George Williams founded the first YMCA in London, England in 1844 to give young men an alternative to the harsh living conditions of industrialized London. Williams, along with 11 others, joined together to establish the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), a retreat of bible study and prayer for men seeking escape from the harsh streets of London. Seven years later, Thomas Sullivan, a retired sea captain and missionary from Boston, recognized a similar need for sailors and merchants. With inspiration from tales of the YMCA in England, Sullivan led the formation of the first YMCA in the United States at the Old South Church in Boston in December of 1851.
From these beginnings, YMCAs spread rapidly across America. Some were started to serve specific groups such as railroad and factory workers, as well as African Americans, Native Americans and recent immigrants. After World War II, women and girls were admitted to full membership and participation. Today about half of YMCA members are female and about half are under 18, with members ranging in age from infants to elders. All faiths are represented. YMCAs have been so successful because they are driven by community needs and guided by community volunteers. Each YMCA uniquely reflects the community it serves, doing its part to nurture the potential of kids, promote healthy living and foster a sense of social responsibility.