I want to start my expressing my immense thanks and gratitude to Mike Will, and the retiring Executive Committee for their exemplar work and achievements over the last 4 years. Not least the stupendous 175-year celebrations in London last year. The shoes that myself and the new Executive Committee are filling are large and I pray that God will be beside us to guide and help us as we transition into our new roles.
I am mindful that I am making YMCA History today as the first female regional president, following in the footsteps of Patricia Pelton as the first female YMCA World Alliance president. My route here has been paved by the many people who have made this moment, from the Guide Movement, YMCA movement and my church family and friends.
And in the words of Kamala Harris, the first American elected vice-president “while I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last”. My election reflects the opportunities and possibilities that the YMCA movement offers, regardless of age, gender, race or Christian belief.
I want to stay with history for a moment although by all accounts I am a relative newbie in the realms of YMCA History. I first got involved with the movement 10 years ago at my local YMCA in Exeter, in the south west part of England and the nearest home city to George Williams when he lived in Dulverton just 25 miles away. Exeter YMCA is celebrating its 175th anniversary next year and ahead of this milestone we published a book on the history of our YMCA, I was fortunate to have a sneak preview of the book ahead of publication as I provided a forward as the Chairman of Trustees.
What struck me more than anything was the way in which God speaks in different ways in different times. The history of YMCA Exeter (and indeed our whole movement) is living proof of this with its long-established history and track record of social action. In researching the history of the YMCA movement in Europe (and I hasten to add I have plenty more to learn) what resonates very strongly is that despite historic times so different to ours today what we discover is much which is familiar.
I have been re-reading the history of the World Alliance of YMCAs by Clarence Prouty first published in 1955. In one of the opening chapters written by Auguste Senaud, he provides an insight on YMCAs before the YMCAs, and the roots of the movement are deep. He identified 195 local ‘YMCAs” between the 16th century and 1850. Many of these “YMCAs’ are rooted in Europe with the history beginning in the Netherlands in 1586 – although I hasten to add that the meetings of young men and women at this time were abandoned as some of the meetings led to disturbances!
In 1628 we hear of meetings in Paris way before such being recorded in England in 1678 and Germany following close by at the turn of the 18th century at Halle and at Wittenberg with the most important societies at Basle. In the 19th century the growth in “YMCA type” organisations grew significantly mainly as forerunners or concurrent with the Religious Revival. This included associations in Scotland, France, Belgium, Italy, The Netherlands (again)! and Switzerland.
What was identified as the early characteristics of these associations was the church, bible reading, study or prayer although many had a moral influence, later social work, including visits to prisoners, the sick and the poor. Two other characteristics, similar to those that have always marked YMCAs is missionary spirit and a will towards Christian unity.
There is no doubt that all these European associations contributed greatly to preparing the ground for the YMCA.
I would say YMCA Europe is one of the founders of the YMCA movement and whilst we may be officially 47 years old, we are really at least 434 years old. Added to the fact that Geneva has been the centre of the World Alliance since the 1850s I think we can safely claim that Europe is at the heart of the YMCA. In Europe the movement has provided incredible social action and support from one generation to the next. This legacy demonstrates the adaptability of the YMCA to respond to the times we live in and shows its relevance even today serving the needs of young people and transforming lives for the better.
The YMCA may not have been the starting point for me as a young person growing up in Wales but I was very involved with the Guide Movement from the age of 7 to my thirties. As a Brownie, then Guide, Ranger then Guide Leader and national representative. I am privileged to hold the Queen’s Guide Award but what I am most grateful for is the way this movement shaped, strengthened and empowered me. I would not be here today had it not been for the formative years I spent camping, volunteering, serving and participating in a movement that gave me so much. Self-confidence, empowerment, education, travel opportunities, friendship, life skills and above all else preparedness. Being Prepared has held me in good stay throughout my life and it is with preparedness that I face you today and confer my commitment to serve you as your new President.
Whilst it may coincidental that YMCA Europe and I share the same birth year (for the avoidance of doubt that is 47 and not 434 years!), reflecting back over that relatively short period of time it is phenomenal just how much Europe has changed.
In my lifetime, I have witnessed the UK joining the EU in 1973, and now shortly to leave, unfortunately. The establishment of the European Parliament in 1979 (the same year Margaret Thatcher became the 1st female British Prime Minister) and the growth of the European Union. Greece, Spain and Portugal joining in the 1980s, Austria, Sweden, Finland and of course a united Germany in the 1990’s. We have just celebrated 30 years of this historic achievement for Europe and the world.
These momentous events heralded a catalyst of major changes in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The formation of new states; Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Russian Federation. Also the Baltic republics (Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia), the Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia) and across the Balkans with new republics of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Kosovo.
By 2020 we see 27 Members in the EU but the YMCA network extends beyond the EU borders. We are not only connected by political or economic bonds but our common mission fulfilling the dream of a united Europe like the French-German father of Europe Robert Schuman said.
Yes, Europe has changed significantly over the last 47 years. Also, the YMCA in Europe has also changed by adapting quickly to new contexts: the EU developments and the birth of new nations in the East. As always in history, the YMCA was there to inspire, unite and create spaces for young people.
We were blessed when YMCA Europe was created and together you have achieved so much:
- Continually respecting our diversity and our cultural and religious roots
- Empowering young people through dozens of trainings and events annually
- The formation of new local YMCAs across the continent: today collectively there are 4,100 local YMCAs
- The creation of a network of 37 national YMCAs
- The foundation of the European Youth Forum with other youth focused organisations
- Becoming a vanguard in Europe through our peace and justice programs
- The organisation and delivery of 4 global events gathering more than 20,000 young people.
Today, YMCA Europe and YMCAs in Europe collectively :
- Delivers over 3,000 projects per year, reaching more than 2 million young people.
- Represents you and your voice at World YMCA and at the main EU institutions
- Advocates on your behalf on socially relevant issues (youth, employment, social inclusion, migration, health, environment & peace).
- As an organisation YMCA Europe is blessed with no governance, management or identity crisis.
- Transitions of leadership have always been smooth.
- And, we are fortunate to have excellent volunteers on our boards and committed staff.
During the last 47 years, we have placed our Seat where it was been most relevant and useful to better support our mission and strategy:
Germany – Switzerland – Czech Republic – and now, Brussels (Belgium) where are have started to raise our profile in the so called “capital of Europe”.
As we edge close to our half-century, what does for the future hold for Europe and YMCA Europe? As your President with a new Executive, we want to find out and we want to serve you and your needs.
We want to build on the legacy of great work that YMCA Europe has already achieved and to embrace change so we continue to be relevant, representative and empowering to our young people. We want to ensure that YMCA Europe is resilient and in relationship with one another.
To uphold the constitutional purpose of YMCA Europe as a working fellowship to strengthen National YMCAs where people grow in body, mind and spirit.
To fulfil the aims of the Association that include:
- Sharing knowledge and learning
- Strengthening and extending the YMCA in Europe
- Working alongside and together with the World Alliance of YMCAs
- Collaborating with each other and other relevant agencies (including the public and private sectors)
- Raising the voice of young people and involving them
Whilst our Constitution established in 1981 provides the bedrock of our purpose and aims, it has its limitations. At nearly 50 years old it reinforces what we are but it tells us little about what we may be.
As William Shakespeare so eloquently puts it “We know what we are. But know not what we may be”
Europe has changed almost beyond recognition in the last 50 years, the pace of change is only set to increase as we face unprecedented challenges:
- The impact of COVID-19 causing a deep health, social and economic crisis
- The uncertain scenario that young people face caused by unemployment and mobility difficulties
- Our environment in danger due to warming climate and pollution
- The increased radicalization of sectors in our societies
- Clashes among cultures and fundamentalism
- Political stability in danger in many of our states and even open conflicts
- Difficulties to integrate newcomers, migrants, refugees and displaced persons
YMCA Europe needs to respond to these challenges and ensure that we continue to fulfil our purpose in serving our young people in body, mind and spirit. For that we will need to be agile, forward thinking and responsive. We need to be resourced to serve the needs of our young people today, tomorrow and into the future.
How we do this and achieve this will be down to us – together we can strengthen our movement through the right internal structures, ways of working, platforms and partnerships. We can create the sustainable movement we need for the 21st Century, unifying the movement and creating collective movement impact.
I am all ears and one of my first key tasks as President is to listen to you, to involve you in shaping the future strategy of your movement and for us all to go on this journey together.
With a new Executive, many of whom themselves are new members we will work together to collectively engage with you and the movement, to get to know your needs, to understand your priorities and to hear what you have to say about YMCA Europe you and how it best serves you.
We will work alongside the established Groups, Committees and with the Staff Team to ensure what we offer and provide is relevant, aligns with your priorities and provides you with the resources you require to better serve young people.
We want young people to be at the heart of our strategic direction setting and its delivery and I reach out to you today to ask you to work collaboratively with us to achieve this. Offering up the young people and work colleagues in your associations who are the destined to be the leaders of tomorrow. To engage with us our we look to shape new programs, resources, training and digital initiatives fit for serving the purposes of the movement.
Brussels will be at the heart of our administrative base, the focal point for strengthening our pan-european relationship with the EU and many of the institutions and charities based there. We will be exploring ways of joint working and shared initiatives to deliver more to our movement, to build greater financial resilience and greater opportunities for the young people we serve.
Our focus will be 360 degrees. Looking inwards, outwards and beyond the horizon. This will include beyond the boundaries of Europe and our relationship with the World Alliance. As Carlos Sanvee leads on the re-setting of the World Alliances’ purpose and place in the movement, I consider it important that YMCA Europe is embedded in this process so the needs of our area are considered and where appropriate incorporated in any global initiatives, funding arrangements and strategic plans.
I know YMCA Europe is an effective learning organisation and we have much to share with the World Alliance by way of good working practices such as our Movement Strengthening Work, Communication tools and spaces, Health Checks, Peace and Reconciliation work and Refugee projects. Working alongside the World Alliance and seeking alignment in our strategic direction should embed our movement unity, sustainability and impact.
So, the question I pose to you today, is what do you want YMCA Europe to be for the Europe you want in the future? To help you I have taken the liberty of asking some of the young people across our movement what they want …. Here are some of their thoughts.
Juan and the Executive Team have prepared a road map and timeline to help us on our journey to determine our strategic direction. What we must ensure is that our destination in terms of a new strategy is anchored in our ambition to empower young people.
We are determined to work closely with the National General Secretaries in this process and to travel together in adopting a new strategy.
I see one of the important aspects of my role as your President is to work alongside, Juan, your committed Secretary General to ensure that we maintain what I call the 4 R’s for YMCA Europe:
- Relevance – to our national movements and to the European society in which we serve, with clarity on why we exist, who we serve and how we advance our cause.
- Representation – to channel the voice of young people and European YMCA Movements to gain collective movement impact
- Relationship – unity in our movement with open and transparent continuous communication and a willingness to collaborate
- Resilience – to be adaptable to change, resourced to serve and viable to withstand uncertainty
I look forward to working with our elected new Executive Committee, our Secretary General, the Staff and all of you across Europe.
A traditional Russian proverb says: “With a helper, a thousand things are possible”. I ask for your help, your cooperation and your support. I am inspired and committed to start this journey. A collective journey that would continue honoring our founders. A journey that will strengthen our movement.
In the words of George Williams: My last legacy and it is a precious one is the Young Men´s Christian Association I leave it to you young men (and women) of many countries to carry on and extend”
Thank you for your support and endorsement to stand as your President, thank you for electing me to serve, I would like to just end with a prayer framed around a favourite bible passage from The Gospel of St John.
This passage is verse 10 from chapter 10 and happens to also be the name of a volunteer programme we run at Exeter YMCA called Ten:10 where young volunteers from across Europe immerse themselves into the life of YMCA Exeter as Interns.
These young people get involved in all aspects of charity life, depending on their personal interests and skills they want to develop. They reside with local Christian host families and they are able to take part in personal, professional and spiritual development opportunities throughout the year. This placement is run in partnership with YMCA Germany and the European Solidarity Corps.
John 10:10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”.
November 20th, 2020