Community leaders push back on closure of South DeKalb YMCA

Supporters of the South DeKalb YMCA gather during a rally decrying its temporary closure on Thursday, March 31, 2021. SPECIAL PHOTO

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Supporters of the South DeKalb YMCA gather during a rally decrying its temporary closure on Thursday, March 31, 2021. SPECIAL PHOTO

YMCA officials say the closure of their South DeKalb branch is temporary, that it’s just for a few months while a “needs assessment” is conducted.

But community leaders and county officials are skeptical of that claim — and outraged that the facility that’s served youngsters, seniors and everyone else in their community for more than three decades may be in peril.

“I don’t care what we have to do,” said Angela Graham, the chairwoman of the South DeKalb YMCA Advisory Board, which was not involved in the decision. “We’re going to take every step there is, with every breath in our body, to try and change this outcome. It’s just a travesty.”

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The YMCA on Snapfinger Road is still open for current youth soccer and basketball seasons, officials said.

But the facility — which was the first Y in metro Atlanta to offer afterschool and early learning programs — otherwise closed to members on Thursday.

In a press release, YMCA officials said the South DeKalb branch has seen dwindling interest.

Between 2011 and 2019, they said, family memberships and adult memberships dropped by 31% and 40%, respectively. Participation in afterschool programs (83%), youth basketball (71%) and youth soccer (63%) also saw dramatic declines.

YMCA of Metro Atlanta CEO Lauren Koontz said a community needs assessment — which will involve gathering input on programming and services from residents, civic groups, churches and others — is necessary to “reinvigorate” the facility.

“Our desire to be both a community anchor and a solution-oriented organization focusing on the needs of South DeKalb residents remains steadfast,” Koontz said in the press release.

Community members and county leaders don’t have an issue with the assessment, which the YMCA expects to be completed by late August or early September. But they feel blindsided, don’t understand why their Y has to close while the assessment is conducted, and question the motives behind it all.

“We not only want the Y to remain open,” said DeKalb County Clerk of Superior Court Debra DeBerry, “but for their Metro YMCA leadership to take a serious look at how their actions and values are misaligned and essentially contributed to the underutilization of the current facility.”

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DeBerry formerly served as chair of the South DeKalb Y’s advisory board. She, local activist Derrick Boazman, DeKalb County Commissioner Larry Johnson and others held a rally earlier this week to protest the closure.

Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson, who’s been a member at the South DeKalb Y for 30 years, also weighed in.

“It would devastate this community if this facility is closed,” she said in an emailed statement. “We must do everything we can to help it remain open.”

YMCA officials said South DeKalb members are welcome at any other branch during the closure. They listed the Wade Walker, East Lake and Decatur locations — all of which are about eight or nine miles away — as potential options.

Graham, the current chair of the South DeKalb Y’s advisory board, said that’s not good enough.

She said the Y is “very important in this African-American community to keep these kids off the streets.” Seniors also depend on the facility for exercise and community, she said; they flock to the pool, to yoga and pilates classes.

“It’s different from other Y’s,” Graham said. “It’s an institution.”