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The Community YMCA and The Family Dinner Project

Posted on: April 3rd, 2014 by Jono


What started as a simple meal served in the gym at The Community YMCA’s Family Health & Wellness Center in Red Bank, New Jersey two years ago has grown into a much larger way of bringing communities together around the table.

The Y was looking for new ways to bring busy families together to connect beyond casual conversations on the treadmill or in between classes. When Linda Ambis, the center’s Branch Executive, heard about National Dinner Makes a Difference Night, a movement that encourage parents to frequently eat dinner with their kids and be involved in their children’s lives, she decided to give it a try.

The Y staff pitched in and prepared the first meal, which was attended by over 75 members of all ages. “We were pleasantly surprised with the response,” said Ambis, who also serves as Vice President of Health & Wellness for The Community YMCA. “We received such great feedback from our members, not just parents, who appreciated a break from cooking and having a chance to spend time together, but from seniors and members whose children have grown. They really enjoyed the fellowship and coming together as a family.”

Weeks after the first Family Dinner, Superstorm Sandy hit the Jersey Shore, leaving many Y members and neighbors with significant damage to their homes, schools and businesses. The Community YMCA team sprang into action by offering hot showers, a warm place to relax and coordinating clothing and food drives.

“As a staff, we wanted to do more to help our families,” Ambis said. Remembering the success and positive feedback from the first community dinner, the Y team prepared and hosted another Family Dinner to bring together the many members who were displaced by the hurricane. “We were able to give them a home cooked meal, good company, and the support and hope that many families needed during a very dark time,” said Ambis, herself displaced after the storm.

Since then, the Y has hosted several more successful Family Dinners. Their efforts caught the attention of John Sarrouf, former executive director of The Family Dinner Project (FDP).  The two organizations started a placemat exchange between young Y members and the Lowell Elementary School in Watertown, MA., where students were participating in a Community Dinner Series with FDP. This past fall, the Y welcomed the Family Dinner Project team to a community dinner, where the group led a conversation with parents and members on parenting, family time and support.


The partnership between the Y and FDP gives Y members the opportunity to learn about the value of family connectedness and ways to create healthy habits in their own homes, Ambis said.

With a shared vision of strengthening families and communities, it’s a natural fit for  FDP to collaborate with the Y, Sarrouf said. “Our desire to have families grow closer and thrive and see parents engaged with their children, as well as families connecting with one another in a larger community is exactly what FDP is about, and it is so complimentary to what the Y wants to achieve.”

Sarrouf said added that, when he was a stay-at-home dad, “the Y was one of the places that gave me community when I really needed it, and continues to give my kids a place where I know they are safe, welcomed, and nurtured.”


The partnership between the Y and the Family Dinner Project continues to grow. The partners presented the project to YMCAs at the Graham Conference for Social Responsibility on March 6 in Monroe, NJ. The FDP team will be joining The Community YMCA for this year’s Healthy Kids Day on April 26 to introduce their seven-day Family Breakfast Program, developed from a recent partnership with Cheerios.

“Together, we’ve created an opportunity for families to spend more time together, deepen their relationships and strengthen their families,” Ambis of the YMCA said. “Not only have we been able to connect our Y families to each other, but with the help of the Family Dinner Project we are able to connect them to families over 250 miles away.”

Local restaurants and organizations have also joined the Family Dinner initiative at the Y by donating food for the events.

“The Family Dinner Project is one more way that the Y is bringing the community together, one meal at a time, to strengthen the bonds between families and communities,” Ambis said.


This post originally appeared on the Community YMCA website. For more information about the Y’s Family Dinner Project, contact Holly Haines at 732.741.2504, ext. 18 or hhaines@cymca.org. Or,  learn more about ways you can bring The Family Dinner Project resources into your home, parenting group or community.