Adam Foster (left), executive director of the Manchester Family Y, and Lisa Ramirez, senior vice president of community impact for the Greater Richmond YMCA, outside the Chesterfield facility's new welcome center
It’s natural for Lisa Ramirez to relate to newly settled residents who visit one of the branches operated by the YMCA of Greater Richmond.
Not so long ago, she was one of them.
In October 2016, Ramirez met Tim Joyce, then-CEO of the local YMCA, at a conference in San Antonio, Texas. Joyce talked about metro Richmond’s growing diversity and Ramirez spoke of her community outreach work on behalf of the YMCA in San Antonio, which has a population that’s about 68% Latino.
Their conversation clearly stuck with Joyce, who called Ramirez the following month and asked if she’d ever consider relocating to the Richmond area.
“Sure, why not?” replied Ramirez.
She visited Richmond for the first time the week before Christmas and stayed for four days. When she got back to Texas, there was a job offer waiting.
Ramirez accepted and started in her new role as the YMCA of Greater Richmond’s vice president of operations in 2017. She was named senior vice president of community impact last July.
Not long after Ramirez’s arrival, the organization embarked on an ambitious plan to improve facilities in Chesterfield, Richmond and Petersburg.
It launched a $5 million renovation of the Manchester Family YMCA, located on Hull Street Road in northeastern Chesterfield, in February 2020. Despite significant construction delays due to COVID-19, the project is heading toward the finish line – including a new welcome center, at the entrance of the 35,000-square-foot building, that soon will be open to the public.
“It was a vision from our leadership, both staff and volunteers, of how this was going to happen,” said Ramirez, standing in the still-unfinished space last month. “I was very fortunate to be invited to come be part of it.”
Adam Foster, executive director of the Manchester Y, noted it has been “a three-year-plus journey” to take the welcome center from concept to reality.
The YMCA of Greater Richmond originally envisioned the center functioning much like similar facilities in other parts of the country: primarily serving Chesterfield’s growing immigrant community with English as a Second Language classes, helping them resolve any paperwork issues and secure a driver’s license, etc.
After it formed a volunteer task force with representatives from local government, nonprofits and the business community, the project evolved into a welcome center for all residents – not only those who are new to the area.
“To align with our mission, we want this to be for everybody who needs it,” Foster said.
Through the welcome center, the YMCA aims to facilitate collaboration between local nonprofits and agencies that support what Ramirez calls “the social determinants of health”: food, housing, transportation, bridging the language barrier, workforce development and adult education.
“We want to create a sense of belonging for anyone who walks through our doors: You’re welcome here and we can help you,” she said. “The YMCA is acting as the connector and the convener so we don’t duplicate anybody else’s work. We can’t be the end-all, be-all, but working in partnership with the county and other nonprofits, we can fill the gaps.”
According to Dalila Medrano, multicultural community engagement coordinator for Chesterfield’s Citizen Information and Resources Department, the county has been part of the YMCA’s welcome center task force since its formation.
“It has been really motivating to know this space will be available because the calls and emails I often get are from nonprofits that want to expand into Chesterfield,” she said. “From the county’s perspective, being able to champion that collaboration is something we want to have a part in. That aligns with our goals.”
Chesterfield’s population has grown increasingly diverse over the past two decades, to the point that local school leaders now report that more than 100 different languages are spoken by students in county schools and their families.
Noting that many low-income residents don’t have transportation to get from their homes to one specific facility, the YMCA’s goal is to eventually expand the “welcome center” concept to its entire greater Richmond footprint.
That doesn’t necessarily mean additional brick-and-mortar construction; rather, by utilizing the organization’s social needs navigators to perform community outreach – particularly in areas identified as “resource deserts” – and build a network for residents to access services at all YMCA branches.
“Maybe the hub of this starts as a welcome center at the Manchester Y, but how do we then expand it and create a welcome center without walls?” Foster said. “How are we being relevant and responsive to the needs of our community? We know in order to be super-impactful and really lead the charge with our welcome center, we need to do it right.
“We’re not nearly done,” he added. “This is just the beginning.”
Elena Diaz Cupeles, a social needs navigator for the YMCA of Greater Richmond, works in the welcome center at the Manchester Family Y