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Our 90th anniversary year has been very different to the year we imagined, writes Chief Executive James Blake. The challenges are more significant than ever, but our mission has never been more important. 

YHA is a national charity determined to stay at the forefront of efforts to improve health, wellbeing and life chances in England and Wales. We provide inclusive adventures in inspiring places, tackling inequality of opportunity, contributing to social cohesion and raising ambitions in young people.

We have a network of more than 150 hostels in England and Wales, and last year we welcomed over 1 million people to stay with us, 40% of whom were under 26. We are a major provider of school residentials. A significant proportion of staff are young people, and we’re supported by more than 1,000 young volunteers.

A third of our guests visit National Parks through us. Others stay in towns and the hearts of major cities, meeting hostellers from around the world (and around the corner), and experiencing culture and exploring heritage.

April 2020 marked 90 years since YHA was founded, and the pandemic is the most severe crisis we have ever experienced. It led to us temporarily closing the entire network of hostels for the very first time, and has significantly affected our finances. This year, because of the effect on YHA alone, more than a quarter of a million young people will miss out on the chance of a life-changing stay. For many of them, this would have been their first break and a rare positive childhood experience.

Much about the future remains uncertain. Yet this period has reinforced our view that we must use history to inform our future. Coronavirus is far from the only crisis YHA has faced. And – just as it was for our founders – in adversity, we see most clearly the value and vitality of our purpose.

Founded in April 1930, YHA emerged from a nation in crisis. The 1929 stock market crash resulted in the Great Slump. The economy crumbled. Unemployment soared. In the words of our first chairman, Barclay Baron, “we could not have chosen a more difficult time for the start of a movement.” But start, it did.

In the Second World War, only 10 years after being established, a third of YHA’s hostels were requisitioned to accommodate soldiers on leave, ambulance training camps, makeshift schools, emergency meeting and feeding stations. They became refuges for the sick, the vulnerable, refugees and those made homeless by air raids. Half a century later, we had to close most of our hostels for a summer as the countryside battled against Foot and Mouth disease.

In both crises, leaders faced a level of upheaval that brought into question our long-term future. But in both cases, we emerged stronger: the need for our mission enhanced, the case for organisational reform more urgent. We have a deep conviction that — after this is over — we can play a critical role in helping the country get back on its feet. What we do will be even more important as society recovers, especially for those young people who already struggle to access the very real benefits that travel and adventure bring.

At the start of the crisis, a number of hostels distributed food to communities. We also donated retired bed linen for the manufacture of scrubs, masks and wash bags. Nearly 20 of our hostels were repurposed to accommodate key workers and the most vulnerable. But now, as we always have done, we must look forward. On pages 50 and 51, we outline our long-term strategy: Adventure. For the first time and a lifetime. Our approach draws on 90 years’ experience in overcoming adversity and managing change. As we emerge from the ravages of COVID-19, we will have an important role to play in the national effort to rebuild society. And inspired by our history, we will continue to connect people to each other, to nature, culture and the world around them, and to the unique health and wellbeing benefits that come with travel and adventure.

Our strategy and our vision – that every child can access the benefits of adventure, for the first time and a lifetime – will be even more urgent. Your support, through staying at our hostels, through membership, by donating or volunteering with us, is vital. We thank you for that ongoing support, and look forward to seeing you at a hostel soon.

James Blake, Chief Executive,

YHA (England & Wales)

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