There’s no organization quite like the YMCA
We’ve been proudly honoring our past and serving our community for 150 years.
Seventeen years after the first Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) opened in the U.S., a notice in the Somerville Unionist-Gazette in 1868 announced a public meeting to start a local Y. After the Civil War, YMCAs sprung up across the country to offer housing, spiritual and social support to young men who left their rural homes in search of work. The newspaper notice said a local Y was needed to give young working men something more than “staying home, wandering the streets or resorting to places of questionable repute.” At the time, there was not enough support to begin a YMCA. However, five years later, a different group of men gathered on Aug. 18, 1873, and this time, succeeded in creating the Young Men’s Christian Association of Somerville. Initially, the Y struggled to grow throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century, but its leaders, who believed that shaping the values of young men would shape the values of the nation, persevered.
The YMCA of Somerville began as a religious organization first located at 99 W. Main Street. Its founders were: A. Van Doren Honeyman, an attorney and publisher of the Messenger-Gazette, who was also the Y’s first president; Dumont Frelinghuysen, Rev. A.R. Shaw, H.P. Mason and F.K. Van Liew. Membership numbered about 100. The group was proud to be one of few Ys of its time to admit women as associate members.
As the Y expanded its mission, it relocated around 1875 to Association Hall at 15-17 W. Main Street, where it had space to offer monthly socials, recreation and education.
In 1895, the Y moved to a 15-room house so it could offer rooms to young working men for a few dollars a night, and provide classes, lectures and even job referrals. By 1900, however, the YMCA of Somerville could not afford the rental home and had to relinquish it. The organization began to falter.
In 1914, leaders from the state YMCA were asked to revitalize the organization. After a rousing speech at a Somerville church on Nov. 23, 1914 on the need to mold young men into the next generation of leaders, a group of clergymen, elected officials, school officials and other local leaders voted to form the Somerset County Young Men’s Christian Association. The group appointed committee members from Somerville, Bedminster, Bound Brook, Raritan, North Plainfield, South Branch, Belle Mead, Rocky Hill, Basking Ridge and Bernardsville.
Between World War I and World War II, the new Y flourished as the surrounding area experienced tremendous industrial and residential growth. As the Y nationally expanded its focus in 1926 to serving families, the county YMCA’s programs also expanded. Services ranged from providing health and recreational programs to camping experiences for children to classes aimed at helping new immigrants gain citizenship.
Following World War II, a fundraising campaign to construct a new YMCA didn’t succeed. But, with camp as a cornerstone of YMCA programming, the Y in 1942 used the money it had raised to buy Camp Yomenca residential camp near Dingman’s Ferry, PA.
Six years later, in 1948, the sale of Yomenca resulted in a rift that divided the county YMCA into two autonomous organizations, Somerset Hills YMCA and Somerset Valley YMCA.
Somerset Hills YMCA serving northern Somerset County, was headquartered in Bernardsville and Somerset Valley YMCA, serving communities to the south, was in Somerville. Neither Y had a permanent home. Somerset Hills YMCA had moved from Dodd Realty into a shared a building with the American Red Cross, then relocated into the donated Mill Street Firehouse. Somerset Valley YMCA operated out of rented facilities in churches, clubs and schools.
With an estimated 11,000 boys and girls in its service area in need of a place for crafts, hobbies, swimming lessons, and exercise, according to a newspaper account in 1958, Somerset Valley YMCA launched a capital campaign to raise money for a new building with a swimming pool. By 1960, the new Y was standing at the corner of North Bridge and Green Streets where it is located today.
The Somerset Hills area was growing too, and local leaders wanted to offer more for children and families. On 17 acres of land it acquired, the Y began to build the Engelhard Pool in 1967, which opened in 1973 for swim lessons and a swim team. A capital campaign was later initiated to build an adult fitness center, a gymnastics facility, a gymnasium and a child care center on the same site.
Both Ys thrived into the 21st century. Somerset Valley YMCA acquired the Bridgewater municipal pool in 1985, which became Bridgewater YMCA and, in 1999, built Hillsborough YMCA, which expanded its footprint in the county. While in the early 2000s, Somerset Hills YMCA expanded to meet growing community needs.
In 2014, with vacancies in key leadership positions at Somerset Valley YMCA and a trend toward shared services sweeping through many YMCA associations, the two Ys entered into a management agreement and began to explore opportunities that would allow them to better serve Somerset County communities into the future. In October 2014, the Board of Directors of both Ys voted unanimously to merge. The reunited association became effective on January 1, 2015. With strength in leadership focused on fiscal responsibility and a culture of philanthropy, the association continued to thrive and grow with expanded programs and services that best serve all residents of Somerset County. The association rapidly gained status as a leading YMCA in the state of New Jersey.
In 2017, Plainfield Area YMCA expressed an interest in exploring partnership opportunities with Somerset County YMCA. Since 1877, Plainfield Area YMCA had been dedicated to serving the Plainfield community through housing, wellness, recreational and child care programs among other services. However, as a result of years of financial challenges, deferred maintenance and an aging facility that was no longer meeting programmatic needs, Plainfield Area YMCA made the courageous decision to sell the facility and engaged Somerset County YMCA to continue vital Y programs in the community. The Plainfield Area YMCA facility was sold in 2018. With the collective support of both Board of Directors, Somerset County YMCA launched programs in Plainfield beginning with after school child care in December of 2018. In February 2019, Somerset County YMCA received a charter from Y-USA for Plainfield YMCA, and opened a new home for the branch at 504 Madison Avenue in Plainfield.
Greater Somerset County YMCA now serves nearly 30,000 members in Basking Ridge, Bedminster, Bernardsville, Bound Brook, Branchburg, Bridgewater, Far Hills, Franklin, Green Brook, Hillsborough, Manville, Millington, Montgomery, Peapack-Gladstone, Plainfield, Raritan, Somerville, Warren and Watchung. From its early days supporting and guiding young men spiritually, intellectually and physically to today’s mission to strengthen the foundations of community through youth development, healthy living and social responsibility, the Y has grown and expanded for more than 140 years to meet the unique needs of the communities it serves.
As a nonprofit organization committed to strengthening community, Greater Somerset County YMCA provides direct financial assistance to support local individuals who struggle financially, physically and emotionally to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to learn, grow and thrive. Additionally, the Y offers subsidized mission-based programs and services that meet ever-changing community needs.
Greater Somerset County YMCA is here for the community.
- During the late 1880s and 1890s, student YMCAs were organized on college campuses throughout the United States. In 1908, Princeton University professor Dr. Walter Mead Rankin founded the YMCA Town Club located at 16 Witherspoon Street. A reflection of the social mores of the time, the Town Club served only the white community.
- At about the same time, several men in Princeton’s thriving African American community began meeting for educational, social and religious activities. They met at Douglas Hall, located on the corner of Witherspoon and Maclean Streets, in what was previously the Witherspoon School for Colored Children. They also met in a basement room of the house where Paul Robeson, the noted black actor, singer and orator, was born.
- In 1912, the Town Club opened a branch known as the Witherspoon YMCA whose purpose was the religious, mental, social and physical development of Princeton’s African American men and boys. The Witherspoon YMCA was located in a building at 102 Witherspoon Street and offered courses in English, arithmetic and bookkeeping, as well as weekly lectures by university professors.
- Initially, its board of directors was comprised of white members of the business and academic community. By the early 1920s, the organization was directed by African American members of the community with chairman Howard Waxwood, Sr. at the helm. Other local prominent leaders were Albert Hinds and George Reeves, Sr.
The 1920s, 30s and 40s
- During the 1920s, 30s and 40s, the Witherspoon YMCA became a vital part of the African-American community in Princeton. It offered a wide range of activities from religious classes to educational opportunities to debate groups, musical groups, and recreational activities for men and boys
- In 1923, the Federation of Town and Country YMCAs of Mercer County was formed in Trenton to enlarge the scope of the YMCA’s work in Mercer County. Among the groups organized at that time was a Princeton YMCA branch, which met at various locations throughout Princeton. This branch operated in addition to the Witherspoon YMCA.
1950s – The YM-YWCA Building
- As YMCA programs and membership increased at Dorothea’s House, it became clear that the YMCA needed its own facility. With the Princeton YWCA also facing the need for its own building, the YMCA and the YWCA agreed to establish a joint corporation named the Princeton YMCA/YWCA. Together they conducted a fund-raising campaign to build a facility on Avalon Place.
- The building campaign called for raising $750,000. The YMCA contributed 4 ¾ acres it had purchased from the van Dyke estate located next to Dorothea’s House and the YWCA contributed $40,000.
- In October 1958, the new YM-YWCA building opened. It included a social and program wing featuring meeting rooms and administrative offices. The pool was completed in June 1959 and became the first public pool built in Princeton that was integrated. At the dedication ceremony of the new facility on November 26, 1958, New Jersey Governor Robert B. Meyner described the new Princeton YM-YWCA building as a “tremendous stride towards bringing the youth of all races together.”
1960s and 70s
- With the opening of the new facility in 1958, the Princeton YMCA expanded its programs and membership significantly. Recreational and instructional swimming was conducted in the new pool and a Flying Fish Club competitive swim team was organized. The Y offered sports such as track, touch football, archery, baseball, tennis, tumbling and basketball. There were coed social activities, HI-Y Clubs for boys in grades 6-8, Junior Leaders Club, Toddler Club for 3-5 year olds, radio club, wrestling and horseback riding.
- Though the new facility on Avalon Place allowed for increased program opportunities and membership, the YMCA continued to use Dorothea’s House for some administrative and program activities. The Princeton YWCA also felt cramped in its program development. In the early 70s, the YMCA/YWCA launched a capital fund drive with the purpose of raising $1,600,000 to add several new parts to the existing building: a gymnasium adjacent to the pool, meeting rooms, nursery rooms, and administrative space for the YWCA. The YMCA raised an additional $200,000 for the cost of building a health club. The Dodge Gymnasium (named in honor of the Dodge family) and the Mathey Health Center (named in memory of Dean Mathey) was dedicated in 1972.
- One of the most popular activities at the YMCA for teenagers in the 1960s and 70s was a program started in 1962 called Youth Speaks Up created by volunteer Herb Hobler. The program offered teenagers from 27 high schools in Central New Jersey the opportunity to operate their own weekly radio program on WHWH, the local radio station. The students wrote and produced their own program, which featured interviews with public figures. The program won several national and state awards.
- The Princeton YMCA was fortunate over the years to have many dedicated members of the community serving on its board of directors, committees, and fund-raising campaigns. These men and women have devoted long hours to supporting the mission of the YMCA—to enrich the spirit, mind and body and improve the quality of life for people in Princeton and the surrounding communities.
- The Executive Club, an auxiliary group that enlists the help of local executives and civic leaders in raising funds and promoting the mission of the Princeton YMCA, was founded in 1961. The annual dinner features a keynote speaker and over the years, the list of featured speakers has grown long with prominent names including CEOs, writers, university presidents, journalists, economists, political figures and other luminaries. The evening’s proceeds continue to benefit YMCA youth programs.
1980s and 90s
- In the early 1980s, the Princeton YMCA started offering full facility memberships to women, and women were elected to the board of directors for the first time. The YMCA became a destination for the entire family.
- Although health and wellness have always been central to the YMCA mission, in the 80s and 90s there was renewed interest in healthy living. The YMCA rededicated itself to helping people of all backgrounds achieve their personal fitness goals by adding sports and wellness programs to its offerings.
- Childcare became a vital part of YMCA programs to meet the changing needs of families as women joined the workforce. No longer just a club that met a few times a week, the child care program increased to include full-day programs for children eight weeks to five years old. After school programs and holiday camp became available for children in grades K-8.
- The 90s brought a renewed commitment to the Judeo-Christian principles on which the YMCA was founded. The YMCA’s four Core Values – Caring, Honesty, Respect and Responsibility – were introduced. These values are what distinguish the YMCA and shape it as one of the community’s most important sources of social capital, making neighborhoods safer, schools better, and people healthier.
In the 21st Century
Today our YMCA is more committed than ever to achieving our mission as community needs change and evolve. With a focus on three program emphases, our YMCA aims:
- To inspire and support the “health seeker” – the person who looks for fellowship and support among others who share a mutual goal of living a healthy, holistic lifestyle.
- To be the place where today’s busy families find a network of people and programs dedicated to helping them grown strong.
- To serve as a coalition-builder among young people who wish to serve their communities, and practice values of charity and philanthropy.
As we have for a century, our YMCA is committed to ensuring access to all who seek it, regardless of ability to pay. In the last decade, more than $1 million has been awarded to children and families in need.
Together, For a Better Us
Beginning March 1, 2022, Princeton YMCA is now a branch of Greater Somerset County YMCA alongside Bridgewater YMCA, Franklin Twp YMCA, Hillsborough YMCA, Plainfield YMCA, Somerset Hills YMCA, and Somerville YMCA.
Why a merger?
GSCY has a strong track record of successful mergers and integrations as well as an established and highly effective governance and staff leadership structure already in place to support a multi-branch association.
The combined resources and traditions of our new, larger YMCA association will:
- Enhance our ability to accomplish and strengthen our mission and best serve the youth and families in our communities for years to come through quality Y programs and services
- Bolster our capacity to strategically grow mission impact programs throughout the region to effectively support underserved communities
How does this impact the Princeton YMCA’s work in the Princeton community?
Princeton YMCA will continue to offer its full range of mission-based programs and services, as well as collaborate with community partners.
The Princeton YMCA will also continue its alliance with organizations it has a longstanding history of supporting.
And, as has always been the custom with Greater Somerset County YMCA, your gift designated for Princeton YMCA will continue to directly support our communities. Because, when you make a gift, you’re not giving TO the Y – you’re giving THROUGH the Y directly to the local neighbors who need it most.
What will the new leadership structure look like?
- David M. Carcieri, President and CEO of Greater Somerset County YMCA, has been leading both organizations’ operations since a management agreement between our organizations as of October 2021
- Kate Bech, has transitioned from her role as CEO of Princeton Family YMCA to a senior leadership role within the Association, Vice President of Mission Advancement, dedicated to maintaining key relationships in the community and capital campaign fundraising necessary to sustain the Y mission locally
- Paul Zeger, former Operations Executive, is now Branch Executive Director of Princeton YMCA
Why did our name change?
Our Board of Directors voted to align with the more universally inclusive “Princeton YMCA” branch naming structure adopted by our new sister branches. We are truly for all in the community and this shorter community-based name better reflects that belief.
What does this mean for our members?
Like all members of Greater Somerset County YMCA, Princeton YMCA members will now enjoy full facility and program access at all GSCY branches, including Bridgewater YMCA, Hillsborough YMCA, Somerset Hills YMCA, and Somerville YMCA. Similarly, members at other GSCY facilities are invited to visit Princeton YMCA and experience familiar programs and services as well as those unique to our branch, including our fencing program.