The YMCA remains my lifesaver

Published 10:58 pm Saturday, October 13, 2012

By P. Vaughan Russell

The YMCA in Selma saved my life. As a child born with a light case of cerebral palsy, I had already “drowned” in Cotton Bayou in what was called “Alabama Point” in 1953. Today it’s known as Orange Beach. My father, John Russell, used the basic lifesaving skills that he learned at the Y to bring me back to life and breath when others urged him to quit or “let me go” to preserve his own sanity. Totally exhausted, he refused to give up and used what he learned in his Christian home, his home church and the YMCA, working feverishly when no one else would relieve him in the effort to bring me back to life.

My dad was, and is, a “Grist Boy,” a phrase coined to describe a boy who was raised through the Y system when Paul Grist ran the Selma Y. I am among the last crop of “Grist Boys” who were also “Pat Knight Boys, Wendell Parrish Boys, Guy Polley Boys, and Bill Porter Boys.” I inherited a love for the YMCA and it is among my most prized possessions.

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Teaching me to swim fell to the tireless efforts of my mother, Bootsie Russell, and Pat Knight. Though I could barely tread water, the two of them conspired to put me on the competitive swim team where I was lucky to survive a practice much less a competitive swim meet.

What did I know? I thought every new, competitive swimmer had a coach and mother that would walk alongside the pool as he struggled with each 20-yard lap along that rather tiny strip of water. I recall in competitions, my opponents would be out of the pool and dry before I made my last touch of the wall, while applause I did not understand at the time echoed in my ears.

The Y never gave up on me and though I never bested my younger sisters at swimming — even in practice — I placed 8th out of 200 swimmers in the 100-yard breaststroke at the state meet in Birmingham. This was just prior to my “retirement” from swimming when I discovered girls, debate and the Y’s youth legislature program through “Tri-Hi-Y.” Pat Knight acted as if my leaving swimming was a real blow to the team, and for that I shall always be grateful.

I also summered at Camp Grist as a camper, counselor and ironically, a lifeguard. Wendell Parrish found scholarship money to allow me to attend every camp and Camp Grist became my summer home from age six through my early college years. Counselors made the princely sum of $2 a day, but I confess I was overpaid. I would have worked my summers there for less than nothing because of what the Y had done for my family and me.

Now that I am grown (or at least old), the YMCA is still there for me. Like our public library, the Y gives me very much and asks very little. It is a place that I frequent because I love it and because it is good for my body and spirit. I am always welcomed with warm hearts and friendly smiles and I enjoy the company of friends and acquaintances that cross all of the artificial lines that society and culture have left with us or are currently trying to thrust upon us.

My regular visits to the Y have my weight down, my spirits up and my vision of what Selma can be for us all promoted. The YMCA is still a lifesaver, but remains a life-builder as well. I simply would not be here without the Selma YMCA, and for that I am eternally grateful.