Over 150 years, YMCA of Honolulu has been defined by diversity, inclusion

Updated: Nov. 8, 2019 at 5:25 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Lisa Ontai is an expert on the YMCA’s rich history.

And there’s a lot of rich history to comb through.

“We’re all about diversity. We’re about inclusion. We were about that before they even became a buzzword. That really started with our three founders,” she said.

This week, the YMCA of Honolulu celebrates its 150th anniversary. And they’re marking the big occasion by looking back at the organization’s beginnings.

Peter Jones, Thomas Walker and Sanford Dole started the YMCA of Honolulu in 1869. By the 1920s, Y volunteers who canvassed Oahu established 204 Boys Clubs across Oahu.

"They wanted to give them character development activities, sports, and just a really good positive role model." Ontai said.

In 1918, a handful of men got together to create a YMCA that welcomed everyone regardless of race.

Steven Ai's grandfather was one of them.

“So there’s a Chinese gentleman, a Japanese, Korean and three Caucasians who said, ‘Let’s have a Y for our community,’” he said.

They founded the original Nuuanu YMCA that was built on the corner where Pali Longs and Safeway now stand.

In 1948, four young weight lifters from the Nuuanu Y made the US Olympic team.

“That’s the first time we ever had Asian-Americans represent the United States on an Olympic team,” Ontai said.

World record-setting weightlifter Tommy Kono pumped iron at the Nuuanu Y. It was also the first Y in America to offer martial arts classes.

"I really look at our Y as something that's a treasure of our community," Ai said. "It's just a terrific thing to know that my grandfather was a part of it."

The present Nuuanu YMCA sits kitty-corner to the old location. It’s Honolulu’s flagship branch and a hub of activity.

“We are open to all. We are for all,” Ontai said.

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