By Allison Campbell-Jensen

  • The main wall of the YMCA Exhibit, featuring framed photos. In front of the wall are two display cases.

The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) stepped up to serve during World War I, yet they already had put on their wartime boots earlier. The YMCA arrived in America in 1855 and not long afterward began supporting troops during the American Civil War.

Their initial group, the U.S. Christian Commission, began by handing out Christian pamphlets to soldiers passing through New York City on their way to fight — and quickly realized the men had worldly needs, too. Soon they were handing out coffee, food, and clothing, helping them write letters, and attracting people like poet Walt Whitman to help the troops.

A copy of Whitman’s commission is just one of the artifacts displayed in the new exhibit “The YMCA and Relief for War Victims during WWI,” on view through Feb. 18, 2022, in the Elmer L. Andersen Library.

The YMCA’s service was appreciated by the military, says Ryan Bean, Curator of the Kautz Family YMCA Archives in the University Libraries.

“Troops that are writing letters and praying are not doing the things [such as carousing] that soldiers are known for,” he says.

When the United States declared war on Germany April 6, 1917, John Mott, the General Secretary of the American YMCA, immediately volunteered the organization’s services. Those in the YMCA began to work with the troops in accord with the YMCA’s philosophy of equally developing Body, Mind, and Spirit.Preparing them for war — and after

The YMCA had an extensive organization that they could leverage quickly to serve the troops and prisoners of war. In Elwood Brown, for instance, they had a physical education expert who had put on Olympic-style games in Asia. He organized the Inter-Allied Games in Paris immediately following the war to return a sense of normalcy to the former troops.

Providing reading rooms and instruction meant that “idle time during the war didn’t have to be a barrier to self-improvement,” Bean says. Following the war, there was a significant amount of funds left for education, which the YMCA used to offer scholarships to attend the Y’s colleges, which tended to be vocationally oriented, or other institutions.

As part of their spiritual services to the troops, along with hymnals and worship, the YMCA promoted Mother’s Day. It helped remind them, Bean says, “that the war will end and you will return to your families.”

Art and design convey the times

Ryan Bean
Ryan Bean

Among the exhibit highlights for Bean are depictions from the POW camps by the prisoners themselves. The camp was in Russia and, in one scene, guards rummage through prisoners’ clothing. In another, a prisoner beams after receiving a Christmas card through the YMCA.

“To see the harshness and the humanity and the levity of it,” he says, “that’s part of getting through it.”

Exhibit designer Darren Terpstra says, “World War I was so long ago. Very few of us have any idea of what it must have been like to live through that.” He used camouflage material and a theatrical version of barbed wire to help create an “immersive experience” for visitors.

“It is amazing to think about how much they [the YMCA] did,” says Alex Bentley, who helped curate the exhibit. The exhibit is a welcome introduction to that story.

Plan your visit

What: The YMCA and Relief for War Victims during WWI
When: Sept. 7, 2021 through Feb. 18, 2022
Where: Elmer L. Andersen Library, 1st Floor Main Gallery
Hours: Open during regular building hours at Elmer L. Andersen Library

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