heather Hart, and Erin Okuno are parents of children in two different public schools in SE Seattle.

[1] Demographics: University District: 60% White, Auburn: 63% White, Kent: 47% White, Southeast Seattle- Beacon Hill: 21% White, Rainier Beach: 22% White


15 thoughts on “Powerful Schools YMCA Closing, Leaving the Community Behind”

  1. The YMCA of Greater Seattle is no longer a place dedicated to helping our children grow, it is a secular money-making machine headed by two men (Bob Gilbertson and Jeff Rainey) whose salaries have grown astronomically over the past few years. Tom Hull has resigned from the Board in protest over the elimination of the Powerful Schools and other enrichment programs; but if we want to see change we have to make our voices heard. Do we love our children enough to protest in front of the YMCA corporate offices in downtown Seattle? Demand the resignations of Bob Gilbertson and Jeff Rainey? Are we willing to call and write letters to the Board Members, and if necessary boycott the companies they represent? Do we love our kids enough to even share these ideas? Is there someone out there that is willing to be the voice of our kids? To organize a protest at the downtown office? Start a Facebook page? We need you.

  2. This is awful, the YMCA took over a program critical to the children of the community and now pull out with very little notice. “CEO Bob Gilbertson said at a parent meeting that philanthropic and government funding has shifted away from funding the program.” Sounds to me like someone who has shirked their fundraising responsibilities at the expense of the children in this community.

    The Board of Directors of the YMCA is made up of people from the large corporations based in the Puget Sound. They all say that they embrace diversity. They sure don’t act like it as their employees are governing an organization that is raising money for white communities but won’t do the same for this community.

  3. In December 2017, the YMCA of Greater Seattle made the difficult decision to discontinue our school-based “Closing the Achievement Gap” programs in Seattle Public Schools. For the past 18 years, we’ve been committed to improving educational outcomes through these programs and we did not approach this decision lightly. As a nonprofit organization, we rely heavily on public and private funds to support this work. Unfortunately, over the last several years the public and private funding landscape has changed and our organization cannot continue to fund these programs at this level without additional funding. Our commitment to all families remains unwavering. Over the last five months while continuing the programs, we have worked directly with each school in the district affected by this decision, in order to minimize the impact on the families. Our goal is to ensure a smooth transition to alternative youth service providers.

    We maintain our commitment to continue to serve over 20,000 students through our Youth Development Education and Enrichment programs including: Licensed child care, Child Learning Centers (CLCs),Y-Scholars, Kids University, Teen Programming, Outdoor Education and enrichment programs throughout the county. Additionally, as the homeless crisis continues to escalate, we have increased our support of young people who need us the most. The YMCA of Greater Seattle provides housing to more homeless youth than any other organization in King County. We also provide crisis support to over 7,000 young people and their families. Our organization remains focused on supporting young people and their families through all of our branches, programs and services. The “Closing the Achievement Gap” and “Powerful Schools” programs in the Seattle School District are the only programs being discontinued.

    The YMCA of Greater Seattle remains committed to families and youth development in all that we do. Our goal is to remove barriers so that all people, especially the youth, can achieve their fullest potential.

  4. I would like to correct Bill Handler’s comment stating that I resigned from the board of the YMCA of Greater Seattle in protest over this issue. While I feel great sorrow at the discontinuance of the Powerful Schools programs, I continue to serve on the board and I remain committed to doing everything I can to help children and families in Southeast Seattle and the entire region. My term as board chair ended in early May, but my determination to help close the opportunity gap for families in Southeast Seattle – and everywhere—has not changed one iota. Is the Y perfect? No, and I believe we must learn from every experience, including this one. However, the programs described in the Y’s posted comments demonstrate the Y’s highest priority is to serve those with the greatest need, especially the young.

    1. Tom is there a way to interact directly with the YMCA Board? Are the meetings open to the public? If so can you tell us where and when the next meeting is? Also, is there a way to communicate with you via email or with the current Board Chair? Thank you!

      1. Yes, I’ve spoken with our board leadership and we propose that a group of board members sit down with a group of parent representatives to discuss the issues being raised. An email has been sent to Erin Okuno, co-author of the article, offering to coordinate such a meeting. I look forward to participating and helping identify steps that will benefit the children of Southeast Seattle.

  5. YMCA Leaders,

    Thank you for your platitudes and comments. I appreciate you posting this publicly. What steps are you taking to meet the request outlined in the article and the previous email sent by parents? There were several no-cost requests and your comment does not lay out steps on what you are doing to meet those reasonable request.

    If your goal is to ensure a smooth transition I can tell you that you are failing at that goal. There is much confusion about what programs are closing, what families will be doing for after-school programs next year. Your comments also deflect any responsibility the Y has in causing confusion or communication planning.

    In the last paragraph you write “The YMCA of Greater Seattle remains committed to families and youth development in all that we do.” The actions demonstrated thus far and the lack of communication betray this message, thus it is a platitude to center yourselves and deflect responsibility. Also if your goal is to remove barriers, please concretely lay out how your leadership and organization is demonstrating this? Actions build trust and thus far we have seen little actions that are focused on the community and not protecting the Y.

  6. I can’t speak for all schools, but at mine, parents stopped signing their kids up for Powerful Schools because it was run, at the site level, so poorly after merging with the Y. From my perspective, this is because they didn’t pay their site coordinators a living wage, which means the people they hired didn’t have the skills to run it, which means that sessions were often cancelled or never got off the ground. If the Y provided a more reliable product, they would have had a lot more sign-ups, and a better bottom line. Like I said, I don’t know about the other sites, but it seemed like mine was driven into the ground. It was never the same after our long-time coordinator had to leave in search of a better paying job.

  7. Here is a link to the most recent (2016) financial documents from the YMCA of Greater Seattle. These are public records which include information expenses and revenues, financial audits, and executive salaries for those interested in more specifics related to the YMCA’s current “funding landscape.” https://www.seattleymca.org/sites/default/files/2017-06/2016%20Form%20990%20Final%20-%20Public%20Disclosure%20Version.pdf

  8. Wow! Bob Gilbertson makes $350,000.00 per year? That’s disgusting. Can someone organize a FB page so that we can go down there and call for the resignation of Bob Gilbertson and his cabal?