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Mark Bennett: Y made a difference in lives decades ago and today | News columns

The needs met by the local Y may change over time, but its basic value remains the same.

It’s a safe place to experience a sense of community.

It was true for Muriel Allen, a newcomer to America in 1946. It was true for the children of healthcare workers during the pandemic.

Brenda Williams, an attorney for the YMCA of Vigo County, described the facility’s care for children during the peak of COVID-19, when parents of essential workers needed a place for their children while these moms and dads were at work.

Terre Haute resident Muriel Allen stands next to the information board describing her first connection to the local YWCA as one of many women who came to the community as immigrant wives of WWII soldiers world.

“There are so many stories that bring tears to your eyes. The kids needed someone, and the Y was that someone,” Williams said.

Williams leads the independent Y Make Waves, a group that works to keep the YMCA pool open and is participating in the Y’s upcoming Inspirational Fundraising Gala on November 5 at the Terre Haute Convention Center. Proceeds from the event, featuring Paralympic Gold Medalist Evan Austin, will fund quality of life programs and child care needs for working families.

Seventy-six years ago, Muriel Allen turned to the Terre Haute YWCA – when this town had both a YMCA and a YWCA – as an immigrant from England. She came to Terre Haute on September 6, 1946, from her hometown of Birmingham, England, to marry Edward Allen, an American serviceman whom Muriel met during World War II.

She was then 20 years old. She had never been away from her parents, had never flown, and had never been to the United States.

So did many of the approximately 20 other young foreign women who responded to an ad in the Terre Haute newspapers, placed by YMCA Executive Director Ernestine McDougal, inviting them to join the brand new Women’s Club. “So we all came in, and she was kind of a mother hen to us,” Muriel said Thursday, standing next to a photo of the brides featured on one of the now 33 information boards. hanging on the hallway wall of the YMCA of Vigo County.

Photo 2 for Bennett's Column for Pat Bringman's Saturday

Pat Bringman stands next to a row of 33 information boards that make up the historical timeline of the YWCA in Terre Haute. She and her husband, Dale, have compiled the local organization’s history for the timeline, which hangs at the YMCA, and a soon-to-be-released book.

These panels include a timeline of local YWCA history, dating back to 1902. Pat and Dale Bringman, a couple from Vigo County, have compiled the timeline and have a new book coming out this fall, “History of the Terre Haute YWCA”. The Bringmans are halfway through a partner book on the history of the Terre Haute YMCA. These two venerable institutions are now, essentially, merged into one as the Vigo County YMCA.

The Bringmans started the project in 2020, after a former Y general manager suggested it and Pat volunteered. She and Dale have taken on the task of preserving a vital piece of Terre Haute’s history. “People who use the Y and walk through it have no idea how long it’s been there and what it means to the community,” Pat said Thursday.

It meant a lot to Muriel Allen and her fellow members of the YWCA Overseas Wives Club in 1946, when the facility was located on North Seventh Street. Besides the local families of their husbands, the women knew little or no other Hauteans. The women came “from all over the world”, says Muriel, now 96 years old. Some spoke other languages. For Muriel, the simple trip to America seemed perilous.

After a short flight from England to France, she boarded a TWA plane for a 12-hour flight to New York. “I sat next to an Italian lady who kept crossing herself,” Muriel said, referring to the religious gesture. “It was a difficult flight.”

A week after reaching Terre Haute, she married Edward, who served in the US Signal Corps and was stationed throughout the war in Smethwick, England, a few miles from Birmingham. They had met at a church social in Birmingham, where Muriel, her sister and her parents lived. “He rode his bike almost every night to see me,” recalls Muriel.

With her united family back in Europe, Muriel found the YWCA group to be a good outlet for making friends. “It was a huge help,” she said. “It gave us all a chance to chat.”

These discussions likely included the community’s reaction to these immigrant women of various nationalities. “A lot of girls said they were welcomed with open arms,” ​​Muriel said, “but not all of them understood that. So, [the YWCA and its wives club] helped with that.

This experience led her to later serve on a YWCA committee and join a seniors swim group at the current Y, located south of Fairbanks Park.

The Vigo County YMCA is a survivor of the ups and downs of the 21st century. The former Sixth and Walnut Street YMCA closed in 2006, a merged Terre Haute Family Y continued in the riverfront building, became the short-lived and unaffiliated Riverbank Family and Fitness Center, then closed tumultuously in December 2010.

“I was upset when it closed,” Muriel said, “because I thought a town this size should have a Y.”

Many thought the same. Thus, the facility reopened as the Vigo County YMCA in May 2012 as an expansion of the Clay County YMCA. Today, these Ys are part of the Wabash Valley YMCA, which also includes Putnam County. The City of Terre Haute owns and maintains the Vigo County YMCA building. In September 2018, it survived another low point, when local YMCA officials closed the pool due to high operational costs. An agreement between the city and the YMCA – pushed by a group of persistent senior swimmers known as Y Make Waves – allowed the aging pool to reopen in January 2020.

The group’s long-term goal is to see a new Y building and pool constructed, Y Make Waves members Brenda Williams and Anita Davis said this month. Such a facility could meet a broader range of residents’ lifelong health and wellness needs, as well as existing programs for children, adults and seniors.

“Terre Haute deserves a viable place for everyone to get their quality of life services,” Williams said.

In the meantime, Y Make Waves is supporting the YMCA of Vigo County Inspirational Gala on November 5th at the convention center. Proceeds will fund quality of life programs and child care needs for working families, Vigo County YMCA Brand Executive Director Nicole Fry explained in a press release. Currently, the Y serves more than 500 children and 800 seniors each year, while 7,000 people are members or participate in Y programs, Fry said.

Three quarters of a century ago, it helped young Muriel Allen as she and Edward began a new life in Terre Haute. She made lifelong friendships. “I lost my last one about a year ago,” Muriel said of her friend June. “She was Australian.”

The Y has made the world a little smaller, friendlier, better then. It’s still possible.