A Community Within a Community

The Danville YMCA
Courtesy of Deborah Fallows

About the author: Deborah Fallows is a Fellow at New America. She is the author of Dreaming in Chinese and co-author with James Fallows of Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

During our years of reporting for Our Towns, I’ve visited YMCAs all across the country. My quest began as a way to keep fit while traveling. I bought day passes to swim in Burlington, Vermont; Columbus, Mississippi; Redlands, California; Allentown, Pennsylvania; Duluth, Minnesota; and Wichita, Kansas.

If I couldn’t find a Y, I would swim at a local public pool, like in Holland, Michigan; Greenville, South Carolina; Dodge City, Kansas; Winters, California; and Bend, Oregon. As a last resort, I turned to nature, jumping into the Snake River in Clarkston, Washington; Lake Champlain in Vermont; Lake Erie in Erie, Pennsylvania; Lake Michigan in Holland, Michigan; the freezing Atlantic in Portland, Maine; and the also-freezing Pacific along the West Coast.

Recently I added another venue to my list: the YMCA of Danville, in the so-called Southside of Virginia, bordering North Carolina. Danville, once a thriving tobacco and textile town, has placed a big bet on its Y as more than a fun and healthy place to work out, or swim, or play basketball. It is an anchor institution for restoring the spirit and pride of Danville.

The YMCA is a natural for this role, with its 135-year history in Danville and now a brand-spanking-new, $15 million, 50,000-square-foot facility on the Dan River. Spurred on by an initial gift from the private Danville Regional Foundation, which was followed by millions more from other foundations, institutions, and individuals in town, the new Y opened in 2014. The building is a beautiful, award-winning design of brick, glass, and exposed beams, with natural light and social space. It became the first development facing the river in more than 100 years, and in homage to that history, the Y also shows off reclaimed wood from the old textile mill that once stood on its spot.


The hotel where my husband, Jim, and I were staying was just a mile upriver from the Y. The woman at reception told me that the best way to get there was to “walk down Riverside Drive to Biscuitville, cross at the light, and go straight to the Riverwalk Trail. That leads to the Y.” So I did just that. Biscuitville was hopping; cars were lined up at the drive-through to pick up morning biscuits. The bike shares were lined up next to the Riverwalk. I meandered along the path, under the lush, overgrown foliage, past a few bridges, the wildlife markers, the local sculpture, and on to the Y.

Sarah Folmar, the CEO of the Y, showed me around. We toured the rooms for yoga, Zumba, Pilates, and aerobics; the gym, which can accommodate basketball or volleyball or the trending pickleball; a walking track; and an expansive fitness center, where exercisers on treadmills may be distracted by views of the rushing Dan River. There’s a massage room, a fancy machine to measure and record blood pressure, and another to measure weight and body fat. Some 2,500 square feet of physical therapy and rehab space is leased by the Danville Regional Medical Center (which is now part of Sovah Health).

In the social space at the entry, featuring an 18-by-18-foot glass donor wall that you can’t miss, several older men sat with coffee and newspapers, shooting the breeze. The child-care center, which was funded by the Hughes Memorial Foundation, offers after-school care and summer programs. A separate “child watch” room gives up to two hours of free child care for exercising parents, included in the $65 family fee. Those rooms were buzzing, as school had just ended for the year. The Y also offers after-school child care at four different elementary schools around the county, where Y staff uses the facilities of the school, and children can stay put. Of course, I noticed the six-lane pool, quietly hoping for my chance to swim later in the morning.

To Danville, the Y is more than its stunning physical plant. In a town where you see the occasional remnant of self-advertising as “the last capital of the Confederacy” (somewhat of a stretch, as Jefferson Davis hunkered down in Danville for just the single final week before the end of the Civil War), the Y serves a membership today that reflects Danville’s nearly half-white and half-African-American population. The 100 or so people I saw on my morning at the Y were mixed in about the same proportion.

We’re a “community within a community,” Sarah Folmar said. “When so much going on in the world is negative, even in the city of Danville, inside these four walls, everything changes. It is a positive place.”


We made our tour slowly, as Folmar greeted what seemed to me about half the members by name, inquiring about family and how they’re feeling. And they greeted back. A 93-year-old man was resting on the exercise equipment; two young women, who call themselves the River City Belles, were recording a live Facebook feed about healthy eating.

I also met, by name, every one of the staff who was present that morning. Several were discussing ideas from the professional training sessions they had recently attended. Staff interviews are thorough, and the retention rate is high. A telling question in the interview process is a self-rating on a scale of 1 to 10 of smile-ability. “Anything less than a 10,” reports Folmar, “and it’s not the place for them.” She added, as an afterthought, “A hundred is even better!”

Each of the 2,700 Ys in the U.S. has its own personal stamp. They all belong to the 175-year-old national organization, which offers various resources like help with strategic planning, big-picture marketing, and training in exchange for membership dues. The Y in Danville also belongs to the Virginia Alliance of YMCAs, which advises on state-relevant initiatives, like diabetes prevention and water safety. Beyond that, each local Y is independent and autonomous, with its own fiscal and governing responsibilities, but free to be the “heartbeat of the community,” as Folmar describes the Y in Danville.

The stamp of the YMCA (for Young Men’s Christian Association, of course) in Danville showed a stronger Christian element than I saw in most other Ys that I visited. It makes sense; Danville is a churchgoing town. The question that Danvillians are likely to ask of newcomers, several residents told me, is not “Where are you from?” or “What do you do?” but “Do you have a church yet?” Folmar reported that one of the most popular merchandise items at the Y is a T-shirt with a Bible verse printed on it. And a fishbowl in the workout space, which would likely be filled with mints or candies at other Ys, was filled here with strips of paper containing Bible verses. I had seen one other so filled, in northeastern Mississippi.

I found in Danville, as I had in most other towns, that the Ys and public sports complexes were my second-favorite spots—runner-up to the public libraries—to reveal the culture and mood of a town and to rub shoulders (literally) with folks I otherwise would be unlikely to meet. The Ys also shared the democratic nature of public libraries, where OPEN TO ALL, as is carved in granite above the Columbus, Ohio, main library door, refers to every single person, including the homeless, at no cost. The last two words of the Danville YMCA mission statement, “for all,” echo “open to all.” Folmar points out in full disclosure, “We are a membership organization.” But she explained that the Y offers reduced-fee memberships; last year, the Y gave away more than $135,000 in scholarships, and its goal is for no one to be turned away because of financial hardship.


By one measure, the new Y is a roaring success. Before it opened, Y membership in Danville was 2,300. Today, just five years later, it is 9,000. By another measure, there is still serious work to do. The latest Regional Report Card, including 2016 health data from Danville, commissioned by the Danville Regional Foundation, shows a lot of work still left to do. Compared with Virginia as a whole, the adult obesity rate, adult smoking, diabetes, and physical inactivity in Danville are all higher.

About an hour and a half later, our tour concluded, and Folmar asked if I would like to swim. Yes. The water-aerobics class had ended, and I shared the six-lane pool with just a few other swimmers. Folmar’s final gesture: As I traveled light and had forgotten a towel, she lent me her own.