YMCA History

Volunteer founded and volunteer led, the YMCA was established in London, England, in 1844 by George Williams, a draper's shop assistant, to give young men an alternative to life on the streets.

In 1851, Thomas Sullivan, a retired sea captain and lay missionary, started the first American YMCA in Boston. From there, YMCAs spread rapidly across the country. Some were started to serve specific groups such as railroad and factory workers, as well as African Americans, Native Americans and recent immigrants. After World War II, women and girls were admitted to full membership and participation.

The YMCA movement in America has become the largest non-profit community-based organization in the nation, serving 20 million Americans. The nation's more than 2,500 YMCAs unite men, women and children of all ages, faiths, backgrounds, abilities, and income levels. YMCAs are also at work abroad, serving more than 45 million people in more than 120 countries.

YMCA Inventions

Two major sports, basketball and volleyball, were born at the YMCA. A YMCA instructor created the first group swimming lesson, and the Y was the first to establish certification programs for lifesaving, swimming and aquatic instruction. The YMCA also pioneered and greatly expanded summer camping, night school, vocational counseling, adult education, college student services, and junior college.

YMCA World Service workers were forerunners of Peace Corps volunteers. The YMCA assisted in the formation of other major voluntary groups such as Boy Scouts, Camp Fire, and the USO.

YMCA Facts

  • The nation's 2,594 YMCAs serve more than 20.1 million people each year, uniting men, women and children of all ages, faiths, backgrounds, abilities, and income levels.
  • From urban areas to small towns, YMCAs are at the heart of community life in the United States: 42 million families and 72 million households are located within three miles of the YMCA. In fact, more Americans belong to a YMCA than live in the five largest U.S. cities.
  • Father's Day was started at a YMCA in 1909.
  • Basketball was invented in 1891 by James Naismith at a YMCA, the only major sport to have originated entirely in the United States. Jewish basketball players, denied entry to other sports, picked up the game at YMCAs and became stars in the professional leagues. Click here to learn the original rules of basketball.
  • The YMCA invented volleyball and raquetball and pioneered camping, physical fitness and swimming lessons.
  • The YMCA helped found the USO, Boy Scouts and Camp Fire Girls.
  • Together, YMCAs are the nation's largest provider of child care. YMCAs operate nearly 10,000 child care sites across the country, providing high-quality, affordable care to more than 500,000 children. Ys give financial assistance to 20 percent of families in their child care programs.
  • Collectively, YMCAs are the largest operator of swimming pools in the world.
  • YMCAs collectively represent the largest collaborative membership organization in the country.
  • Adults 65 and older are the fastest growing category of YMCA membership.
  • The year 2006 marked the 100th anniversary of the first swim lessons offered by the YMCA.