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Making Your Local YMCA a Cornerstone for Change


This week the Inside Track continues a series of interviews with members of the Strategic Advisory Committee of Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and American Heart Association, exploring their various contributions to the fight against childhood obesity.

When people think of the YMCA, Monica Vinluan notes, they most often think first of an organization that allows individuals to make healthy changes in their lives—signing up for a swim class or going to the gym.

But “the work of the Y doesn’t stop there,” says Vinluan, a longtime policy specialist and advocate who has been with the YMCA USA for eight years. “We try to address all levels of healthy living in our communities.”

That’s what Vinluan’s work as project director of the Y’s Healthier Communities Initiatives is focused on—driving change at the organizational, community, and societal levels that improves health.

“There are a lot of determinants in one’s life that help people to live well or prevent them from doing so—education, income, employment,” she notes.

Vinluan has been doing public policy work for 20 years, touching on a variety of social justice issues, including reproductive rights, health access for low-income people, and housing, that she says “all fall under the bucket of helping people to live well.” She started out working on Capitol Hill, earned a law degree, and did a variety of lobbying work before coming to the Y.

The Healthier Communities Initiatives have two key priorities: advocating for public policies that can pave the way for healthier living and collaborating with local partners to help YMCA branches put policy changes to work.

Local YMCAs, as cornerstones of their communities (for example, Vinluan notes, the Y is the largest nonprofit provider of after-school services in the country) are a crucial venue for putting public policy into action—as well as community building. “We want to help individuals have a place to go, to connect and build connections with others in their communities,” she says.

The genesis of the Healthy Communities Initiatives (HCI) was some deeper thinking about that connection, between things going on inside the Y’s walls and what is happening beyond. The goal has been to “connect their spaces and places with helping to make the community at large healthier.”

An infographic highlights the impact of some of the changes that HCI programs nationwide, collaborations between YMCA branches and community leaders, have helped to drive.

At the table with other organizations in the Voices for Healthy Kids initiative, Vinluan says the Y’s “asset-based approach” as a direct provider of community services makes it a unique and valuable voice.

Collaboration is a crucial part of this work, she says. “The YMCA alone cannot solve these problems; no organization can.”

And the goal, both in the Y’s program offerings and for wider policy action, is simple: “How do we make it so the healthiest choice can be the easiest choice?”