South DeKalb YMCA closing sparks protest

YMCA of Metro Atlanta officials temporarily closed South DeKalb YMCA to most members April 1 while the organization conducts a community needs assessment. However, South DeKalb YMCA board members and DeKalb County leaders say they are concerned that the facility will not open its doors again.

In response to the temporary closing, community members held a protest—led by South DeKalb YMCA Advisory Board Chair Angela Graham, DeKalb County Clerk of Superior Court Debra DeBerry, Commissioner Larry Johnson and others—outside of South DeKalb YMCA March 31.

“This place is an institution. We don’t close an institution and not have it impact our community,” said NAACP DeKalb 1st Vice President Lance Hammonds. “This is discrimination—economic and institutional. That’s all it is.”

In a release from YMCA of Metro Atlanta, officials stated the reason for closing and conducting a needs assessment is declining membership numbers at the South DeKalb branch.

YMCA of Metro Atlanta officials said that since 2011, the South DeKalb branch has seen a 31 percent decline in family membership, an 83 percent decline in afterschool programs, a 71 percent decline in youth basketball and a 63 percent decline in youth soccer.

According to Graham, South DeKalb YMCA had funding cut for educational programs, was required to shorten the hours of operation due to the pandemic—and couldn’t extend them while other locations could. Graham also said South DeKalb YMCA has not received the funding required to increase membership.

YMCA is a nonprofit organization that depends on grants, private donations, and membership fees.

“I won’t deny the decline in membership, but why would you not change the dynamic to achieve a more positive outcome?” Graham asked. “Shouldn’t they be ramping up after COVID instead of closing?”

According to Graham, she and South DeKalb YMCA members would accept a needs assessment if it involved members of the YMCA and community and didn’t result in a temporary closure. Graham said members were only notified about the closing a few days in advance and don’t have faith in YMCA of Metro Atlanta officials compiling community input while the location is closed.      

Graham said South DeKalb YMCA officials have fought YMCA of Metro Atlanta officials about the South DeKalb branch’s future for more than a year, and that she and other members felt the need to go public when they heard about South DeKalb YMCA temporarily closing.

A spokesperson for YMCA of Metro Atlanta stated that results from the community needs assessment are expected in August or September. A release states the location will be temporarily closed until the assessment is completed, beyond offering COVID-19 relief, recovery programs and select youth programs.

According to Graham, she and other members contacted YMCA executives about the closure and needs assessment and received “false information and promises that have not come true.”

“They want to put profits over people,” said Graham.

Debra DeBerry and other county officials helped lead the protest. Photos by Jay Phillips

Graham said she is afraid the temporary closure will end programs and either permanently close the location or turn it into a facility similar to Buckhead YMCA, which she said is not what the South DeKalb community wants or needs.

YMCA of Metro Atlanta officials said the needs assessment is intended to “reinvigorate the South DeKalb YMCA and have it serve as a true community resource center,” and that there will be opportunities for community input. Current South DeKalb YMCA members may also use other YMCA facilities, according to a release.

A shift to a community resource center means South DeKalb YMCA could become a program-based location instead of being membership based. Graham said changing to a program-based location might be good, but that a potential change from being a family YMCA to a youth YMCA—which she said she believes is being considered—would end South DeKalb YMCA’s successful senior programs.

Graham said equipment was moved out of the YMCA before it closed; she added that she is afraid that removing means a decision to close the location, or turn it into something different, has already been made.

During the protest, several members of South DeKalb YMCA said the facility should be kept open during the needs assessment to continue serving the community with recreational programs and physical therapy and to accurately show what is needed based on what is being used.

Several speakers questioned why the facility should be closed during the needs assessment when previous needs assessments were completed with the facility open.

“You can make an assessment say whatever you want. Why isn’t the assessment being done while the [South DeKalb YMCA] is open,” said Graham. “We need [officials from the YMCA of Metro Atlanta] to help. Let’s come together, and let’s do this the right way. We are human like any other community.”

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