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Image: Image for News Item: Student success initiatives across the state supported through Blandin Foundation grant

Release: Itasca County Family YMCA set to strengthen service and meet the Grand Rapids area’s increased demand for affordable childcare, safe places for youth and positive social networks

$1.4 million Blandin Foundation grant signals the Foundation’s expanded focus on building nonprofits’ ability to meet their missions

Key points:

• Over the years, the Y has served as a vital community hub for thousands of Itasca area residents.
• The $1.4 million Blandin Foundation grant will strengthen the Y’s ability to meet its mission in the Grand Rapids area, serve the community and enhance its financial sustainability in the face of surging post-pandemic demand.
• Resulting plans will expand affordable childcare, fitness opportunities, evaluate space use and programming and develop staff.
• This grant is aligned with the Foundation’s Rural Placemaking strategy and exemplifies the kind of ongoing, collaborative approach that builds organizational capacity.


Grand Rapids, MN – Blandin Foundation announced a grant to the Itasca County Family YMCA (the Y) to strengthen services to local families and communities.

The Y will use the $1.4 million, three-year grant to study options for expanding services like childcare and fitness classes, evaluating space needs and developing staff.

This work aligns with the Foundation’s emerging Rural Placemaking strategy, which awards grants to area institutions whose spaces and programs create rewarding experiences and social connections that lead to belonging, collaboration and community well-being.

“The Y is navigating change, growth and risk as it meets its mission to create places and programs that foster social connection and physical health for working families,” said Sonja Merrild, Blandin Foundation director of rural grantmaking. “We see and support their efforts to move our community forward toward a resilient, sustainable future.”

Meeting needs in a post-pandemic rebound

As community life rebounds from limited activities and isolation of the pandemic, folks have flocked back to the Y. Membership, which initially dropped 41 percent, returned to pre-pandemic levels in November 2022. Childcare stayed open during the pandemic but is now back to full capacity, serving more than 200 children, with dozens of families on the wait list for infant, toddler and preschool care. Youth memberships increased 198 percent since the pandemic, as kids 10-18 seek a place to belong and feel safe during their free time. Retirees, many of whom come to the Y for fitness and to meet up with friends, have resumed these activities. Staff shortages, which spiked during the pandemic, have not eased, and the Y continues to struggle keeping aquatics and custodial positions fully staffed.

The Y emerged from the pandemic with a complex series of challenges resulting from high usage rates coupled with staffing and space needs.

These challenges prompted Y leadership to tackle building the organization’s capacity in a significant way.

“Our hope is to develop a long-term vision for prosperity and to impact the community on an even deeper level for generations to come,” said Joni Namyst, executive director at the Y. “To truly live our mission of service to our community, we have to develop an internal capacity to be financially stable, ready to respond to change when needed, and be innovative in our approach to serving the many needs of the community.”

Offering programs that meet community needs at rates that match area family income levels is one of those many needs. According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, 40 percent of Itasca County working families earn less than $50,000 a year, creating significant needs for affordable childcare, safe places for youth, and positive social networks that boost mental health.

Needs growing for scholarships, space

Never turning anyone away due to an inability to pay is core to the Y’s mission. Staff have seen a dramatic increase in the need for scholarship support. In 2022, membership scholarship requests topped $10,000 per month for the first time in Y history and exceeded $120,000 for the year. The Y provided an additional $52,500 in assistance for early childhood and school-age care. United Way helps fund childcare scholarships, but once United Way funding is depleted, the Y funds these scholarships directly.

Funding scholarships, maintaining a facility more than 40 years old and assuring a steady income stream for payroll and programming adds up to a significant financial commitment to keep its doors open. A new development director hired recently will play a key role in the Y’s capacity-building plans.

Like its members, the Y cultivates connections in numerous ways through its work. For thousands of Itasca County kids, parents and seniors, the faces of the Y’s staff are as familiar as family. Exercise classes, open gym and open swim, childcare and special activities are important community crossroads, with Y staff at the intersection of it all. Their specialized knowledge in water safety, CPR, and diabetes nutrition helps make area communities safer and healthier. Among the Y’s plans are professional training and development opportunities that keep staff at the top of their game.

Connections with other organizations are critical to the Y’s long-term success, given the community’s growing demand for services. The Y plans to deepen its existing partnerships with ElderCircle and Grand Itasca clinics while exploring new partnerships with other entities to ensure collaboration and a stronger regional impact. In addition, the Y’s annual community fundraising campaign is in full swing through the end of May, to give the community an opportunity to help support this vital community hub.

“We cannot meet the unending needs in our community alone,” Namyst said. “We aim to seek out partnerships that enrich our service delivery.”
Merrild agreed and stressed the sustainable focus of the grant.

“Charles Blandin’s intent was that support systems in the Grand Rapids area be strong and durable, ready to serve the people here for the long haul,” she said “The Y’s plans are ambitious, focused and built on our community’s needs. The commitment to strengthen their ongoing ability to serve and collaborate with other organizations is spot-on. These form the basis for successful organizational capacity-building.”


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