History of the Champaign County YMCA

The Stephens Family YMCA has a rich history, spanning 75 years–of Community Leaders raising funds and serving as Board members, Executive Directors and dedicated staff leading a wide variety of programs, and passionate volunteers giving their time so generously to enhance the lives of youth and families in Champaign County.

It all began with Senator William B. McKinley, who had the initial vision for building a YMCA in Champaign-Urbana. Upon his death in 1927 he left $200,000 to start a Y, but by the time the will was probated in 1929 the depression had hit and the dream was postponed.

Finally, in 1937, the Philippe mansion at 500 West Church Street was purchased for $35,000, and a fundraiser organized for remodeling. The campaign chairman was A.H. Lauchner. Seely Johnston, owner of Johnston's Sporting Goods, was one of the original campaign committee members. The committee raised $38,448, which was enough to begin construction on a pool, gym, locker rooms, and tennis courts. In 1938, the McKinley YMCA opened with Elmer Hill as the first Director.

The first programs included two Hi Y Clubs, a basketball league and Friendly Indians. During the war, the Y hosted USO dances in conjunction with Chanute Air Force Base, and was the place to find male role models while Champaign-Urbana fathers were overseas. The Starlight Room on the third floor was a big hit with area teens during this time.

As growth continued, the Girl Scouts met in the Carriage House and Thompson Hall was added in 1950, thanks to a $10,000 gift by McPherson Thompson. As far back as the late 1950's, the estimated annual attendance at the YMCA was over 100,000. The Y was having an impact on large numbers of children and families.

One area of growth in the early 1960's was gymnastics. The program became so strong that our YMCA sent five girls to the Olympics in the late 60's and early 70's. While the 1970’s were times of economic struggles, the YMCA was still a mainstay for strong role models and values. Youth sports grew, as did summer day camp. The aquatics program surged ahead with the addition of the large pool in 1981, and by the late 80's, Indian Guides and Princesses, previously known as Friendly Indians, had grown to be the largest single program the Y offered.

The 1990's saw the Y emerge stronger financially. Programs were bursting at the seams with youth sports, summer day camps, after school programs, and gymnastics programs. A new name was proclaimed, the Champaign County YMCA, to better reflect the area served, and the Y was positioned for further growth. Programming was refocused on four core values–honesty, caring, respect, and responsibility–to more effectively strengthen families and help youth grow up to be people with character, who will be a positive force for the future.

With the turn of the century, it became evident that a new facility was badly needed. The Board began a fund drive to build a new facility, but it was another 8 years before the vision for a new Y took hold. In 2008 the Y Board partnered with Larkin’s Place, initiated by Amy Armstrong, which had a vision for a recreational facility for families affected by disability. Rick and Jeanene Stephens gave a lead gift followed by major gifts from the Khan family, Carle Foundation, Noel family, Jimmy Johns, Larry and Karen Stephens, and Horizon Hobby. Together these families provided $14 million and the community pledged the remaining $4 million needed to cover the entire cost. In late 2010 ground was broken for the new facility and opening day was March 1, 2012.

Many thanks to all those who have served so selflessly over the last 75 years. May all in this community continue to be enriched by the YMCA.