A group of Burbank Community YMCA members is crying foul over decisions to curtail full-contact karate and boxing, while at the same time refusing to loosen policies to allow underprivileged, at-risk youth to participate without being members.
The claims, aired publicly in recent weeks in letters to the City Council and other groups, have been targeted at Chief Executive JC Holt and the nonprofit's board of directors, who have chalked the complaints up to a small band of disgruntled people affiliated with a select set of programs within the YMCA.
At the core of the dispute was the YMCA's decision to either end or set up to fail Karate Kids — a popular martial arts class that had been running for five decades — and contact boxing, despite what current and former members say was strong community interest.
Brian Bastien, who headed the Karate Kids at the YMCA for 38 years, said that after Holt took over, his martial arts programs didn't get proper management support and he was forced to leave.
"We had great support for our programs over the years by the management, and they just loved what we were doing," Bastien said. "But as soon as the new CEO came in, they began to give us a hard time."
That "hard time" included setting overly stringent enrollment standards, "so they kind of set us up to fail," he said.
He recalled one class getting cut after falling short by two students, "sending them all into the street."
"Shortly after that, they said we couldn't do any more sparring in my other classes," said Bastien, who now operates his own studio. "You just can't run a martial arts program without sparring."
It's a complaint echoed by Burbank Boxing Club instructors, who say the sport is severely neutered — in terms of impact and ability to stay relevant — without full contact.
The YMCA of Glendale allows full-contact sparring, and the Hollywood YMCA allows full-contact mixed-martial-arts classes.
Holt said the decision to eliminate full-contact sparring was influenced by the USA Medical Advisory Committee of the YMCA, which recommends "a complete ban on boxing for children and adolescents," although the document does not address martial arts sparring or boxing for adults.
While Holt acknowledged that the decision on whether to follow the recommendations is left to each Y, "there is a liability issue."
"I love boxing — I'm a football coach and I was a linebacker in college. I love contact," he said. "[But] I have an obligation to an organization that I love."
But Steve Vasquez, who has been involved with the Burbank Boxing Club for eight years, said the clamp-down imposed under Holt has gone beyond concerns over safety. Since Holt took over more than four years ago, Vasquez said a long-standing practice of allowing underprivileged, non-members to attend classes was discontinued.
"Five years [ago], under different management, it was a lot different." Vasquez said. "We work with underprivileged kids who use boxing as a way to stay off the streets and to do the right thing in their lives. We used to bring up kids who were not members, and they would train with us. But when they got the new management they put a halt to that."
Vasquez said he felt the exclusion was a form of discrimination against the young athletes, who were predominantly minorities.
Holt refuted that assessment, emphasizing that the YMCA doesn't turn anybody away, regardless of their ability to pay.
Before his tenure, teens were allowed to walk in without parental authorization. Not anymore.
Holt said they must now fill out papers and, if they're underage, have parental consent.
"We would never turn a family away," Holt said.
Board President Roger Koll also called rumors spread by detractors that gymnastics programming was being cut "flat-out false."
"We're not cutting down gymnastics; it's a core program and it's growing," he said.
Holt's detractors also say they've been blocked from bringing their concerns and complaints before the board of directors — a practice the chief executive says is standard policy since board members aren't involved in the day-to-day operation of the facility.
"I can tell you of one time where a group wanted to come and address concerns at a board meeting," Holt said. "That's not how the board works. That's not the purpose of the board. However, my office is always open to individuals who have concerns."
Concerns about programming appeared to be nonexistent among the nearly two dozen members outside the YMCA Thursday afternoon. All but one of the 22 people who were asked to assess the nonprofit gave glowing reviews.
"I've been a member of gyms like Gold's and 24 Hour Fitness," Craig Rose said. "In no other gym do I feel a more sense of community than I do at this YMCA....The people are very nice and the programs they offer are outstanding."
Member Grant Housley, whose sons are involved in programs at the YMCA, echoed those sentiments.
"We have been coming here for about seven years, and they have a lot of great programs for the kids, as well as great programs for the seniors and for women," he said. "The staff treats us well, and it's just a nice place to come to."