New director sees Y as “a pillar of the community”

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Pedaling away on a stationery bike, Ryan Venter takes a break from his usual work and meetings, while Liz Cifarelli, group exercise coordinator, advises him. Venter, the new YMCA director, runs regularly at the Y, and completed his first marathon last fall. The mission of the Capital District YMCA — originally called the Young Men’s Christian Association — is “to put Christian principles into practice through programs that build a healthy spirit, mind, and body for all.”

Record-setter: Ryan Venter — at left, in a 1997 game — was a forward on Bethlehem High School’s varsity basketball team. He still holds the school record for most three-point baskets in a single game — seven. He says that sports have taught him teamwork, leadership, and many life lessons, and jokes about his competitive side: “Whether it’s basketball, Monopoly, or checkers, I want to win.”

GUILDERLAND — Ryan Venter, who has been an athlete all his life, now leads the Guilderland YMCA but says the venue is about far more than sports.

As the Capital District executive director, Venter says, “It’s a big part of the community, just like the library is, just like the school district is. The Y, I consider a pillar of the community.”

Venter grew up in Delmar, where he played baseball and soccer, and was captain of the varsity basketball team at Bethlehem Central High School. He attended Boston College, where he considered becoming a sportswriter before getting involved in administration and marketing.

After graduating, he returned to the Capital District where his family lives and his wife grew up. For eight years, he worked at the Albany College of Pharmacy, serving as director of Athletics and Recreation before he began working at the Guilderland YMCA this past July.

Venter and his family joined the Bethlehem YMCA seven years ago, just after his first daughter was born. “There’s always kids around, there’s always activities. It’s a busy place, it’s an active place,” he says. He has two daughters now, and last year he coached his 7-year-old’s soccer team.

Over time, Venter saw the impact the YMCA had on the community. “I wanted to be part of that,” he says. A major way the YMCA affects the community, he says, is through its programs. “I don’t think a lot of people know about them,” says Venter, “but that’s what makes us unique.”

Of the Guilderland YMCA’s many programs, “Circle of Champs” is one that improves the quality of life of children affected by life-threatening illnesses. The YMCA throws parties for the children and takes them and their families on trips.

Another is “Pedaling for Parkinson’s,” a fitness program designed for people with the progressive neurological disorder. “We’ve seen tremendous benefits, improved personality and physical abilities, whether it be walking better, or getting around easier,” says Venter.

An upcoming program is “Diabetes Prevention,” slated to launch at the Guilderland YMCA on Nov. 27. According to Nancy Gildersleeve, director of Healthy Living at the Capital District YMCA, the yearlong program helps participants develop a sustainable lifestyle that will prevent Type 2 diabetes.

The “Diabetes Prevention” program is nationwide and evidence-based, says Gildersleeve, meaning studies and research were used to find what is most effective.

While Type 1 diabetes, which used to be called juvenile diabetes, is closely linked with a person’s genes, Type 2 diabetes can be treated with lifestyle changes. According to the American Diabetes Association, 8.3 percent of Americans — about 18.8 million people — have diabetes; just 5 percent of those have Type 1.

Many YMCA members have succeeded and met the program’s numerical goals: a 7-percent reduction in weight, and increased physical activity to 150 minutes. “Prior to that, folks just needed some support and guidance on how to make some small changes and how to live a healthier lifestyle,” says Gildersleeve.

Participants will attend 16 weekly core sessions at the YMCA. In a classroom setting, a lifestyle coach will teach a new topic each week, ranging from holiday eating to stress reduction.

At first, stress seems to have little to do with diabetes, but it can cause people to overeat, says Gildersleeve. “When something is upsetting them, people tend to turn to food just because it’s there, not because they’re hungry.”

After the first 16 weeks, members can attend monthly maintenance sessions to stay on track. Both core and maintenance sessions are held Wednesday evenings, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.

The program costs $150 for members, in addition to the $51-per-month adult membership fee, and $225 for nonmembers.

Currently, about 650 of the Guilderland YMCA’s 10,000 members are on scholarship. “What we say at the Y is that we never turn away people because of their inability to pay,” says Venter.

Of Guilderland’s 10,000 members, “There will always be people who just want to get their workout in,” says Venter. But he understands them and relates. He himself runs regularly.

To Venter, exercise and fitness complement building community. “People will always want to feel some sort of community,” he says. “We want them to feel that here at the Y.”

“Being a nonprofit, we do those things because we want to make an impact in the community,” says Venter of the YMCA’s programs, “not because we want to boost our bottom line.”

Venter hopes more of Guilderland’s 10,000 members will take advantage of the opportunities other than fitness at the YMCA. And he hopes others in the community will learn about the diverse programs at the YMCA. “I feel that both members and nonmembers view the Y as a gym and a swim,” says Venter. “We want people to know we are more than that.”

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