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In goggles, with lime green and yellow pool noodles under their arms, a dozen summer camp children splashed around during their YMCA swim lesson in Camden on Friday. The air was hot and muggy inside the high-ceilinged room, where two lifeguards watched the children and their instructors move about in the Promise Academy pool on Federal Street.
Fourteen miles away, in Mount Laurel, Ed Armstead, 80, of Moorestown, gripped a 20-pound free weight while answering, along with a group of others, questions that their trainer, Rocky Palarmo, 80, of Pennsauken, read to them from a Jeopardy! trivia book - his way of working out their minds while they were working their muscles.
Different in ages, locations, and activity, these participants were connected, in some senses, through the merger of two YMCAs just over six years ago.
"I've belonged to it since it opened in 1992, and I see no need to change," Armstead, a retired engineering manager for Lockheed Martin, said of the YMCA on Centerton Road in Mount Laurel.
Not everything has gone so smoothly in Camden County.
The Camden City building where kids splashed about Friday is the former YMCA location, now the property of a charter school.
It is one of several places the YMCA of Burlington and Camden Counties (BC-YMCA) now uses to reach the community in Camden County. Unlike in Burlington County, the Y has no brick-and-mortar locations of its own in Camden County anymore.
In the summer of 2007, the Camden County YMCA shut its Federal Street location and stopped services there. In January 2008, citing financial difficulties from its inability to sell the city facility, the YMCA in Voorhees shut its doors as well. The closures dismayed parents, who relied on the facilities for things like child care while they were at work.
Eventually, the Camden County Y was absorbed by the Burlington County YMCA to become the BC-YMCA.
Nowadays, the programs in Camden County take place in rented space or public spaces, including schools and parks.
For the children in the pool in Camden on Friday, however, it probably didn't matter that the Y was just renting the place.
"When it reopened, I could see the impact," Valeria Galarza, a project manager and program director for BC-YMCA, said, standing on the concrete deck that runs around the 25-yard lap pool. "I constantly hear that people are happy the YMCA is back."
This is the second year that the BC-YMCA is offering swim lessons and health programs in Camden.
"There really wasn't a lot of opportunity for kids after school" when the building was shut down, Galarza said, noting that some neighborhoods provide more services to children than others.
Tim Kerrihard, CEO of the BC-YMCA, said he and his colleagues then working with what was just the Burlington County Y reacted swiftly.
The Voorhees YMCA shut down on a Friday, and by Monday, some of its staff had been hired onto the Burlington County Y's payroll to help continue after-school programs in Camden County that served about 180 elementary school children a day.
"Parents need somewhere for their kids to go at 3 o'clock if they're at work," Kerrihard said. "You can't just let the bell ring [at school] and have these parents saying, 'What the heck am I going to do? The Y isn't there anymore.' "
Where to physically continue beyond the after-school programs to get other services back up was a challenge that winter and spring.
"When you're trying to help a Y that is going out of business, you can't really go into the buildings, because the buildings are locked," Kerrihard said. "So we just looked around at different program locations."
Today, program locations exist in Camden, Voorhees, and Sicklerville. Locations are changed or added as needed, he said.
Renting program locations instead of paying the mortgage, maintenance, and other costs for a permanent location became an integral aspect of BC-YMCA's strategy.
"How can we get a Y in every neighborhood?" Kerrihard said, distilling the goal into a question.
BC-YMCA is partnering with other organizations, including Campbell's Soup and United Way, to promote healthy, safe, and active lifestyles. It continues to educate children about healthy eating. It teaches swimming. It works to clean up parks and provides programming to help get youths outdoors.
It's "a really tough part of the world, where kids are basically trapped in their homes and they can't go outside because it's unsafe and they don't have backyards," Kerrihard said of Camden. "Our goal with Safe Places to Play was to give kids places to play and get them more active."
BC-YMCA's budget has grown in five years from $9 million a year to $12 million a year, Kerrihard said, helped in part by fund-raising, which has grown from $750,000 to just under $2 million a year. The rest comes from membership dues and program fees.
The combined Y serves 30,000 to 40,000 people a year, Kerrihard said, and has 15,000 active members on its rolls. In Camden, day camps have grown from seven in 2008 to 20 this year.
"We need to serve more people," Kerrihard said, referring to a former YMCA chairman's mantra, "and we have to do it in a sustainable way."
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