Sunday, November 04, 2007

DAVE KAPLAN: THE MAN BEHIND THE CHINATOWN YMCA

This summer, I strayed from my Brooklyn branch of the YMCA and had a fling with the Chinatown Y. It was the week leading up to Labor Day weekend and it was raging hot outside. The pool at my Y was shut down for its annual cleaning and I was desperately searching for a body of water to which to escape. Then I remembered that some friends of mine had started swimming at the new Chinatown Y. I was up for an adventure, so I took the F train to the 2nd Avenue stop, got out, walked for 30 seconds, and was at the door of the new Y. I wasn’t sure what to expect – my branch was small so I thought this one might be too. I was surprised to find a bustling lobby, a gigantic pool, state-of-the art equipment, family-friendly facilities, and the helpful and knowledgeable staff. Plus it was around the corner from a Whole Foods that had a second-floor hangout perfect for reading, writing, and socializing. Another bonus of the location: I could easily walk to other favorite places like the Housing Works Bookstore and CafĂ© Gitane.

After 6 free visits, the love affair became a permanent relationship: I upgraded my Y membership to an all-city pass just so I could swim regularly at the Chinatown Y.

One thing I love most about the Chinatown Y is the diverse crowd it draws: lots of folks from Chinatown, the Lower East Side, SoHo. There’s a real range in terms of cultural/ethnic background, social class, and age. I guessed that there would be someone pretty interesting in charge of this Y and wondered what their approach to bringing so many different kinds of people together under the same roof. Following up on that curiosity, I paid a visit to Chinatown Y Director David Kaplan got the inside scoop.

First, a little bit of history about this Y:
1974: The Chinatown Y is launched by several volunteers from Chinatown.
1992: Their vision leads to the opening of the Hester Street Beacon Center.
2006: The dream of a full-fledged health and fitness facility for the community becomes a reality. The Chinatown Y’s Houston Street Center opens its doors to the public.
Today: The Center reaches more than 10,000 people a year from Tribeca, Chinatown, the Lower East Side, Little Italy, the East Village, and SoHo.

What interested David about working at this particular YMCA?
David grew up in the Greenwich Village area and, as a young person, was involved in a local community center where he played basketball. Years later, after slowly transitioning out of lawyerhood, he led a variety of non-for-profit organizations which served a wide range of people, including teenagers, young people, runaways, homeless people, gay and lesbian teens and adults. He sensed that the re-built Chinatown Y would be diverse because of its location and wanted to work someplace that attracted that kind of diversity.

What, in David’s eyes, makes the Chinatown Y special?
1. The diversity. Some of the members are from Chinatown and some are from the Lower East Side. There is an income-based rate scale to pull in people from all income levels.

2. The staff. They are a welcoming, positive, pro-active, and hard-working team of people.

3. The brand-new facility. There’s all kinds of potential in terms of how the space gets used. They listen to members to figure that out. As David says, “The space is open to play with.”

What has David Learned about Diversity?
In David’s own words, Diversity is not just a symbol that you put on the wall. It’s about what you do on a day-to-day basis to meet real-life situations. For example, different groups of people have different ideas about what makes for appropriate locker room etiquette, child-rearing practices, and behavior in public spaces. For some groups, it’s okay to be loud. For others, it’s not alright.

David is aware that each of his staff brings in his or her own background and set of life experiences and so challenges them to be open to people who bring something different to the table. He warns them that their assumptions will be tested while working at the Y.
“The Y” says David, “is about developing mind, spirit and body, so we as staff need to be doing that ourselves.”

What are David’s main areas of focus?
First, David focuses his energies on collaborating with other people in charge to run the physical plant. The goal is to make the Y a functional place and also a warm and welcoming place that is conducive to social interaction.

Second, David invests his time in fundraising events.

Third, he liaisons with the Y’s main office since they dictate what the branches do.

Last, but definitely not least, David spends a good deal of time reading the suggestion forms which members fill out and put into the feedback box. He sits down with other Y staffers and figures out what to do with that input. “We change and grow because we ask our members to do the same. Our work is never done,” commented Dave. [Editor’s note: how cool is that – a director who reads every piece of membership feedback!!!]

What is challenging about running this Y?
One challenge for David is being a white man and having people wonder what it means that a white man is running the Chinatown Y. Another thing is sharing space with University Settlement, having that additional foot traffic and figuring out how to collaborate.

David has the interesting task of listening to various individuals and groups of people in mapping out the course for the Y. These folks include board members, donors and other stake-holders, long-time staff members, community folks who witnessedthe place being built. He listens and incorporates as much as he can into his decisions.

What are David’s personal hobbies and interests?
David is the proud father of a 22-month-old daughter. He loves to basketball and box and he’s also a musician who plays the guitar and sings.

How did David transition from being an attorney to working in the not-for-profit world?
When David was a private attorney, he donated money to a youth center and progressed to raising money for the center. His level of involvement in the not-for-profit world grew to the extent that he could no longer practice law full-time. In 2004, David stopped practicing law all together.

What has been a rewarding aspect of the job?
David is walking proof of the laws of Karma, particularly the idea that what goes around comes around. From his long history of leadership in community-based and nonprofit organizations, David gets the satisfaction of seeing the people he helped as young ones come into the Y with their own children and thank him for what he did to reach them.
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