The Ward Family YMCA in Abingdon was bustling with activity on a recent weekday morning — scores of kids were enjoying summer camp, either playing sports on the athletic fields or participating in activities under the camp pavilion.
Other children were practicing swimming in one indoor pool while senior citizens did a water fitness class in the other. Adults of all ages ran on treadmills in the fitness center and more seniors socialized near the front entrance of the facility.
The facility is on land donated by the Ward family, of Abingdon, adjacent to the Boulevard at Box Hill shopping center. It is the YMCA's only family center in Harford County, and this month marks the 10th anniversary of when its doors opened in June of 2007.
Suzanne Green, director of the Ward Family YMCA, has been with the center since it opened June 15, 2007.
"It's just very exciting to see how far we've come, how many members we have, how much of the community we have been able to serve," Green said.
She gave a tour of the facility on the morning of June 15, 2017 and members of the Y, including summer camp participants, gathered with Harford County leaders that evening to celebrate its 10th anniversary.
She noted the popularity of youth nights at the facility on Saturdays and the summer camps that host about 200 youths each week.
"It's just exciting to be part of all of that [growth] and to know that the Y is making an impact in our community and helping everybody get healthy, helping kids have a great time all summer long and just supporting our community," Green said.
The family center is the "hub" of the services the YMCA of Central Maryland provides in Harford County; the facility served about 3,700 people when it opened 10 years ago, and it serves more than 15,000 people in Harford today, according to a news release from the Y in Central Maryland.
The Central Maryland YMCA has offered programs in Harford County for the past 20 years, including preschools, before and after-school enrichment and summer camps, according to Green.
The YMCA employs 338 people through its Harford County programs and facilities, including 154 people who work at the Abingdon family center, according to Green.
The center is named for Walter and Betty Ward, of Abingdon. Betty Ward, now 91, is a strong supporter of the Y's community programs, the same as her late husband.
"Harford County has been very good to us and our family, and we like to give back to the county that we love," Ward said in a recent interview.
R. Walter Ward, who died in February of 2003 at age 78, was the co-founder of Ward and Bosely Real Estate, along with the late Melvin G. Bosely.
They oversaw the development of commercial and residential real estate throughout central and southern Harford County, such as the Box Hill North and South communities and the Festival at Bel Air shopping center.
"There is hardly a development of any type, residential or commercial, from the town of Bel Air to the Bush River that does not have his name in land exchange, sale of homes, or development of commercial areas," states the obituary for Mr. Ward, posted on the McComas Funeral Home website.
The Abingdon YMCA is at 101 Walter Ward Blvd. It sits on land that was donated by the family as Ward Properties, the master developer of the Boulevard at Box Hill shopping center and Box Hill Corporate Center, was developing the shopping center.
Bob Ward, Betty and Walter's son, is chairman of Ward Properties and of Bob Ward Homes.
The family donated the land, plus they made an "important capital contribution to the project," according to John Hoey, president and CEO of the Y in Central Maryland.
He noted in a statement that Betty and Walter Ward "believe very deeply in the Y's mission and very much wanted to see a Y built in Harford County."
"The Abingdon location is an excellent one as it's a growing part of the county with a significant number of families and households as well as seniors living close by," Hoey stated. "Additionally, it allows the Y to extend its services to a wide variety of people and families from a diverse range of incomes, which is core to the Y's mission and commitment to inclusion and community-building."
Bob Ward lives in Havre de Grace, and his sister, Jennifer Ward Reynolds, lives in Baltimore County, according to Betty Ward.
"We're all involved with the Y," she said.
Ward said the Abingdon family center is "part of our legacy to the county."
"They believe in the Y's mission, and I think we are very proud to have their name on that building," Hoey, the president and CEO of the Y in Central Maryland, said. "Without them, without their family, there would not be a Y in Harford County."
Ward is a former teacher and was a homemaker who has been involved in her family's churches. The family belonged to Bel Air United Methodist Church when Bob and Jennifer were growing up, and she is now affiliated with Cokesbury Memorial United Methodist Church in Abingdon.
"The Y program fits so well into our mission [at the church]," she said.
She said her late husband, a native of North Carolina, thought a YCMA center would be good for Harford County, that "it was good for body building, and it just seemed to have all the things that he admired."
"He was a man with a lot of insight, and he knew it would be good for the county," she said.
Ward, who grew up along the Bush River, praised the inclusion of swimming facilities at the family center.
"I knew how much I liked swimming and how much fun it could be," she said.
The two pools were part of a 20,000 square-foot expansion that was completed in 2013. That expansion, which made for a 50,000 square-foot facility, included a family room, cycle studio, multipurpose room and locker rooms for boys and girls, according to Green.
Green and Ward are close friends.
"She is such a huge supporter of everything we're doing here and has such a passion toward helping the kids in our communities," Green said.
Ward said she likes to bring friends to the family center.
"It's a good way to give a gift to someone, a membership at the Y, and hopefully they'll use it a lot," she said.
Community and youth engagement
Season Voelker, of Bel Air, is vice chair of the Ward YMCA's board, and she is head of its Community Engagement Committee.
"The goal of the board is to allow and engage the community to enable anyone, regardless of your age, to be able to utilize Y programs," she said in a recent interview.
Hoey, president and CEO of the Y in Central Maryland, noted YMCA officials are "very focused on ensuring income is not an obstacle" to taking part in the Y's programs.
"The most essential part of that building [in Abingdon], or any Y, is really building community, and that's really the secret sauce of what we do," Hoey said.
He said the Y partners with entities such as the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health to provide programming.
"We're very, very proud of what we've been able to do over the past 10 years with the Ward Y," Hoey said.
Voelker, the head of the Community Engagement Committee, said the board has "taken a little more of an emphasis on the youth population" this year, with activities such as the youth nights.
"The more positive places we can give youth to hang out that's positive, that's always a plus given what's happening," she said, citing issues such as the deadly opioid epidemic that has hit Harford County and the rest of the state.
Voelker also volunteers at the YMCA, and she works in community relations at Harford Mutual Insurance in Bel Air.
"My job is to engage our employees in the community and allow them to get involved in volunteerism and let them know what is available in the community," she said.
She works to bring that same sense of community engagement between the Ward Family YMCA and various Harford County organizations.
"We're lucky here in Harford County that our nonprofit community is so robust, and I see the Ward center looking to work with all of our nonprofits to engage them in the programs that are happening in the Y," she said. "The more we all work together, the more the word gets out about what's happening."
John Greene, of Abingdon, and his wife are among the 24 families who are charter members of the Abingdon YMCA, dating back to when it opened.
Greene, 50, was a member of his local YMCA when he was growing up in Rosedale in Baltimore County.
He learned to swim there, and it was a place where he could play sports and interact with youth counselors.
"It provided a little bit of mentorship during that time," he recalled. "It provided an outlet for me as a young person to stay engaged in constructive things while school was out."
Greene made a financial contribution to the Y as part of his charter membership; he spent five years on the board, and he has volunteered through activities such as youth pickup basketball games or "pickleball" games with seniors.
He has watched children, who were in preschool and elementary school when the Abingdon Y opened, grow into their teenage years — he noted those youths can now play pickup basketball with him.
"Being able to see those kids who now are in high school, to see them grow up through their association with the Y, I would never have known them, probably, if I had not been involved with the Y," he said.
Greene works with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services — he works with prison inmates who are being paroled or are close to parole, to help them make the transition to post-prison life.
He noted many of the offenders are "youthful offenders," people who came from single-parent homes and lived in neighborhoods where there are not places — such as the YMCA — where they can experience positive activities and role models.
"They get into a position where they do what their friends do, because it's deemed to be cool and there's no one there to tell them that it's not cool." Greene said.
He noted "there needs to be a paradigm shift for these young men and women who have been exposed" to negative influences.
Greene said programs are available at the YMCA, such as STEM programs, science fairs and summer camps that can help point youths in the right direction.
"That just shows them that, hey, there's more to life than maybe what you've been exposed to ... here's the tools to show you what's available to you, regardless of your past," Greene said.
Deborah Parker, 53, of Abingdon, has been a member of the Y for eight to nine months.
She went through physical therapy at the Y as part of her recovery from a brain tumor she was diagnosed with in 2016.
She now works with a fitness personal trainer at the Y as she continues to build back her ability to walk and talk.
Parker said her trainer is "doing a great job with me."
"He's just there every day willing to help, and I'm progressing nicely," she said. "The doctor has said I'm two months ahead, so I'm doing really good at the Y."
Parker does exercises such as swimming laps, spinning and weight training.
"My walking is better and my talking is better," she said. "That could just be from recovery, but it could be from exercise, too."
She was a certified nursing assistant, or CNA, before her brain tumor. She worked at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center for 15 years, where she was an anesthesia tech in the operating room.
"I'm the same person as I was before, it's just my body will not do what I want it to do," she said.
Parker expects to return to work within the next year to two years, "and maybe sooner — the way the Y is working, it could be sooner, who knows?"