I heart the Johnston YMCA: Not your average gym and swim


Trivia nerd and font of obscure facts about our local Y here. I even have a secret in store, and who doesn’t love a secret!? (But I am going to make you read the full article before I reveal it!)

Most of you readers probably know the Johnston YMCA. You drive by it regularly on North Davidson Street. Perhaps you took swim lessons or attended summer camp at a YMCA as a kid. You appreciate the stately brick building, welcoming lawn, and beautiful tree. Perhaps you work out there. But there’s a lot more to this mighty organization in the heart and hearts of our neighborhood – much more than a gym and swim.

First, where did the name Johnston come from? The North Charlotte YMCA was established in 1948 after Richard Horace Johnston, president of Highland Park Manufacturing, invited the Y to form a branch in North Charlotte (as it was known before becoming NoDa). David Johnston, Richard’s son, began building the Y we know today in 1949 and named it after his dad.

Today, the Johnston YMCA offers many programs beyond fitness. A YMCA membership supports a lot of things you might not know about, such as:

  • The largest Active Older Adults lunch program in the county (for those in the back: LARGEST). The organization serves lunch at two seatings because of great participation levels, and offers programming ranging from racquetball to card games to outings.
  • Help for those in need. Seasonally, the YMCA participates in the Room in the Inn with Charlotte’s Urban Ministry to offer a warm place to sleep, showers, and clothes washing, plus three meals from Saturday evening through Sunday morning (volunteers to make and serve meals are always needed).
  • Letting kids be kids. The Johnston YMCA is continuing to offer summer camp programs, and 100 kids will learn to swim this summer. COVID-19 demanded several critical operational changes that the Y leaders quickly set in place: daily temperature and health screenings, disinfecting areas and equipment between groups, and mandatory mask wearing for children older than 11. The YMCA remains committed to its reading program, setting aside 20 minutes each day for kids to read or be read to.
  • Filling gaps created by COVID-19. Funded by a grant from the City of Charlotte, Youth and Teen Opportunity Centers address a gap created by COVID-19 in summer youth programming and employment. These enrichment programs for members and non-members offer fun classes, like photography, alongside life skill building focuses, like resume writing and interviewing, and provide meals Monday through Saturday.

I asked Carola Cárdenas, the executive director of the Johnston YMCA, what she’s learned this year as she’s worked though one unusual circumstance after another. 

“There is still a huge need out there and people who need our support. The partnership with Loaves and Fishes food pantry has 130 families signed up,” Carola said. “People are so appreciative.”

Perseverance in action 

The Johnston knows tough times firsthand, and has persevered before. From 1970 to 1973, just two employees – the executive and the aquatics director – ran the Y and struggled to keep its doors open. The Highland Park Mill had been a key benefactor that financially supported the YMCA over the years, even providing maintenance staff. When the mill closed in 1969, the Y experienced a significant loss of members and financial support.

Now, the Y’s perseverance muscle is flexing again as it deals with COVID-19’s impact on operating revenue. Donations and memberships are significantly down. I asked Carola if it was at risk of closing and she indicated they have concerns – “we are doing everything but are down to the bone.”

The Y has adapted to continue to support your fitness goals. Carola pointed to a variety of opportunities to stay connected, from the YMCA app with fitness programs to various Ys in the Charlotte network with open pools and outdoor exercise programs.

Being our front porch of NoDa, I asked Carola how the NoDa neighborhood could help our YMCA. Her immediate reaction was, “Please don’t cancel your membership!” Membership fees represent 90 percent of revenue and are already understandably down. Based on your tax situation, the membership fees paid while the Y has been closed can probably be treated as tax deductible charitable donations.

Lastly, the odd secret, as promised: There’s a little window in the deep end of the pool at the Y, and viewers can look in from a room outside the pool. Why was the pool built like that? That’s a bit of a mystery, but so, so in keeping with the offbeat style of NoDa!

Want more information or want to offer help to the YMCA? Contact Carola Cárdenas at Carola.Cardenas@YMCACharlotte.org