(as told by Nicola Stewart)
We all know that the Y offers Summer Camp, Afterschool Care and Early Learning Readiness programs for youth, but did you know our commitment to fostering the educational success of every child goes even further than that? Every year our Learning Centers and Project SAFE program serve nearly 2,200 members of our community, but often don’t get the recognition that other Y programs do. Project SAFE (Safety, Aquatics, Fitness, Education) is a water safety education program that teaches children lifesaving swim skills from water mechanics to facts about drowning prevention. YMCA Learning Centers are safe, educationally enriching sites that provide children in affordable housing complexes with integral youth development tools.
At the heart of both programs, a true leader is doing incredible work behind the scenes to ensure their success. That person is Olga Montiel. I shadowed Olga to learn more about her connection to the Y and these programs. Throughout the day, Olga shared her perspective on why her work is not only impactful on a personal level, but impactful enough to be felt community-wide. “I’ve always felt connected to the Y,” Olga said, originally an immigrant from Venezuela. Olga’s Mom enrolled her and her brother in Y Afterschool Care, which helped Olga gain confidence and make friends. These early memories and experiences set a foundation that guides Olga today. “My favorite thing about working for the Y is that when we say ‘for all,’ we mean it in the sense that we will go through leaps and bounds to support someone coming to the Y.”
Olga’s Y Story continued through Early Learning Readiness, which helps parents prepare their young children for Kindergarten. After working in insurance for three years, she was searching for something more fulfilling and that also related to her degree in Psychology and Education more directly. “ELR is what connected me to community programs,” Olga said. After an 11-month stint at Americorps, Olga got the call to work at YMCA of Austin Program Services as the Community Outreach Program Director over Learning Centers and Project SAFE in May 2018. She readily accepted.
“Since my start, I’ve fallen more and more in love with these programs and the families we serve,” Olga said. “Being able to give families a voice and representation hits home a lot, especially since I’m originally from Venezuela. I was able to see how my mom struggled but persevered through a lot during my childhood, and she was able to be that person for herself. Sometimes people don’t have that kind of drive and support so if I can put my own [effort] into supporting these families and helping them in any way that I can, I call that a success.”
It’s easy to see how committed Olga is to her work as she travels from Program Services to her many sites across the Austin area to speak to and coordinate with Aquatics Directors, school principals and her staff. Overseeing Project SAFE involves scheduling 122 classes from 23 schools to swim at 7 YMCA branches across Travis and Hays counties. The program, in partnership with Colin’s Hope and funded in part by St. David’s Foundation, has been running since 2009 and helps kids learn vital swim safety skills. Since Project SAFE’s inception, the Austin YMCA has provided free instruction to more than 16,000 children. Needless to say, expectations for continued success are high. And Olga is determined to following through.
“Project SAFE is an asset to our community because drowning is 100% preventable,” Olga said. “Every child should be able to learn how to swim. Unfortunately, there are areas where some families aren’t exposed to those kinds of resources due to accessibility limitations. This program is so necessary, it just wouldn’t sit well with me if I knew there was something we could do to help prevent drownings and we didn’t. That’s why I could never imagine a world without this program. That’s why I do this work.”
While at Hays, we visited with Project SAFE participants who were in the pool learning swim strokes, jumping in safely, and blowing bubbles in the water. Children were also in the gym practicing the fitness component of the educational program. Kids have an interesting way of helping you appreciate the smaller moments in life. From observing her interactions with them, I think that’s one of the perks of the job for Olga.
After a quick stop at the store for supplies, we headed to East Communities YMCA where we met with Learning Center Site Directors and helped pass out goodies for the kids to enjoy later that week. The Learning Centers are free programs that operate at four residential locations across Austin: Villas on Sixth Stret, Heights on Congress Avenue, Silver Springs and Forest Park. The centers provide a safe place for kids to go inside of their apartment complexes. In addition to being a learning resource for the kids, the centers are a welcome resource for their parents, as well. “The Learning Centers are an extra resource that grants parents peace of mind,” Olga said. “I engage with these parents and am able to bring them into the Y and show them that these are the great things that we’re doing, so I’d have to say that’s my favorite part—just the reach that I have.”
Learning centers provide a place inside the kids’ apartment complex where they can get homework help, do crafts, use a computer, and take part in special activities through special partnerships and grants including SwimSafe via the Austin-American Statesman, Dollar General and the Central Texas Food Bank. While they look a lot like our afterschool programs with homework help, crafts, and outside activities, the families who attend the learning centers get to participate in their own special activities such as National Night Out, Financial Literacy trainings, Zumba classes, and SwimSafe The Learning Centers provided these families with opportunities that they often wouldn’t be able to experience otherwise.
Ultimately, Olga wants to leave a positive impact on everyone she connects with. “I want my staff to feel inspired and empowered by the work that they do, and I want the kids to come into a program feeling supported, appreciated, loved, and know that they matter,” she said. As we concluded a busy day of traveling and headed back to the Program Services office, I asked Olga what she’s learned through her Y Story.
“The Y is a complex organization and we have so many moving parts that all come together to reach the same goal,” Olga said. “It’s a community that’s always willing to help. You just have to ask and be open to receiving it, giving it and sharing it with others.”
Nicola Stewart is the Community Engagement Coordinator at the YMCA of Austin Program Services branch. Nicola loves connecting people to the Y’s cause and learning about other people and cultures