The YMCA of Greater New Orleans was founded in 1852 by a small group of young Christian men concerned about the many temptations of the city of New Orleans. These men wanted to create something that could help direct other young men to a more virtuous path and promote mental, moral, and spiritual welfare. The New Orleans YMCA was the sixth YMCA founded in the United States, making it one of the oldest branches still operating today.
The New Orleans YMCA has been a pillar of community support throughout its history in New Orleans. From the Civil War to providing aid during the Yellow Fever Epidemic in 1878 to responding to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the YMCA has been committed to responding to the needs of the Greater New Orleans community. Today the YMCA recognizes the crisis of adult illiteracy in New Orleans and hopes to address that problem by providing free educational services to members of the community. “We at the Y believe in meeting the greatest needs that our community has, so adult illiteracy is our area of focus.” Said Shannan Cvitanovic, Director of Educational Services.
YMCA Educational Services is the literacy branch of the YMCA of Greater New Orleans. It was founded in 1977 and relies on volunteers and a small staff to provide reading and math instruction to adults aged 16 and over who read below the ninth grade level. Part of the strategic plan of the YMCA of Greater New Orleans encompasses the goals of the YMCA Educational Services (YES!) programming- to increase adult literacy opportunities from 300 students to over 1,000 students, and to provide adult literacy services in at least eight parishes. The mission of YES! Is to give adults in the Greater New Orleans area the literacy skills they need to become active engaged citizens in their communities. YES! organizes adult education courses at the YMCA Learning Center in the main branch of the New Orleans Public Library and in New Orleans East, and does their administrative work out of an office on Jefferson Parkway. YES! has served over 15,000 students since their opening in 1977.
The population served by YES! is adults with low literacy levels, who are typically low-income New Orleans residents with low education levels. Many of these adults are hoping to improve their literacy skills to help them find better employment, or to succeed in a GED program or workforce training. Many students want to be able to help their children or grandchildren learn how to read and do homework. Many simply want to improve their quality of life by improving their reading skills. All students are self-motivated to seek out YES! services and have a strong desire to learn. The effects of improving one adult’s literacy skills are not limited to that individual. For example, a 1% increase in nationwide literacy provides a 1.5% increase in a country’s GDP. There are countless statistics and facts that show the importance of literacy among adults.
Because the YMCA Educational Services is a smaller division of the YMCA of Greater New Orleans, they are able to utilize many of the resources of the larger organization. YES! has only one full-time paid employee, the Director of Educational Services. The teachers are all volunteers, and the staff at the library location is almost all AmeriCorps or other long-term service program volunteers. The administrative positions all fall under the greater YMCA umbrella, and help out when needed with things like the budget, resources, etc.
The YMCA is also a part of the United Way network in New Orleans, providing them with extra funding and technical help. YES! relies on grants and donations, and hosts a 5k fundraiser every year to maintain financial stability and pay for supplies and material costs of running the program.
Director of Educational Services Shannan Cvitanovic has said, “Here in New Orleans we’re facing a crisis of adult illiteracy. Literacy means the skills you need to function in the world. Whether that means the reading skills you need to be able to read a light bill, the math skills that you need to be able to take care of your own personal finances, or the computer skills that we use every day, to send e-mails or to fill our job applications. The YMCA wants to meet that need and provide classes to adults who want to improve their math and reading skills. We can’t imagine what it must be like for a parent who cannot help their child with homework, or who cannot apply for a better job because they simply lack the computer skills.”
My work with YES! has been primarily outreach and working on fundraising for the upcoming Corporate Cup 5K, so I’ve been able to utilize a lot of things I’ve learned through various International Development courses, especially when it comes to the importance of program modeling and the significance of clear data and results. People are much more likely to support your program financially if they can see a clear and positive effect the program has on the target demographic. This internship has given me an in-depth, hands-on look at the inner workings of a non-profit organization, largely in part to my awesome supervisor. The staff at the YMCA of Greater New Orleans are all incredibly passionate and dedicated to improving adult literacy and helping to improve the community overall.
“It takes a lot of courage for a student to come to us and say they lack the skills they need to succeed in the workplace, or to confess to us that they’re not able to read even the simplest of books to their children. They come to us because they want to make a change in their lives, and they see education as the key to that change.”