Emerson YMCA, Our Lady of Guadalupe School help kids through pandemic, shared effort

In 2020, Welcoming America and its members worked in eight cities to bridge diverse communities and foster a deeper sense of belonging for local residents, including immigrants. This story is part of the Belonging Begins With Us campaign, which was funded in part by the Walmart Foundation. 

Where do we find healing during troubled times? For Sandra McCoy, it’s working rich soil and helping new life grow.

Sandra found the Emerson YMCA in St. Louis, MO after losing her husband, venturing into its doors with her daughter after passing it on the road for many years.

“I really didn’t know what to do with myself,” she said. “You see, I’m visually impaired, so this makes it harder for me to do certain things, but not impossible.”

Sandra ventured into a line dancing class, which was initially so difficult that she felt like giving up. But her instructor was patient and encouraging, and she conquered the moves.

“The entire class gave me so much love and comfort that it made me forget that I had a disability,” she said.

The pandemic cut Sandra off from her Emerson Y family for a time, but she came back strong, volunteering in the garden and helping to forge new bonds between good people and good organizations.

Image of African American woman and child in a garden touching dirt

Credit: Sandra McCoy

She participated in beautification projects made possible in part by a Welcoming America grant shared by the Emerson Y and Our Lady of Guadalupe school, with hosting support from the Gateway Region YMCA.

She jokes that her husband and father loved to garden and she never thought she wanted to spend time gardening. She remembers them when she gardens now and admits how much she loves it. Recently, she had made strawberry jam from berries she harvested.

Playgrounds and Toolsheds

The collaboration between the Emerson Y and Our Lady of Guadalupe school began in July 2020 when volunteers gathered at the Y for three projects: organize the garden shed by removing unused items and installing shelves and hooks; clean out the sports shed; empty and clean out a shed they had hoped to move to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The event brought a diverse group together, including Black, Latinx and white volunteers ranging in from teenagers to 50-plus.

Credit: Emerson YMCA

Credit: Emerson YMCA


Two men holding shed tools on a field

Credit: Emerson YMCA

The collaboration kicked into a higher gear in October 2020 when volunteers from both organizations assembled playground equipment at the school. The group had expanded to include members of the Hispanic Leaders Group and Missouri Highway Patrol.

Rather than deciding for the school what playground equipment they should have, the Emerson Y engaged with the school’s principals and teachers to create a list of items that would benefit the kids the most.

Together, they built a climber, two sets of hoops for ball games, a storage cart and tricycles.

Credit: Emerson Y

Credit: Emerson Y

Lamar Rose, a board member of the school, track coach, and parent, said he was grateful for the collaboration with Welcoming America and the YMCA.

“We know how important physical activity and play are to the development of our children. Recess will take on a whole new dimension at our school,” Rose said. “Now, the kids at OLG will use muscles they didn’t know they had, play games with more excitement and, most importantly, have lots of fun as they interact in new ways.”

Peggy O’Brien, co-principal of Our Lady of Guadalupe school, said the event built bridges. “The diversity of our group was inspiring. We were at times speaking in Spanish, and the age range was from age 11 to senior citizens.”

Martha Castellanos was excited to leave pandemic-related isolation to help create new relationships between her church parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the Emerson YMCA. To her delight, those friendships were well under way on the crisp autumn day that she met up with people from both organizations.

“The staff and many of the volunteers had put so much time into planning an completing projects that it felt odd to be introduced to someone we had done so much work with,” said Caroline Mitchell, Executive Director of the Community Development YMCA. “Being introduced by Martha made me recognize how much both organizations had experienced at the same time we were planning these projects.”

Old Sheds, New Sheds

The effort to fix and move a shed to the school proved futile because of too much wear and tear. Undaunted, the YMCA and school pooled resources to find a solution. Caroline secured funds from the Y’s properties department to buy material for a new shed. She then reached out to a school volunteer for help on what to buy, resulting in a trip to Home Depot together. They moved most of the supplies in their own cars.

“Milt and the other volunteer constructed the shed in record time,” Caroline said.

Credit: Emerson Y

Credit: Emerson Y

The projects provided welcome relief for all involved from the existential challenges that the first waves of the pandemic presented.

“While all of us were trying to figure out how to complete our core work safely and in a way we could financially sustain our organizations, it was refreshing to be able to do something new that would be fun for youth,” Caroline said.

And the connections the events nurtured may lead to even more engagement: “The Missouri Highway Patrol [officer] spent some time brainstorming the ways that officers could volunteer with the school in the future,” she said.

Peggy said the project has helped the students and the community. “Our students have never had so much fun on our playground as they are having now, thanks to the new trikes, balls, dome, etc. The happiness spans from our pre-kindergarten children all the way up to our teenagers. It is truly a joy to see them play, share and get along with one another.”

Credit: Emerson Y

Credit: Emerson Y