Prospect Park Y Chief Uses Same Word for ‘Opportunity’ and ‘Crisis’: Diversity

For most non-profit organizations, the current financial crisis is likely a cause for anxiety. Sean Andrews, the executive director of the Prospect Park YMCA, sees an opportunity.

"We’ve been in neighborhoods through the hard times, the good times, the real estate booms and busts," he said, "and people know to come to us whether they have the means to pay or they don’t."

Given the scope of the most current bust, it’s not difficult to imagine New Yorkers trading their pricey gym passes for a belt-tightener like a Y membership. The Prospect Park branch has been around since 1891, and the building itself, at 357 Ninth Street, since 1927. But longevity alone cannot explain the success of the branch in Park Slope, nor the expansion of facilities that Mr. Andrews will oversee in the upcoming months.

Since 2004, membership has increased 77 percent, compared to 56 percent in the city overall. The branch now boasts more members than any of the city’s other 19 outposts, with 6,981 as of the end of August.

When I arrived at the 10,000-square-foot brick building, Mr. Andrews suggested a tour. He wanted to show me the view from the roof: a parking lot that, next month, will be torn up to make way for a new aquatic facility. The centerpiece, a 25-yard swimming pool, will supplement the existing pool, which is about 80 years old.

This fall, he is also overseeing the branch’s takeover of the Park Slope Armory, a $16 million athletic and educational facility that takes up 110,000 square feet on Eighth Avenue between 14th and 15th streets. And he’ll manage operations at the planned Coney Island YMCA, a 40,000-square-foot complex at 29th Street and Surf Avenue, which includes 180 units of housing.

Despite these stabs at entrepreneurialism, the boyish 38-year-old’s demeanor suggests he can’t believe his luck. He always envisioned working at a non-profit: Before coming to the Y in 2000, he held positions at the New York City Audubon Society, where he was executive director, and at the Parks Council, as deputy executive director for programs. He joined the Y as the head of Seaman’s House, which looks after retired sailors. Two and a half years ago, he was appointed vice president of operations at the YMCA of Greater New York, a position he calls "formative."

"I always had an affinity for the YMCA as an institution, as a movement," he said.


AS A CHILD IN Norwalk, Conn., Mr. Andrews attended the Y, and has been a member since the early 1990s. When he first moved to New York City in 1991, he lived around the corner from the branch he now runs. These days, Mr. Andrews resides with his wife and 2-year-old son in Clinton Hill.

Becoming a father made him appreciate the city’s need for family services. He credits the jump in memberships at his branch to the prevalence of families in Park Slope: About a third of the Prospect Park members have family memberships, meaning that those 6,981 cards represent about 11,000 individuals. The branch has tailored its programs accordingly, offering after-school care for 1,000 kids and prenatal yoga classes.

Mr. Andrews notes that the success of the Prospect Park Y comprises citywide efforts. Jack Lund, the organization’s president and CEO, has beefed up their main fundraising effort, the Strong Kids Campaign, and in the past four years, the Y has expanded its promotional efforts through subway advertisements and sponsorship of the Activate America program to combat obesity.

The Prospect Park YMCA relies on multiple streams of revenue, from membership profits, public funding, and private fundraising (the goal for this year’s Strong Kids Campaign is $140,000). Mr. Andrews says the YMCA can make a strong case to elected officials, pointing to the 350,000 New Yorkers who use their programs. (Almost 20,000 use the Prospect Park branch.) Last year, those elected officials rewarded the Y with $16.2 million in government funding.

"As this community has changed," Mr. Andrews said of Park Slope and its environs, "we’re one place where you’re going to find people from all different kinds of economic backgrounds, social backgrounds, religious backgrounds, taking part in programs.

"You’re going to see a tremendous economic diversity," he added, "from a family that might be on welfare next to a family whose parents might be the chief operating officers of a corporation." Prospect Park Y Chief Uses Same Word for ‘Opportunity’ and ‘Crisis’: Diversity