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It's Fun to Be at the YMCA

In 2 1/2 Years, Roz Hamby has transformed the Hollywood Y from an ailing facility to an energetic family center.

July 19, 1999|DENISE HAMILTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

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