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The YMCA is probably as well known for the Village People's 1970's disco anthem as it is for its wellness programs and job training services. But the Y has a much deeper story to tell — a story that starts right here in Boston.

In December 1851, a Boston sea merchant named Captain Thomas Sullivan gathered a group of area spiritual leaders to tell them about an organization he came across in London, the Young Men’s Christian Association – or YMCA.

"And he talked about it, one, around the Christian principles; and two, around the reading room's libraries and books," said Kevin Washington, head of the Greater Boston YMCA.

So they launched one here. There were reading rooms, lectures and classes on everything from the bible to bookkeeping.

"He was thinking about youth development, that’s what he was thinking about," Washington said. "Developing young people to reach their full potential."

Within years, Y's were springing up across the country. They quickly broadened beyond their Christian roots, accepting young men of all faiths, and embraced physical fitness as a key to developing young men. In the 1880s, they adopted “the triangle.”

"When you see the triangle — and you’ll see it in a lot of our old pictures and things of that nature — you’ll see the YMCA triangle and it talked about spirit, mind and body, which really emblazoned who were were as an organization," Washington said.

Among those that the YMCA helped to reach his full potential? Kevin Washington.

"The Y found me at the age of 10 at a school — The William S. Pierce School in South Philadelphia," he said.

In the early 1970s, South Philadelphia was a tough neighborhood. At the Y, Washington says he found refuge. He learned to shoot a bow and arrow, to swim and to camp.

"Those individuals, those young folks there, doing the youth development work, helped me transform from an adolescent to an adult," he said.

Washington’s is just one of countless life-changing stories that have been written at YMCAs over the past two centuries.

"The Y has been an integral part of this country in so many ways, shapes and forms – locally in Boston and nationally," he said.

There was that fateful day in 1891, at the YMCA in Springfield Mass., when Dr. James Naismith nailed two beach baskets to the gym walls, and posted the 13 rules of his new game: basketball.

"Basketball is in our DNA," Washington said. "We invented the sport. And as you can see it has grown internationally, it’s all over and basketball took us to a whole different level."

The Boston Y also pioneered the idea of technical schools and night schools with their “evening institute,” which they spun off in 1916 as The Northeastern College of the YMCA — today, Northeastern University.

"I joked with [Northeastern President] Joseph Aoun one time I said, 'Joseph we birthed you,'" Washington said. "He laughs about it, but the reality was that Northeastern grew out of the YMCA."

Today, the Y isn’t just for young men. There are fitness programs for the old, after school programs for teens, and job training for adults. At their flagship location on Huntington Avenue, where President William Howard Taft laid the cornerstone in 1912, the Greater Boston YMCA just completed a $40 million upgrade and renovation.

"This building was a hundred years old and so we wanted to make sure that the resources we put in it put us in a place so this can serve the community for the next 100 years," Washington said.

In February of next year, Washington, that Philly kid whose life was changed forever by the YMCA, will be in charge of the whole American operation. As the next president of YMCA USA, he’ll oversee the 2,700 branches serving 10,000 neighborhoods across the country. He says its his chance to pay it forward.

"How many organizations can you sit and say that they've been here 163 years and our mission hasn't changed?" he said. "We may do it differently because there's different circumstances, but we've been able to evolve and thrive around that mission of helping people develop."

The YMCA was launched in America by Captain Tom Sullivan, who established the country’s first Y, right here in Boston, 163 years ago this week.

If you have a forgotten tale from Massachusetts history, or if there is something you're just plain curious about, email Edgar at curiositydesk@wgbh.org.