Our Story

The history of the YMCA of Western North Carolina dates to 1889.

Serving western North Carolina for more than 130 years.

The YMCA has a long and storied history in the region, beginning in 1889. From a small group formed in a church meeting hall to the largest provider of licensed afterschool childcare in the state, we’ve come a long way.

We’re grateful to the volunteers who have helped record our story over the years. Please expand the tiles below to learn more about how the YMCA of Western North Carolina has become one of the region’s leading nonprofits.

Asheville was a little more than a village in 1889, with a population of about 10,000, no paved streets, no parks or playgrounds, and not much for young men growing up in the city to do that might not eventually land them into trouble.

A group of upstanding young men - led by one R.U. Garrett - had been meeting regularly to talk and pray about the situation. As attendance at their meetings increased, they urged the formation of a local Young Men’s Christian Association. That fall, at a small but enthusiastic gathering in the Central Methodist Church that was attended by members of the entire city’s denominations, our YMCA was born.

Mr. H.T. Collins was the first president, and rooms were rented in the Harkins Building on Patton Avenue. Mr. H.P. Anderson was selected as the first General Secretary (the forerunner of today’s Executive Director) and arrived in Asheville in October 1889. He set about enlisting the support of the churches, citizens, and the press, all of whom gave the new enterprise their hearty support.

The Women’s Auxiliary was perhaps the most significant group in the early history of the Y. This group raised funds, furnished the rooms, and provided music and refreshments for meetings.

By the turn of the century membership was up to 350, and the Board of Directors decided it was time the Association should own its own building. In 1901, under the leadership of the new General Secretary Mr. O.B. Van Horn, the YMCA did what had been considered impossible. It purchased a building on Haywood Street. By 1909, membership had increased to 658. The Y remained at that location until 1920, when it sold the building to the Citizen Company.

In 1920 the Y purchased a new building on the corner of Woodfin and Broadway, the former home of wealthy landowner Nicholas Woodfin. Built in 1840 and enlarged to twice its original size in 1922, the magnificent Woodfin mansion served as the home of the YMCA for nearly 50 years.

The Y hosted countless programs and personalities and entertained thousands of servicemen during World War II. After the war, Y clubs were formed for local schoolchildren. The Good Life Club, directed by Seth Parkinson, survived the Depression and touched the lives of many youngsters. Mr. H.S. Chapman presided over the building of an athletic field and tennis courts, and the Market Street branch actively served the African-American community.

The facility the Asheville YMCA now occupies, just a few yards from the old site, didn’t come easily. The rejuvenation of the Asheville association was the dream of Henry Burts, who became the director in 1962. Under his leadership, and with help of people such as Met Poston, Jim Glenn, Foster Aldridge, and many more, the dream was realized in 1970 with the construction of the new facility at a cost of $1 million.

The YMCA expanded its community outreach in 1973 when it was gifted an 8-acre farm on Beaverdam Road in north Asheville, now known as YMCA Youth Services at Beaverdam. The farmhouse was converted into a youth services center, housing administrative staff and offering childcare for school-age children, leadership development, and services for underserved youth. Soccer fields, a playground, an outdoor ropes course, and a climbing wall filled the outdoor space.
In 1986 the Asheville YMCA added a second indoor pool. It renovated the wellness center and added the Buddy Patton Youth Wing in 1997.

When Paul Vest joined the Asheville YMCA as president and CEO in 1996, he worked with volunteers and staff to expand services beyond the two facilities. With a desire to be more regionally inclusive, the Board of Directors voted to change the association’s name to the YMCA of Western North Carolina in 1998. The organization then began to build relationships outside Buncombe County.

In the early 2000s, the Y finalized discussions with Biltmore Farms to construct a new facility in south Buncombe County. The Reuter Family YMCA was made possible by the Janirve Foundation’s lead $2 million gift and a successful $6 million capital campaign. The facility was named after Jeannette and Irving Reuter, who started the Janirve Foundation.

During this same time, the Y developed the Corpening Memorial YMCA in McDowell County with major support from the Maxwell M. Corpening Foundation and a $1.5 million capital campaign. The Corpening and Reuter YMCAs opened in March and April 2003, respectively. The YMCA took on the operations of providing school-age childcare in all 16 Buncombe County elementary schools in fall 2006. This program opened the door to serving more than 800 families and close to 1,200 children during the school year.

In 2009, the YMCA of Western North Carolina took steps to address growing obesity concerns among youth and adults. It opened the 15,000-square-foot Neighborhood YMCA at Woodfin (now the Woodfin YMCA) to serve a growing population who was seeking healthier lifestyles, relationships, and wellness. This work was driven by the YMCA’s national involvement with Activate America and Pioneering Healthier Communities.

The beginning of the decade brought major changes to the YMCA in the United States, when a national rebranding initiative was unveiled. The YMCA of Western North Carolina was an early adopter of the initiative, which updated the Y logo and provided clear, consistent messaging. We also developed and began to implement a 2020 strategic vision with local guiding principles and strategic priorities to support key initiatives in the Y’s focus areas of youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility.

The association began many new initiatives in 2011, including a feasibility study for an overnight summer camp in Swain County, partnerships with Asheville’s Shiloh community and ABIPA to serve African American residents, and LIVESTRONG® at the YMCA to support local cancer patients and survivors. In 2012 the Henderson County YMCA joined the YMCA of Western North Carolina and became the Hendersonville Family YMCA.

The Y’s population health work expanded to nutrition outreach in 2013 and now operates more than 20 monthly mobile markets to distribute healthy produce at no charge. Throughout the decade the Y also made major headway in serving older adults and those with chronic disease. We offer a number of in-person and online classes around diabetes prevention, falls prevention, cancer support, Parkinson’s, and more.

The dream of a summer camp for local children came true in 2016 when YMCA Camp Watia opened in Bryson City. The Y raised close to $5 million dollars in capital development for the project, with leading support from Ken and Nancy Glass and the Glass Foundation. Watia is the country’s 333rd YMCA camp, and one of the first in years to be created from scratch by an association with no existing overnight camp programs.

The association focused on expansion and facility development in 2017. A $1 million lead gift from Jack and Carolyn Ferguson led to the opening of the Ferguson Family YMCA in Candler. The Asheville YMCA expanded that year by more than 2,000 square feet, increasing workout space and housing a new hub for nutrition outreach. The association also purchased the Woodfin YMCA building and moved its administrative offices to that site.

In 2018 the Y purchased the Cheshire Fitness Club in Black Mountain and reopened it as the Black Mountain YMCA. The facility is situated near YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly, between the downtown Asheville YMCA and the Corpening Memorial YMCA in Marion. 

The same year, the Hendersonville Family YMCA took on the management of Patton Park and Pool in partnership with the City of Hendersonville. The Y also entered into an agreement to lease the UNC Asheville Kellogg Center for youth services and wellness programming. 

In 2019 Buncombe County Schools chose the YMCA as their management partner for their new Aquatics Center at T.C. Roberson High School.

The association’s annual fundraising campaign surpassed $1 million for the first time in 2019. We provided more than $4.8 million in charitable services to the community that year.

The YMCA of WNC entered 2020 at its peak, with annual operating revenue topping $28 million. Membership and program participation were at an all-time high. There was talk of a virus in China and Europe, but we could not foresee what was to come.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread to the United States, we soon realized that it was a crisis like no other. We took precautionary measures, such as cleaning more frequently and posting hand washing reminders, but that was not enough. By March 13, we had made the difficult decision to cease operations. Two days later, the state came to the same conclusion, closing schools as well as fitness facilities. The economy seemed to come to a halt overnight.

Despite the chaos and uncertainty, the Y stayed true to its mission. As the state’s largest provider of afterschool childcare, we had the infrastructure and know-how needed to step in to prevent learning loss and serve working families. We opened for essential workers on March 16 and went on to operate six remote learning hubs for Asheville City Schools, Buncombe County Schools, Henderson County Public Schools, and McDowell County Schools. Throughout the pandemic we adapted our virtual learning program to meet the changing needs of schools and families. We served an average of 450 K-8 students a day throughout the 2020-21 school year.

We quickly pivoted to serve community needs in new ways, such as delivering unprecedented amounts of food to the community through our meal programs and mobile food markets; offering live exercise classes on social media to the public at no charge; making regular check-in calls to our vulnerable members; and presenting community health programs online.

The state allowed us to reopen our indoor pools in June 2020, and we took our group exercise classes outdoors to serve our members in all weather. That practice continued well beyond September 2020, when we reopened our fitness centers under strict safety protocols, including social distancing, improved air filtration, masking, frequent cleaning, and class reservations.

Throughout the pandemic our leadership team and volunteer board worked tirelessly to preserve the Y’s financial stability. We secured two federal Payroll Protection Loans that were later forgiven, and qualified for an employee retention tax credit. These funds, along with generous donor support and members who stayed with us, helped us stay afloat.

However, the financial strain took a heavy toll. We were forced to eliminate many positions and end several programs. In April 2021, we made the difficult decision to close the YMCA at Mission Pardee Health Campus in Fletcher. We also ended our lease agreement at the UNC Asheville Kellogg Center later that year.

Since those dark days, our Y has entered a period of recovery. Membership and program participation are rebounding. Despite ongoing staff shortages, supply chain disruptions, and the fluctuating economy, our Y continues to serve as a beacon of hope for people seeking health and well-being. 

Our 2022-2025 Strategic Plan focuses on reimagining how we deliver programs for youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility that will have a greater impact on the community.

In 2023 we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Corpening Memorial YMCA in Marion and the Reuter Family YMCA in south Asheville.

The YMCA of Western North Carolina announced a partnership with First Baptist Church of Asheville in February 2023 after five years of planning. Project Aspire is a bold and unprecedented project to develop their neighboring properties as a walkable urban village that helps meet community needs for affordable workforce housing, early childhood development and education, health and well-being, and more. The plans include a new downtown Asheville YMCA.

Now in our 135th year, we remain committed to making a positive impact on the lives of everyone we serve.