BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ -- The first members to enter and use the Berkeley Heights YMCA when it officially opened at 5 a.m. on Feb. 6, were a couple of 15-year-olds who came in to shoot baskets in the gym before school. Executive Director Tiffany Escott said the youngsters “said they wanted to be the first people to play basketball in the gymnasium.” They were, and returned more than once. 

Whether they were there on Saturday, Feb. 29, is unknown, but there is no doubt the Berkeley Heights YMCA was the place to be that day. The brand-new branch of the Summit Area YMCA held its official grand opening and ribbon cutting in the gym and it was standing room only!

Summit Area YMCA officers and members of its Board of Trustees, Berkeley Heights YMCA staff members, YMCA members and volunteers, a Congressman, a State Senator, an Assemblyman, two Freeholders, the current and former Mayor, current and former council members, moms and dads, grandparents, children, the curious and the press turned out in full force. 

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There were people to thank, stories to tell, an entire facility to explore, refreshments, tours and even live music in front of the cozy fireplace. Yep - there is a fireplace!

President and CEO of the Summit YMCA Paul Kieltyka served as MC for the event. He welcomed everyone, then in a masterfully choreographed dance, introduced the speakers -- many of whom had a Y story to tell. 

Pastor of the New Presbyterian Church Jeff Ebert gave the invocation and told the first Y story of the day - he said he received his first paycheck when he was 15 and it was from the YMCA, where he was an instructor. 

Congressman Tom Malinowski (D-NJ 7th District) said the opening of this new Y is a “wonderful occasion for this community and all the communities around it.” He said he had many amazing memories of the Y, then told his Y story. “The biggest win of my entire life was not getting elected to the United States Congress … it was age 11, in the YMCA Little League, in Princeton, scoring the tying run in the last half of the last inning of our local world series.” He said his team was like the “Bad News Bears” and no one gave them a chance. “Nothing will ever be as good as that ... May all the children of all ages in this room” have wonderful memories like that, he said. 

Kieltyka said, “There is a long history of how we got to this point,” and he introduced Chairman of the Board Bob Jeffries to describe that history. Jeffries said before he joined the board, the search was already on for a new site for the Berkeley Heights YMCA.  There were three locations under consideration, “but they never worked … Then we got involved with the Berkeley Heights Community Pool, and we found the perfect place ... We never dreamed of a place like this. We are thrilled,” Jeffries said.

He thanked the past board chair, the finance chair and “our incredible management team, starting with Paul … We couldn’t have done it without you,” the community.

Kieltyka said, “These things don’t get built in a day. This is the first new YMCA in our association in about 106 years and in New Jersey in 11 years.”  He credited the team, the construction manager, architect of record, engineer, and others. “We still have a pool coming. That pool will be open this summer,” he said. “Stay tuned, there is more coming.”

He brought up Laurie Liming to share her Y story, which began when she made a new year’s resolution and spent several years getting fit and learning to run. On Sept. 11, 2015 she received a call that changed her life. She had taken a mammogram and was asked to come in and have a further test. It wasn't long after that she learned she had breast cancer and then went through years of debilitating treatment, she said.

Metastatic Breast Cancer took even her ability to walk, she said. "It felt like someone else’s story," not hers. She continued treatments and "walked through the next 18 months." Soon New Year’s Eve was on the horizon, and she got a call from someone at the Y who asked if she would be interested in joining the “LiveStrong” program designed to get cancer survivors back on their feet. She said, “Yes … Joining the LiveStrong program saved my life” and, in the process, she learned to run again.

Capital Campaign Chairman Robert Radest thanked “the people who helped us build” this new facility, then noted “Our work is not done. We are still accepting gifts for the Capital Campaign ... There is still a long way to go," he said. Last week the YMCA began its 2020 Annual Campaign, which funds services and programs which the Y provides to its communities, Radest said. Donations to either and/or both funds are appreciated.

State Senator Tom Kean, Jr. talked about the strength of the YMCA and its community, of watching his daughters learn to swim, and his oldest daughter compete at a chess tournament at the Westfield Area YMCA. He said every time you come in the building, “there is a sense of friendship, a sense of safety, a sense of opportunity, a sense of people who are working together … That is what this building represents … The people know that this building and this family will be here for generations to come.”

Kieltyka returned to his role of MC and said, “to make an investment like this in this community we don’t just turn the keys over to anybody,” then introduced Escott, who received cheers and applause from the audience.

She read a proclamation from U.S. Senator Cory Booker honoring the YMCA which said the YMCA “will serve as a pillar of support for the community … and make a positive impact on the lives of countless individuals.”

Escott said, “I’ve been waiting ten years to welcome you to the new Berkeley Heights YMCA. So, welcome.” It took exactly sixteen months to open the YMCA, from Oct. 6, 2018 to Feb. 6, 2020.” She thanked a huge number of people, including all those who had previously been mentioned, plus past and present members of her grants committee, Summit YMCA staff and more. “You have all been a tremendous support,” she said.

The move into the new building began four weeks earlier, Escott said, “Everybody jumped in, no one complained … They all said ‘What can I do?’ … I appreciate all of you and thank you for all you have done.”

She reminded people that childcare was provided at the old Berkeley Heights YMCA through 6:30 p.m., Jan. 31, and started again at 6:30 a.m., Feb. 3, at the new facility. The staff moved everything from the old building to the other over the weekend.

The YMCA has already seen tremendous growth in the area of families and teens, said Escott. On school days, between 3:30 and 4 p.m, there is already a crowd of teens. Since opening, the YMCA has “become the community center for teens,” she said. They are very respectful and it is great to see them here -- they work out, play basketball and often do their homework, she said.

“Our pool is next,” she said. “Our 50-meter heated pool will be open this summer for YMCA members and community members. I joined, I hope you do.”

Escott thanked “My family -- my husband, two daughters, parents and father-in-law -- for putting up with me for the past two years.” 

She also thanked “former Mayor Robert Woodruff and his Township Council for helping us start this project … They were instrumental with getting us together with the community pool and getting this started.”

Councilwoman Jeanne Kingsley said she was “thrilled today, especially as the mother of a middle schooler.” Before this YMCA was built, teens spent their time at the Pizza Hut after school, she said, adding, “It’s been a long road to get here,” one that began when she and Woodruff first met with Kieltyka six years earlier. They and others spent several years looking for a new location for the YMCA in Berkeley Heights. She thanked Kieltyka, Escott, the board and others “for not giving up … Berkeley Heights is lucky to have such a wonderful facility.”

Escott thanked "Mayor Angie Devanney and her team for being so helpful” when they first took office, jumping in feet first to help the YMCA make contacts with JCP&L and others, as needed. 

Devanney related a conversation in January with Kieltyka, who was worried about having a temporary certificate of occupancy for the new facility so the childcare center from the old facility could be moved into the new one. “New Jersey only allows one address per childcare license, so it was imperative that the transition was flawless,” Devanney said. She realized the new Y “‘is the first project to touch off many changes that will define our township for the next decade.”    

She concluded by thanking the YMCA family. “I hope you feel how important your presence is to all of us.”

Debra and her son 24-year-old son Brian lauded the YMCA for the inclusion program it runs. Brian has been a member for three years. She said she is “always looking for inclusion” opportunities for Brian which “come from the heart. We found that here,” she said. The program has not only helped him become more fit, it has helped him with his social fitness, she said..

Brian said, “YMCA you rock!” 

Assemblyman Jon Bramnick observed that since the beginning of the day’s festivities “the scoreboard has not changed.” It read Home 00, Guest 00 throughout the event. “I would have had someone working that scoreboard and when Tiffany came up, I would have put 100 for Home and Guest 0,” he said to an appreciative crowd. 

He concluded on a serious note “The YMCA brings everybody together. It brings Republicans and Democrats together, people of all faiths, and people who just believe in love and society.”

Kieltyka said “Let’s cut some ribbon,” and they did. A huge group of people came up -- trustees, people involved in design and the construction, officials, staff members and more. There was more than one ribbon cutting, but only one ribbon, so it got shorter, but no one was complaining. They were having too much fun.

Following the ribbon cutting there were guided tours of the facility, information tables, activities in the child care chamber, classes, live music, and healthy snacks, all being enjoyed by people with big smiles.