Out and About: Central to the Community

The YMCA continues to draw a diverse mem­ber­ship to down­town Wilmington—and their goals don’t always involve fitness

For the last 87 years, the six-story building at the corner of 11th and North Washington streets in down­town Wilmington has welcomed every walk of life imag­in­able. White collar or blue collar, rich or poor, black or white, polit­i­cally con­nected or dis­en­fran­chised, all are wel­come at the Central YMCA.

They come to run on the famous row of tread­mills over­looking West 12th Street, or to swim a few laps in the seven-lane pool. They come for a quick workout or a pick-up bas­ket­ball game. And then there are those who are there because Central offers affordable, low-rent housing and hot meals, including lunch five days a week, Thursday night dinner and Sunday morning break­fast, all served in the lounge area, where there are TVs and a bil­liard table.

Ever since the brick-and-limestone building was erected in May of 1927, it’s been more than just a gym or a fit­ness center. At a time when Wilmington’s rep­u­ta­tion is reeling from epi­thets lev­eled by local and national media, the Central Y offers a sense of com­mu­nity, cama­raderie and a con­nec­tion with its sur­round­ings that con­tinues to bring Delawareans downtown.

A Brief History of the Central Y

A Brief History of the Central Y

The first U.S. Youth Men’s Christian Association was formed in Boston in 1851, after orig­i­nating in London just seven years ear­lier. By the time the YMCA offi­cially made its way to Delaware in 1889, it had been estab­lished as a flour­ishing community-based orga­ni­za­tion focusing on social respon­si­bility in a safe environment.

Today, the YMCA of Delaware oper­ates six branches statewide, and employs more than 1,200 people (closer to 1,600 during summer camping season), according to President and CEO Deborah Bagatta-Bowles.

“The com­mu­nity we employ is as diverse as the com­mu­nity we serve,” Bagatta-Bowles says. “In fact, we are often the first job for high school and col­lege stu­dents, and we also employ many retirees.”

Lee Bunting is one such employee, joining the Central Y right out of the University of Delaware in 1979 as pro­gram director. He remained there until 1985, when he left to work at branches in Philadelphia, Chicago and upstate New York. He returned to Delaware in 2011 as exec­u­tive director of the Downtown Y, which encom­passes both the Central and Walnut Street Ys.

“Pretty much right after I grad­u­ated from UD, except for a stint doing grad work at the University of Indiana, I’ve always been a YMCA employee,” Bunting says. “I liked the atmos­phere of the Y, because everyone always got along with each other so well. It was amazing to see back then, and it’s even more amazing to see some 30 years later. And this building, in par­tic­ular, has every­thing you could want in a fit­ness center.”

Even Bagatta-Bowles, in her lim­ited time since joining the YMCA of Delaware in 2013, sees the sig­nif­i­cance of the Central Y. “It really is a beau­tiful old building, and you’d never know there was any racial ten­sion in this country when you walk in there.”

Central fea­tures sep­a­rate men’s and women’s steam and sauna rooms (the only Y to do so out of the six loca­tions), five rac­quet­ball courts, two squash courts and two indoor bas­ket­ball courts. The exer­cise machines offer the latest in tech­nology (most of the tread­mills are hard­wired to the Internet), and for those who want to go old school, there’s plenty of iron to lift. There are count­less spin­ning, yoga and Body Pump classes, day­care, 180 rooms for rent, and what some mem­bers now refer to on Facebook as the “dreadmill.”

Coined by those who use the track located above the bas­ket­ball court, the “dread­mill” is a con­ve­nient alter­na­tive to out­door run­ning during cold weather. It takes 24 laps around the monot­o­nous oval to reach one mile, and mem­bers used to line up to use the track on freezing winter days, according to Bunting.

Wayne Kursh, founder of Races 2 Run, has painful mem­o­ries of the track.
“In the early ‘80s, we had the winter from hell, and there was ice on the ground every­where,” Kursh says. “I couldn’t run out­side, so I ran on that ‘dread­mill’ for two-and-half-hours training for the Delaware Marathon. It was brutal run­ning that oval for that long, because you feel like a mouse on a wheel. It was the weirdest run I’ve ever had, but I lived to tell about it.”

Races 2 Run, the Mid-Atlantic’s pre­em­i­nent race event orga­nizers, pro­duces the Mayor’s Icicle Race every January, with the Central Y as the start and finish place. These days, Kursh spends most of his time in Rehoboth Beach and Key West, but every January he says his mem­o­ries of the dread­mill are jogged to life.

While the indoor track doesn’t get as much mileage as it once did, the swim­ming pool is still one of the Central Y’s biggest attrac­tions, and the place where Bunting’s life changed forever.

Central Connections

On a bitter cold day in January, Lee Bunting walks the mar­c­a­site floors of the Central Y across the building to the seven-lane lap pool. It was there, years ago, that he met Criss Irvin. A teacher at Monteith Middle School in Claymont, Irvin would bring stu­dents to Central for swim and phys­ical edu­ca­tion classes.

“We got to know each other and after a while started talking about tennis,” Bunting recalls. “I asked if she wanted to play some­time, so we met at the Rodney Street courts. Unfortunately for me, she didn’t men­tion that she was a col­le­giate player at UD, so she whooped me pretty good.”

The two con­tinued to see each other at the Y, con­necting with mutual friends, run­ning together in the Icicle Race, and even playing squash together, which led to one unfor­tu­nate acci­dent six months into their relationship.

“It was on a Saturday and we stopped in to my office on the second level to grab my rac­quet,” Bunting says. “Her hand was in the door when I closed it and it pinched off about a half-inch of her thumb. It was awful. Needless to say, we didn’t play squash that day.”

Despite Criss’ quick dis­patching of Lee in tennis, and Lee’s near-severing of her thumb, their friend­ship grew into a romance, and within three years, they were married.

But they cer­tainly aren’t the only couple whose mar­riage had its begin­ning at the YMCA. Part-time fit­ness instructor Warren Cox met his future wife, Aly Gauthier, at Central in the summer of 2010. She was on the ellip­tical machine, and he struck up a conversation.

“She was only there for a 30-minute workout, but I guess I just kept talking and talking, and before you know it, an hour had passed,” Cox says. “Eventually she agreed to go out with me for dinner and a movie.”

The two got engaged in September of 2013, mar­ried this past August, and are now expecting their first child in July. Aly believes Central is a great spot to meet new people, because there’s always a young crowd present.

“I was about 30 when we met, and I remember living in Trolley Square and seeing so many Y mem­bers out at the bars,” Cox says. “It was like Trolley was the spot to hang out socially at night, but the Central Y was the place to hang out during the day.”

In addi­tion to bud­ding romances and life­long friend­ships, Central is the spot for Delaware celebrity sight­ings. Mike Graves, who was CEO from 1987–2013, met count­less new friends during his tenure and recalls seeing many state, county and city movers and shakers on a reg­ular basis.

“Even today, U.S. Senators Tom Carper and Chris Coons work out there reg­u­larly, and did when I worked there,” Graves says. “Mayor Dan Frawley, [former Philadelphia Phillies owner] Ruly Carpenter, Joe Biden, [former Kelly’s Logan House owner and county sheriff] John Kelly, [Delaware Superior Court Judge] Ferris Wharton—you name it. If they were a big name in Delaware, par­tic­u­larly Wilmington, they met at the Central Y, either to work out or even hold court, so to speak.”

Senator Carper has exer­cised reg­u­larly at the Y for two decades. Last year, he even con­ducted his ALS Ice Bucket Challenge there. But unless you’re an espe­cially early riser, you might not catch the sen­ator before he heads off to the nation’s capital.

“I’ve been working out at the Central Y for more than 20 years, along with my wife Martha and our two boys when they were living at home,” Carper says. “I prefer to work out early in the morning there before I jump on the 7:15 train to Washington. I usu­ally lift weights or use the ellip­tical, and I haven’t missed a day of work due to ill­ness in over 35 years. I attribute that to staying phys­i­cally fit, and much of that is done at the Central Y.”

Today, younger mem­bers like Kristy Carpenter also go there for the chance to con­nect with fellow Delawareans. Carpenter moved from New Jersey for employ­ment about five years ago, and the Y has been one of the most con­sis­tent aspects of her life ever since.

“For the first year I lived in Wilmington, I was a member of [another local gym],” Carpenter says. “It was easy and cheap, but it just wasn’t doing it for me. For someone who didn’t know a lot of people here, I needed more. I was looking to make con­nec­tions, and I wasn’t get­ting that.”

The 27-year-old was working for Enterprise Rent-A-Car after grad­u­ating with a busi­ness degree from Widener University. Little did she know that her time at the Central Y would go from casual member to instructor to what will even­tu­ally become a brand new career.

Yoga classes are popular with women and a growing number of men. Photo courtesy of YMCA of Delaware

“I was able to get a job at Rowan University, and am now fin­ishing my mas­ters there in well­ness and health pro­mo­tion,” Carpenter says. “After I started teaching Body Pump classes at the Central Y, I knew it was some­thing I wanted to do with my life. Seeing people change their lives and lifestyles is very inspiring. I wanted more of that.”

Carpenter says that besides finding a new calling, she’s met one of her “best friends”—fellow member Kristin Roberts—while working out at the Y. Carpenter credits the “feeling of being accepted without any judg­ment” as the reason she and Roberts began talking and hanging out. Now that Central has launched social mixers, Carpenter and Roberts might be making more new friends very soon.

Mixing It Up

Chrissy Shiring, asso­ciate exec­u­tive director at the Central Y for three years and a YMCA employee for 15 years, knows the ben­e­fits of staying con­nected with both cur­rent and poten­tial mem­bers. While social media plat­forms are an obvious choice to foster those rela­tion­ships, she feels that person-to-person inter­ac­tion is equally impor­tant, so she orga­nized the Central Y’s first social mixer in early January. Members ($5) and non-members ($10) could enroll in an hour-long class at the Y, then clean up and head across the street to the Washington Street Ale House’s Maraschino Room, where they would meet for com­pli­men­tary food and soda and a cash bar. The goal was to allow mem­bers to see each other out of the fit­ness center on a social level.

The first event was a big suc­cess. “We had more than 70 people come out to the Ale House, and even though we were only sched­uled until 8 p.m., almost the entire crowd stayed out past 9, and that was on a week­night,” Shiring says. “We had live music playing and there was a tremen­dous cross-section of people, both young and old.”

Naturally, a lot of the con­ver­sa­tion at the first social mixer turned toward career aspi­ra­tions and employment.

“We’ve had plenty of instances here where, through engaging with mem­bers around them, people have found new employ­ment, or hired people for their own firms and com­pa­nies,” Shiring says. “In a social set­ting, like a restau­rant, that’s even more likely to happen. Making that con­nec­tion is what we’re all about.”

Carpenter also attended the first mixer, and was aston­ished at how pop­ular the event was. “With the live music, it was cool to see people in a dif­ferent atmos­phere. I met mem­bers that I’ve instructed but never really hung out with socially. A lot of times after classes, you feel rushed. This gave everyone more oppor­tu­nity to really get to know each other.”

Roberts, a 27-year-old spe­cial edu­ca­tion teacher at Bancroft Elementary, taught the Body Pump class the night of the social mixer, even get­ting her father to come in and attend.

“He really liked the atmos­phere and even­tu­ally became a member, even though he’d really never stepped foot in a gym before,” Roberts says. “I think the mixer had a big effect on him as well, because it was so laid­back. I really enjoyed seeing people you sweat next to all week in a dif­ferent atmos­phere, dressed up nice and social­izing. It was a pretty cool experience.”

Shiring is already in the process of plan­ning an in-house event on Friday, Feb. 20, at the Central Y, with a cof­fee­house theme. Complimentary Starbucks will be served and the Gene Huff Trio will per­form. She also has her eyes set on a Feb. 18 guest bar­tender fundraiser at BBC Tavern and Grill in Greenville.

Our Mission

The YMCA is an association of people of all ages, ethnic groups and religious affiliations that strives to cultivate the human potential, self-esteem, and dignity of all people. Our organization exists to develop and practice the Christian principles of love, caring, inclusiveness, justice and peace…and to enrich the emotional, physical and social life of all individuals, families and our community.