The day usually starts a little before 5 a.m. at the Lake Norman YMCA in Cornelius. That’s when Javet Wilson arrives and unlocks the doors. Although the branch doesn’t officially open during the week until 5:30, Wilson usually lets the first wave of pre-dawn guests inside about 15 minutes early. Most of them are there to squeeze in a workout or swim some laps before heading to work. Wilson says that over time he and the other early birds have developed a special relationship. “I know most of them by name,” he says, “and I always greet them with a smile.” Spend any time at the Lake Norman YMCA, which celebrates its 45th anniversary this year, and you’ll discover just how many special relationships exist there, and what an important resource it is for the community. The branch, one of just two locations in the Unites States situated on the water, employs about 250 people and has nearly 8,000 members. In addition to health and fitness facilities and classes, the Lake Norman YMCA offers childcare, preschool and middle school programs, organized sports activities, and social services, such as literacy camps. But more than that, the branch is where folks of all ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds can find support and connect with others.“This is just a special place,” says Ben Pinegar, who started as the new executive director last summer. “We’ve served the Lake Norman community for 45 years, and now we’re looking to the future and what we can do next. Thankfully we have a lot of people here who are passionate and believe in what we do.”
Setting a PrecedentIt was that same passion that helped launch the Lake Norman YMCA [originally called North Meck YMCA] in 1969. A group of residents had gathered over their shared concern that there was a lack of organized recreational programs for local kids, says Lawrence Kimbrough, one of the original founders. Granted, there weren’t that many kids or families in the area then—the lake had just been created in 1963—but that was slowly starting to change as more people moved to the area. At the time, Kimbrough, a Davidson native, was working at Piedmont Bank and Trust Co. (now Fifth Third Bank). Kimbrough and his boss, John Tate Jr., along with other local business leaders, including Burl Naramore, who owned a fabrics company across the street from what is today Brickhouse Tavern, as well as Bob Stone, a local insurance salesman, started brainstorming about what kind of recreational facility they could create. They soon brought in other community leaders, including Richie King, then a math professor at Davidson College, and Robert Cashion, whose family started Cashion’s Grocery. “The group’s enthusiasm was infectious,” says King, who retired from Davidson College in 2002.After much discussion, the group decided their best bet was to open a local branch of the YMCA of Greater Charlotte. North Meck YMCA was founded in 1969, operating out of the local American Legion building and using facilities at Davidson College and Davidson and Cornelius Elementary Schools, says Allison Phillips, Lake Norman YMCA’s marketing coordinatorThe new location immediately set some precedents. First, women were allowed, even though some branches within the Charlotte area were still men only. Second, the North Meck YMCA was one of the first organizations in the community that was desegregated from the day it opened, says Phillips. During these early years, North Meck YMCA’s founders, as well as Donald Punch, the first executive director, had to overcome the area’s still tenuous race relations, as well as the rural white community’s preconceived belief that the YMCA was an organization for African Americans in urban areas and not for white families, says Phillips. While the founders were thrilled with what they had accomplished, they also wanted the North Meck YMCA to have its own dedicated facility. According to Kimbrough, the group hit the jackpot when W. Taylor Blackwell, editor of the now-defunct Mecklenburg Gazette newspaper, discovered that Duke Energy had some property along the shore of Lake Cornelius, a small body of water separated by I-77 from Lake Norman, that would be a perfect location. According to Phillips, Duke Energy donated the land for the new facility. The National Guard 30th Engineering Company built a dike and pumped water back over to Lake Norman to drain the construction site. But now that the founders had a location, they needed to raise the funds to build the new facility, which proved to be a challenge. “Unlike today, the grassroots movement to raise money for construction were nickel and dime efforts by members of the community,” says Phillips. “In the rural areas of Davidson and Cornelius, families did not have large amounts of savings or discretionary income to make sizable donations.”Nonetheless, the founders continued in their fundraising efforts, and construction started in 1974. The North Meck YMCA opened the following year, and the facility included a pool, which is still open today, and a basketball gym.
A Sense of CaringOver the years the branch, which was renamed Lake Norman YMCA in 1989, continued to grow. Today it’s an expansive 80,000-square-foot, two-story building, with state-of-the-art exercise equipment, multiple studios, gymnastics center, indoor and outdoor pools, tennis courts, sports fields, and a waterfront beach and pavilion area with inflatable slides as well as boats and canoes. Jen Riordan says the lake access area is one of her favorite parts of the branch. As Lake Norman YMCA’s health and wellness director, Riordan oversees some 300 group exercise classes and conducts personal training sessions. She also develops and manages new fitness programs, including standup paddleboard classes, which she started last summer at the waterfront area. “It’s a great way to promote health and wellness while getting people out on the lake,” she says. “Coming up with innovative new programs that keep us on the forefront of fitness is what I most enjoy about my job, and it keeps me busy.” Erik Walsingham also knows all about staying busy. He’s the sports and gymnastics senior program director and oversees nearly 100 different classes, including gymnastics, soccer, basketball, and flag football. About 1,000 kids, between the ages of 2 and 14, participate in the various classes and programs each week. “Every day is different, and it’s a lot of work that involves putting out a lot of little fires,” Walsingham says. “But I’m fortunate that I get to do fun hands-on activities. I mean, how cool is it that my job is to run around with 4 year olds and do gymnastics.” While the people who work at the Lake Norman YMCA say that, similar to nearly any organization, there are challenges and headaches, they also stress that their jobs mean far more to them than just a paycheck.“I have to be on all the time,” says membership director Marcy Weiner. “Even if I’ve had a rough day, I still need to come in with a smile on my face and be on for those members, which can be a challenge.”At the same time, Weiner says her job’s greatest pleasure is connecting with members. “I’ve been here almost 11 years, and during that time I’ve really developed strong relationships with people. I listen to their concerns, whether it’s for moral support or to assist someone who is struggling physically, and do everything I can to help. It’s very satisfying to know I’m making a difference.” And the connectivity and support work both ways. Wilson, who will likely be greeting members tomorrow morning as he unlocks the doors, says his longtime career in the printing industry was cut short when he was laid off four years ago. He was desperately looking for work when he found a job at the Lake Norman YMCA. He started out part time, refereeing baseball and basketball games, and now his responsibilities include fitness and membership services. “I love it,” he says. “This job and the people I work with mean so much to me.”Judy McGinnis can relate. She’s Wilson’s nighttime counterpart, and locks up at closing time. McGinnis started as a volunteer with the Lake Norman YMCA when she moved to Davidson from Pennsylvania about 13 years ago. “When I first started, I didn’t know a lot of people,” she says. “Whenever I went out I felt pretty anonymous. But after I started working at the Y that began to change.”McGinnis says not only did the YMCA give her some much-needed social connections, it also gave her a sense of belonging, especially when one of her family members back in Pennsylvania had a serious health scare. McGinnis says her coworkers immediately came to her aid, and helped her get an airline ticket back home and a ride to the airport. “They took care of everything,” she says. “My whole outlook on my job changed after that. I knew that these people really cared. And I think that more than anything, that sense of caring is what the YMCA brings to the community.”