YMCA supports veterans through free membership program

Thu, 05/30/2024 - 10:45am

    About one year ago, the YMCA Alliance of Northern New England (YMCA NNE) partnered with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (USVA) and VA Maine Healthcare System to launch a first-of-its-kind program in the U.S., the YMCA Veterans Membership Program. It provides free access to YMCA programs and facilities to qualifying Maine veterans across the state. As of this April, 310 veterans are enrolled in the program statewide, 13 at Boothbay Region YMCA (BRYMCA), and the program has a waiting list for new enrollments, according to Paige Binfield, YMCA NNE director of development.

    The program began after the Togus VA Medical Center closed its gym and swimming pool during COVID-19 and was unable to reopen post-pandemic. The partnership provides qualified veterans, with a referral from their VA Maine primary care physician, the opportunity to join their local YMCA with the USVA and VA Maine funding their monthly dues. In addition to BRYMCA, 13 other Maine Y’s participated in the program, to ensure veterans have access to fitness facilities.

    Bill Eilers of Wiscasset is a local program participant. He served his first duty assignment in Vietnam in 1967; he supervised construction projects such as airfields, buildings, roads and bridges. Following his service in Vietnam, he was stationed at Pensacola Naval Air Station for two years where he continued to work on construction projects for airfield facilities, training buildings and housing. After his active duty, Eilers joined the Naval Reserve Seabee Battalions and spent two years at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. before retiring with the rank of Commander after 20 years of service. “I attend these (water aerobics) classes five days a week and feel it has been very beneficial to my general health and well-being. I have made many friends there, and met a number of other veterans,” he wrote in an email to the Register. “I would not have continued as actively with the YMCA program if it were not for the people I have met there. It is a very happy group and I think everyone genuinely enjoys the other participants as well as the instructors.”

    Walter Kreppein of Boothbay Harbor joined the Army in 1965 as a mechanic for tanks, trucks and recovery vehicles and at age 19 went to Germany where he served as a driver for officers. Soon after, he led a group of Army drivers spanning Germany and France. After active duty, he served in the reserves and then the National Guard. “I learned about the (YMCA Veterans Membership Program) from my VA physician, and I think this is great and more vets should use it,” he said. “I come for swimming and pickleball.” Kreppein has been a BRYMCA member since 1986 and has seen a lot of improvements over the years, “this facility in particular is wonderful.”

    This program is one of many between the YMCA and the armed services, having enjoyed a long history and evolving relationship since the 1800s. BRYMCA CEO Andy Hamblett has a 1918 poster in his office, of General of Armies John Pershing praising YMCA, and there are five other vintage wartime and veteran reprints, depicting the relationship between the Y and armed services, in the Field House.