It's Fun to Be at the YMCA


Diane Ward has been coming to the Hollywood YMCA for more than a decade, but it wasn't until several years ago that she realized how much the place and its people meant to her. In a bout of bad luck, Ward lost her job, plunging her into depression. Even worse, she could no longer afford her monthly membership to stay physically fit.

That's when Roz Hamby stepped in. The executive director of the Hollywood Y, a svelte whirlwind who exercises right alongside her 4,500 members and knows many of them by name, told Ward not to worry.

"She thought it was more important that I keep working out, and she never made me feel like a charity case," says a sweating Ward one recent morning, shortly after an indoor cycling class, one of the many innovations that Hamby has introduced since her arrival in 1996.

"She gave me self-confidence, and that helped me go out and get a better-paying job," Ward adds. "I owe my mental and spiritual health to Roz Hamby."

But the Hollywood YMCA benefited too. By helping Ward through a rough spot, Hamby gained an enthusiastic volunteer who has become one of the facility's biggest boosters and fund-raisers. It's a feat she has pulled off repeatedly throughout her 30-year career with the charitable association, where her people skills, hands-on management and innovation have propelled her through the YMCA ranks from secretary to executive director of Los Angeles County's third-biggest YMCA.

When Hamby arrived at the Hollywood YMCA 2 1/2 years ago, the venerable 1921 building in the heart of Hollywood had just undergone an $8.5-million renovation, restoring a historic four-story building designed in part by prominent architect Paul R. Williams. (It's not every YMCA that can offer high-tech, state-of-the-art equipment and classes in a building listed in the National Register of Historic Places.)

The 50-year-old Hamby, who was recruited by YMCA honchos from San Francisco, where she had succeeded in turning around a small and struggling Y, arrived to a new facility, a $3.2-million annual budget and a membership in transition, some of whom grumbled at the updates. But she set to work winning over existing members and drawing new ones to her fold.

Membership grew 22.5% her first year and has been climbing ever since, mainly through word-of-mouth, Hamby says. The membership has also become more diverse in every way, and family memberships have soared from 136 to more than 600, a testament to Hamby's efforts to modernize and expand what was once considered an "old boys' club."

That has included building a new area for young children called the Kinder-Gym and expanding baby-sitting. Under Hamby's tutelage, a swim team has grown from nine to 52 kids and a youth basketball program has exploded from 73 to 283 players. A women's basketball league has been formed, and Hamby has brought in members of the Sparks, Los Angeles' professional women's basketball team, to conduct a clinic.

But Hamby's goals go beyond mere exercise and embrace the idea of a total health package for members. She has installed a health food stand. She moved the masseur into a more prominent location, and he is now booked solid at $30 per half hour. Chiropractors, dietitians and fitness experts have been lined up to give seminars on special days.

In the exercise arena, Hamby has also introduced a number of new classes. Those include On the Ball (a stretching and crunching class done with a large rubber ball) and hip-hop aerobics, in addition to indoor cycling. Mindful of yoga's popularity, Hamby has expanded weekly offerings from two to 15 classes that now include hatha, kundalini, iyengar and meditation.

Hamby says she keeps on top of members' requests and gripes by scrutinizing complaints and doing member surveys. From that feedback, she puts together cutting-edge classes that would cost $10 to $30 at other facilities but are free for Y members.

Did Away With Two-Tiered Membership

"They update the class list quite a bit and address what people want in a gym," says Megan Medeiros, 28, of West Hollywood, who joined eight months ago because her friends recommended it and the facility is close to her work.

Most members love the changes, including Betty Riggs, toweling off in the locker room early one recent morning after her daily swim.

"It was falling down, it was ratty," says Riggs, 85, a member for almost 20 years. "Now it's more modern. The showers are much better. It's more comfortable."

But not everyone sees the changes for the better.

Before the renovation, the Y had a two-tiered membership--one standard and one called "The Businessman's Club" (for men only). Those who opted for the more costly Businessman's Club used different facilities and had a better sauna, where they gathered to socialize, relax and chew the fat.

"We had a whirlpool in those days, and it gave the guys a chance to sit around and BS. There was a cohesive feeling that you don't get today," says Jim Gillis, a retired Hollywood businessman who lives in Toluca Lake and has been a member since 1961. "Maybe it's just because the older guys are dropping off and fading away. But it's not the same camaraderie."

Hamby acknowledges that some might see it that way. But she points out tactfully that the new system is more egalitarian.

"When you have a two-tiered membership, the first thing that does is say, 'We're an elitist organization and you don't have enough money to join.' And that's not the Y. We're all-inclusive."

In fact, no one is turned away for not being able to pay. Of the 4,500 members, more than 300 receive financial assistance. (Memberships are $36.50 a month.)

In addition to the Y's health club, Hamby oversees several other programs, including a 20-bed transitional housing unit within the YMCA building that serves single women and single women with children.

Hamby also heads up a YMCA social services program that includes counseling for abused kids and school outreach to at-risk students for gang prevention.

When the Y closed its international hostel several years ago because of low usage, the space was leased to L.A. Bridges, an outreach program that serves 400 troubled youths and was the outgrowth of a city-YMCA partnership championed by L.A. City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg.

Hamby sees such civic-private partnerships as key. "Collaborations with community-based organizations and other partners is going to be very important in the Y's future," she predicts.

As for Goldberg, she sees the restored Y as a cornerstone in the downtown Hollywood revitalization efforts, a clean, well-lighted place--the original colorful neon signs recently have been restored--that adds civility and hope to a once blighted stretch of town.

Logs Five Miles a Day at Work

Hamby learned the YMCA business and honed her people skills at the Downtown Dallas YMCA, which at the time--the late 1960s--was ranked one of the top five in the nation.

"We'd have [billionaire brothers] Lamar and Bunker Hunt come work out and then someone who just came out of rehab," Hamby recalls with a laugh. As to her own workout, Hamby is naturally high energy and reckons she logs about five miles a day walking up and down stairs and along corridors of her historic building as she makes the rounds. But she also works out three times weekly, doing a half-hour on the treadmill and 20 to 30 minutes on the bicycle, usually in the middle of the day when machines sit idle. She also likes the weight machines and uses a customized program designed for her by a Y employee--a service available to all members.

Hamby was born in Camden, Ark., and went to Bishop College, a small church school in Dallas. While there, she worked part time at the Y as a membership clerk. Upon graduation with a degree in business administration, Hamby became membership secretary.

She worked her way up through the then-all-male facility in Dallas until by 1986 she was membership director for that Y and coordinator for membership development for all the Ys in Dallas. She met her husband, Jim, at a business meeting--he was executive director of one of the suburban branches. They married in 1985 and moved to Hawaii in 1986, where Jim had been offered a job.

Because of the Hawaii Y's policy that spouses couldn't work together, Hamby had to go out into the workplace "scared to death" because, at 37, she had never worked outside of the YMCA family. Soon she was regional manager for Kelly Temporary Services.

In 1992, her husband was transferred to run a new Y in the East Bay near San Francisco, and Hamby landed a job as metropolitan membership director for all of the San Francisco Ys. She then was tapped to run a Y in downtown San Francisco that was struggling with a $150,000 deficit.

Within two years she had balanced the budget and the Y earned a surplus--the first time it had turned a profit in almost a decade. She attributes the turnaround to good fiscal management, program development and staff hiring.

Hires Employees With Good Attitudes

Hearing about the dynamo who had worked miracles in San Francisco, Y officials in Los Angeles courted Hamby for the Hollywood job and say they have not been disappointed.

Hamby, always on the lookout for employees with an enthusiastic attitude, gives credit to her staff.

"I hire the attitude, and we train the skills," she likes to say.

Ashley Collie, a writer who belongs to the Hollywood YMCA, says Hamby is a hands-on and visible presence, the animated spirit of the place who seems to be everywhere at once.

"You're working out, and you see her working out next to you. She takes classes. She . . . gets involved. She's out there handing out salads and turkey burgers when they have promotions. Sometimes she just works at the front desk."

And as an African American woman executive, Hamby is often a guest speaker at business and city functions and seminars, spreading the gospel about the YMCA, letting people know about the facility's many programs.

As for Hamby's husband, he is now retired from running YMCAs and content to merely visit his wife in Hollywood.

"His favorite pastimes," says Hamby, "are golf and volunteering for me."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World