Impact Story June 2018



June 2018 MASSILLON FAMILY YMCA Impact Story: Irene Gray


She’s a fearless redhead, confident belly dancing instructor, and the YMCA of Western Stark County’s longest term employee, Irene Gray. Her career at the Y began three decades ago in 1986. After accepting a part-time job on the spot at First National Bank in Massillon, she went over to the Y on the same day and was offered a Fitness Instructor position as well. Currently today, she continues to enjoy teaching classes each week and never ceases to jump on an opportunity to share her passion for healthy living with others.


Irene began with teaching Aerobics class five days a week, Monday through Friday and then wanted to incorporate Step Aerobics as well. “I wanted to teach that class but we really didn’t have the money in the budget to buy the step platforms,” she explains. Not giving up, she and the women from her classes went out into the community to receive sponsors to walk on the towpath to raise money. Through their efforts, the women earned enough money for over 20 steps that are still used today in the Massillon Family Y group exercise classes.


Wanting to add more variety for the members, Irene took a leap and tried something new. “I taught Step for a long time until Beth (Executive Director) heard from someone that I belly danced,” she says, and that’s when the idea was born. After belly dancing from the time she was 14, Irene had more than enough experience to pass on to others. “We weren’t real sure if it would take off, but I said sure, I can try it and see how it goes.”


The response was greater than they ever imagined. So many people attended the first class that they didn’t have enough space in the room for everyone. “I lost count after about 35,” she answers. It’s been close to 15 years since that first belly dancing class began. Now, it’s not only grown at the Massillon Family Y, but has expanded its reach to Navarre offering weekly classes to members at the Towpath Trail Y as well.


In addition, because of the commitment and progress of many of the participants, Irene created what she’s named, The Raja Group, which includes those as young as eight years old all the way up to senior citizens. She chose the name in honor of the Massillon Tigers with reference to the tiger in the movie, Aladdin named Raja. She and her group travel locally to perform for charities, nursing homes and events held in the community.


Her role as an instructor goes far beyond physical fitness. “My personal goal is to try to help as many people as possible with self-esteem,” she says. “I didn’t have great self-esteem when I was in school so when I decided to come here [to the Y], my goal was to help people have fun working out and feel better about themselves.”


Iren recalls her days of doing Step Aerobics demonstrations with her class at shopping malls. “People would come up to us and say how it looked like we were having so much fun,” she exclaims, “And that’s what I wanted.”


The Y is definitely a change of pace from her busy day job working at a bank. While she’s always on the go, she keeps her focus on what matters most. “The love for my son and my family keeps me going,” she says, “There’s times when you feel like giving up but you do the things you do for your family and for me, that’s really true.”


She also loves the supportive staff, flexibility and freedom that working at the YMCA offers. “To me, the Y is like one gigantic family room where we can relax, have fun and gather together.”  She enjoys the variety that it has. She explains, “We offer not only exercise machines, but dance classes, nutrition and health education, an aquatics department and child care,” she continues, “I just think we’re so well-rounded; we offer more than any other free-standing facility offers.”


The Y serves as a positive environment for everyone too. “The whole family can utilize our Y,” she adds, “That’s just not something you can get anywhere else.” 


She advises those wanting a break from their everyday routine to try different things and have an open mind. Because of the wide variety of programs the Y has, Irene notes that each person can take baby steps to work all the way up to where they want to be and what they want to do. “You never know if you like something until you try it.”


Irene’s love for the Y and its cause is felt by the people she’s reached. Through her continuous donations, she helps to make memberships accessible to everyone, regardless of ability to pay. She also continues to cultivate friendships with members of both branches. Irene discusses how the families of those from her exercise classes have spoken at calling hours of how much their loved one has enjoyed being a part of the Y and the impact the organization has had on them.


“I don’t think a lot of people understand how important our facility has been to people in their lives, so much so that they’ve talked about it to their families and then their families saying something about that when they’ve passed,” Irene concludes, “That’s pretty special.”




And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds,

Not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing,

but encouraging one another – And all the more as you see the Day approaching.


Hebrews 10:24-25