Northern Berkshire YMCA risking lives of members – including children

The sudden onset of illness in a YMCA lifeguard this morning underscored the dangerous  safety policy the Northern Berkshire YMCA uses and has no intention of changing, according to its executive director, Justin Ihne and board president, David Brown.

Located in North Adams, the YMCA has five locker rooms, none of which have emergency buttons or phones in the event of a medical emergency. Two of the locker rooms are for children. When  Ihne was asked what members, including the children, should do in the event of a medical emergency in the locker rooms, he said he expects them to use their cell phones or go get a lifeguard – except, of course, if the lifeguard is sick, or the pool is closed.

In an April 17 letter to this writer, Ihne said, “…if members do have issues they can yell to a lifeguard who in fact is the best person for first responding. But also everyone having cellphones, 911 can easily be called alternatively.”

When told of this situation through an email to his work site (Ihne refused to  provide  this writer (a YMCA member) a list of board members and contact information) , YMCA board president David Brown  responded by saying his employees were bothered by the email being sent to his work site, he was on vacation, and perhaps we could meet and talk about it when he returned in a couple of weeks from vacation.  Brown went on to say the entire safety situation was not a matter for the board.

Just when you think things can’t get more unsettling, Joe McGovern, executive director of the Northern Berkshire United Way and former executive director of the Northern Berkshire YMCA, was perfectly comfortable with the YMCA’s safety policy. So was North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright  who said, “I am certain Mr. Ihne has displayed the highest levels of care for the “Y” and all patrons.”  The YMCA building is owned by the city

In the April 17 letter Ihne claimed the Y’s safety plan is “mimicked by other YMCAs” and used by “many YMCAs throughout the commonwealth and the country.”  When I wrote to Ihne asking him to name the YMCAs in the commonwealth and country he was referring to, he did not respond.

I checked in with some other YMCAs and have yet to find one that mimics the Northern

Berkshire YMCA.

  • The Pittsfield YMCA has phones in their locker rooms so members can reach the front desk or call 911.
  • The YMCA of Central Massachusetts reports that all three  of their YMCAs have phones in the locker rooms able to reach the front desk and 911 in the event of an emergency.
  • The Downtown Springfield YMCA has both emergency buttons and phones in their lockers rooms in case of an emergency.
  • The Bradenton YMCA in Manatee County, Florida has push button alarms throughout the building so wherever you are an emergency button is nearby

And so on…

It seems the facts don’t matter to Ihne, Brown, McGovern or the mayor.

  • When it was pointed out that all members don’t have cell phones, it didn’t make a difference to them.
  • When it was pointed out that they were applying their you’re-on-your-own safety policy to children, it didn’t make a difference.
  • When it was pointed out the North Adams Hospital had closed  and, for now, the nearest emergency room was 25 miles away, it didn’t make a difference.
  • When it was pointed out that getting the lifeguard would waste a lot of time since the lifeguard would have to clear and secure the pool before he or she could respond and then, once on the scene, would have to find a phone to call 911, it didn’t make a difference.
  • When it was pointed out that the medical community calls the first hour after the onset of a medical emergency the golden hour because getting emergency medical care in the first hour improves the chance of a positive outcome, it didn’t make a difference.

As if this weren’t enough of a problem, the Y’s attempt to bring itself into ADA compliance, it was cited in a 2012 settlement between the United States Department of Justice and the City of North Adams is moving along sluggishly at best.  Despite repeated requests for a time when grab bars will  be installed in the showers and bathroom stalls, neither Ihne nor Brown will provide one. When this writer sent the Y’s leadership a website documenting the reasonable cost of grab bars, they did not response.

One might wonder, I know I did, why the Y’s leadership has no intention of improving the safety standards  why it expresses its  callous and, frankly, dangerous position so brazenly. Now, I can’t read the mind of another person, but part of the answer may rest in the following two places.

  1. YMCA of the USA spokesperson said there is no  national YMCA that oversees all Y’s around the country. There are YMCA corporate Y’s that oversee a cluster of Y’s  and then there are the independent YMCAs that are answerable to no one but their own board of directors.  The Northern Berkshire YMCA is an independent Y. To make matters worse, sources say all applications for the Northern Berkshire YMCA must go directly through Ihne, so its no wonder he has, thus far, been able to act with impunity – or so it seems.
  2. Abraham Lincoln was right when he said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

It seems to me, Ihne, Brown, McGovern and Alcombright are each having their character tested. So far, all four are failing miserably, failing the members , the staff, and – worst of all – the children.

Moving to the Berkshires

It is now all but certain that I will be moving to the Berkshires in Massachusetts on May 1. While it will be the first time in my life that I’ve lived anywhere but New York State, there are a few things that need to be said at the outset.

First: I will always be a New Yorker. Second: I will not end my involvement with the world of brain injury in New York. In fact, my new home is on or about 25 miles closer to Albany than where I live now. Third: Now and forever I will remain a NY Yankees, Giants, Rangers and Knicks fan. Having gotten my love for and loyalty to New York memorialized, let me say that I am genuinely happy and excited about the move. One of the first place’s I will visit once I settle in will be Edith Wharton’s home called The Mountain. I’ve read number of her books and in my view her work is one of the greatest things about American literature, any literature for that matter.

I have, of course, mapped out the area’s public library system and am overjoyed about that. More than anything though, I am looking forward to settling into a new home that I do not have  to leave. I want to pare down my focus in life to two primary areas: writing and advocacy. If I am lucky, travel would be nice.

I will deeply miss some new friends I’ve made where I’m living now, people I genuinely love and care about. But, as my closing in on 40 years of friendship with Michael Sulsona proves, you don’t have to live in the same locale to remain active friends. Michael lives in Staten Island.

And now, the process of moving. Here is exactly how I feel about moving. American playwright Lillian Hellman once said, “I hate writing, I love having written.” For me, I hate moving, I love having moved.


The writing on the wall says I  need to move by next November; current realities make this so. Where am I hoping to move to? Western Massachusetts, southern Vermont, or somewhere in New York not too fare from the Massachusetts border. Requirements? That wherever I move is quiet and embraced by nature, doesn’t mind my dogs, and is a place I can afford on disability with whatever subsides may be available.

One of my current tasks is to learn all I can about what kind of help is available in Massachusetts and Vermont for folks with a disability.

I do not want an apartment and am instead looking for a cottage or bungalow. If could inflict a must on the next abode, it would be the presence of a fireplace or woodstove. I have found an unexpected benefit in the presence of a woodstove where I am now; it helps me out-battle agoraphobia. I collect wood and kindling and once I’m out am taking walks. This has done wonders for my health, my physical condition and, not incidentally, helps with anxiety.

I can tell you that having to move is emotionally grueling and, well, exhausting.