A community’s dream come true

Born of a grassroots effort and saved by a sister organization to celebrate its 20th anniversary this year, the Feith Family YMCA has become just what its founders envisioned — part of the fabric of life in Ozaukee County

THE FEITH FAMILY Ozaukee YMCA in Saukville has realized the dream of its founders, and is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary. Guiding the Y into its third decade are (from left) Feith Branch Director Kirsten Coenen, Kettle Moraine YMCA Chief Executive Officer Rob Johnson and Feith Director of Donor Development Kate Hoffmann. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

Chris Lear said he loves to go to the Feith Family Ozaukee YMCA in Saukville every day. He exercises and relaxes, enjoying not only the workout but also the social time with others.

But just as enjoyable, he said, is seeing everyone else there.

“I’ve been thinking about how wonderful it is that the Y is everything it’s purported to be,” said Lear, the retired Saukville village administrator who was a member of the original group of eight area residents who banded together to bring a YMCA to Ozaukee County. 

“There’s a whole lot of seniors here, a whole lot of adults — and families. Oh my, lots of families.

“I’m just so happy it’s fulfilled the dreams everyone had. It’s a happy place to be. I’m so glad we have it.”

The Feith Family Ozaukee YMCA is celebrating a milestone this year — its 20th anniversary. 

“It’s a huge accomplishment,” Rob Johnson, chief executive officer of the Kettle Moraine YMCA, which owns and operates the Feith Y, said. 

To mark the anniversary, the YMCA will be holding a number of activities and events every month, culminating in a large celebration in August.

The Feith Family Ozaukee YMCA has become such a presence in the area that many people can’t remember a time when the facility wasn’t there.

But it was a years-long, grassroots effort by what was called the Northern Ozaukee YMCA Initiative, formed in the early 1990s, that led to the Y.

“It had been tried before,” Lear said. “This was the second or third time a group had tried to get a Y, so the general thought was, ‘It’s been tried. It’s not going to work.’

“But we felt in our hearts it was going to happen.”

A feasibility study showed their optimism was warranted, he said, and the group pressed on. Their efforts really took root when the Milwaukee Metropolitan YMCA agreed to take Ozaukee County on as an affiliate, Lear said.

“They brought in fundraising expertise, building expertise,” Lear said. “They brought in a director. That helped make it happen.”

That, and lead gifts of $500,000 from John and Linda Mellowes of Mequon and $2 million from John and Elizabeth Feith of Saukville.

“Once we got those lead gifts, others followed as people realized it was going to happen,” Lear said. “Before long, we were building a building.” 

The YMCA was originally envisioned to be built along Highway 33, next to a new Port Washington municipal pool. But that plan fell through, and the YMCA was built on 22 acres in Saukville that was donated in part by Gene Fransee.

The $6.7 million Feith Family Ozaukee YMCA opened with fanfare on Aug. 22, 1999, and all seemed to go swimmingly until the Metro Y experienced financial issues and went through bankruptcy reorganization in 2014. 

There were fears the local Y might close, but it was ultimately purchased by the Kettle Moraine YMCA at an auction after the local community raised almost $1 million, half of which went toward the $2 million purchase price and the rest for deferred maintenance projects.

“Kettle Moraine has been really good for us,” Lear said. “They have the expertise and financial wherewithal to run the Y and to keep the physical facility updated.”

Johnson said the purchase was “a leap of faith.”

“Our current board president, who was the treasurer at the time, said, ‘Wouldn’t we want another Y to save our Y if we were having trouble staying afloat?’” he said. “It was amazing how the community stepped up to buy what they had paid for in the first place. I think they realized how much their community without a Y would impact everyone.

“That’s unbelievable, in my mind.”

The transition, Johnson said, “has been seamless other than three months of shutting down to make improvements.”

Kettle Moraine added about $400,000 to the community funds to improve the lockers rooms and wellness center, covering about $800,000 of the $1 million in deferred maintenance projects left by the Metro Y.

Since Kettle Moraine took over the YMCA, membership has increased from 6,500 in 2014 to 8,000 today, Johnson said. 

Programming has changed with the times as well. In addition to popular programs such as pickleball , diabetes prevention and the Alloy fitness program, the Y has pioneered a water safety program for second-graders in the Port Washington-Saukville School District and the Y’s summer day campers.

“It’s huge. Safety around the water is as important as swimming lessons,” Johnson said. “We have so much water around here.”

The Y also offers full-day child care and 4K wrap-around care, as well as a half-day 4K class.

“Because of our growth, we’ve needed to move before and after-care programs into the schools,” Johnson said, noting they are offered in Port, Saukville, Grafton, Cedarburg, Mequon and Fredonia.

Space constraints have also led to the Y offering some programs off site, Johnson said.

As the Feith Family Ozaukee YMCA celebrates 20 years, it is looking ahead, Johnson said. Prime on the list is seeing what needs to be done with the facility, both to provide space for current and future needs and to continue to maintain the structure and its programs.

“We feel we’re reaching capacity with the current facility design,” Johnson said.

The Y is studying how to increase its footprint on the campus, he noted, recognizing that much of the 20 acres it occupies is wetlands.

In the meantime, the Y will continue to evaluate its programs and offer services for its members — and to reach out to others in the community.

“There’s just such a demand for healthy lifestyle choices,” Johnson said. “The Y is a place for everyone. It definitely is a community.

“I view it as a community center.”


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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