YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago Deepens its Impact on Families

For more than 60 years, we've made it our business to support nonprofits working to strengthen our communities.

As they work to meet the evolving needs of families across Chicagoland, YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago (YMCA) is one of those impactful nonprofits. With a $50,000 grant from the Opus Foundation, the YMCA is piloting a Family Engagement Initiative in 2021. 

Strong Children, Families and Communities

YMCA develops strong children, families and communities through academic readiness, character development, violence prevention, fitness and healthy living. In one year in Chicago, the YMCA serves more than 203,000 individuals through 63 locations and 82 extension sites. 

“While there are many similarities in the work being done at YMCAs across the country, we have the flexibility to create programming unique to the needs of our communities," said Katie Panning Spieth, YMCA's Senior Vice President and Chief Development Officer. “Chicago has embraced this, and we are holistically building out programming according to what our communities need for long-term success."  

Because more than 75% of YMCA's current members are families, they chose family engagement as a major programming focus. They're starting with the Family Engagement Initiative. 

Panning Spieth continued, “Our goal is also to propel engagement beyond intermittent participation by offering more meaningful support systems, programming and services centered around family and wellbeing."

Family Programming in Complex Times

The YMCA's Family Engagement Initiative has four main goals:

  1. strengthen family connections to peers and community
  2. build strong and effective relations to help children thrive
  3. increase positive caregiver-child relationships
  4. position families as advocates and leaders
The primary focus will be families with the most need.

“2020 was a tough year, and families have so many needs," said Meg Helder, YMCA's Senior Director, Leaning & Evaluation. “With high unemployment rates, health concerns and racial disparities, they are facing a challenging 2021. Just meeting basic needs – food, shelter, clothing and sufficient rest – will be challenging for many. There's no easy answer for this, so the grant from Opus will allow us to research and pilot new approaches." 

The pilot will enable YMCA to gain a better understanding of how to best serve families. They will develop programs using a human-centered process that aligns with YMCA's core focus areas of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math), trauma-informed care and social-emotional learning. 

YMCA will pilot the initiative while continuing to shift amidst the pandemic, ensuring they meet the needs of the diverse communities it serves. Following testing, YMCA will refine and scale the program across the entire association.

“We are in a position that requires balancing everything we are doing in a very complicated landscape," said Helder. “And as a nonprofit, we don't usually have the luxury of resources for piloting new approaches like this. The Opus Foundation grant provides breathing room so we can design the initiative in a thoughtful and meaningful way to move this work forward." 

“The Opus Foundation has funded the Y for many years," said Panning Spieth. “In fact, this is the third consecutive year we have received a grant of this level. The investments and confidence Opus continues to demonstrate in us makes it possible to continue serving our community members in these uncertain times." 

Anything but Typical

Each year, YMCA staff and volunteers touch the lives of thousands of youth in Chicagoland. They provide comprehensive early learning to 800+, college and career readiness programming for 900+, activities for 6,500+ summer day campers and 2,440+ resident campers and a safety and violence prevention program for 400+ youth exposed to violence. 

That's a typical year – 2020 was anything but typical. 

“At the onset of COVID-19, we entered a whirlwind," said Panning Spieth. “As a membership-based organization, all of our revenue streams ceased – except for philanthropic support, including a $5,000 emergency gift from the Opus Foundation. With those gifts, we were able to sustain the organization and quickly mobilize our team to help the community."

Needs across the city increased. The city's homeless shelters became overrun, causing unsafe living conditions. The YMCA responded by transforming three of their larger centers into congregate housing with appropriate health and safety measures. A few weeks later, YMCA opened four emergency childcare centers for children of frontline workers and those who needed a safe space for distance learning with schools closed. 

“We also organized grass roots supply and food distribution events at our sites across the city," said Panning Spieth. “Some families were having difficulties accessing formula, diapers, basic cleaning supplies and healthy meals. So, our distribution events helped to fill the gap." 

YMCA provided a lifeline of support, helping community members through some of their most difficult challenges. And in 2021, there is new hope for families as YMCA makes plans to roll out the Family Engagement Initiative.


The Opus Foundation® is the corporate foundation for Opus, and is building community for a better tomorrow by supporting projects and programs that make our communities better places to live, work and raise families through grants to nonprofit organizations in the areas of early childhood education, youth development, workforce development, community revitalization and pressing/emerging needs. Read more about the Foundation's work. The Opus Foundation is a separate entity from The Opus Group and is led by its own Board of Directors.