“It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had … and the best one.”
That was my sincere response to inquiring minds of friends and family after leaving the private business sector and serving in the challenging position of Executive Director of the Kaimuki-Waialae YMCA during the 1990s.
Having already been a part of this Y Ohana since 1963 as a teen participant and later as a volunteer board member, the culture was familiar and comforting. Yet, as an Executive Director, I had to look at the Y from a different viewpoint. And, at the time, the challenges were… well, pointed and sometimes prickly.
Sustaining an aging facility, meeting a growing demand for more diverse programs to serve the multi-generational families in East Honolulu, bolstering our sagging community collaborations - these were just some of the pop-up problems that came up in my daily work life. “Like juggling bowling balls,” was the analogy I liked to use for my work - something that would literally be challenging and tricky to do. All of this on a shoestring budget and thankfully, with a hearty, spirited group of staff and volunteers who also believed in the values and worthiness of the Y.
What’s the number one lesson I learned in all those years?
You cannot fake the YMCA core values of honesty, respect, responsibility and caring. And you can’t support its presence in others without practicing it yourself.
Here’s what that looked like for me back then.
Working with kids, teens, preschoolers, no matter the age, will back you into the honesty corner almost every time. And it’s exactly this kind of honesty that their parents and adult members of our Y deserved as well.
Some questions were easily answered: “Is that apple poison?” a suspicious but serious 3-year old preschooler asked me, an older rendition of Snow White sharing from a basket of apples. Other questions were more challenging to respond to such as those that involved budget restraints. But still… honest.
Respect seems something more clear cut and simple – “I show you respect and you show it back to me.” If only.
Cheeky, snappish answers were only the tip of the iceberg some days. Seeing this crystallized some personal convictions I had about how early interactions and formation could be the important early sprouts of dealing with others in later life.
Indeed, with the mix of kupuna and keiki sharing the restrooms, pool, picnic tables and other common areas in the branch there was an abundance of daily opportunities to hone the value of respect on a practical level. But it took patience and consistency for the staff to explain and, more vitally, demonstrate respect to their participants and each other.
It seemed that most days, it was all about responsibility.
It was hard to see past the paperwork and procedures; resolving complaints like trying to figure out how to get the heated pool to a decent temperature on cold mornings, or conjuring up ideas to generate much needed revenue to provide a new program which had no chance to recoup that expense on its own.
That is when I would purposely push away from the desk to walk around and listen to the laughter and whooping in an exercise class, the cheering of a teen competition on the courts and children splashing in the pool.
I would find a way to weasel a way to read a storybook to the preschool class and convince myself that it was also part of my responsibilities - and it was. Sitting quietly with a staff member to just catch up with her family life and, hearing out a younger group leader struggling to earn that precious college degree but still having to work to buy the necessary textbooks - these were all parts of my responsibility.
All of the budgeting, meetings, trainings, dotting the “i’s” and crossing the “t’s” and endless cheerleading were done because of caring.
Caring about the impact that the YMCA had on someone like me - a latchkey, only child in the ‘60s who was a typical self-conscious, awkward girl trying to “fit in” and found the Kaimuki Y. I wanted so very much to multiply that story for others.
Caring wasn’t an instant “poof” solution to becoming a leader or being comfortable to speak in front of more than a couple of people but, the gradual process did one day lead to the call to “give back”.
The YMCA as an organization invests its resources in people of almost every stage of life.
As a staff member, I know the truth behind the dedication and extremely hard work it takes to help others achieve a goal like making it through an aquatics arthritis class or learn the alphabet. Or to compose a bill that could possibly pass legislation in a mock Senate session. Or to ask a girl to dance. Or to just understand what an incredible human each person has the potential to be.
And I came to fully understand why the Y humbly bestows the title of “heart of the organization” to its volunteers – board members, fundraisers, martial arts and assorted fitness instructors, Y’s Men and Women clubs (now Y Service Clubs), teen advisors, and the countless other givers of their time, talent and treasure.
And all of this has been a pleasure. You could argue with me but I’ve decided that in my prolonged career of various jobs, this one was the “hardest” and the “best” job in the world.
Have any questions for Auntie Sharon or the Kaimuki-Waialae YMCA? Leave it in the comments below.
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