The Young Men’s Christian Association, which began in 1844 as a refuge for predominantly white males, has achieved ethnic and gender diversity on the Central Coast.
The Channel Islands YMCA, which has locations in Camarillo, Ventura, Montecito, Santa Barbara, Lompoc and Santa Ynez, is the largest YMCA branch in the nation with an Hispanic leader, and seven of its eight board chair positions are held by women.
Salvador Cisneros is a 32-year veteran of the YMCA who has been at the helm of the Channel Islands YMCA since 2005. It has an operating budget of nearly $18 million, 686 employees and 1,103 volunteers.
The YMCA is “no longer just for young, Christian men,” Cisneros said, adding that the association maintains Judeo-Christian values through community service.
“That’s what makes it so unique, I believe,” he said. “We’re talking about an organization that was strictly for men, quite frankly, strictly for white people … and it has evolved and you’ve got a CEO whose name is Salvador Cisneros.”
The Channel Islands YMCA discovered this year, almost by surprise, that nearly all of its board chairs were women, Cisneros said.
“It’s organic,” he said. “It has evolved because good people are ascending and that’s what you want.”
The board chairs are unpaid volunteers who donate five to 20 hours a month. While they primarily oversee YMCA subcommittees and fundraising, several chairs provide financial consulting, attorney services and other professional partnerships.
Jaylon Letendre, the Santa Barbara board chair and a stay-at-home mom, was the only woman on the board when she began volunteering eight years ago. She said her board now has a 50-50 ratio of men and women as a result of prioritizing women through referrals and interviews.
“We really almost stopped recruiting (for) other aspects on our board until we had some really great women … and then we looked outside of that gender,” she said.
Annick Faict, the Camarillo board chair, said the YMCA has achieved diversity by focusing on factors other than gender.
“We look for an involvement with the Y or a good connection they have with the Y,” she said. “That’s more important than who they are and that’s why I feel that we have so many women.”
The Channel Islands YMCA’s strategic vision for 2015-2018 is to “recruit staff and volunteers that reflect the diversity in our communities.”
Assemblymember Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, recently selected the Channel Islands YMCA as the Nonprofit of the Year for the inaugural California Nonprofits Day at the state Capitol.
About 50 percent of the YMCA’s revenue comes from fees for programs such as day camps, pre-schools and athletic facilities. The YMCA receives no regular government funding but it can apply for competitive grants.
Since the Channel Islands YMCA was established in 1877, the chapter has expanded to serve more than 46,000 families and children. It celebrated its 125th anniversary four years ago.
“I think a lot of people will tell you that it’s a little bit like home away from home,” Faict said of working with the YMCA. “It’s a very welcoming environment, regardless of what your background is, regardless of what your ethnicity is.”
The Channel Islands YMCA provided $1.2 million in scholarships for its programs this year. In a span of 18 months, the YMCA converted an old fire station on East Haley Street in Santa Barbara into a special childcare center for underrepresented youth.
“We applaud the efforts of Channel Islands YMCA to develop staff and volunteer teams that mirror the community it serves,” said Chad Nico Hiu, director of diversity and inclusion for YMCA USA.
• Contact Supriya Yelimeli at [email protected]