For A Better Us

May 10, 2017

How one Fernandina Beach Child’s Love of Water Inspired His Entire Family to Learn to Swim

Camaron’s Story

McKinley and MoRonica Ravenell moved to Fernandina Beach from Mississippi with their oldest son Camaron 13 years ago. Now living in Florida, they realized how much Camaron loved water – no matter if he was in the pool or just the bathtub – he was always splashing. When he was 5 years old, his parents decided it was time for Camaron to learn how to swim so they took him to the McArthur Family YMCA.

“I never would’ve imagined that day would change our lives forever. We explained we were looking for private swim lessons. We needed someone who was very understanding with kids,” said MoRonica. “We explained to them that Camaron had Speech of Apraxia (speech delay). We needed a swim instructor who would make sure he understood the instructions and would give him visual prompts. When it comes to Camaron, I’m sheltering as McKinley calls it. I call it being a good mom. I wanted them to understand, but they did. They said ‘we know the right person for you’.”

The Ravenells met Michelle Stein, the McArthur Family YMCA swim team coach. She’s also a swim instructor and elementary school teacher. Within a week, Camaron was able to swim to the middle of the pool. “As I watched a tear began to fall. I was so happy he was happy. Just the smile on his face was priceless,” MoRonica explained. “Michelle would tell us he was born to swim. She said, ‘he will be a great swimmer. Watch and see’.”

Michelle was right. Camaron continued to improve and eventually earned a spot on the McArthur Sailfish swim team winning 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th place ribbons at swim meets. He now competes with the McArthur Flyers and Special Olympics swim teams where he has won five medals including gold.

Camaron is also a champion at something else – talking his mom into taking swim lessons. “Michelle taught me how to swim two years ago. Camaron was there every day cheering me on saying ‘mom you can do it’ or ‘I believe in you’,” MoRonica said. “Now Camaron and I swim together and of course, he beats me in races. And I’m so happy to announce that Michelle is now teaching McKinley and his little brother Malik to swim, too and they are doing great.”

In addition to reducing their risk of drowning, children who take swim lessons and participate in the Y’s Safety Around Water program also become confident in and around the water so like Camaron, they too can feel the sense of accomplishment that comes from learning new skills.

With your help, the Y hopes to provide free swim instruction to 5,000 at-risk children on the First Coast. Please consider the following gift amounts: $60 to sponsor one child, $600 to sponsor 10 children or $1,200 to provide lessons to an entire classroom!

DONATE ONLINE

Read: Rotary Club of West Jacksonville’s Generous Gift to Safety Around Water

Watch: Safety Around Water Instruction at Brooks Family YMCA

Camaron’s Story McKinley and MoRonica Ravenell moved to Fernandina Beach from Mississippi with their oldest son Camaron 13 years ago. Now living in Florida, they realized how much Camaron loved water – no matter if he was in the pool or just the bathtub – he was always splashing. When he was 5 years old, his parents decided it was time for Camaron to learn how to swim so they took him to the McArthur Family YMCA. “I never would’ve imagined that day would change our lives forever. We explained we were looking for private swim lessons. We needed someone who was very understanding with kids,” said MoRonica. “We explained to them that Camaron had Speech of Apraxia (speech delay). We needed a swim instructor who would make sure he understood the instructions and would give him visual prompts. When it comes to Camaron, I’m sheltering as McKinley calls it. I call it being a…


January 4, 2017

Robotics Program Launching at Brooks Family YMCA

In an effort to engage more children in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) activities, the Brooks Family YMCA officially announced a new engineering program—Robotics. The program is set to debut on Jan. 17 with free classes open to YMCA members and their children ages 6 to 14.

This program is part of the Y’s effort to create more experiences for children to explore opportunities through STEM that nurture their curiosity, inspire their creativity, help them develop critical-thinking skills and teach them how to succeed.

Two classes included in the program are the Junior First Lego League for children who are 6 to 9 years old and the First Lego League for those who are 10 to 14 years old. Classes will also be available to non-members with a $75 monthly fee.

Rajiv Gupta, former software developer with the City of Jacksonville and a First Coast resident since 2000, was recently named instructor of the robotics program.

“We are proud to have Rajiv Gupta lead our engineering and robotics program here at the Brooks Y,” said Brooks Family YMCA Executive Director Carl Simcox. “The Y aims to help all children reach their full potential by supporting their unique youth development journeys and we’re excited to see this new STEM initiative in action.”

Through a grant provided by the University of North Florida, Gupta has volunteered each weekend since 2008 with elementary and middle-age students, teaching the basics and fundamentals of science and engineering through a robotics curriculum. After nearly eight years of volunteering, Gupta will continue to dedicate his time and services as a proud employee of the YMCA.

“I want to inspire kids to become interested in science and technology through robotics,” Gupta said. “My philosophy—make science easy—motivates me to help our youth discover the fun and impact of this subject.”

With 11 years of robotics teaching experience, Gupta earned a Bachelor of Science in Engineering from Jai Narain Vyas University in Rajasthan, India and an MBA from the University of Rajasthan. Gupta currently works for Landstar, a company that specializes in logistics and supply chain solutions.

To enroll your child in the Brooks Family YMCA Robotics program, please visit the Welcome Center or contact Deb Barley at dbarley@firstcoastymca.org. For more information about the YMCA of Florida’s First Coast, visit FirstCoastYMCA.org.

In an effort to engage more children in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) activities, the Brooks Family YMCA officially announced a new engineering program—Robotics. The program is set to debut on Jan. 17 with free classes open to YMCA members and their children ages 6 to 14. This program is part of the Y’s effort to create more experiences for children to explore opportunities through STEM that nurture their curiosity, inspire their creativity, help them develop critical-thinking skills and teach them how to succeed. Two classes included in the program are the Junior First Lego League for children who are 6 to 9 years old and the First Lego League for those who are 10 to 14 years old. Classes will also be available to non-members with a $75 monthly fee. Rajiv Gupta, former software developer with the City of Jacksonville and a First Coast resident since 2000, was recently named instructor of the…


October 3, 2016

Watch this POWERFUL 1-minute look through the eyes of a child

All kids have potential. From one child’s point of view, see the true impact of our words.

The Y nurtures the potential of every child and teen by supporting their unique youth development journey through holistic programming. From cradle to career, the Y provides all youth with the tools and resources they need to succeed in life. Click here to learn more about our Before and Afterschool Care and Early Learning programs.

The Y.™ For a better us.™

All kids have potential. From one child’s point of view, see the true impact of our words. The Y nurtures the potential of every child and teen by supporting their unique youth development journey through holistic programming. From cradle to career, the Y provides all youth with the tools and resources they need to succeed in life. Click here to learn more about our Before and Afterschool Care and Early Learning programs. The Y.™ For a better us.™


July 21, 2016

Camp Immokalee Alumnus Helps in Haiti

Submitted by Jim Austin / Camp Immokalee Alumni Association

This is a story about how the YMCA and Camp Immokalee can make a difference in the world and save lives. It does this with our young people. Through the impact of resident camping the “Y” can influence youths to embrace values our world societies desperately need. I have benefited from what the camping experience has done for me.  Over a good portion of my lifetime I have seen what Camp Immokalee has done for others and how it added success to their lives. This is a story about one of those kids, Tom Parsons, now a grown man. I last saw Tom at the Camp Immokalee 100-year Anniversary and Reunion. Also attending the anniversary celebration with us was Tom’s other mentor and long-time Immokalean, Charlie Pitchford.

Tom Parsons has just arrived back to his temporary home in the Dominican Republic from leading a relief and rescue mission into Haiti. The devastation in Haiti from the 7.1 and subsequent earthquakes is well known via the media. The media struggles to report the real effects on Haiti’s population due to the limitations of sound and video bytes. Tom led a team of approximately 30 volunteers composed of doctors, nurses, paramedics, EMTs and support personnel. However, the story doesn’t begin here; it begins in the 1970s.

Tom Parsons came to Camp Immokalee as a youth in 1973. He wanted to learn to sail boats and selected sailing as his primary hobby. I was the sailing instructor and noticed an impressionable and enthusiastic boy. The first week of camp that year we were under the wrath of a hurricane. We spent all week doing ground training not being able to sail on the lake. On the last day we hadn’t sailed but conditions were improving slightly. I learned he was a good swimmer and asked him if he was brave enough to try some heavy weather sailing. He eagerly replied, “Yes” and I chose a small sturdy Optimist Pram for its small sail area. We filled the boat with safety gear and donned our life jackets. The lake was like being on the sea and very rough. I was impressed with Tom’s even mental state in the rough going. Soon I found out someone had substituted a cheaper wooden beam for a true quality mast section.  We were dismasted and in an emergency situation with the boat filling with wave water. Tom was cool headed and bailed while I managed the boat. We finally made it back to shore at camp and Tom noticed I had stayed upwind of camp in case of emergency. You don’t really know how someone, even a kid, is going to handle adversity. That was Tom’s first test and I knew he was leader material.

Tom kept coming to camp year after year. He became a staff member and the sailing instructor. He was one of the best counselors and honed his leadership skills. As Tom moved on in life he married Naomi Noyes, and joined The Air National Guard as aircrew on USAF C-130s. He has two older children, Chris and Nichole. He is a professional firefighter trained in many specialties such as aircraft fires and HAZMAT. Tom went to Saudi Arabia to work as a civilian contract firefighter. Then he went to Iraq and worked in the “Green Zone” for a year. It was during his time in Iraq that Tom flew all the way back to Keystone Heights just to be with his fellow Immokaleans for the 100-year Anniversary Celebration. He wanted to see his friends and meet the new people there. Tom has never known a stranger.

If you look back on Tom’s work at Immokalee and how he leads one can see he has the heart of a missionary. He cares very much about people, their well-being and respects all life as a Christian. These were values we taught at Camp Immokalee as promoted by the Y under the leadership of Charlie Pitchford and later me as Immokalee Assistant Directors.

As soon as I heard about the earthquake in Haiti and knowing Tom was on the same island I knew he was going to help and nothing was going to change that. It didn’t take long before I saw his pleas on Facebook for a large cargo aircraft to ferry supplies down from the US. I spoke to Tom’s concerned family and decided to write him with the best advice I could give. Haiti has special dangers and concerns due to its extreme poverty and massive population. People will do about anything when starving. Tom took all the necessary precautions and organized a military type convoy with a pathfinder team and military escort. The Dominican Republic government was so impressed with his preparations he was given credentials that gave him government authority as their representative.

Tom called me personally after his 8-day ordeal and I could hear in his voice he was fatigued. Despite his exhaustion he wasn’t resting but trying to gather information to start a non-profit organization to get shelter to the masses of people at risk from exposure. In the hour-long conversation he told me they treated hundreds of people every day for injuries in the earthquake. For most Haitians it was their first treatment for injuries that were of an extreme nature – lacerations, amputations, etc. They fed thousands of hungry people, many of them starving to death. He knows they saved hundreds from dying but one story stood out. On a forced break from work Tom climbed up the mountainside to survey a poverty stricken shantytown settlement he heard about. When he found the settlement it was rubble. He walked around and found a young woman in her early 20s laying in the mud with her little brother standing over her. Tom assessed she had a broken back in the L5 vertebrae area and was paralyzed from the waist down. Being paralyzed meant she could not control her bowels and was in danger of dying from septicemia – it had been 8 days since her injury. The little boy spoke English and Tom told him that he would be back no matter how long it took. Remember, she was hours up the side of a mountain and Tom needed a backboard and a team to get her down safely.

When Tom got back to base camp he had to reenter his responsible role and was kept busy while he located a backboard. It took him three days but he found one and went back up the mountain with his team on the fourth day. When he got there he couldn’t find the injured woman in the place he had left her. Tom did not give up and two hours later found her on a door in the mud near a clearing. Her little brother came out from under some makeshift shelter shouting, “I knew you come back, you promised!” It took four grueling hours to get her down the mountain and to the medical facility. Then the worst surprise happened.

Tom and his team brought the young woman into the treatment tent and explained her injuries to the doctor. The doctor told him that they could not take her – she had a spinal injury. As Tom was narrating this part to me, the horror of that relived moment brought him to tears. What Tom had been up against was medical triage. There were too many severe injuries and she was being judged to die and save the resources for those who have a chance at recovery with more quality of life. Tom simply could not take “No” for an answer and explained to the doctor in a “clear” voice what effort has been done to save this young woman and what she had been through. He instructed his team to place her in the treatment area off in the corner and commanded the doctor to fulfill his duties. An emergency colostomy was suggested. Tom rarely gets forceful or adamant with people but when he does they are looking up at someone about 6’5”.

That is where this particular part of the story ends. She had zero chance up on the mountain under the care of an adolescent brother. She had zero chance entering the medical tent on her own. With Tom Parsons helping her she had some sort of hope for life.

At this time Tom doesn’t know whether she lived or has died. She is one of millions suffering; one of thousands that his team helped to live another day. As he pressed on with his stories I could hear Tom’s fatigue and I suggested we continue later after he rested. He wasn’t going to rest, he was going to try and find a way to bring in shelter for the masses. “If it rains, millions will die,” he said. And, he wasn’t even thinking of cholera at this point – a common dark companion to disaster and poverty.

And so, the story will continue, as does life itself. It is but one example about compassion and making a difference. You never know what that young kid will grow up to become. Opportunity and effort makes a difference. As long as there is need in the world and people like Tom Parsons are growing up and learning in places like Camp Immokalee the world can be a better place.  Tom’s son, Chris, accompanied him on this quest – the “light” will spread to others. People from Camp Immokalee’s first 85 years know what this “light” means from our Candlelight Service. I couldn’t be prouder as someone, one of many that helped Tom along the way. Rarely do I see such pure dedication and effort from people benefiting others. Thus, the lessons learned are not just about compassion, but also about how to act responsibly and as a better human being.

Jim Austin
Camp Immokalee
1964-1979
1985-1990
Camp Immokalee Alumni Association, Past Chairman

Submitted by Jim Austin / Camp Immokalee Alumni Association This is a story about how the YMCA and Camp Immokalee can make a difference in the world and save lives. It does this with our young people. Through the impact of resident camping the “Y” can influence youths to embrace values our world societies desperately need. I have benefited from what the camping experience has done for me.  Over a good portion of my lifetime I have seen what Camp Immokalee has done for others and how it added success to their lives. This is a story about one of those kids, Tom Parsons, now a grown man. I last saw Tom at the Camp Immokalee 100-year Anniversary and Reunion. Also attending the anniversary celebration with us was Tom’s other mentor and long-time Immokalean, Charlie Pitchford. Tom Parsons has just arrived back to his temporary home in the Dominican Republic from leading a relief and rescue…


June 15, 2016

More than Just an Excuse to Buy a Tie

Inspired by a Mother’s Day sermon over 100 years ago, Sonora Louis Smart Dodd wondered why there was no similar holiday for fathers. One of six children, Dodd’s father was a single dad and she felt he and others deserved to be honored. After securing support from ministers in Spokane, Wash., her idea came to fruition with the first Father’s Day celebration at the Spokane YMCA on June 19, 1910. Many years passed before the day became a national holiday, but today we use the day to honor the fathers and father figures in our lives.

On Sunday, June 19, the YMCA of Florida’s First Coast joins the nation in celebrating Father’s Day and recognizing the influence fathers and adult male role models have in children’s lives. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 24 million—or one in three—children live without their biological fathers. Societal factors such as unemployment, work-life balance or a lack of resources can affect a father’s ability to seek support in strengthening his parenting skills and becoming more engaged in the lives of his children.

Studies show that children with close relationships with their fathers and other adult male role models have more self-confidence and exhibit less depression, perform better academically and engage in significantly less drug and alcohol use. The Y, a leading nonprofit in fostering positive youth development, is dedicated to providing both resources and opportunities for fathers to further involve themselves in the well-being and development of their children.

The First Coast YMCA offers a variety of programs that foster understanding and companionship between children and their caregivers. In communities across the country, the Y is committed to ensuring that the 9 million children and teens in YMCA programs reach their full potential by helping them grow—physically, mentally and socially—from young children into active, engaged members of their communities.

Inspired by a Mother’s Day sermon over 100 years ago, Sonora Louis Smart Dodd wondered why there was no similar holiday for fathers. One of six children, Dodd’s father was a single dad and she felt he and others deserved to be honored. After securing support from ministers in Spokane, Wash., her idea came to fruition with the first Father’s Day celebration at the Spokane YMCA on June 19, 1910. Many years passed before the day became a national holiday, but today we use the day to honor the fathers and father figures in our lives. On Sunday, June 19, the YMCA of Florida’s First Coast joins the nation in celebrating Father’s Day and recognizing the influence fathers and adult male role models have in children’s lives. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 24 million—or one in three—children live without their biological fathers. Societal factors such as unemployment, work-life balance or a lack of resources…


April 22, 2016

A Passion Turned Payoff

Tiger Academy’s Susan Harper Receives a Big Surprise

Teaching for 42 years has taught Susan Harper many lessons, but none prepared her for the surprise she received this week at Tiger Academy. The kindergarten teacher learned she was one of four recipients of the 2016 Gladys Prior Awards for Career Teaching. Each recipient received $15,000.

“It was a big, big surprise,” said Harper with tear-filled eyes. Cheers filled her classroom as Harper held a bouquet of roses and received a hug
from principal Charles McWhite.

“I call them my kids,” said Harper of her students as they began to run up and hug her. Her dedication quickly became evident, as Harper swiftly resumed teaching her students despite the media presence, camera flashes, and applause.

The Gladys Prior Awards for Career Teaching Excellence are among the largest monetary awards for teachers in the nation.

Gilchrist Berg, a Jacksonville-area businessman and longtime YMCA supporter, established the awards in 1998 to honor his 4th grade teacher, Gladys Prior. Teachers are nominated based on criteria including evidence of sustained inspiration to students, evidence of sustained teaching excellence and 10 or more years in the classroom.

Harper feels that part of her students’ success lies in her practice of never placing limits on them of what they can accomplish.

“Tiger Academy is delighted that Ms. Harper has been honored for her dedication,” said principal Charles McWhite. “She continues to push her students towards greater academic achievement, and we hope she will continue to develop young minds in our community for many more years to come.”

Through a unique partnership with the First Coast YMCA, Tiger Academy focuses on providing a nurturing learning environment while emphasizing rigorous learning academic standards, personal responsibility, character development, and strong family involvement.

The other recipients of this year’s Gladys Prior Awards are Scott Sowell, a science teacher at Darnell-Cookman Middle / High School; Judy Reppert, a social students and civics teacher at Martin J. Gottlieb Day School; and Mark McGiveron, a math teacher at Fletcher Middle School.

Tiger Academy’s Susan Harper Receives a Big Surprise Teaching for 42 years has taught Susan Harper many lessons, but none prepared her for the surprise she received this week at Tiger Academy. The kindergarten teacher learned she was one of four recipients of the 2016 Gladys Prior Awards for Career Teaching. Each recipient received $15,000. “It was a big, big surprise,” said Harper with tear-filled eyes. Cheers filled her classroom as Harper held a bouquet of roses and received a hug
from principal Charles McWhite. “I call them my kids,” said Harper of her students as they began to run up and hug her. Her dedication quickly became evident, as Harper swiftly resumed teaching her students despite the media presence, camera flashes, and applause. The Gladys Prior Awards for Career Teaching Excellence are among the largest monetary awards for teachers in the nation. Gilchrist Berg, a Jacksonville-area businessman and longtime YMCA supporter, established the awards in…


April 7, 2016

Your Chance to Be Part of History

Celebrating a Landmark and the Promise of More to Come

For more than sixty years, the Yates Family YMCA in Riverside has been a cornerstone of the First Coast. Generations of residents have come of age both within and beyond its walls. And it has been open to all, with fully one-third of its participants receiving financial assistance. The Yates Y has created memories that will long outlive its mortar and bricks. And it has served as the foundation of a future with the promise of even more to come.

Now, as we move closer to the opening of the new Winston Family YMCA that will replace Yates, we are pleased to announce new community giving opportunities, including founding membership, brick paver, digital and facility recognition, that expand opportunities for First Coast residents to play a role in bringing this neighborhood Y to life.

“It’s not about the size of a gift, it’s the sense of belonging that will last forever within the walls and bricks of this new Y,” said Nekita Nesmith, senior vice president and chief development officer at YMCA of Florida’s First Coast. “From $1 and up, the entire community can take part in helping us create a healthier First Coast by contributing to the Winston YMCA.”

On schedule to open late summer, the two-story Winston YMCA will be a 72,000-square-foot building overlooking the St. Johns River and serve as an attractive destination for Downtown Jacksonville.

New 3D Tour of the Winston Family YMCA

“The impact we expect to generate from the Winston Family YMCA goes beyond the fitness center or the swimming pool,” said YMCA of Florida’s First Coast President and CEO Eric Mann. “The programs and services that we will deliver both inside the building and out in the nearby neighborhoods will foster community connections, create new opportunities for youth and provide support that will positively change the lives of area residents.”

Donate Now

Celebrating a Landmark and the Promise of More to Come For more than sixty years, the Yates Family YMCA in Riverside has been a cornerstone of the First Coast. Generations of residents have come of age both within and beyond its walls. And it has been open to all, with fully one-third of its participants receiving financial assistance. The Yates Y has created memories that will long outlive its mortar and bricks. And it has served as the foundation of a future with the promise of even more to come. Now, as we move closer to the opening of the new Winston Family YMCA that will replace Yates, we are pleased to announce new community giving opportunities, including founding membership, brick paver, digital and facility recognition, that expand opportunities for First Coast residents to play a role in bringing this neighborhood Y to life. “It’s not about the size of a gift, it’s the sense of…


February 26, 2016

Celebrating Community Impact

This week, the community came together at Y-Bash to showcase the Y’s real impact on the First Coast. This year’s event, held February 23 at the Florida Theatre, celebrates the Y’s mission to strengthen community through youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.

The Y named Jacksonville Sports Council as the recipient of the E. William Nash, Jr. Legend Award for the Community Partner of the Year. This year’s honoree for the Carl & Rita Cannon Employee of the Year Award is Jennifer Willett and the Volunteer of the Year honoree is Josh Harrison.

The feature presentation at this year’s Y-Bash was a story connecting the past, present and future with Hi-Y, a high school civics club popular at the Yates Family YMCA from the 1940s to 1980s, and the current Youth in Government program.

At this year’s event, the Y announced its funding priorities for the following year and its goal to raise $1.7 million. This year’s four funding priorities include:

  • Active Adults Creating Healthy Families and Communities
  • Making Kids of All Ages Safe in the Water
  • Academic and Life Achievement for Our Youth
  • Helping Teens Become Leaders

We’d like to say thank you to our Y-Bash Sponsors:
• The LBA Group
• The University of North Florida Foundation, Inc.
• Legal Accounting Solutions
• Haskell
• RS&H
• Prospect Mortgage

This week, the community came together at Y-Bash to showcase the Y’s real impact on the First Coast. This year’s event, held February 23 at the Florida Theatre, celebrates the Y’s mission to strengthen community through youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. The Y named Jacksonville Sports Council as the recipient of the E. William Nash, Jr. Legend Award for the Community Partner of the Year. This year’s honoree for the Carl & Rita Cannon Employee of the Year Award is Jennifer Willett and the Volunteer of the Year honoree is Josh Harrison. The feature presentation at this year’s Y-Bash was a story connecting the past, present and future with Hi-Y, a high school civics club popular at the Yates Family YMCA from the 1940s to 1980s, and the current Youth in Government program. At this year’s event, the Y announced its funding priorities for the following year and its goal to raise $1.7 million….


Mission Statement: To put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all.