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’If we listen, we hear’

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneBrad Russell is executive director of Rogue Valley Family YMCA

Editor's note: Community Builder is a periodic Q&A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today's conversation is with Brad Russell, director of the Rogue Valley Family YMCA.

Q: The Rogue Valley Family YMCA's motto is “strengthening communities through youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.” How do you achieve that?

Brad Russell: I started my YMCA career after college. My mother said, "Now that you have a business degree, what are you going to do with your life?" And I said, "I don't know." "Well, why don't you volunteer at the YMCA until you figure it out?" The YMCA has really been meaningful and has provided incredible opportunities for me. It might sound silly, but the mission statement spoke to me, “Build a healthy spirit, mind and body for all.” If we listen first, then we can hear what the needs of the community are. Youth development is preschool, afterschool camps, sports, child care, or in this COVID time, emergency child care.

Q: And healthy living?

Brad: Folks often have a moment with their doctor about an ailment or injury. The doctor puts them on a path of better health. Perhaps they'll go to a physical therapist and maybe come to the Y to continue that healthy living journey. If we're listening first, not just taking a tour of the equipment, but really taking an inventory of what's important to them, we can offer many different health and wellness paths. We need to be adaptable. Yoga becomes popular, and then it's Zumba and tai chi and Pilates and aerobics. There are easy-does-it classes for folks who are just starting out, to more advanced fitness classes.

Listening is so important. Once, I wrongly assumed that a member was at the Y to lose weight. One day he said, "Hey, Brad, I reached my goal." And I thought, I didn’t say it, "No, you're still overweight." He added, "I wanted to get strong enough so I could lift my grandchild in my arms." His story reminds me about what's really important. He wanted to lift his grandchild.

Q: How does social responsibility fit?

Brad: We define that as volunteerism, philanthropy, community service and caring about your neighbor and your community. We also have an equity and inclusion committee led by this wonderful K-9 police officer and new dad, Omar Esqueda. We’ve made progress, and recently the board approved a budget for the committee.

Q: What is the history of the YMCA in the United States?

Brad: The YMCA was founded in England in 1844, by George Williams. He saw a group of kids on the street who were getting in trouble and decided, "We should get them into some positive activity." That led to YMCAs in 120 countries around the world. The YMCA has been in America for 170 years. Our YMCA in Medford has been here for 75 years, and the YMCA in Ashland for 100 years. YMCAs have grown and changed over time. The Young Men’s Christian Association is our legal name, but we're young and old, we're men and women, we're all faiths. But we're still guided by Christian values and principles. We focus on caring, honesty, respect, responsibility, and those values are within lots of religions. We want folks to feel welcome. When people step through our front door, we want them to feel like, "I belong here."

The YMCA is more than a Village People song. (Laughter) Father's Day was started at the YMCA. Basketball was invented at the Y, as well as volleyball and racquetball. The YMCA helped President Kennedy develop the Peace Corps. There's a lot more to us than a song people dance to at weddings.

Q: How have you adapted during COVID?

Brad: Well, your question has the answer. You have to always adapt, even before COVID. It's important that we are listening, shifting and changing with the needs of the community. Providence Hospital called, "We have 16 nurses who can't work because they need child care." So, we immediately deployed emergency child care. In partnership with the two hospitals, Asante and Providence, the schools and Kid Time Children’s Museum, emergency child care started at schools in four districts. The community has been really grateful and it's been good for our staff because it's provided meaningful work for them. We’ve received federal, state, local, regional funding so our staff can remain employed.

We're used to having swim instructors in the water to teach swimming. Now, the swimming instructor is on the deck with a parent in the water with their kid. We teach the parent to teach their child. In that way we could keep distances and follow COVID measures. We had drive-thru preschool graduations. We really increased our food distribution and wellness programs. We did virtual classes. We did outdoor classes. We did classes at the park because we couldn't do them indoors.

A favorite member, Guy Hamilton, said at the beginning of COVID, "I need a dumbbell and some weights." We're like, "You got it. Take a picture of the weights and return them when we reopen." We just try to be creative and support people in their journey.

Q: How did a guy from Maine end up in the Rogue Valley?

Brad: I went to school at University of Maine. My father's from the Rochester, New York, area. My mother's from Boston. The short answer is, “I rode my bike here.” A friend and I dipped our tires in the Atlantic Ocean and pedaled the back roads through America. We rode our bikes right into the Pacific Ocean north of San Diego. I went to work at the YMCA in San Diego, an oceanfront resident camp called Camp Surf. I continued my Y career there building summer camps, outdoor education programs and mission projects at Ys in Mexico. It was wonderful, but I wanted to learn about how communities develop and get stronger.

Q: Why did you go to Taiwan?

Brad: I’ve always been interested in Asia. I had the opportunity to spend a year at a YMCA in Taiwan. That's where I met my wife and learned to speak Chinese. Her English is better than my Chinese, that's for sure. After Taiwan, I became an executive director of a YMCA in Monterey County, California. I was starting to learn about community development. I've been at the Rogue Valley Family YMCA for 15 years.

Q: Didn’t you hike the Pacific Crest Trail?

Brad: That was my other sabbatical. Riding across the country was sabbatical number one. Before I took this job, my wife and I started in Mexico to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. After hiking 200 miles, my wife said, "This is your thing. This is not my thing." It was an interesting moment in our relationship. She said, "Look, I love you, but I don't want to do this." I said, "Well, I love you, and I do want to do this." She said, "Everything's good. I'm going to go to Taiwan and spend the summer with my family. You hike as long as you want. When you're done, call me, I will pick you up, and we'll continue our life together."

Q: What did you learn from hiking the PCT?

Brad: "Every journey starts with one step." If you hike a long trail, you still start with one step. If you're trying to improve your health ... whatever journey you're on, it starts with the first step. On the trail, everyone "hikes their own hike." You have to live your own life. And you’ve got to be a good steward of the trail, of the environment, of your relationships. I learned some great life lessons.

Q: What’s next?

Brad: I'm hoping to finish, if the Canadian border opens, sea kayaking to Juneau, Alaska. I'm on my final leg of a lifelong triathlon. A triathlon is a swim, a bike and a run. The “run” was the Pacific Crest Trail. I've biked across America. My “swim” is sea kayaking from Olympia, Washington, to Juneau. I've done 450 miles in segments. That's my lifelong triathlon. Most people who walk into the Y are health seekers. For me, I need to have friendship and goals to keep me going.

Q: What do you love about Southern Oregon?

Brad: At first it was the natural beauty. I feel happiest when I'm outdoors, and the same with my wife. But I’ve learned so much more about Southern Oregon. The number of friendly, good-hearted people who want good things for themselves, for others, and for their communities is remarkable. There are so many incredible nonprofits here. Volunteers pick a cause and dedicate their life to it. I love that.

I’m lucky. I have good relationships with other community leaders. Our current YMCA board chair is Beth Heckert, the district attorney. It is an honor to work with her as we guide the YMCA, because we are stewards of this amazing community asset. It’s great to call the sheriff or the school superintendents about an issue. I've had a very privileged life, and so I can give back for the greater good.

Q: What do you know now that you're clearer about?

Brad: I’m clearer about the importance of relationships. When a crisis hits ... the relationships are what determines whether we can be a part of a community response to COVID, racial unrest or wildfires. Community members are looking for cooperation. Our environment can be divided, politically divided. I appreciate that the YMCA is a neutral place. Our board of directors is half Republican, half Democrat, and I haven't seen an argument. I haven't seen finger pointing. They care deeply about the communities of Southern Oregon.

Q: What’s important to you?

Brad: Whenever there is space in a conversation or meeting, I try sometimes to fill that space with humor. We all need to have some fun and to laugh. When you have a good belly laugh with someone you love, oh, that's good for the soul. I've tried to live by certain personal values. Make sure to keep love number one and learning number two, health number three, humor number four, and a sense of adventure, number five. So, humor's number four, but sometimes it moves to number one.

Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.

Brad Russell Bio

Brad Russell has been the executive director of the Rogue Valley Family YMCA since 2006.

He earned a business administration degree from the University of Maine and a master’s degree in recreation administration and nonprofit management from Springfield College in Massachusetts.

In 1990 he began a career at the YMCA of Rochester, New York. After completing a 3,500-mile cross-country bicycle trip from Maine to California, Brad volunteered to teach conversational English at a YMCA in Taiwan, where he met his wife, Stella.

In 1995, Brad became the program director at a YMCA oceanfront resident camp in San Diego. From 1999 to 2005, he was the executive director of two YMCAs in Monterey County, California. Brad then hiked the 2,650-mile-long Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada.

Brad currently serves on the board for the Nonprofit Association of Oregon and La Clinica Health Centers. As an avid traveler, he has visited YMCAs in more than 35 countries, speaks Mandarin Chinese and a little Spanish. In his free time, Brad enjoys sea kayaking and time outdoors with his wife and three dogs.