In March 2020, as the world abruptly ground to a global shutdown, those of us with the New Jersey YMCA State Alliance had the same thoughts and questions as many: 

“Is this really happening? We need to stay safe and healthy. We need to stay home. What does this mean? How will we work and earn money? How will we pay our bills? How will we eat? And what about the children? How will they learn and continue to grow and thrive? Our schools are closed, our childcare centers are closed. What do we do now?” 

The YMCA centers — like everything else — may have been closed, but we were still there for our communities to support families and individuals through these scary times. 

In March 2020, the YMCAs in New Jersey quickly responded to the needs in their communities by providing immediate emergency childcare, food distribution and collection, support to individuals with mental health issues and help for isolated seniors. We were communicating daily with our partners at the state Department of Health, the Department of Children and Families and the Department of Human Services to help develop guidelines and policies to provide safe service to our communities.

By May 2020, 13 YMCAs reopened childcare centers to support families of essential workers. Our centers quickly responded to the COVID guidelines to be able to provide care for children in safe environments. We worked with many funding partners to get personal protective equipment and supplies, redesign classrooms to ensure social distancing, and train staff to understand the federally mandated COVID-19 guidelines and procedures. Our most important task was to provide care and nurture for the children of our state. 

One grandparent from the Cumberland Cape Atlantic YMCA states, 

“Thank you for all that you have done for the kids and parents.  It has been a difficult year and the YMCA has been a light in the darkness.” 

Another parent shared,

“The Y provided some normalcy in a chaotic world. The staff not only supported the childcare needs of our family, but also provided reassurance and support for me. They helped quell my anxiety and stress. They were not just a provider but a friend and ally.”

The Y staff helped answer questions about subsidy payments, provided guidance on topics like food distribution, and information on COVID prevention. 

The Y continued to provide services after school ended that year. In the summer of 2020, it was critically important for children to get back outside, be active and have opportunities to play and just be kids. Once again, the New Jersey YMCAs worked with the DOH and the DCF to open camps under the strict COVID guidelines. Children benefited from the safe environments, being outside and able to socialize, and were provided with two meals each day. The Ys did everything possible to provide these children with a great summer.

When schools started back up in the fall, the Ys continued to support youth and families by repurposing our facilities and creating classrooms in our existing group exercise studios and gymnasiums. Y staff welcomed students and supported their remote learning, allowing parents to return to work. The best part was that the Ys provided the space for children to thrive and play once again, even during such challenging times. Children were active and socializing with friends, under the supervision of nurturing caregivers. 

Tutoring Programs As we learned and understood more about the learning loss children experienced from the education disruption, the YMCAs provided tutoring programs during the summer of 2021 and the school year of 2021-2022. The Y partnered with The College of New Jersey Tutoring Corps to provide a structured math and literacy instructional program. This program was integrated into our camp day and then during our after-school programs.

The evaluation of the Summer 2021 Tutoring Corps pilot program was intended to provide formative feedback about the strengths and challenges of implementation, as well as summative outcome data to inform future replication and expansion of the program. TCNJ’s Tutoring Corps summer 2021 pilot program focused on mathematics, aiming to improve students’ confidence in and attitudes toward learning math as well as build their self-esteem and growth mindset. The program was delivered in person for seven weeks. Trained tutors worked with groups of three to five students during one-hour sessions, three times per week, with the same tutor working with the same scholars throughout the summer.

Approximately 2,000 scholars received hands-on tutoring in mathematics and increased their math skills. Students indicated they enjoyed the program, their number skills improved, and they were excited to return to the program. Records show that 99% of the students reported they understand math better and 94% stated they were more confident in learning and asking for help. In January 2022, five YMCAs provide the tutoring program as part of their afterschool programs. Although the full reports are not complete at this time, the chart below shows the preliminary pre/post scores.

School Year Pilot: Math Growth in Grades K-5 chart

(For the full report, contact

“It was such an amazing experience to come into the school and see the students jumping, laughing, and counting, then going back onto their iPad to discuss the next lesson with their tutors.  Juliette, an in-person tutor, was so gentle and calm with the students, they were always smiling, and you could tell they enjoyed being with her.  

– Brenda DeNure, B.A., M.Ed., administrator of school programs, Randolph YMCA

In all our planning and in our conversations on innovative approaches, our focus was to support the health and well-being of the youth and families in our communities. Ys saw families who were never in our programs looking to the Y for their childcare, virtual programming, and now for meals and food access.

Feeding New Jerseyans New Jersey YMCAs saw food needs in every community, even those that did not think they had hunger problems pre-COVID. YMCA leaders were quick to realize how we could play a role and use our YMCAs as anchors to provide meals. 

Prior to COVID-19, 777,860 New Jerseyans, including 219,760 children, were experiencing hunger, according to Feeding America and Hunger-Free NJ. Unfortunately, COVID-19 continues to exacerbate food insecurity in New Jersey, and overall   hunger and food insecurity rates continue to rise even beyond levels seen during the 2008 recession. 

According to the state’s largest food bank, more than 1.2 million New Jersey residents were food insecure, with more than 430,000 being newly food insecure. When COVID-19 hit, New Jersey YMCAs quickly pivoted to support families struggling to keep food on the table.

Anyone in this space knows this is not an easy task. The coordination was monumental. It required applying for regulatory waivers, partnering with food banks and other food sources, taking deliveries, and packaging food, all while recruiting an army of staff and volunteers to help with distribution. 

Overall, the Ys in New Jersey participated in the initial phases of the USDA’s Farm to Family Food Box program and provided 86,682 fresh produce boxes to families. When the United States Department of Agriculture Farm to Family Food Box program ended, the NJYSA raised and re-granted funds to support local YMCAs in purchasing and distributing an additional 10,524 boxes of fresh produce. Altogether, New Jersey YMCAs have supported the distribution of approximately 2,417,765 pounds of shelf-stable food and 2,980,077 pounds of fresh produce to food-insecure families.

New Jersey YMCAs also expanded meal distribution through Child and Adult Care Food Program and Summer Food Service Program channels. New Jersey YMCAs provided 724,342 CACFP/SFSP meals from March to December 2020. They also provided an additional 223,612 CACFP/SFSP meals from April – August 2021. Altogether, YMCAs provided 2,251,769 meals through federal meal programs, grant-funded programs and community/restaurant partnerships. 

As we plan for our continued support for schools, families and communities, the New Jersey YMCAs will continue to focus on youth development and community support. The Ys are ensuring our childcare centers are open and ready to support children and families during the school year and throughout the summer. We continue to advocate for affordable childcare for all. We continue to strive to support the whole child, from pre-K through high school. We integrate best practices for the whole child including physical activity, nutrition, social and emotional learning, character development and STEAM enrichment in our programs. At the core is our staff who are critical role models for our children. Training and professional development are a priority, so our staff have the skills to plan and lead activities that support the child’s physical and social-emotional needs.

Many are saying “welcome back” but for children, families and schools, we never left. We are and continue to be for youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. We are always ready to work with our partners to support strong, healthy, thriving communities, with our schools and YMCAs at the core.

Suzanne Cornell is the New Jersey YMCA State Alliance’s Director of Strategic Partnerships and Engagement.