Smile Politely

Getting Things Done with the University YMCA

Getting Things Done is a new column that will highlight a number of the excellent and hard working non-profits in the Champaign-Urbana area and beyond. Every two weeks I will draw attention to a different organization that embodies the spirit of volunteerism, service to the community and hopeful optimism for helping others. Whether this column is focusing on youth leadership, human rights issues, music and the arts, or saving the environment, it will keep you informed and in tune with those working to make our communities a better place by Getting Things Done.

“No pool. No gym. Engaging people in service, reflection and action since 1873 at the University of Illinois.”

This is the main motto of the University YMCA at the University of Illinois. The University Y is the type of organization that endears itself to those who volunteer for it. I first learned about the University Y in the early 1990s when I was in high school. The DIY punk band Fugazi was playing a show in Latzer Hall, the main lecture room on the first floor of the Y building at 1001 S. Wright Street in Champaign.

As a student at the U of I, I became involved with Alternative Spring Break, one of the Y’s thirteen student programs. After college, I had the opportunity to be part of the staffing team for three years. The work was both humbling and inspiring, and I could not think of a better organization for the inaugural column of Getting Things Done.

One of the oldest charities in Champaign-Urbana, the University Y is currently home to Friday Forum and Know our University (two weekly lecture series during the fall and spring semesters), as well as Communiversity, a non-graded, non-credit collection of eclectic courses, and thirteen incredible student programs ranging from Amnesty International, Students for Environmental Concerns, Philippine Student Association, Campus Vegetarian Society, and Engineers Without Borders. The Y also organizes the annual Dump & Run rummage sale, which aims to keep trash out of the waste stream while providing a plethora of inexpensive items for students when they return to campus in August. It is the rummage sale of all rummage sales.

None of these things could get done without a reliable and dedicated staff. Program Director Kasey Umland, and former student leader like myself, answered my questions about goals and accomplishments, and offered her thoughts on volunteerism and some things you just might not know about the Y. For additional information beyond this interview, as well as information about volunteer opportunities, please visit the University YMCA’s Web site.

Name: Kasey Umland

Age: 25

Position at the University YMCA: Program Director

Smile Politely: What does Getting Things Done mean to you?

Kasey Umland: In my position, “Getting Things Done” means providing the resources and environment that best foster dialogue, creativity, reflection and action. Everything we do at the Y is a collaborative effort, from student programs to lecture series to Dump and Run. My role is not to dictate an agenda or run the student meetings. Getting things done means finding a way to effectively generate interest in the programs of the YMCA, facilitate the development of motivated, change-oriented leaders, and facilitate crucial conversations about our community and our world.

SP: How did you first get involved with the University YMCA?

KU: During my second year of college, a friend asked me to go to a meeting of the U of I chapter of Amnesty International, one of thirteen Y student programs. I had a vague idea of what Amnesty stood for and was pretty confident that my letter-writing abilities were going to change the world (or at least help free some prisoners of conscience). I’m not sure how much I changed the world, personally, but the decision to attend that meeting changed me. I became heavily involved with Amnesty and other social justice causes during the rest of my undergraduate years. … The Y became a second home, so after grad school when the opportunity to take on a staff position came up, it was a natural next step.

SP: What are the organization’s goals for 2009?

KU: In 2008, the Y completed a $1.2 million capital campaign to make improvements to the building and hired a new Executive Director, Michael Doyle. This year, a lot of our attention will continue to be focused on using the Capital Campaign funds to update the building to meet our program and organizational needs. We just added wireless Internet to the first floor and will begin construction of an elevator to make the building accessible. 2009 will be a year of transition for the Y, and it is a truly exciting time to be a part of the organization. Under the leadership of Mike Doyle, the Y will continue to look for new ways to serve students and the community, while also looking inward at our current programs to see how we can be more effective. Personally, I am excited to examine new ways for the Y to develop student leaders, especially students who are just beginning to explore their interest in service and social justice.

SP: Name three things most people don’t know about the University YMCA.

KU: 1. Each year, the University YMCA recycling program and fundraiser saves over six semi trailers worth of items from ending up in landfills. These items are sold a large garage sale in August. (I furnished my entire apartment with Dump & Run bargains, and so have several friends.)

2. The Y is home to 13 student programs. In 2008, the Y’s newest program, Invisible Conflicts, raised over $12,000 to fund the education of 21 orphaned children and the establishment of a sustainable pig farm in the small village of Pajule, Uguanda.

3. On April 24, 1998, a young Illinois State Senator spoke at the University YMCA Spring Friday Forum series, “How Welfare Reform is Impacting Local Communities.” The talk, entitled “What Next? A Legislator’s Perspective,” was given by President Barack Obama.

4. BONUS: The Y has the coolest women’s bathroom in Champaign-Urbana on the second floor. It is straight out of the 1960s.

SP: What is the University Y’s greatest accomplishment?

KU: Effectively adapting to meet the diverse needs of students and this community for 136 continuous years.

SP: Are there other non-profits whose work you admire?

KU: Lately, I’ve been really impressed by organizations like Engineers without Borders, Entrepreneurs Without Borders, and Mobile Metrix that encourage innovation and target groups that are not traditionally thought of as activists, as well as TransFair and GlobalExchange that offer interesting approaches to ensuring a living wage and sustainable economic development.

SP: What are your hopes for volunteerism in the future?

KU: Over the last two decades, volunteers have increased significantly in number and intensity. With commitment to service at such a high level, volunteering has become a way for individuals to express their social values through action. I hope in the future that we can continue to develop new ways to encourage volunteers to connect acts of service to issue activism on a personal level through reflection and education.

Whatever it is that motivates you, whether it is humane treatment of animals, community art, educational inequality or the environment, volunteering is a vital step toward addressing institutional problems. I meet a lot of people who don’t think of themselves as activists, but most of them make choices daily that advocate for change, whether it is students advocating for clean energy technologies, a teacher who works 80 hours a week to ensure the progress of every student, or a financial consultant who gives free consultations to parents about how to pay for college. The opportunities to act are diverse and virtually unlimited; the challenge is matching people’s skills with their passions. I’m also really excited to see how technology affects the way people engage in issues across the globe.

SP: What keeps you motivated?

KU: The excitement and creativity of the students paired with the passion and wisdom of the older members of the Y. The students provide me with hope and energy, while those who came before me provide a historical context and remind me how far we have come in the last hundred years.

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