'The Beginnings of the YMCA

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The YMCA as it is known bears little resemblance to the organization that began in the 19th Century.

George Williams, a farmboy from rural England, arrived in London in the 1840s. He was a draper by trade. that profession had men who made drapes and other things. In fact, the draper shops of that time resemble early versions of today's department stores.

Williams made friends easily but found that many of the youths of the day spent most of their time on the streets of London, getting into trouble. Williams was a religious man and wanted to share his religion with others. He and a group of friends decided to start an organization to appeal to adults and youths alike. The goal was to get people off the streets and into a place where they were not influenced by "bad" behavior.

London at this time was in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. Men and young men worked long hours at factories and on railroads. They often slept at their workplaces, which were crowded, dirty, and usually unsafe.

The first YMCA opened on June 6, 1844. It offered religious study programs and, most importantly, a place for people to stay, where they could get away from life on the streets. Men became members and paid a small fee; in return, they could take advantage of the programs and sleep space that each various center offered.

Within just a few years, YMCAs were springing up across Great Britain. In 1851, the membership in Britain was 2,700.

The first YMCA in North America opened in 1851, in Montreal. Boston opened the first American center, also in 1851.

YMCA centers offered Christian religious teachings, but they did not discriminate along religious lines. The discrimination was along racial lines, however. Following the doctrine of "separate but equal," the first center for African-Americans opened in Washington, D.C., in 1853.

By this time, the idea had spread to Europe as well. The first international convention took place in 1854, when the worldwide membership exceeded 30,000.

Today, membership in the U.S. alone numbers 20 million. Men, women, and children are welcome. YMCA centers are seemingly everywhere.

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