Missoula's Y 16

Our YMCA shows that 50 years of community can be done

We’re a community who values interacting with one another, sharing great conversation over a local brew, and supporting each other in our various endeavors. It’s no surprise that once we love something, we can expect that thing to defy naysayers and stay in motion forever, like the YMCA celebrating 50 years of business. 

The Missoula branch of the YMCA was founded back in 1967. Initially, its board sought out an experienced executive director whom they brought in from Seattle to lead its formation. After several years, the donation-run programs weren’t seeing enough traction to become viable in the long term. In 1970, the director and board were ready to say that it couldn’t be done. That’s when Pat Dodson stepped in. 

Pat was an assistant track coach in his early 30s who had finished his degree at the University of Montana a few years before. A farm kid raised in the Hi-line town of Shelby, Pat was used to honest work—and used to people telling him “no.” So, when he heard the words “It can’t be done” with regard to the Missoula YMCA, he thought: Let’s give it a shot. He volunteered to take on the executive director position and do his best to bring community recreation to Missoula. 

It wasn’t an easy task. Located on the same plot of land where the current (and much larger) YMCA building stands, the original building was little more than a shack standing in the middle of an open field. There was little space, no real workout equipment, and with frequently freezing pipes, their bathroom facilities were often out of commission. 

“You had to learn time management real fast,” said Pat, who spent the next eight years working seven days a week from that building, alongside the sparse support staff he could afford to hire to help run extensive programs for both kids and adults. 

In the beginning, Pat recalled, it was “hand-to-mouth.” Each month, the fledgling operations team barely made payroll by collecting unwanted goods from local businesses and holding auctions, driving down the alleys of downtown to collect each store’s donations. Every month, the board would also go through a list of expenses and pick and choose which ones they were able to pay. Pat and his staff took on as much of the operational tasks as they could—from fundraising and programming to cleaning up after events—and volunteers stepped in to carry the rest of the weight. 

Today, Pat looks back on those early days with amazement. 

“If you’d have told me back then that we’d be sitting here now, celebrating the 50th anniversary, I wouldn’t have believed you,” he said, chuckling. “The people who believed in the Y and in the community were the ones who made it happen.” 

Staff members through the years like Alba Boboth, Sue Monk, and Daurine Spritzer put in hours on nights and weekends with a genuine labor of love for the work of building a community space. People like Bill Mytty, Beth Woody, Kelli Hess, Harold Morgenstern, Joe Taylor, Jud Heathcote, Bill Bouchee, Dennis Lind, Kathy Ogren, Thomas Boone, Tom Roy, Penny Cofrin, and countless others pitched in where they could, helping to coach teams, organize, fundraise, and donate.

In the last 50 years, the Missoula Family YMCA has become much more than just a center for recreation. Today, they offer over 100 athletic and community programs in Missoula and surrounding areas, including spring and fall soccer, basketball, and swimming. In recent years, they’ve adapted to the times, adding sports like lacrosse and climbing. 

One goal of the Y was always to bring members from different parts of the community together, as well as from different athletic abilities. 

As Daurine, who has served as the administrative assistant for more than 30 years, puts it, “You don’t have to be the spandex queen to come to the Y.” She remembers a woman who became a member after suffering devastating injuries from a car accident. Although initially shy and standoffish, this woman was drawn out of her shell by the welcoming environment and eventually participated in as many activities as she could.

The demographic most affected by the community’s financial support provided to the YMCA each year is our is youth. Through its many programs, the Y provides an excellent resource to those families in need of child care or a space for their kids to learn healthy habits. Just last year, 40 out of 134 kids in the YMCA preschool received financial assistance. Many children also received subsidized meals, which are certified under federal programs to meet health regulations. 

According to Pat, who retired in 2006, keeping these programs open to kids, who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to participate, has helped single parents do things like return to school, or work to provide more stability for their families and overcome their circumstances on many occasions. But at the very least, community kids have access to a supportive, safe, and fun environment—as well as the nutrition they need to grow. 

Brian Steffen, the Y’s current CEO, is proud of the legacy of those who came before: “The history of the Missoula Y is one of determination, generosity, and collective effort. I’m grateful today for the effort that others put forward during long-remembered yesterdays. The Missoula community has changed significantly in 50 years, and the Y has evolved with it. The Y is engaged in a fight against isolation, depression, disease, abuse, bullying, and obesity. We want you to be a part of the Y today, so that you can have as many tomorrows as possible.”

It is true, our YMCA facility is a labor of love—hard-won. After half a century, the same generosity and helping hands and minds of this community that transformed a dream into a reality continue to show that it can be done and is being done.