YMCA members in Penn Hills, Wilmerding bid farewell as facilities close
Shalene “Shay” Stewart found her usual parking spot outside the Penn Hills YMCA early Friday morning.
With the sun peaking over the horizon and the crickets still singing, she swung open the doors to the beloved facility.
She greeted the usual four members who waited eagerly to start their morning workouts and flipped on the front desk’s computer.
She walked down the Flag Football Hall of Fame toward the coffee pot.
And as the smell of coffee filled the atrium, she realized this routine would soon be a memory.
Aug. 31 was Stewart’s last day opening up the Penn Hills YMCA.
“This is going to be a really hard morning,” said Stewart, 65, as she mingled with Penn Hills YMCA members one last time in the main hallway.
Aug. 31 marked the last day for the Penn Hills and Wilmerding YMCA facilities. The closings came nearly two months after Kevin Bolding, the organization’s CEO, announced the closures of three area branches due to financial struggles. The Robinson branch closed in July due to flooding damage.
The YMCA had already closed its branch on Fifth Avenue in Downtown Pittsburgh and a branch in Delmont.
About 30 people enjoyed a potluck-style breakfast together the morning of Aug. 31 in Penn Hills. Wilmerding members planned a picnic for the same day.
Both facilities have been mainstays in their communities.
In Penn Hills, that meant saying goodbye after nearly 60 years.
Stewart devoted her life to about 13 of those years as the facility’s front desk greeter.
“I’m here every morning, Monday through Friday, at 5:45,” she said. “I think I have the gift of remembering names. I mean, I greet everybody — the kids too.”
Some of those people, like Tom Baldy, of Monroeville, were there bright and early Aug. 31.
“This is kind of like graduation day at high school,” said Baldy, who has been a member for 14 years.
Twice a year, he drives up to Beaver Falls to park his motor home. On his way back, he buys cinnamon rolls from Oram’s Donut Shop and brings them to the Y to share.
“I don’t eat them, but everybody loves them,” he said.
Baldy and other members who all grew to be friends have bought memberships at Planet Fitness, which has a branch off Rodi Road in the Penn Hills Shopping Center.
Bob Norman, 78, of Penn Hills is one of them. He said he’s excited to develop a new routine there and at the Monroeville Mall, where the group plans to walk.
“We had a wonderful time (here),” Norman said between bites of his breakfast. “But we might as well look forward to it.”
Doris Mierwald, 66, of Penn Hills was sad to see the facility go.
“This place has been great,” said the a member of nine years. “You have camaraderie, the convenience. You start your day here. “
Mierwald became close friends with Baldy’s wife. Together, Mierwald jokes, they each shed as much weight as a child — 65 pounds.
Ted Ferguson, 84, and his daughter, Tammy Andrew, both from Plum, attribute the YMCA to helping him gain his strength back after a near fatal accident two months ago.
He and the family were driving motorized scooters while vacationing in Alaska when he lost control and fell down the side of a cliff. Ferguson said he broke his right orbital bone and eight ribs.
“The doctors said that if it weren’t for his daily exercise — he shouldn’t be alive,” Andrew said.
Pam Haley, the YMCA’s communications director, realized Aug. 31 would be tough to endure.
“As we worked through the plans for our reorganization, we knew we had more difficult days ahead — today is one of those days,” Haley said in an email.
She said the closures do not mean the organization’s programming will disappear.
“This is not the end of YMCA programming in any of the communities where we’ve had to close a building,” Haley said.
In Penn Hills, she said, the following programs will be available through partnerships with:
• YMCA Before and After School Enrichment through Penn Hills School of Entrepreneurship
• YMCA swim lessons through Linton Middle School
• YMCA instructors will offer senior fitness classes at Webb’s World of Fitness, GRIT Athletics, Comfort Inn and Penn Hills Senior Service Center
• Youth football and baseball programs at Penn Hills YMCA outdoor fields, GRIT Athletics
Stewart fought tears as she hugged members and snapped selfies with them. The greeter said she isn’t sure what she’ll do next for work. She doesn’t want to retire.
“I’m applying at places outside the YMCA,” she said. “But, I think for now, I’m taking time, figuring out what fits me.”
Members put cash and notes into a small shoe box with the words “Shay’s Severance” scrawled across the top. Stewart’s eyes welled with tears.
Finding another job as rewarding is going to be tough.
“This was my dream job,” she said.
Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Dillon at 412-871-2325, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @dillonswriting.