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Matt LaPrino no doubt had a bit of a different vision of what his first day serving as the executive director of Soundview Family YMCA would be like. But that didn’t stop him from charting a new course to bring community connections and services to members and residents in the towns of Branford, North Branford, East Haven, Guilford and Madison during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Matt LaPrino )
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“Monday, March 23, was my first official day. That was the day that the governor shut down non-essential businesses like the YMCA, because it’s considered a gym. But the Y is so much more than that.”
Matt LaPrino no doubt had a bit of a different vision of what his first day serving as the executive director of Soundview Family YMCA would be like. But that didn’t stop him from charting a new course to bring community connections and services to members and residents in the towns of Branford, North Branford, East Haven, Guilford, and Madison during the coronavirus pandemic.
Governor Ned Lamont’s COVID-19 executive order closed all “non-essential” businesses effective 8 p.m. March 23. At the same time, Matt, a Branford native who lives in Madison, began reaching out to connect with people he’s worked with during his years of service within the YMCA and community organization systems across the shoreline and the state. Since 2008, Matt has been affiliated with Central Connecticut Coast YMCA (CCCY), of which Soundview Y is a branch.
Through the years, Matt formed a great working relationship with former Soundview Y executive director Doug Shaw. Shaw led the Y for 17 years before stepping down in 2019 to take on a new challenge as president of the Ben Callahan Sports & Fitness Complex (BC2). With BC2 also designated “non-essential” as of March 23, it didn’t take long for Matt and Doug to put their heads together and develop a project to help their communities, Operation Compassion.
“Doug Shaw and I are great friends and we always said we have to work together,” says Matt. “We came up with Operation Compassion by bringing the YMCA and BC2 together.”
Launched in early April and still going strong, Operation Compassion volunteers provide pick up and free delivery of fresh groceries so that seniors, first responders, and medical professionals in the five towns served by Soundview Y can remove the risk, keeping heroes strong and seniors safe. The program partners with Bishop’s Orchards in Guilford, the Marketplace of Guilford, and Branford Rotary.
With Soundview Y’s membership roster of 10,000 (including 1,000 senior citizens), Matt and his team were also working to develop programming and assistance, including a way to help all community members in the area who may be facing food insecurity during COVID-19.
“Myself and our leadership team, including Lindsay DeMartino, our senior program director, we wanted to do something more and make sure we could provide for people,” says Matt. “We committed ourselves to weekly food drives to benefit the five towns we serve—one drive each week to benefit the food banks in each town.”
Soundview Y’s Stuff a Bus food drive program has been set up to run on Tuesday each week through June 2. The May 5 drive supported Branford Food Bank; May 12 was for North Branford Food Bank, and May 19 gave back to East Haven Food Bank; with Guilford and Madison food drives coming up. On collection days, donors can drop off non-perishable food at Soundview Family YMCA, 628 East Main Street, Branford, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Hundreds of pounds of food have been collected and distributed, to date.
“The first week that we did it, one of our members came up to the Y with an entire carload of groceries—32 bags—because they ended up doing a neighborhood drive to benefit the drive we were hosting,” says Matt. “The tagline on the flyer we shared about the drive is ‘Neighbors Helping Neighbors’ and that couldn’t have been more true that day.”
Soundview Y is reaching out to its membership via email and encouraging the public to follow the Y’s social media platforms for news of upcoming community programs. Soundview Y is also using its digital muscle to offer many free options to support the health and well-being of area residents during the pandemic. \
Visit soundviewymca.org to find numerous free on-line classes, fun fitness challenges, fitness tips and virtual exercise. The offerings also include supplemental educational ideas (from STEAM activities to Y leaders reading books and sharing arts and crafts) and games for families.
“There’s tons of options on our website,” says Matt. “You don’t have to be a member to go on our website right now and take a Zoom exercise class or one of our pre-recorded classes. We also have a Kids Connect area with projects and things to do with their families to keep engaged [and] help the wonderful educators and teachers out there who’ve had to change their way of thinking and change their way of delivering unbelievable education.”
To help the Y continue to help others, donors can support the Soundview Family Y’s annual campaign, which provides more than $185,000 of financial membership assistance locally. Donors can also support the Soundview Family Y COVID-19 Relief Fund.
“At [CCCY] we have a tradition of responding to financial aid needs. On a yearly basis, we provide over $3 million in financial assistance, from helping to end homelessness in Bridgeport to financial aid in our shoreline communities,” says Matt. “Like so many organizations out there, we’ve been financially affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 Relief Fund truly helps to sustain the things that the YMCA has always done, and continues to do, in times in of need. The YMCA will always face adversity and challenges head on, and we will always be there for the community.”
Challenges and Summer Camps
Speaking of challenges, Soundview Y will be offering on-site summer youth camps, which are set to begin at the end of June, Matt confirms. But they will certainly be different from what’s been offered in the past, he notes.
“Right now, we’ve been given the go-ahead by the state of Connecticut for summer camps to begin on June 29,” he says. “Our YMCA’s and our camp directors have been working unbelievably hard, and they’ve been on daily calls with Connecticut Office of Early Childcare, the American Campers Association, YMCA of USA, our public health departments, and others to determine how we can do this in the right way and the safe way.”
Matt’s expectation is that camps will allow a limited number of campers per session, with several operational adjustments to allow for proper social distancing and healthy habits including plenty of handwashing stops throughout the day.
“Just like we expect that our buildings will look different when we can finally allow our members back in, our camps will have to adhere to certain guidelines that are being set,” says Matt. “That will include everything from spacing our children differently, and where usually some kids get to interact with multiple groups throughout the day, [instead] a group of 10 children may be the group they interact with for a week, and limiting the interaction throughout. The team is doing an incredible job of putting the pieces together to form how it’s going to look, and [develop] all those kinds of things to keep our campers safe and our staff safe.”
One aspect of summer camp—and a fundamental offering at Soundview Y—has yet to be determined: re-opening swimming pools.
“The governor hasn’t talked yet about public swimming pools,” says Matt. “For our purposes, swimming pools may be part of Phase 3 [state re-opening]. There’s not enough information on that yet.”
For someone like Matt, to whom swimming is second nature, having to endure a forced hiatus from the lanes isn’t easy.
“My family has a very deep competitive swimming history. I grew up swimming. I was with the Branford Recreational Stingrays for most of my life, and I swam for Branford High School, where I was fortunate enough to be captain of the team,” says Matt, BHS Class of 1999. “And then I went on to swim for Southern Connecticut State University, where I was fortunate enough to be the captain of that program, as well.”
After college, Matt coached swim teams with the Boys and Girls Club in Greenwich and started off his YMCA career as an aquatics director. He went on to become CCCY’s only district aquatics director, overseeing programs at Woodruff Family Y in Milford and the Lakewood-Trumbull Y facility in Monroe. Then, Matt moved back to the shoreline and got in touch with the Stingrays’ head coach.
“I reached out to George Miles and said, ‘I’m back, and I have the itch to coach again. Can I be part of the program?’” says Matt. “And that was before the Soundview Y was built and the Stingray program and the Y merged.”
Before swimming at the Y, the Stingrays used to swim at Branford’s Walsh Intermediate School pool. When the Soundview Y’s brand-new facility opened in 2010 and the Stingrays moved in, Matt had already been working closely with Shaw.
“I worked with Doug Shaw for a long time. A lot came out of that process, and the great thing was I was still able to be an assistant swim coach with the Stingray program when it became part of the YMCA,” says Matt. “So I’ve been part of the Soundview Y, in some capacity, since it opened.”
While he can’t yet set a date-certain for the day the Soundview Y will safely re-open to welcome members, Matt can certainly say he’s looking forward to that day.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the members, even if it’s in a different capacity and a different way. I’m looking forward to seeing the people who I grew up with come through our doors and watch their children learn to swim at the YMCA, and promote safety around water and [other] programs,” Matt says. “I’m still friends with, and connect with, many of the people I grew up with, and I’m looking forward to being here and to see what they’re doing in our communities, because I get to see them in a different light now. I’m just extremely proud to be part of the Soundview Family YMCA, and to serve the five communities that I’ve grown up around.”
For more information on programs, making a donation or becoming a member, visit soundviewymca.org or call 203-481-9622.
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