Student research validates community-building efforts of San Diego YMCA

July 16, 2015

The location of the newly opened Copley-Price Family YMCA brings together community members of diverse backgrounds. (Photo courtesy of Price Philanthropies)

By Matthew Kredell

A detailed report produced by Master of Public Policy students at the USC Price School of Public Policy validated that a Price Philanthropies partnership with a YMCA in San Diego is having the intended effect of bringing people of diverse backgrounds together to participate in programs that emphasize youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.

The new, state-of-the-art Copley-Price Family YMCA facility opened in January — moving from its central location in the working-class neighborhood of City Heights to a spot that borders the middle-class communities of Kensington and Talmadge.

Professor Gary Painter, director of social policy at the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation, noted that, “Price Philanthropies’ creative and contrarian siting strategy demonstrates how public and private sector leaders can help diverse communities grow together while providing needed services.”

“At a time of extreme socioeconomic stratification, the model holds hope for helping us find common ground and ameliorating the consequences of isolation that affect us all, but fall hardest on children living in concentrated poverty,” he added.

Price Philanthropies, which has worked with and within City Heights for many years to improve quality of life in the neighborhood, donated the land for the YMCA after noticing documented health disparities between residents of City Heights and the greater San Diego County population.

“I can honestly say that the Copley-Price YMCA is one of the best investments our foundations have ever made,” said Robert Price, president and CEO of Price Philanthropies. “This is an investment that will serve communities of Mid-City San Diego for many years into the future.”

Impact beyond the classroom

Robert Price with students Stephanie Hedt, Erica Bangerter, Jianxui Xu and Daniel Hanaya

Robert Price with students Stephanie Hedt, Erica Bangerter, Jianxui Xu and Daniel Hanaya

As part of the Policy Analysis Practicum course under the direction of Professor Painter, students Erica Bangerter, Daniel Hanaya, Stephanie Hedt and Jianxui Xu spent two semesters producing a baseline assessment of community representation and health indicators for the Copley-Price Family YMCA.

“What we do in the course is have students engage on a project in which a client is trying to address a social problem with creative solutions often through cross-sector partnerships,” Painter said. “This particular engagement with Price Philanthropies and the YMCA is a great partnership between a nonprofit and philanthropy to address the challenge of social connectivity between lower-income and higher-income communities, while at the same time providing a mechanism to improve health outcomes.”

The students utilized preexisting datasets, surveyed and interviewed members at the YMCA to understand their perceptions and experiences with the Copley-Price Family YMCA, and conducted demographic analysis to determine whether membership reflected the three communities that the YMCA borders.

Despite only moving about a mile from the Copley YMCA’s previous location on a cul-de-sac in City Heights, the Copley-Price Family YMCA has already more than tripled the membership of its predecessor thanks to the location on the major thoroughfare of El Cajon Boulevard, improved facilities and marketing. Most of the new members come from City Heights, by far the biggest and more densely populated of the communities, but the wealthier neighborhoods of Talmadge and particularly Kensington experienced an increase in membership share as well.

The students’ analysis of seven weeks of check-in data showed an overlap of community representation during peak hours, suggesting the potential for members from different communities to interact. In the first month since the new location’s opening, 18% of those interviewed said they had made friends with members from outside their neighborhood.

“One of the strengths of the USC Price MPP program is it provides students with the tools and methods necessary for analyzing various types of data,” Hedt said. “In this project, we were able to take qualitative data from interviews and surveys quantitative data we had from the YMCA to create a more comprehensive baseline assessment. We also provided Price Philanthropies and the YMCA with usable tools so they could re-evaluate the impact of the YMCA in the future.”

Ideas in action

A group of Somali women visit the Copley-Price Family YMCA's pool (Photo courtesy of Price Philanthropies)

A group of Somali women visit the Copley-Price Family YMCA’s pool. (Photo courtesy of Price Philanthropies)

Becky Modesto, director of university relations for Price Philanthropies, said the foundation plans to return to the YMCA in the next year or two to follow up on the interviews done by the USC students to see if efforts have helped members make more connections with people from various communities.

“The USC students were great to work with, and very responsive in tailoring the research to answer some of the questions in which we were particularly interested,” Modesto said. “They worked with multiple clients, and even when hit with curve balls they were able to work through that in a short amount of time to analyze data in a way useful to the Y and a confirmation on Price efforts.”

The report recommended more robust data collection, analysis and internal evaluation; more group programming during peak hours when there is the highest equitable overlap of communities; the addition of health and wellness programming; and community-focused marketing and outreach.

Courtney Harrness, executive manager at the Copley-Price Family YMCA, said he already is implementing some of the student recommendations. Responding to feedback indicating that it was difficult to make connections during group exercise classes, he has added activities tailored for a social aspect.

He is also in the process of implementing a recommendation from the report to utilize an existing YMCA Ambassador Program to regularly have people at the Y who speak Vietnamese and other languages representative of the community.

“From the very first conversation I sat in on, it was clear that this group of students was focused and wanted to do something that could make a difference and an impact,” Harrness said. “They produced a fantastic report and gave a great presentation, and we’re using all the information to make this Y and this particular community a better place for the people we serve.”