It was way back in September during a staff meeting that I learned about a trip to London in August called YMCA175. It was for young leaders within the YMCA between the ages of 16-30 with the purpose of the trip being to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the YMCA in the city where it originated. It would be an incredible chance to meet and network with people not just from all over the country, but all over the world. My boss asked me if I would be interested in applying for such a unique opportunity and being a representative for St. Louis. My response? “Nah, I’m good.” I think everyone was a little taken aback that I wasn’t at least vaguely interested in such a special occasion. The reality, at the time, was that I just didn’t seem like something for me. I didn’t feel like I would be the best representative and the thought of missing a full week of work already stressed me out. It just didn’t seem right.
Over the next few weeks I started thinking more about what I could potentially be missing out on. While I didn’t necessarily feel like the most qualified candidate, perhaps this was my chance to really establish myself and rediscover the passion for the YMCA that had admittedly diminished in recent months. After all, how often does an opportunity like this present itself? How many times do trips to London just fall into your lap? I gradually came to the conclusion that it at least couldn’t hurt to throw my name in hat and see what happened.
This trip wasn’t just a “sign up and you get to go” type of thing. There was a pretty extensive application process along with a letter of recommendation that would need to be submitted. After that, if you’re lucky, you have to interview to be chosen as one of the ten delegates to represent the St. Louis region. As someone that didn’t have a whole lot of YMCA experience under my belt and without a ton of connections throughout the association I figured I would be a long shot to be selected. All in all, I had nothing to lose, which I truthfully believed helped me. I made it to the round of interviews and during my time with the selection committee I expressed my genuine desire to want to learn more about the world around me and meet people who could help me improve my perspective. I told them about my previous experience traveling abroad and about how I wanted to make my community a better place. After the interview, I will say, I was no longer apathetic about this trip. I wanted to go. I didn’t walk away from the interview thinking I nailed it, but I did feel like I made a good impression.
A couple days after the interview I got the call – I was going to London! Over the course of a couple months I went from not even wanting to go to now being so unbelievably excited. Over the next several months I would spend time meeting with the other delegates and leaders that I would be going with and learning more about the journey ahead of us.
In my mind the trip was always a good six months away. I assumed at any given time that I had plenty of time to mentally prepare for the conference. So naturally it didn’t really dawn on me that I was traveling across the pond until a few days out. People had been asking me for months if I was ready for the trip. I always said I was – that was NOT the case. I knew generally what the YMCA175 conference was going to be like but I was not at all prepared for what I was about to experience. I have to admit, the trip felt like more of a burden than anything in the weeks leading up. I wasn’t feeling particularly fulfilled in my position or happy about being at the Y, so the thought of spending a week devoted to celebrating the Y wasn’t overly thrilling. I started to stress out about the week of work I’d be missing and wanted to make sure I left things in good shape. I don’t think it was until I left work the Thursday before I left that the excitement I felt months earlier really started to come over me. Ready or not, I was heading to London.
Friday, August 2nd
The day was finally here. Bags were packed, excitement finally settling in. Thankfully I didn’t have an early morning flight, so I had some time to make sure I had everything before it was time to head to the airport. Our group had changed a bit over the course of the planning process, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. And since I had missed the previous couple meetings I didn’t really feel completely connected with the group. Initially that gave me some pause. How would I fit in with everyone? Who would I talk to the entire time? Was I going to be able to survive a week with these people? As we sat together in the airport those doubts quickly began to fade. I could tell that this was going to be a fun group to travel with.
Before I knew it we were boarding the plane for our first flight down to Houston before making the trek to London.
After a short layover in Houston, we were on the plane for London. If I was having doubts, it was too late now. The only thing between me and Y175 was an easy, fun nine hour flight. Riiiiight. I’ve been on many long road trips in my life, but nothing had quite prepared me for a nine hour flight. It was also hard for me to wrap my head around the time change we would be undergoing. We’d be leaving at 4:30pm and we’d be arriving at 7:30am on Saturday. However, it would feel like we’d be getting in at 1:30am. That meant the pressure was on to try and get some sleep before landing so that I wouldn’t immediately crash upon arrival. I can’t say that I got quality sleep but I did have moments of “comfortable rest.” Hey, it was better than nothing!
Saturday, August 3rd
At 7:30am our plane landed and came to a stop – we made it! I was honestly pretty amazed how quickly the nine hours had gone. And although I didn’t really sleep I was now wide awake, adrenaline starting to kick in. We made our way off the plane, grabbed our luggage, and cleared through customs. Our hotel was now an hour train ride away, our first test as a group. The train system was nothing like the MetroLink I’m accustomed to at home. The train was the method of transportation in London, with different tracks taking you all over the city. It was crucial that we knew when to get off and when to change lines. Thankfully I was with people that had some knowledge of how the system worked (shoutout to Caitlyn and Ken!).
As we made our way on the train the exhaustion and sleep deprivation started to hit us. We knew we would have to keep ourselves busy in order to stay awake. If we took time to relax and take naps then we’d be toast. We had to stay awake at all costs.
Thankfully we didn’t have too long of a ride before we made it to our stop – ExCeL London! If you’re a fan of the Olympics then you might remember that that’s where they were held back in 2012. We’d be spending our week at the ExCeL for the conference. It is a MASSIVE building, spanning almost an entire mile from one end to the other. Our conference of 3,000 people would only be taking up a small fraction of the facility.
The conference didn’t start until the next day, so we were off to our hotel. Luckily it was only a short walk away….or so we thought. According to Google Maps our hotel should have only been about a 5-10 minute walk away from ExCeL. However, we made an unnecessary turn and found ourselves tugging our luggage along the side of the road with cars veering past us. The good news is that we eventually found our hotel. The bad news is that there was no way to actually get to the hotel from where we were. Long story short, we had to completely backtrack to where we made the errant turn, only to find out the hotel was straight ahead of us.
On the bright side, it gave us a good laugh and definitely helped us stay awake. Our rooms wouldn’t be ready for a few more hours but we were able to drop off our luggage and make our way into the city for lunch. I’ll admit, I hadn’t heard great things about the food in Great Britain. By all accounts it was bland and boring. But regardless, I was excited to try something new, particularly the fish and chips. After some walking around in search of a spot to eat we naturally found ourselves at the most Americanized pub in town. The only things on the menu were pizza, wings, and hot dogs – just like home!
As we were walking around I had noticed a good number of people wearing maroon soccer jerseys. A closer look showed these were West Ham supporters. I knew the English Premier League season was slated to begin the following weekend but there were too many people in jerseys for there not to be game. I checked their schedule, and sure enough, they had a friendly that day! When we got to our lunch spot we were surrounded by West Ham fans and we noticed that they all appeared to be walking in the same direction, indicating that the stadium must be close. We finished up lunch and followed the crowd of maroon clad supporters and discovered that the stadium was in fact right around the corner. I have loosely followed the English Premier League for a number of years but have never pinned down a team to support. Being in the middle of West Ham territory was all it took for me to become their newest fan!
Lunch was just what we needed to get another boost of energy and kill enough time for our rooms to be ready. Again, it was crucial that we not take too much time to relax and instead stay moving. We took some time to shower, charge our phones, and catch our breath a bit before getting right back on the train.
On this venture we would be seeing the London I was envisioning. Old, historic buildings, double-decker buses, and red phone booths. That night we had booked a bus tour that would take us all around the city, showing us all the major landmarks. But before then we took some time just walking around and soaking in the vibe of the city. I can’t properly put into words just how awe-inspiring it felt to be walking those streets. On the surface, the buildings weren’t state of the art. But they were filled with history. It struck me just how young America is in comparison to England. While our country (as we know it) is only a couple hundred years old, England has thousands of years of stories packed into those walls and in those streets. Our country’s lifespan is just a drop in the bucket when compared to England.
After an hour or two of walking around it was time for our bus tour. This was definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me. Most of the week would be taken up by the conference, so we knew we wouldn’t have too much time for sightseeing. This bus tour took us all around London to show off all the big sights – Buckingham Palace, Big Ben (under construction, unfortunately), Tower of London, the Shard, the London Eye, St. Paul’s Cathedral. I sat atop the double-decker bus, in awe of all these beautiful structures. It was another reminder of the history of the city and the country I was in. And I initially didn’t want to come, why?
For as exciting as the bus tour was, exhaustion was starting to set in again. There were moments on the bus that I caught myself starting to nod off. I still had to push myself to stay awake for a few more hours. Thankfully we had a dinner reservation right after the tour was finished. That would definitely help. We unloaded off the bus and started making away toward our dinner destination. We would wind up making a turn into an alleyway off the main road. Maybe we’re going to some hole-in-the-wall? We found ourselves standing outside what appeared to be the backdoor entrance to a pub where we were greeted by people in top hats. It instantly became clear that we were at the wrong place. We were all dressed in shorts, T-shirts, and jeans – not quite the top hat and tuxedo that appeared to be the expected dress code. It turned out there were a few restaurants with the same name, each one with a different style. This gave us another good laugh before we made our way toward another pub – hopefully one more our speed.
We found the perfect spot. It was exactly what I pictured a traditional British pub being. Just about every single one of us ordered the fish and chips, and I have to say, it was much better than I expected! I caught a second wind during dinner as we reminisced about the day we just had. It was crazy just how much we had already experienced in the previous 24 hours. We still had so much to see and do but this, for me, was the perfect way to begin the trip. I couldn’t have scripted a better way to get to know my fellow delegates, people that I didn’t know very well before. All the hesitations I had about traveling with them had completely vanished. I wouldn’t want to share this experience with anyone else.
Sunday, August 4th
Before going to bed the night before I told my roommate, Dallas, that I was typically an early riser, rarely sleeping in past 8:00am. There was a group going to see the changing of the guard that morning, so I figured I’d be joining. So needless to say, I was a bit shocked to roll over and see the clock show 11:00am when I woke up. I definitely needed the rest! I got out of bed feeling completely rejuvenated and ready for another day, which was important since today was the official beginning of the conference. Before heading to the ExCeL we had a quick lunch at the little pub next to our hotel.
After lunch we made our way over for our kickoff to the conference – a USA delegation meeting. This meeting was for all of the delegates representing YMCAs from across the country. You could just feel the energy and excitement in the room as we sang songs and heard from a handful of speakers. This was a bit of a precursor to the conference where we learned a little bit more about what the week ahead would entail. The highlight of the meeting was an icebreaker exercise where we had to meet someone we didn’t know and talk to them about why they were excited for Y175. I just so happened to meet a CEO for a YMCA in Long Beach, California. This man, Bob, had worked for the Y for over 30 years and it was immediately evident just how passionate he was about what he does. I was beginning to see just what the YMCA means to people.
After the delegation meeting we had just enough time to find a spot for dinner before the opening ceremonies. Back on the train we went, this time heading to a part of London called Greenwich. This time instead of fish and chips we’d be enjoying another main British dish – pie and mash. And of course I had to have a cup of tea with my meal!
We quickly scarfed down our dinner before getting right back on the train to head back to the ExCeL for the opening ceremonies. This would be the official beginning of the conference, which was honestly crazy considering how much I felt we had already done. We filed into the auditorium and found our seats. All the energy and excitement from the USA delegation meeting was at least tripled. Any direction I looked I could see young people from all over the world, joy and passion overflowing. In that room with me were 3,000 people representing over 100 countries. As I took in the scenes around me I was simply grateful that I was able to be one of them.
The opening ceremonies began with the introduction of the night’s emcees and some entertainment – an acapella group from Germany that would be a constant throughout the week. We then got to hear from a handful of speakers, collectively representing Sri Lanka, England, Scotland, and the US. Together they demonstrated why we were gathered there – to continue the legacy of George Williams, the founder of the YMCA. The YMCA that he had created 175 years ago had evolved into what was now an international organization designed to improve communities across the globe and provide a home to those that need one. To pay homage to the YMCA’s humble origins we had the pleasure getting to see installments of a play about George Williams throughout the week. I’d be lying if I said the actor portraying Williams didn’t become somewhat of celebrity at the conference.
Aside from the riveting speeches and high energy performances, the best part of the opening ceremonies was by far the presentation of the flags. One by one, every country’s flag was walked up to the main stage and displayed. Seeing the joy on each flag bearer’s face was something I’ll never forget. They were filled with pride to be representing their country. While the United States brought 600 delegates, there were some countries that only had a handful of representatives. Being there was truly an honor for them.
After the opening ceremonies wrapped up we were sufficiently energized and inspired. We were eager to continue the night over pints in the hotel lobby. We were primarily on the go throughout the week, so it was nice to have time together to simply unwind and hang out. In fact, it was in those moments that I felt like I was really able to put my guard down and get to know my travel companions. We had shared plenty of laughs together up to that point, but this was quality time for all of us to share openly.
Thus brought an end to our second full day of the trip. It was unbelievable how quickly it seemed to be passing, especially considering just how long I spent thinking about being right where I was. All I knew was that opportunities like this were few and far between, so I was determined to make the most of every minute.
Monday, August 5th
Today was the first “real” day of Y175. The next three days would follow the same format and would consist of speakers and individualized workshops that we got to choose. We started our day with some breakfast in the hotel lobby. The only reason I even mention that is because of the surprise item I would never expect to see at a breakfast buffet – baked beans. It was little things like this that I really enjoyed noticing – the minute differences between cultures and the subtle things that make each culture unique.
Speaking of cultural differences, our first item on the agenda that morning was a meeting with delegates from our partner country of Colombia. YMCAs have partners in other countries that they support and connect with. The St. Louis YMCAs collectively partner with YMCAs in Colombia, Ukraine, and Brazil, just to name a few. Every year we fundraise to help support those YMCAs financially. The operations in most of those countries are vastly different than the “gym and swim” model in the US. This trip provided us a truly unique opportunity to meet with representatives from those YMCAs and hear firsthand how our support has helped them.
There were two women from Colombia that met with us. We eagerly listened as they pridefully told us all the things their YMCA provides for their local community. Their focus is more on education and helping kids find a safe place to learn. You could just see that they truly lived the Y’s mission. It was something that was a part of who they were. I couldn’t help but feel inspired.
Before too long we were also joined by delegates from Brazil. They similarly told us what their YMCAs provide for their communities and thanked us for our support. Meeting with these people gave me a new perspective on the YMCA and what it stands for.
After saying our goodbyes we made our way to the opening devotion. There was some praise and worship music, a couple speakers, and another installment of the George Williams play. Following that was the day’s opening plenary, where we’d hear a few more talks and witnesses on a variety of topics. The speakers that morning represented Haiti, the UK, the Philippines, Pacific Island, Ecuador, and the US. While I may not remember exactly everything each speaker spoke about, what I do remember is the realization of just how small our world is. Never before had I ever been in a room with people from so many different corners of the world. And yet here we were, brought together under one common organization with the same goal – to help make that small world we live in a better place.
Once the opening plenary was completed it was time for lunch. One of the primary topics of the week was environmentalism and climate change. In an effort to be more environmentally conscious we had a “meat free” lunch. I didn’t realize before just how dependent I was on meat until my only option was a hummus and pepper wrap.
The rest of the afternoon was a bit more open. We each got to choose the workshops we attended, which we were able to research beforehand. So naturally my first stop was floor hockey. There was an entire space devoted to health and wellness activities. There was a plethora of things to choose from, including basketball, volleyball, zumba, rock-climbing, spike-ball, arrow tag, and of course, floor hockey.
I got in the game and joined a team of guys from Switzerland. Later I’d be playing against a guy from Sweden. And perhaps my favorite person I met during the entire trip was the referee from Norway, Markus. He may have been the most joyful, genuine person I’ve ever met, constantly heaping praise and encouragement on us as we were playing. “Oh, great pass! Wow, nice play! Guys, this is so much fun! I love this!” I couldn’t help but smile just listening to him to cheer us on.
I worked up quite the sweat (and may or may not have pulled something) just in time for my next workshop: Wellness, Leadership, & Advocacy. That workshop may have been my most adventurous undertaking of the entire trip. We began in what I would consider a cubicle inside the health and wellness zone. With music blaring in the background and the sound of sports being played, it was pretty hard to hear. Our presenter, Rachel from Florida, made the most with what she was given. As she was in the middle of her presentation, a conference representative came to tell us we could move to the cafeteria where it was quieter – our savior! We settled in there for maybe 10 minutes before being told by somebody else that they needed to begin prepping for dinner and that we had to leave. We ended up moving down the hall and found some open space around the corner. Finally we found our home…or so we thought. No less than five minutes in we were informed by a very serious security guard that we were not allowed to gather there because it was a fire hazard. Despite Rachel’s plea to stay for five more minutes we were forced to call an end to the workshop.
Relocations aside, I found the presentation to be absolutely riveting. My biggest takeaway is that our personal wellness can be broken down into eight categories: physical, mental, emotional, intellectual, social, occupational, financial, and spiritual. We all prioritize and process those categories differently. We may focus on our social wellness at the expense of our physical wellness, and vice versa. I found it to be very eye opening as I began to think about how I prioritize wellness in my life.
After that workshop I met up with my group for our scheduled meeting with the delegates from another of our partner YMCAs – the Ukraine. We were joined by seven or eight delegates from the Ukraine as we sat down to learn more about the services they provide. I was very surprised to hear that there are 25 YMCAs across the country and absolutely shocked to hear that they only have four – FOUR – paid staff members. Their YMCAs are almost entirely volunteer-led. I asked the president, Victor, how they found their volunteers. He said they don’t need to find volunteers, the volunteers come to them. The people that had been helped and supported by their local Y wanted to give back and volunteer. That blew me away. In my job I have to scratch and claw to find volunteer coaches. Yet in the country of Ukraine people take it upon themselves to live out the mission of the YMCA with being paid a dime. How incredible is that?
I made my way to one more workshop for the day – The History of the Y and You. I assumed this would be a history lesson of the YMCA and its origins. It turned out to be Archiving 101, filled with practical tips for how to file paperwork. So, not exactly the most thrilling topic. One line that I enjoyed, however, was that if you have a cool story or experience regarding a member and you leave without writing it down, that memory is gone. I thought that was a pretty valuable piece of advice.
Our group reconvened for dinner at the small pub by our hotel (hello, fish and chips!) before turning right back around for that night’s celebration. That night’s activities were more entertainment-focused, with singers and performers from the UK taking the stage. The highlight of the evening session was getting to hear from George Williams’ great-great-great-great granddaughter, as well as descendants of John Mott, another YMCA pioneer.
It was a hectic day, but that didn’t stop us from once again gathering in hotel lobby and chatting about our trip thus far over pints and hotel pizza (surprisingly good, I might add). Our camaraderie was constantly growing and strengthening with each new shared experience. I know I’ve mentioned it already, but I just didn’t know how I’d fit in with a group in which I didn’t really know anyone. But that was completely out the window at this point. As hard as it may have been to believe, our time together was waning, and I didn’t want to miss out on any of it.
Tuesday, August 6th
I was particularly excited for this morning’s activity. The night before a small group of us had decided that we were going to go visit the very first ever YMCA. Three of us (Caitlyn, Bailey, and I) began our walk to the train station. As we were walking we talked about how cool it would be to travel by train every day. It was such a novelty to us and we found it to be fascinating. We had completely overlooked the fact that it was a workday during the morning commute. People were absolutely crammed into each train, bodies literally pressed up against the doors. There were two times we were right at the front of the line waiting for the next train and were still unable to make it on because of the rush of people pushing to get on. There was a moment that Caitlyn and Bailey both made it on and I thought I would be left behind. But I was able to barely squeeze my way in before the doors slammed shut. Needless to say, it made me appreciate my alone time during my daily commute to work.
When we made it to our destination it was hard to believe it was the first ever YMCA. If not for the sign above the entrance indicating so I would have had no idea that’s what it was. To a passerby it appeared to be just another storefront along the street.
We told the associate at the front desk that we were there for the conference and he gladly gave us guest passes so that we could check out the facility. I guess I wasn’t really sure what to expect but I was admittedly surprised to see that it was fairly similar to the YMCAs back home. There was a basketball gym, a fitness center, an exercise studio, and personal trainer roaming around. I was equally surprised to see the things we don’t have. There was a library, a chapel, classrooms, and a full cafe. While in line at the cafe we happened to bump into the marketing director, who then graciously agreed to give us a personal tour. He explained to us the history of that particular Y, how it’s changed over the years, and the current challenges it faces. I was fascinated to hear that the very first ever YMCA is just as worried about competition as we are back home. I found that to be very refreshing, honestly. They weren’t just going to rest on their laurels and history. They understood that they needed to adapt and adjust to the times, just like everyone else.
Visiting that YMCA was easily one of my favorite moments of the trip. We could have easily stayed there for hours, asking more and more questions. But alas, we had a conference to get back to. We were a bit late to that morning’s opening plenary. That day’s morning speakers hailed from Norway, Colombia, Canada, South Africa, and the United States. My favorite speaker that morning was probably the last person you’d expect to hear speaking at a conference such as this. He was not a public speaker by trade. He wasn’t a business man nor a career Y person. He was an artist. But not somebody that studied art his whole life. No, he was somebody that began painting as a means to cope with his mental illness of OCD. It just so happened that he was an incredibly talented artist. So much so that other people wanted to purchase his paintings. He decided to use his art and skills as a way to help children who struggle with the same things he does. While he wasn’t a professional motivational speaker, I found him to be the most engaging and relatable speaker of the entire conference. I recommend everyone look up Jeffrey Sparr. Seriously. Do it. Right now.
I had a quick lunch and then it was off to workshops for the afternoon. My first one of the day was about Finding Rest in Your Life. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting (evidenced by the fact that we began with a 10 minute workout while I was wearing khakis and a polo). After that was a Q&A with former NBA player and current Vice President of Basketball Operations for Serbia, Igor Ravocevic. Although he is far from a household name (he only played one season in the NBA) it was still incredibly interesting to hear him talk about his career and the obstacles he faced. It was also another example of cultural differences as he talked about how boys in Serbia have to make a tough decision at a very young age – pursue a career in basketball or get an education. For those that choose basketball, if that career path doesn’t pan out then they are essentially stuck without direction. He also told stories about how his coaches growing up were tough, with one coach in particular hitting him with a clipboard during a game. He shrugged it off, as it was not out of the ordinary That certainly wouldn’t fly in today’s society at least not in the States.
Up next was one of the most unique, most eye opening experiences of my life, let alone the trip. It was a workshop centered around finding your purpose in life and it began with a group exercise. We were split into groups of four and I was in a group with a woman from the United Kingdom (Claire), a woman from Thailand (Denise), and a woman from Nigeria (Rose). We were tasked with going around the group and telling each other who we thought they were based purely on first impressions. We were given no time to chat or ask questions. We literally had to say to each other’s faces the kind of person we thought they were with absolutely background knowledge. At first it was ridiculously awkward. What do you possibly say about someone you don’t know without offending or insulting them? We went around, one at time, and told them things about themselves. We were shocked by just how accurate we were. We were able to identify core elements of each person’s identity with no background information. This wasn’t just surface level stuff like “I think you enjoy being outside.” One of them said to me that I’m someone who likes to observe things first before jumping in and another said that I’m afraid to take risks and hesitant to commit. I sat there, utterly baffled. How on EARTH do they know these things about me?!
We eventually moved on with the workshop but the four of us stayed afterward to talk more about how in awe we were of what had happened. We discussed the fact that all four of us were literally from different corners of the world, grew up in completely different cultures and societies, and yet were still able to be just about spot on with our observations. I mentioned how it just showed that, despite our apparent differences, we all have the innate ability to recognize the qualities in one another that make them unique. It also makes you wonder – how do other people, strangers on the street, see you? What is their perception of you? How do I present and carry myself? This was one of those encounters that I’ll likely never forget. I walked away still completely in awe. I wanted to tell everyone and anyone about it.
I was enjoying every aspect and every second of the trip. The speakers and workshops were insightful, inspiring, and engaging. The fellowship was unparalleled. The sights and local culture was breathtaking. But I was particularly looking forward to that night. There were no events planned for the conference that evening, giving us an open night to explore and enjoy the city. We had pinned down another pub to go visit later on. But that’s not what I was most looking forward to. I was looking forward to a reunion with my best friends, Matt and Julie!
Way back when I was applying for the trip I discovered that Matt and Julie’s vacation through Europe would happen to coincide with my time in London. What are the odds! I told them where my group would be that night and they agreed to come meet us. I excitedly told everyone that my friends would be joining us. They all asked if Matt and Julie lived in London or if I don’t get to see them very often. Nope, I see them all the time. In fact, I’m at their house just about every week. But when you and your best friends just so happen to be in a foreign country at the same time you find a way to meet up!
It was so great to catch up with them and hear all about their time in Ireland and France. Unfortunately they weren’t able to stay long (they had a rough day up to that point) but it was by far one of the highlights of London.
My group remained at the pub for dinner (you guessed it – fish and chips!) and we were even able to get the owner to give us a tour. It turned out there was a lot more to this pub than originally meets the eye. For starters, it was seven stories. He took us to each level and told us about the history of the pub. It had once burned down and was restored in 1667. How crazy is it that the place we were standing was older than our country? Not only that, but this pub was once the home for the original “Polly want a cracker” parrot. I’m storing that information away for a future trivia night for sure.
We eventually decided to relocate to another pub. Walking through the streets of London was like walking through time. The architecture there is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Every building, every structure we passed was rustic, authentic, and filled to the brim with history. This was one of those moments where I had to stop and pinch myself.
We made it to our next location, a pub in a cave, only to find out that it was closing in 10 minutes. We were allowed to go inside to see the cave, which I’m glad we did. Not because of the cave, but because a patron inside genuinely thought we were an American football team. That will be the first and only time I am ever mistaken for a professional athlete.
We ended our evening at our usual spot in the hotel lobby. I couldn’t believe that we only had one more day of the conference. In some ways it felt like we had been there for weeks on end while in other ways it felt like we just got there. We had taken advantage of every single moment. It wasn’t about to stop there.
Wednesday, August 7th
We had an early start to the day with another US delegation meeting scheduled at ExCeL. The constant activity and excitement was starting to take a toll. I struggled over to the delegation meeting and managed to find some coffee. This meeting was designed to be a bit of a recap of the week thus far and also a springboard for moving forward. We had an activity where we got into several groups and discussed a few different topics. There wasn’t any one thing that was overly insightful but what I do remember is seeing the passion of the young people in the room. A vast majority of the US delegation were high school and college aged students that were determined to make an impact. I couldn’t help but feed off their energy and drive. They wanted to change the world, and gosh darn-it, so did I!
As I was leaving the delegation meeting I happened to run into Rachel, who you might remember was the presenter from my eventful first workshop. We talked for about 15 minutes about her presentation, our Y careers, and what we hoped to accomplish. It was one of those small moments that made the conference so special. Building connections with people from all over the country and all over the world.
That morning we had some pretty dynamic speakers for the opening plenary. The speakers were from South Africa, Scotland, Canada, and the US. Given how tired I was, those particular speakers were definitely the right choice due to their high energy presentations. After another meatless lunch it was now time for the final afternoon of workshops.
The first workshop I attended was one of my favorites. Our presenter was from Australia and he told us about a program he began at his local YMCA. It was a workout group designed for people ages 16-24 who are struggling with their mental health. The people that participate self-identify and don’t have to have a specific diagnosis to participate. They workout together twice a week, prioritizing their physical health while also developing an essential sense of community. What’s more, this program is offered for free so as to eliminate as many barriers as possible. Now that is cause driven. This is the kind of thing every YMCA should incorporate, identifying a need in the community and addressing it. I walked away thinking about areas of need in my own community and what I can do to be that difference-maker.
The rest of my afternoon was pretty relaxed. I spent some time with two members of my group, Becky and Dallas, talking more in depth about our favorite parts of the conference. Dallas, an avid bow hunter, convinced me to join him for a game of Arrow Tag in the health and wellness zone. Needless to say, it wasn’t my cup of tea (pun intended). But it was still a pretty great way to wind down after what had been a jam packed week.
The conference came to an official end that evening with our closing ceremonies. We were treated to performances by a UK-based Gospel Choir and the a capella group from Germany, as well as talks from speakers representing Togo, Australia, and the US. In the blink of an eye, YMCA175 was over. It’s hard to fathom how a conference with 3,000 people from over 100 countries could seemingly end so quickly. Thankfully, though, our trip wasn’t quite finished.
Thursday, August 8th
The final day. With the conclusion of the conference and our flight not until the afternoon we had a bit time for some last minute shopping. We had researched a popular spot along the way to the airport, and so, with luggage in tow, we were on our way.
We got our day started a little later than anticipated, so there was little time for dilly dallying. We stopped in the first gift shop we found and quickly secured our souvenirs. No sooner had we gotten off the train we were back on it. Of course, no trip to London is truly complete without a stop at Platform 9 3/4 (shoutout to the Potterheads out there). We were definitely “those” tourists as we tried to locate the platform. A kind local pointed us in the right direction and to nobody’s surprise we found it complete with a ridiculously long line. We took some time to soak it in before turning right back around to get on the train.
As we looked at the time an ounce of panic started to set in. We had fallen away from our anticipated schedule and were now racing against the clock. We had told a fellow passenger on the train what time our flight was and the look of angst on his face told us all we needed to know.
We arrived at the airport and navigated our way through as quickly as possible. Employees at the airport get a bad rap for being short and unpleasant but luckily for us all the employees we encountered at this particular airport were friendly and personable. Unluckily for us they were a little too talkative, totally unaware of our silent panic. We cleared our way through security (not before I unnecessarily took off my shoes, not knowing that just happened in the US airports) and wound up having plenty of time to spare before our flight took off.
One nine hour flight later we landed in Chicago. It was pretty surreal to leave at 2:30pm, fly for nine hours, and arrive at 5:30pm. I had never experienced jet lag before, and it’s safe to say it would end up taking me a few days to adjust. Up to that point I had been running on adrenaline and excitement. I had yet to run into the proverbial wall…until now. As we sat together eating dinner I struggled mightily to stay awake. We had about a three hour layover and it was taking everything I had to not fall asleep in the middle of the airport. Our wait mercifully came to and end as we boarded our final flight home to St. Louis.
In my groggy, worn down state of mind I reflected back on the week that was. I sat there in my seat, not really sure how to feel. At that point I was just ready to be home. But I was also sad to be saying goodbye to such an unbelievable experience. I was going to miss London, I was going to miss the conference, but most importantly I was going to miss the people I was able to share it with. It’s amazing how quickly you just become used to being with certain people. This group evolved from being unknown colleagues to people I now consider friends. It was going to be weird to not wake up and spend each day with them. Although we work within the same association it’s very rare that I see any of them on a consistent basis. One of the biggest revelations I had on the trip was just how closed off I was before. Whenever we have big association-wide events I tend to cling to the people I know from my home branch. I now realized how many wonderful, amazing people I worked with.
There were so many things I left out. So many small moments that subtlety impacted me. Even a couple weeks after YMCA175 I’m still processing everything that happened. This trip is going to continue shaping me well after it’s conclusion. One of my biggest struggles in life is appreciating and enjoying the present moment but I’m incredibly grateful that I was able to make the most of every second of being in London. I thoroughly believe that not only am I a better professional, I’m more importantly a better person for having gone. I still can’t believe that there were times I even questioned going. To all of you reading that encouraged me to go and supported me I don’t know what else to say other than THANK YOU. And to those of you I had the absolute privilege of traveling with (Dallas, Becky, Ken, Cami, Brandi, Collin, Taylor, Katie, Andy, Bill, Jared, Bailey, Caitlyn, and Kayla) – I can’t wait until our next adventure together.
If you thought there would be an international YMCA conference with over 3,000 people without at least one playing of “YMCA” then you’re crazy.