It started with a Zoom class. Shelby Saylor remembers shutting the doors to the YMCA of Greater Houston on March 17, 2020, as the threat of the coronavirus pandemic surged across the city. Like the rest of the world, the executive director of healthy living had no idea when the YMCA would reopen to its community.
"How do we reach our friends and our community in a time where they are isolated and maybe a little lost?" asked Saylor.
Using a webcam, the staff at YMCA of Greater Houston began recording videos and supportive content for members within the early days of the pandemic.
"We were more concerned with getting a product out there because it was needed, and then we iterated for quality," she says.
Over time, the concept of digital programming evolved into HTX+, the YMCA of Greater Houston's new on-demand virtual platform with fitness and wellness courses and resources for all ages.
The platform has emerged at a time when digital resources have become a necessity for people to work and live. The YMCA has been a long-held bastion of community outreach, making its resources accessible to all and working to eradicate inequalities. The virtual service emerged as a solution for addressing food insecurity, racial inequities, health disparities, social isolation, and learning gaps from afar.
"It was a two-pronged process," explains Shelby. "We had to serve the immediate needs...so we looked at the gaps in our communities as well as the gaps from closing out brick-and-mortar for a period of time," she says.
From there, the YMCA answered another question: "What gaps can we fill once we are at 100 percent capacity?"
"People are going to come back at different levels," says Saylor. She describes her own uneasiness going into a crowded grocery store and feeling her heart race. "It's going to take some time [for people] to unlearn some of that social isolation," she anticipates.
HTX+ includes fitness, mindfulness, virtual personal training, and educational resources members can access from anywhere. Saylor feels the platform, available on the Houston YMCA app and online, will help enhance the Y experience even after the pandemic. She notes the interactive platform can supplement members' in-person workouts and also provide the connection to those who are not yet comfortable returning to the facility.
"It has tremendously grown with webinars where you can ask questions and be a part of more than just the content that we're all used to consuming right now," she says.
One offering that has helped members at the YMCA handle the onslaught of pandemic stress is meditations. Saylor, who says she typically prefers to be behind the camera, was proud to step out of her comfort zone to teach a midday meditation.
Programs targeted to different age groups, from children to seniors, have helped provide resources and tools to two generations with unique needs.
"I'm really proud of our ability to find stuff for younger members because there is just not that much out there," she says. The HTX Kids program has evolved to include STEM activities, sports, crafts, and learning. "Seeing all come to fruition from one Zoom video to where it is now—I couldn't be more proud," she continued.
YMCA Virtual Personal Training www.youtube.com
ForeverWell, a program for members ages 55 and up, has also expanded digital opportunities to members.
"We focus on things that maybe younger communities don't have to tackle beyond your social isolation but as well as activities of daily living, balance and things they can do that will improve how they can move around, stay healthy, and stay connected," says Saylor.
The YMCA's mission to provide health equity also helps communities that are disproportionately impacted by disasters like the pandemic and recent winter storm. The organization has set up food drives and even put warming centers in place during Winter Storm Uri.
"That's what makes us not a gym. We're going to open our facility for you to come and get a hot shower, unlike a big box gym. We're going to do that because it's not about fitness; it's about making sure basic needs are met," says Saylor.
Saylor knows that communities of color as well as the senior population, who may be on a restricted income, can benefit from the tool.
"It really helps them become stronger, healthier, and attach to something. That connectedness is worth its weight in gold," she says.
The YMCA of Greater Houston adds content to HTX+ on a weekly basis, and Saylor says programming will continue to grow long after the pandemic.
"Now that people have been exposed and have integrated digital into their life, regardless of when the pandemic ends, I believe that will always be a part of our new way of life," she says.
"Digital is never final. It's going to take our whole team and our whole community to work together to continue to meet those digital needs because it's not going anywhere," she continues.