More than five years after Gwen Borgmann, Washington, was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer, she was still feeling weak from the toll all of it had taken on her body: Eight chemotherapy treatments spread out over 16 weeks followed by 33 radiation treatments.
Borgmann had been walking the aisles of Walmart with a friend on a regular basis to help build up her strength again, but she knew she should be doing something more.
When a fellow Walmart walker and cancer survivor told Borgmann about how much stronger she was feeling after participating in the Livestrong program available for cancer survivors at Four Rivers Area YMCA, Borgmann was surprised to hear of it. Her husband, John, had been a member of the Y for some time, but he wasn’t aware of the Livestrong program.
That doesn’t surprise Tim Peters, program director at Four Rivers YMCA. Livestrong is one of many Y programs that people don’t seem to know much about.
Most people are familiar with the Y for its swimming lessons, sports teams and fitness center, he said, but there are many more programs that people have never heard of — like the Youth Mentoring program that started last year or the Middle School program that launched last month.
There’s also a new Veterans program that is offered in partnership with the VA and a Parkinson’s exercise program offered with the American Parkinson’s Disease Association of Greater St. Louis.
And that’s just naming a few. Four Rivers YMCA offers 100 or more programs for people of all ages and abilities, said Becky Cox, executive director.
In fact, the Y also offers inclusion services for all of its programs, meaning people with special needs can receive the one-on-one assistance that they need in order to participate in any of the Y’s programs at no additional charge.
A new promotional campaign called “Did You Know?” organized by the Y’s community outreach committee hopes to better educate the public about all the Y has to offer. Beginning this month, the committee will take action to get the word out through news stories, radio segments, social media posts, guest speakers at civic club meetings and in-house advertising at the Y.
The committee plans to target its promotions by focusing on one topic each month. For September, the topic will be the Y’s literacy programs.
“Literacy is one of the things people are surprised to find out we offer,” said Cox.
“Our purpose in general is to serve the community, so a lot of times we say, ‘If you’ve seen one Y, you’ve seen one Y,’ because we are trying to be responsive to the community,” Cox said. “And I think people would be surprised to find out that even in this community there is a need for literacy support.”
The Y Community Adult Literacy Program offers adult literacy tutoring for adults wanting to improve their skills in reading and speaking of English. This includes English as Second Language students from other countries who would like to improve their knowledge of English, as well as adults in HISET classes wanting to get their high school diploma.
The program is free to members and nonmembers.
The Y also offers a program called Beginning Babies With Books that provides young families with books and tips to encourage reading.
Last year, in response to a need they saw in the community, the Y began offering a Youth Mentoring program for students in second to seventh grade.
Similar to Big Brothers, Big Sisters, the program matches a youth with an adult mentor and the pair meet at the Y facility once every other week for a year. Both the mentor and mentee are provided with Y memberships.
Y board member Steve Werges signed up as a mentor for the program nine months ago and said it has been a wonderful experience.
“We meet every two weeks right after school around 4 p.m.,” Werges noted. “We have a snack, play a game like Chicken Foot Dominoes, then either go to the pool or, if it’s nice outside, we might go play catch or Frisbee. We have gone for walks or we have gone to the gym to play basketball.”
The program has provided a couple of field trips too, he said. The group of mentors and mentees went bowling one day and also spent an afternoon at the Washington Town & Country Fair, with tickets compliments of the Washington Area Chamber of Commerce.
There are currently 16 students enrolled in the Youth Mentoring program and room for more, said Brandy Koch, the Y’s health and wellness director. They come from all areas of Franklin County.
The goal of the Youth Mentoring program is to provide the mentees with an additional adult role model in their lives, Koch said, someone who can be an additional support for them.
“A lot of these kids come from single-parent homes or maybe they live with a guardian, so it’s really just another safe adult to have in their lives,” she said.
Werges, who worked as a teacher for 37 years before he retired, said he doesn’t ask a lot of questions of his mentee when they meet.
“We just chit-chat and see what flows from that,” Werges said. “I don’t ask a lot of questions because in my experience, that’s when kids shut down. A lot of times when you are just talking about life in general, you kind of find out different things.”
Middle School Program
Just last month the Y launched a new Middle School Program that for now is only available to students at Washington Middle School. Some of the funding was provided by a grant from the Franklin County Area United Way.
“We are working with the School District of Washington to bring a select group of kids over to the Y after school every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for some programing to work on character development, physical activity and mental health,” said Koch. “We are partnering with a lot of local agencies to support the program and help with curriculum.
“We do a lot of life skills learning, and we are going to be incorporating a lot of character development, so going through emotion management,” said Koch.
At one of the meetings, a couple of martial artists from the new Gracie Barra gym in Washington demonstrated some healthy alternatives to getting out anger and talked with the students about anti-bullying. At another meeting, the students worked on building birdhouses.
Programs for Teens, and Special Teen Membership
Four Rivers Y offers a number of programs just for teens including a Teen Leaders Club designed to build life skills and confidence and a Youth and Government Club. There also are babysitting classes that teach teens 13 and older necessary child-care skills, including CPR, and lifeguard classes for teens 16 and older that teaches water safety and water rescue.
A teen open gym is available to teens ages 13 to 17 twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays right after school.
“We realize that there is a group of community members who just need a place to be right after school, so we thought we could be that place,” said Cox. “They come in after school and there is a place in the gym where they can play games or sports.”
“There is always a good number who show up,” Peters noted, “especially when winter rolls around.”
In addition to these teen programs, the Y also offers teen memberships for teens as young as 13, so teens can be a Y member even if their family is not.
The rate is much more affordable — $19 a month for a teen, compared with $71 for a family. And that $19 fee could also be covered by a scholarship for some teens, stressed Cox.
Just last week, Four Rivers Y began its second session of a VA pilot program to help area veterans participate in well-being programs that are close to home to strengthen their whole health.
The eight-week program includes meeting once a week at Four Rivers Y for a two-hour group discussion with a VA health coach. The veterans are given a free four-week Y membership to access the fitness center, track, pool, gym and classes.
Four veterans participated in the first session earlier this year, and there are seven in the current group. The program is capped at 10.
Peters noted that the four veterans in the first session enjoyed the program so much that the Y is looking for a way to allow them to continue meeting in that group setting.
The program is open to all veterans, men and women, of all ages.
The purpose is not about providing help, so much as it is about keeping our veterans healthy, mind and body, said Peters.
“It’s more preventative,” he said, noting you don’t have to be in the VA health system or a Y member to participate.
Veterans could access these same type of services by driving into St. Louis or Columbia, but for many in this area, Four Rivers Y is a better alternative because it’s closer.
Four Rivers Y is one of three branches that is offering the VA pilot program, and each branch is molding its program to meet the needs of the veterans who turn out to participate, said Peters.
“We want to base it on what they want,” he remarked.
Anyone diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease is able to attend a twice weekly Parkinson’s exercise class at the Y on Tuesday and Friday afternoons from 1 to 2 p.m.
The class is free of charge, through a partnership with the American Parkinson’s Disease Association of Greater St. Louis.
The hour-long class is divided into two parts — 30 minutes in the cycling studio (or on the NuStep seated cycling machines in the fitness center) and 30 minutes of strengthening exercises, which can be done seated in a chair or standing, if someone is strong enough.
These include gentle arm and leg movements, such as marching, knee raises, feet taps, figure eight box step, elbow raises and different styles of punches at the air. For some of the exercises, they use stretchy exercise bands.
Plans are to add a water component to the class.
The class is led by instructors who attended a two-day training with the American Parkinson’s Disease Association in St. Louis to learn more about the disease and the kinds of exercises that can help them.
Studies have shown that just a little bit of exercise can help delay or cope with some of the symptoms from Parkinson’s, said Peters.
There currently are 28 people who are registered in the class, which was launched this past spring. An average of 20 to 22 people attend each class.
You do not have to be a member of the Y to participate in the program.
Livestrong for Cancer Survivors
The next session of the Livestrong program for cancer survivors will begin in October.
The 12-week program is completely free of charge and includes a membership for the cancer survivors, along with their families.
Livestrong Coordinator Jeannine Davis is a personal trainer who has received additional training for the Livestrong program.
The class meets twice a week on Mondays and Fridays at 10 a.m. to help survivors build up their strength and energy.
Borgmann noted she had to have her doctor sign a form saying she was cleared to participate, and he was very supportive.
Davis completed an assessment on each of the survivors to gauge their ability before leading them in an aerobics class and introducing them to the weight machines in the fitness center. The classes ended with a stretching and cooldown class.
Borgmann remembers feeling very empowered by the workouts.
“I realized, you know, I can do this . . . It wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be,” she commented.
There are typically four to seven survivors in each 12-week session, and there is no limit to how long it has been since a survivor was diagnosed, said Peters.
Borgmann, who joined the program more than five years after she was diagnosed, remembers her doctor telling her it would take years for her to get her strength back following her surgery and treatment. She had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer that required an aggressive treatment.
Although she wasn’t opposed to trying the Y on her own as a way to gain her strength back, the Livestrong program made it that much more appealing and welcoming, said Borgmann.
And there were no strings attached. She could try the Y free of charge for 12 weeks and decide at the end if she liked it well enough to join.
Which she did.
“I feel better,” said Borgmann, who completed Livestrong from January to April this year. “I can get down on the floor to play with my grandkids, and I can get back up off the floor without as much struggle . . . and I can carry and hold them longer. I went on vacation, and I was able to walk farther. It’s those kinds of things.”
United Way Agency
The Y is one of the agencies that receive funding from the Franklin County Area United Way.
Money allocated to the Y from local United Way donations is used for some membership scholarships, but mostly to fund specific programs, like the Summer Day Camp offered at the Y over the summer and After School programs held in area elementary schools, said Cox.
“Typically with the Day Camp program, one-third of the students will have some kind of scholarship or financial award,” said Cox. “People who are donating to United Way are helping those families, and that is a huge support for them.”
Another way the United Way dollars are used to help families is providing support services to children with special needs.
“Any family that has a child who needs support to participate in any Y program — from aquatics to sports to Day Camp to After Care — we provide that support (one-on-one care) at no extra cost to the family,” said Cox. “Those United Way dollars help provide that, because we couldn’t do it without that.”
The last two years, the Y has had eight to 10 children with special care needs requiring one-on-one care, Cox noted, “so that’s a lot of extra staff to make sure that it is a safe, fun program for them.”
From 300 Members to 8,690
Earlier this year, Four Rivers Y celebrated the 20th anniversary of its facility on Grand Avenue in Washington. Thinking back to 1998 when the facility opened, Cox marveled at the growth that has taken place.
“When we opened our doors in 1998, I think we had around 300 members,” said Cox.
Today there are 8,690 members, including around 2,000 in the Silver Sneakers program which provides senior citizens age 65 and older a gym membership through their insurance company.
Cox smiled recalling how the Y offered aquatics programming before moving into a facility with an indoor pool — by using the demo pools at a local pool vendor.
How times have changed.
For more information on any of the programs offered at Four Rivers YMCA, people can call 636-239-5704.