Growing Alhambra's YMCA despite troubled times
Midway through our interview, Valarie Gomez spots a spider creeping along the wall. The executive director at the YMCA of West San Gabriel Valley calmly picks it up and places it outside. It's a rare peaceful moment in Gomez's nonstop schedule. In spite of it all, she breezes through the Y with a smile that never wavers, greeting co-workers and visitors in the process. The Alhambra Source spoke with her about how the Y has found a way to stay afloat, even when the state cut all of its funding; what it offers beyond a good workout; and plans for a major expansion.
It seems like you're always on the move. What's your daily routine like?
I started at 5:30 this morning. I set my alarm for 4:45. Today my first meeting was at 7 with [El Monte Councilman Juventino] "J" Gomez. Then at 8:30 I had another meeting with the United States Tennis Association because they want to bring the program here. Then at 9 I had a meeting with the president of the Alhambra Firefighter's Association, which continually gives back to the Y. They're going to be donating an archery area to our camp. And at 10 I was over at San Gabriel City Hall luncheon, and that lasted until I came here.
Does your day ever end?
My days are long. We usually finish around 8 or 8:30.
The YMCA has been forced to battle cutbacks. How is it faring during these economic times?
At any time, it's very important to have partners in the community, but at the same time we need to be self-sustaining. When the state started to have the challenges that they did, they notified us and within two months our funding was cut—$350,000 dollars for one year. When you look at the budget, and the cuts they've made across the board, you can see the effect it has on the family here. Our Y had relied on that money for 20 years. Without any government funding now, it was a big wake-up call.
How have you responded to the lost of money? Is your focus on private donations and fundraising?
Absolutely, last year we raised $129,000 in fundraising. It gets harder and harder each year, however, because people are getting laid off. Money we can get, but it will be secondary to the people. Does it take money to run this place? Absolutely. Is it hard right now to have people donate when they're working to put food on their table? Absolutely. But we're finding ways to do it. For example we had the "Heart of the Community" dinner last February, an annual event. A gentleman from Chicago donated $10,000 at the previous event.
It seems that some people don't realize that the YMCA goes beyond the swimming pool and workout room. What’s something about the Y that people may not know?
We never turn anyone away for lack of payment. We offer scholarships and financial assistance for students. We also offer free memberships to students at Century High School and Del Mar High School, both continuation schools. These are kids who have been kicked out of high school for whatever reason. They'll come to work out. We have personal trainers in our workout room. They've lost weight. They've learned how to eat healthy, and their self-esteem has risen. I hired one of the kids from Century High because I believed in him. He worked in the summer day camp, and now he's a personal trainer.
Do a lot of people come up to you and say that they learned how to swim at the Y’s pool?
Absolutely. And people will say “Oh yeah my grandmother used to bring me to the pool on Main Street, and now I bring my kids here." It's just huge to me.
There are talks about a possible expansion of the Y. What are the details so far?
The estimate is at $6.6 million. In this economy it's a good time to build if you have the means to pay for it. We'll add a child care center, and also a kitchen. And the kitchen is where we not only feed the hungry, but also teach nutritional cooking. It'll serve all the people, from kids to seniors. The reason why we came up with the idea [for the expansion] is that we couldn't find shelter. We needed shelter for the kids, especially when the days are blazing hot.
And you’ve mentioned that the city isn’t expected to pay for the cost. Will the money come from donations and fundraising as well?
It's the only way we can do it. Absolutely the only way.
Interview was edited and condensed.