Introduction by John Ahmann, President and CEO of Westside Future Fund

This week’s guest columnist is Lauren Koontz, President & CEO of the Metro Atlanta YMCA.  Her column is about an incredible new asset in Vine City, the YMCA’s new Leadership and Learning Center.  In explaining the role of the Westside Future Fund (WFF), I often use the frame that WFF’s purpose is leading the development of an “ecosystem that disrupts the cycle of poverty.”  For me, the word “ecosystem” speaks to the scale of the placed-based effort across four historic neighborhoods represented by six neighborhood associations. “Ecosystem” also captures that this is a big collective effort involving many different organizations.  A primary role of WFF is ensuring/supporting impact partners across the WFF’s four impact strategies: mixed-income communities; cradle-to-career education; community health & wellness and safety and security. The YMCA and its new facility is foundational to the success of the cradle-to-career impact strategy, and thus the overall “ecosystem.”  Children attending the new Arthur M. Blank Early Learning Center at E.A. Ware will matriculate into the Hollis Innovation Academy, “ready to learn,” and have a much higher probability of strong academic outcomes.  On behalf the WFF, we are grateful to the donors and leaders of the YMCA who have made possible this spectacular new facility in Vine City.  Congratulations also to Lauren who was recently named as President/CEO of the YMCA. She is an outstanding leader, and I am grateful she and her team will be our neighbor and link arms to help develop a community Dr. King would be proud to call home.

The YMCA Leadership & Learning Center

After more than 160 years of serving our city, the YMCA of Metro Atlanta is thrilled to celebrate the opening of an exciting and innovative new addition to Atlanta’s Westside in Vine City. The YMCA Leadership & Learning Center officially opened its doors in April 2019. With a focus on creating and delivering innovative, research-based programs, the Center is a place that serves, empowers, and improves the community in the areas of early learning, youth development, training and professional development, health and wellness, and community building.

Throughout the Center, we honor the legacy of past leaders who left a special mark on our facility: Edmund Asa Ware, Bishop Frederick D. Jordan, and Dr. Ruth Hall Hodges. Our early learning center honors E.A. Ware, Atlanta University’s first president, who originated the idea of a university to train educators, and for whom the site’s elementary school was later named. The outdoor pavilion will retain its name of Jordan Hall to honor Bishop Frederick D. Jordan, a former head of the AME Church and a benefactor to Morris Brown College, which converted the E.A. Ware School to one of its campus classrooms. And a gallery space in the early learning center is named in honor of Dr. Ruth Hall Hodges, who was instrumental in bringing arts programming to the Westside. 

The Chick-fil-A Foundation Training Center, which opened in May 2019, serves as a hub for innovative professional development and staff training for those in early learning, afterschool, health and wellness, and more. Supporting workforce development and economic mobility for all individuals, in addition to those employed at the Y, the training center will feature two of the Y’s signature training programs: our Child Development Associate (CDA) credential program and You Are the Promise. 

Through our CDA program, offered at no cost to participants, we help up to 50 individuals each year launch careers as early learning educators, with a focus on enrolling those who may not have the financial means to pursue traditional higher education. Classes are delivered in partnership with Westside Works [Link to CDA Training Sign Up on WW’s site and United Way at the training center. After completing the program, graduates receive support to secure employment at a local YMCA or another early learning program as well as resources that connect them to higher education and scholarship opportunities.

You Are the Promise ensures that all early learning providers on the Westside have access to the training and resources they need to prepare children for kindergarten through professional development and training opportunities offered to 40+ early learning centers on the Westside on a range of topics, from safety and Bright From the Start compliance to implementing literacy and STEAM programs. You Are the Promise is offered at no cost with the ultimate goal of preparing all children on Atlanta’s Westside to enter kindergarten on a path to academic success. 

In addition to these two feature programs, as a Y-USA Regional Training Partner, the Y will deliver professional development for more than 4,000 Y employees from across the Southeast through the onsite regional training program. The training center is also available for use by community organizations. 

The state-of-the-art Arthur M. Blank Early Learning Center at E.A. Ware, opening in early September 2019 for the start of the new school year, will empower approximately 90 low-income children from the community to start kindergarten on track for long-term academic success. Designed with experts in the field and with an intentional focus on maximizing interactive, hands-on learning, the early learning center will also feature Y signature programs—Read Right from the Start, Start For Life, and STEAM education—while fostering social connectedness and collaboration among teachers, students, parents, and the community. It will serve as a model early learning program for our other centers and will play a key role in our training program for teachers. The Arthur M. Blank Early Learning Center joins the Y’s two additional early learning centers on the Westside, Dean Rusk Early Learning Center and Chattahoochee Early Learning Center. 

Learning for students continues outside of the classroom in the Delta Air Lines Outdoor Exploration Area, completed in July 2019. This unique, interactive environment incorporates adaptive play spaces, water play areas, music, and more, giving children the opportunity for immersive play in nature. The original Jordan Hall, preserved as a pavilion, provides a covered space for STEAM activities for early learners as well as community gathering opportunities and outdoor learning activities for older children, teens, and adults in the community. 

The Center also includes the Kaiser Permanente Community Wellness Center, set to open in fall 2019. This space will host health promotion and wellness outreach for the community. Additionally, opening in spring 2020, the community market—Market on Maple—and café will provide free wi-fi, healthy food and beverage options, as well as a farmer’s market, for surrounding neighborhoods.

The YMCA Leadership & Learning Center will be a hub for learning, growing, and connecting, and it demonstrates our long-standing pledge to meet the needs of the city, to anchor a community, and to invest in Atlanta’s children. We are especially grateful for the generous community donors that supported bringing this vision to life in Vine City, and our committed and valued partners who help us accomplish life-changing work each day. Through collaborations with friends like United Way, Westside Works, Westside Future Fund, Good Samaritan Health Center, Open Hand/Good Measure Meals, Trust for Public Land, the colleges of the Atlanta University Center, the YWCA, and others, we look forward to the pioneering work that will take place at the Center because of the community’s investments. 

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