One Mom Shares How Her Family Grew Up in the YMCA

The YMCA is more than a place for exercise for Maria Diaz. It’s a second home where she and her children have grown and thrived. Here’s her story.

Over the past 24 years, Maria Diaz’s kids have grown up at the Downriver Family YMCA. And, in a way, so has she.

An immigrant from Venezuela, Diaz came here with her now ex-husband and they settled in metro Detroit to raise their family. “I was a mom at home and noticed a new Y opened near where I was living, so I joined the Y,” Diaz says, adding that her degree in physical therapy demonstrates her love for exercise and physical fitness. It turned out to be a great fit.

Diaz was looking for a job that would maximize her skills, so she applied at the Downriver Y, hoping to work in fitness. “One employee said she really liked me and asked me if I wanted to work in the summer camp program and it was really amazing, but I felt bad because my kids were home while I was having fun with the kids at summer camp,” Diaz says.

The Y offered to provide scholarships so Diaz’s children, Hanzo, Maria and Daisuke, could attend camp, and Diaz says she was thrilled to accept.

“It was great because my kids could come to camp and be part of the Y,” Diaz says. “I worked and my kids were there, too, for two summers in a row.”

Family way of life

Pretty soon, Diaz was offered a job as a personal trainer, and all the while, her kids participated in activities at the Y. “They swam and took lessons and played in the splash park,” she says. Diaz also became a group exercise instructor and taught Zumba.

“When I became group exercise coordinator, that’s when the growth really started,” Diaz says. “I really invested my time and the Y invested in me.” She soon became wellness director, which means she ran the wellness floor and the fitness department, overseeing personal training, too.

Today, Diaz’s title at the Downriver Y also includes Membership Experience Director.

“We make members’ experiences so great they want to stay with the Y. The Y has always treated me like family and that’s what I do for our members. I treat them like family,” she says. “When we keep our members, we keep the Ys open and the employees busy and their families fed. It’s an important cycle.”

Healthy habits

Throughout the years, the Y has become the Diaz family’s second home, providing a place to connect with community, make friends and stay healthy. Hanzo was a state champion in gymnastics for three years in a row, graduated from Grand Valley State University and joined the Marine Corps, stationed in California. Maria attends college in Arizona (“She wanted a change of weather,” Diaz says), and Daisuke, who loved to wrestle in high school, graduated from GVSU. Now that her kids are grown, Diaz considers the YMCA to be her family.

“I have no family in the U.S. It’s always been me and my kids, and now they do their own stuff,” she says. “The YMCA became my family from day one, when they decided that my kids could go to summer camp.”

After 15 years employed by the Y, Diaz looks forward to the next 15.

“People ask me why I’m still there because I could make more money somewhere else,” she says. “Money is important, but the Y gave me more than money. The Y made me feel safe. I want to be able to do more for the whole community. When you have a membership in the Y, you are helping the community. You’re not just paying for a gym membership but helping the community, too. We are here for everyone.”

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