Stephanie McElhone can’t help but get choked up when she thinks of a young man who came to the Rome-Floyd YMCA earlier this year to learn to swim through the nonprofit’s “Become Unsinkable” program.

“He was 18 and wanted to join the Navy and guess what he couldn’t do?,” the YMCA’s director of community outreach said Monday, explaining that members of the military are offered a free membership to help them get into shape. “He not only got through basic training because of the Y, but he’s now in training for deep sea welding with the Navy.”

What warmed her heart even more was when he came to visit two weeks ago and told her he was now helping other young recruits prepare to enter the service.

“He arrived as a boy and he’s now a young man with a career ahead of him,” she said. “I always cry when I think of him because we get to see stories like his over and over and that’s the beauty of it. His story is what it really means to be unsinkable.”

Offered at the local YMCA for the past 90 years, the Become Unsinkable aquatics program just got a significant financial boost of $100,000 from the United Way of Rome & Floyd County through its Community Impact Grants program over the next two years.

To McElhone and others at the YMCA who have served more than 2,400 residents every month — from six months of age to over 90 years old — the grant represents the ability to see even more people benefit from an aquatics program already known for not turning away one soul.

“Close to half of the people in the building are here on a financial scholarship,” McElhone said, adding that in 2018 over $200,000 was given out to help over 3,000 individuals access YMCA programs. “We were so excited to hear of the grant award. This is a game-changer for Floyd County and for wellness.”

McElhone said many of those using one of the only indoor pools in the community are battling health issues that include obesity, cardiovascular disease, injuries and disabilities.

“Minority and low-income residents are disproportionately affected by the social and economic context in which they live and often suffer from serious health issues that aren’t being appropriately addressed,” she said. “The Y, with the help of other community partners, are trying to change this population’s wellness trajectory.”

Also receiving additional funding from United Way with a $20,000 grant is an expanded, “new and improved” version of the YMCA’s “Act Right” program that attempted to help elementary-aged children cope with anger management issues for the past three years.

McElhone admits this first program was “an unmitigated disaster” due to relying on staff that was not trained properly in dealing with childhood trauma and anger.

“Understand these children arrived from hard places, presenting at our outreach door without proper clothing, hungry, exhausted from the trauma in their lives, in a heightened state of emotion, and incapable of using words to convey their most basic needs,” McElhone explained, adding that it was not unusual for a child to be dismissed for throwing a punch at staff.

The new program, aimed toward middle school students, is now known as “Teen Launch” and includes staff that is specifically trained in trauma-informed care and one that has acquired extensive training in anger management.

“We’ll be mostly focusing on South Rome, but we’ll take any child within Floyd County,” McElhone said. “We’ll be collaborating with middle school guidance counselors for those struggling with anger issues. We feel strongly that the longer we can keep them within our structured program that focuses on emotional development, the trajectory of their lives will be much more positive.”

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