On a YMCA mission

Autism awareness a component

Jonathan Stokes, 13, of Lansing, plays in a youth-oriented area at the YMCA of Marquette County. The autistic boy and his father, Alan, are traveling to every YMCA in Michigan. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

MARQUETTE — Are all YMCAs in the state of Michigan the same? One father-and-son duo might be able to tell you soon.

Alan Stokes, who lives with his son, Jonathan, 13, in Lansing, are visiting every YMCA in the state.

The boy is autistic, but that didn’t keep him from frolicking around a section in the YMCA of Marquette County Tuesday with numerous pillow-like toys, something his father said is good for his senses.

Local YMCAs have their various amenities, but those weren’t the reasons the two set out on their trips, at least not at first.

“It was initially more to help him out, to help him see the state of Michigan and the diversity that we have in our great state, and as we’ve gone out on that journey, it’s become some of that too — to bring awareness to autism and also how great the YMCA is,” Alan said.

The two started their treks in November and expect to finish by this November, driving from one place to the next.

“We live in Lansing, and that’s pretty centrally located, so almost all the Y’s are a day trip for us,” Alan said.

However, Marquette is a long drive from Lansing, so the two stayed overnight in Iron Mountain while they were in the region.

In Marquette, the two went swimming — not in chilly Lake Superior, but the warmer YMCA pool.

“He went down the slide, and when there’s no pool at some Y’s, he will use the treadmill and some of the equipment,” Alan said.

He said Jonathan, who hasn’t had formal lessons, isn’t afraid of water.

It’s a bit of the “sink or swim” scenario, though, with the boy.

“If he knows the pool is deep, over his head, then he really goes into swimming mode,” Alan said.

The father and son duo, however, will see more of the region than chlorinated water and exercise equipment, having already driven by Lake Superior, located about a block away from the YMCA.

Jenna Zdunek, executive director of the YMCA of Marquette County, said the YMCA has a reciprocity agreement with other Y’s in which members can go to any facility for free.

The Stokeses already know about the YMCA and its benefits.

“Alan and Jonathan started swimming at the Y when Jonathan was 2,” Zdunek said. “It really helped, and it was what he needed for his autism.”

Having decided to visit all 48 YMCAs in Michigan, including the U.P. locations in Marquette, Negaunee, Iron Mountain, Escanaba and Menominee, the Stokeses already have been to 26, she said.

“We’re doing this for autism awareness, and Alan will tell you that people have been welcoming them with open arms,” Zdunek said. “It really puts it out there.”

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.