A Message from Kathy Kuras, President & CEO, Greater Austin YMCA
The YMCA’s history of support for military personnel, their families and veterans dates back more than 150 years. As we approach Veterans Day, with multiple conflicts across the globe threatening to engage our troops, we are reminded of the incredible sacrifice that military service requires and the vital support the Y can provide.
In April, 1861, barely 10 years since the founding of the YMCA in America, President Abraham Lincoln engaged the Y to recruit volunteers to aid the nation’s cause during the Civil War. Eventually more than 5,000 volunteers provided relief and comfort to sick and wounded soldiers. They distributed medical supplies, food and clothing, and taught soldiers to read and write.
In 1902, U.S. Congress established permanent YMCA facilities on military bases. By 1914, there were 31 military YMCA’s, 180 travelling libraries, and 250,000 military staying in YMCA dormitories.
When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, the YMCA launched a massive program of morale and welfare services for the military, serving 90% of American military forces in Europe. Never in history had an organization aided so many troops over such a wide geographic area and under such adverse conditions.
In the tradition of its Civil War roots, the YMCA continued to undertake extensive prisoner-of-war work, providing supplies and aid to over five million prisoners and ultimately earning a Nobel Peace Prize for General Secretary John Mott. By war’s end, the YMCA, through the United War Work Council, had operated 1,500 canteens in the U.S. and France; set up 4,000 YMCA huts for recreation and religious services; and raised more than $235 million for relief work —equivalent to $4.3 billion today.
A generation later, as America entered World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt asked the YMCA to take the lead in forming the United Services Organizations (USO), which continues to this day in providing support for military personnel.
Today, YMCAs in Ukraine and across Europe are supporting victims of the conflict with Russia. We learned about the experience when we hosted a group of performers from the YMCA in Lviv, Ukraine, for our Voices of Ukraine event in July. And now, as Israel and Hamas wage battle, the Jerusalem YMCA is providing direct aid to those impacted.
Even prior to the current conflict, the preschool at the Jerusalem YMCA has sought to bridge divides on a daily basis. Preschool Director Alexandra Klein-Franke says “We have 40 percent Israeli children, 40 percent Arabic and the rest are international. In our region, children from Israel are not exposed naturally to Palestinians and vice-versa, which makes this place so unique.”
No matter the region or the conflict, YMCAs continue to remind us of our shared humanity by focusing on serving people. Here in the U.S., local YMCAs like the Greater Austin Y continue to serve members of our armed services and veterans through our Military Outreach Initiative, which provides subsidized rates to qualifying military members and their families.
As a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, I can tell you that when you or your loved ones are far away from home and facing the fear and uncertainty that often comes with service, even the smallest gesture of kindness and support can make a huge difference. Our YMCAs are doing all we can to make their Y experience special.