Through thick and thin, Y has stood as a shining light for the community

March 30, 2020

New Castle News Article By Kayleen Cubbal

Monday through Friday, without fail, you will see Augie Smarrelli at the Lawrence County YMCA.

He might be on the racquetball courts or just sitting around shooting the breeze with his friends.

Smarrelli, in fact, hasn’t missed a lot of days at the Y since he turned 6 years old — and the North Hill resident is now 75.

“I lived on Butler Avenue and we could walk downtown to the old Y,” he said. “On weekends, we would go swimming for 10 cents. I was 6 when I first started and I loved it.

“The older I got, the more I went. Around 1962, they opened the new Y and I joined the health club and have been a member ever since. When I was in my mid-20s, racquetball started getting popular so I took that up and for years, I’ve been playing almost every day. 

“I’ve made a lot of good friends there,” Smarrelli added. “On the days I don’t play racquetball, sometimes I just go down to take a shower and sit around and talk with my friends.”

THE HISTORY

The local Y is 153 years old. The original YMCA was located in a building donated by Ira D. Sankey in 1885, on the corner of East Washington and North Jefferson streets (where the old Penn Power building currently sits). In 1911, a new building was constructed where the current Y stands. In 1963, that building was demolished and the current facility was built in 1964.

In an area that has seen much economic decline in recent years due to the loss of the steel industry and the jobs that went with it, the Lawrence County YMCA has been a beacon.

“There have been changes locally, but you know that the Y is always going to be there,” said Maria McKee, chief executive officer of the Lawrence County YMCA (which recently changed its name from New Castle Community YMCA), the Preston-Chambers Y-Zone and the Y’s dek hockey rink on Phelps Way in the city. “We are an anchor in the community and we always will be.”

McKee started her career at the New Castle Y 22 years ago, serving as chief financial officer, associate executive director and chief operating officer. She left in 2015 to oversee 17 branches as director of annual giving with the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh, but maintained her home in New Castle and was only too happy to return when Dick Lyons retired in 2018.

Although she has served as an accountant, she said she has never wanted to limit herself to that.

“I’m a people person,” she said. “I probably was in the Y twice when I had a reason to be here with my daughter before I began working here. But from the minute I walked in, I was sold. I knew once I started working at the Y that I wanted to spend the rest of my life here.

“There is nothing better to me than seeing the everyday changes we are able to make in the lives of both kids and adults.”

The Y’s mission statement is to strengthen the community through youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. Current membership is over 5,000 men, women and children, who are accepted regardless of age, income or background, with an emphasis on health and well-being. Between 100 and 120 paid employees, along with numerous volunteer coaches, work at the Y at any given time to staff the 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. hours downtown.

And while many members pay to use the Y’s facilities, just as many do not.

“We don’t turn anyone away for inability to pay. We are open to all,” McKee said. “We are a charity, and while our membership fees pay for operational expenses, such as wages, utilities and equipment, the membership fees do not pay for the financial assistance and subsidies we offer each year.

“Last year, we awarded over $300,000 in direct subsidies,” she added. “These funds not only go to kids, families and individuals who benefit from membership and program assistance, but also to subsidize programs, such as the School Learn to Swim program, which is offered at a greatly subsidized cost, and also the Section 8 Summer Learn to Swim Program, which is a free program that includes transportation to and from the Y and a free swimsuit. This is why we conduct an annual campaign each year.

“It’s obvious that for some of the kids that come here, it’s the best part of their day. We provide them with mental, spiritual and physical ways to maintain wellness or to get well if they’re struggling.”

BONDING TIME

Like Smarrelli, Guy Natale is a 4-to-5 day a week fixture at the local Y, usually playing racquetball at the main location or pickleball at the Y-Zone.

“I like to exercise and I always like to agitate,” the 81-year-old Natale said. “There is a lot of camaraderie with the guys down there. 

“I was also a member the old Y and since the inception of the new Y, about 10 of us as a group have been members. I spend 2 or 21/2 hours down there a day and it’s just a good way to spend time, stay fit and form friendships.”

Those friendships are one reason that Dorice Shover retired from the local Y after 22  years, then returned just over a year ago.

“Everything is right about this organization,” she said. “This is exactly what the community needs. I have seen so many kids grow through the Y through the years — kids who came from disadvantaged homes who went on to succeed in life because the Y showed them the path.

“When I came back, I would see the same people who were there before and they said, ‘Oh, Dorice, you’re back, welcome back.’ The Y is just so welcoming.”

Shover, 65, who previously served as director of human resources, teaches fitness classes and trains newer staff members whenever McKee asks. She also volunteers at events.

“Even though I’m older, I’m in pretty good shape,” she said. “I like to see women feel stronger and feel empowered to move on with their lives through fitness.”

SUMMER ACTIVITIES

“YMCA Fun Days” is a program created for the Lawrence County Y that delivers programs to children and families in Lawrence County’s Section 8 housing development. These days began in the summer of 2019, when, through partnerships with other community organizations, the children benefited with engaging activities, while their parents were presented with resources and other opportunities as well. This program is expected to be expanded this summer, with the hopes of launching a full-blown “Y on the Fly” in the near future, similar to the one started by the Pittsburgh Y while McKee was working there. 

McKee says that she and the 25-member board are extremely connected.

“My mentor, (former CEO) Bill Lutz taught me that you have to take care of your community and to do that you have to have a strong board,” she said. “We have the best board I’ve ever worked with. They are passionate about the Y and passionate about the community. We feed off each other.”

RIGHT AT HOME

McKee says that she has no plans to move on. She is home in every sense of the word.

“This is my dream job,” she said. “I truly love the Y. I’m up every morning at 4:30 to get here to work out. And the job is never the same two days in a row. Last week, I had to go and unplug a toilet. Another day, I spent talking to some Silver Sneakers widows. 

“I am well aware that a lot of people aren’t happy in their jobs, but when you can go to work and change lives, then those are good days.”