By midmorning at the Arthur R. Baxter YMCA, hundreds of people already pack the facility.
People run on treadmills, cycle on stationary bikes and lift weights in the fitness center. Swimmers do laps in the indoor pool, while a water aerobics class splashes in the shallow end. Dozens of children whose parents rely on the YMCA for child care run around playing tag, do arts and crafts, and work on literacy skills.
The equipment, exercises and even the building have changed since the Baxter YMCA was founded, but it’s the same activity that’s defined the organization for 50 years.
“We see people come in now with young kids, who came here when they were little. Those kids will grow up and bring their own kids. Generations are coming back,” said Terri Bradley, associate executive director for the Baxter YMCA.
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For the past 50 years, the Baxter YMCA has been a hub of community involvement on the southside. More than 14,000 members use the facility to strengthen their bodies through weightlifting, swimming and other physical activities. Churches have been founded at the Y, and Meals on Wheels efforts were organized in the building.
The organization has survived lulls in membership and a tornado that nearly destroyed the branch.
As members, staff members and supporters prepare to recognize the facility’s first half-century, it presents a perfect opportunity to understand what the YMCA has meant to this area and what it can continue to provide in the future.
“We serve the needs of the community,” said Mary Overstreet, member involvement director. “That’s what we’ve done since we started, and that’s what we’re going to continue doing.”
Started in a barn
The Baxter YMCA opened to the public on Dec. 27, 1965. But the organization’s roots in the southside community stretch back further. As early as 1947, the YMCA moved into an office on the campus of Indiana Central College, now known as the University of Indianapolis.In 1961, the organization moved to an 18-acre tract of land that formerly was a hog farm. Members met in a barn on the property at what was known as the Southside Family YMCA, with a membership of about 1,500.“When they decided it was necessary to do something with an official building, they did a barn-burning to clear land for the activities center,” Overstreet said. “The Baxter YMCA was built on the same location.”
Grover and Annabel Hartman were charter members of the new facility. Grover Hartman served for years on the organization’s board and went door-to-door in southside neighborhoods to gain interest in and raise money for the new building.
He was chairman when low membership and disinterested leadership threatened the Baxter YMCA.
The Hartmans believed greatly in the benefits of a YMCA on the southside. In a letter Annabel Hartman wrote the Baxter YMCA leaders after her husband’s death, she recalled a speech he gave at the annual meeting of the YMCA.
His words emphasized the importance of the YMCA as a community building and institution of personal development. It would overcome destructive forces in the community and around the world that were, “disrupting our individual values so essential to the kind of interrelationships necessary to the continuation of civilized life on planet earth,” he said.
“This belief in the need for the YMCA motivated his dedicated service,” Annabel Hartman wrote.
The Baxter YMCA is named for Arthur R. Baxter, a prominent Indianapolis businessman and philanthropist. Though not an active member in planning the building, he was a supporter of the organization. His foundation’s gift of $250,000 helped pay off a loan, a gift for which he was honored with his name on the facility.Inside the newly constructed facility, people played basketball on new courts, exercised in a wellness center and gathered in club rooms and lounges.The large outdoor pool was one of the first features built; and on summer days, it attracted hundreds of people.
Greenwood residents Elva and Roy Spears have been members at the Baxter YMCA almost from the beginning. They joined to provide some activities for their sons, who were both under the age of 5 at the time.
Over their time as members, their children were part of the Indian Guides youth program as well as the swim team. Elva Spears would swim laps; and when the couple retired, they participated in the many classes, clubs and lunches held for older adults.
“It has meant a lot for the southside,” Elva Spears said. “They’re just like family. They see to each other and have programs for all kinds of people. We’ve really met a lot of good friends and lasting friends there.”
As the Baxter YMCA became more established on the southside, it became intertwined with the other institutions of the community. Christ United Methodist Church, located less than a mile south of the YMCA, held its services in the building while its own worship center was under construction.
More than 1,000 people volunteer to support the organization, from serving on the board to coaching youth sports to helping with the preschool.
“It’s a true partnership with the community, because we can’t do this by ourselves,” Bradley said.
The facility has partnered with Johnson County schools to offer after-school programs and mentoring options. More than 1,500 kids take part in the after-school care, Overstreet said.“When you look at our before- and after-school program, most families cannot survive without both parents working. Or in single-parent households, they have no place to put their children when they’re working,” she said.Students from those same schools often come back to volunteer their time as teenagers.
Overstreet has seen that effect on her own family.
When they moved to southside Indianapolis from Lexington, Kentucky, her family joined the YMCA because they didn’t know anybody. Overstreet was a member for one year before applying for a job there.
Her daughter, Lindsay, was 3 when they joined. Since then, she’s been in the preschool, taken swim and taekwondo lessons, and played soccer and flag football.
Now 17, she works as a lifeguard and in the Childwatch program.
“I know when Lindsay talks about her childhood, it’s going to be the YMCA. That’s the foundation of all of the stories she got to tell about the things she does and friends she made,” Overstreet said.
‘Strengthen the C’
While the YMCA is known for swimming lessons, recreational basketball leagues and aerobics classes, the facility also serves as an incubator for important social service initiatives as well.Special fundraising helps provide more than $700,000 in financial assistance to low-income families so they can be members as well, said John Schwentzer, executive director of the Baxter YMCA.“If you look at 1965 to now, we’re seeing more needs in the community,” he said.
Diabetes prevention is a nationwide YMCA project and has been successful at the Baxter facility. Water classes through the Arthritis Foundation helps people with arthritis improve their movement and ease their pain.
Working with the Livestrong Foundation and Franciscan St. Francis Health, the Baxter YMCA provides wellness services for people going through cancer treatment and recovery.
Efforts have also been made to serve the spiritual needs of the southside. A staff pastor is available to meet with members if they are struggling through a life situation.
“We’re trying to strengthen the C in the YMCA,” Schwentzer said. “We have a Christian emphasis committee that is meeting now, so that can do some things around prayer and helping the community. It’s not just the ‘gym and swim’ concept.”
Arguably one of the greatest challenges of the past half-century was a tornado that destroyed the old building in 2002. More than $1 million in damage was caused when the twister tore the roof and walls from the building.
The storm forced the YMCA to move to an interim location in a 33,000-square-foot warehouse. More than 25 percent of the membership left after the tornado. But one year later, a rebuilt $7.2 million building opened, increasing the size of the Baxter YMCA by 26,000 square feet.
The new construction reconfigured the facility, making it flow more easily and adding elevators for handicap access.
Remnants of the old building are visible throughout the Baxter YMCA.
“If you walk the building, you can see part of it. When you go down the stairs, you can see where the old staircase went up the other direction,” Overstreet said.
Over the years, staff members have seen fitness trends rise then fizzle out. Remaining successful and useful to the community requires paying attention to new ideas while maintaining longtime programs.When Zumba became popular in the mid-2000s, it exploded into what officials joked was a cult, Overstreet said.“It exploded. It got so big, we had to move it into the gym from one of our multipurpose rooms. But now it’s sort of waned in interest, and the next new thing will be on the horizon,” she said.
To help recognize the anniversary, YMCA officials have planned some small events, inviting past board members and longtime members to celebrate.
Staff members will wear “Happy Birthday” T-shirts to bring attention to the milestone. Photo boards will show what the Y used to look like.
Organizers have asked members to share their best YMCA story. It could be a personal achievement in the fitness center, a funny story that happened on the basketball court or a series of memories of time spent at the pool.
Whichever story is chosen as the best, that member will receive a year’s membership at the 1965 cost of $11.43 per month.
“We’ve tried to keep it very low-key,” Overstreet said. “We just want people to know that we’re celebrating something.”
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1947: The Southwest YMCA is moved to an office on the Indiana Central College campus.
1950: The South District YMCA is formed to serve southside residents.
1954: A fundraising drive raises $3,014,776 to support the construction of five full facility family YMCAs in central Indiana.
1955: The YMCA purchases eight acres of a former dairy farmland on Hanna Avenue. Two barns on the property became the South District YMCA.
1961: A groundbreaking ceremony is held on 18 acres at Stop 11 Road and Shelby Street, the eventual site of the Baxter YMCA. The first phase of the project was an outdoor pool.
1964: A large barn on the property is burned to make room for outdoor activities at the location. Construction started on the gym, offices and meeting rooms.
1965: On Dec. 27, the Southside Family YMCA is renamed the Arthur R. Baxter Memorial YMCA.
1980: The Baxter branch is renovated, and four raquetball courts are added.
1989: A $1.4 million campaign helps divide the existing gym into health fitness centers on two levels.
1995: A new playground area and equipment is added to the facility.
1997: The new day camp pavilion is constructed.
1998: The outdoor wading pool is added.
2001: An outdoor basketball court constructed.
2002: On Sept. 20, a tornado strikes the branch causing more than $1 million in damage. The branch relocates to an interim facility in a 33,000-square-foot warehouse.
2003: A $2 million capital funds campaign starts to rebuild the branch. In November, the $7.2 million building reopens to members.
2007: The outdoor pool is expanded and new water featured added.
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What: Arthur R. Baxter Memorial YMCA
Where: 7900 S. Shelby St., Indianapolis
Opened: Dec. 27, 1965
- Indoor pool
- Two outdoor pools — an eight-lane, 50-meter with double-flume slide; a zero-depth-entry wading pool with water features
- Free child care while you work out
- Free land and water group exercise classes for ages 11 and up
- Specialty fitness classes such as triathlon training and Synergy circuit training
- Wellness center with cardio machines, strength machines and free weights
- Indoor and outdoor playgrounds