OUR NEIGHBORS WHO NEED OUR HELP STORY CATHY PADILLA
Mel O’Neal (in Jets Jersey), Kason Jackson (former youth member, now school teacher and YMCA Volunteer), Ashley Biddle Clerical Assistant (Black shirt #23) and Roxanne Chase Program Coordinator (Orange shirt with mask on top of her head)
When I was told to do a story on the youth outreach program at the Freehold YMCA I immediately thought of the expansive location on East Freehold Road, officially called the YMCA of Western Monmouth County. If you’ve been there, you know it’s a great facility with a gym, pools, weight rooms, classrooms, offices – everything you think of when you think ‘fitness club’. But what I didn’t know, and you may not know either, is there is another YMCA in Freehold. Across town in the Boro, there is a smaller, more modest location, with a dedicated staff who are very sincere in connecting with the youth in the area in the most positive way. It’s the Freehold Boro YMCA Community Center, and it’s not a fitness center - but it does have a story worth telling. Housed in a former rug mill, the Boro Y does not have a gym, pool, or fitness center. It opened seventeen years ago as a satellite of the Western Monmouth location and is run by Executive Branch Director Mel O’Neal, a dedicated and passionate man committed to changing lives at the center he refers to as a mission. Shoni Hickman, assistant director, Roxanne Chase, program coordinator, and Ashley Biddle, clerical assistant, run the center with Mel with the help of volunteers and the kindness and generosity of donors. And their purpose? Help youth and the community however and wherever they can. A conversation with Mel reveals how much the center is the focus of his life and how much need exists. He explains the irony of the center being housed in the rug mill, how the mill closing in the late 1970s caused an economic crisis 54
Shoni Hickman, Freehold Boro YMCA Community Center Assistant Director, with a family at the Y’s Halloween Party
in the Boro, and how the immediate community is still recovering. The dreams and hopes of the area children fuel the focus of the YMCA staff and volunteers, and they exhibit unyielding hope in making a difference. “We give inspiration and guidance to a youthful population who is depending on us without even realizing they’re depending on us,” Mel shares. “We rely on people who are genuine and sincere about helping youth become the best versions of themselves.” Help comes by way of after school programs focused on homework first and then activities to keep the kids off the street and engaged in positive behaviors. Basketball, ping pong, chess, and golf are coupled with literacy, community service, a model UN program, youth and government, and an Achiever’s Club dedicated to college preparedness. Helping the children grow into well-rounded, educated, caring adults is the underlying purpose in every program. The center is always looking for funding, but it’s also in need of volunteers to help run the many programs. But it’s not just about serving the community or providing a place for at-risk youth. Mel sees himself in the youth that he serves and explains that the YMCA youth, staff, and volunteers are a family; a bonded group of people brought together to help a population of youth not only survive, but thrive. One of the needs provided is a gift for each child at Christmas to ensure that the Y’s youth members know that the YMCA sincerely cares. What struck me most, perhaps a result of my own naiveté, is that
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in the heart of Monmouth County, right next door to some of the most affluent neighborhoods, there are kids struggling with hunger, poverty, and a lack of basic needs. The stories Mel shared are sad to retell, and heartbreaking to know. Perhaps the most poignant was of a young man brought to the center by the local police because they didn’t know where else to take him. His mother, who desired a better life for her son and stressed the importance of education, was in a fatal car accident and the police brought the young man to Mel at the YMCA due to Mel’s relationship with the young man and his family. Mel made arrangements at home for the young man until the grandparent who lived out-of-state could be reached. Now when I drive through Freehold on my way to the mall, or am out with friends enjoying cocktails on Main Street, I can’t help but think of the Freehold Boro YMCA and all that is being done to literally save lives and give hope and a future to the many young people who pass through the doors of the center. I worry about the poverty in Africa, and support the efforts in Haiti and other third world countries never having realized something similar is happening a few blocks from where I shop and dine, and only a few miles from where I live. Eye-opening and humbling, a mission of hope has been quietly doing its best for the past seventeen years and most of us didn’t even know it was there or that it is so needed. If you would like more information, or are in a position to help financially or with the gift of your time, please contact Mel at 732.845.5273 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A local magazine highlighting events and residents in Monmouth County, NJ.