Collective Energy at the Attleboro Norton YMCA
Courtney Harrness’ journey to CEO and how he’s leading the Attleboro Norton YMCA to co-create healthier futures for all.
The Attleboro Norton YMCA in Massachusetts was founded in 1867 and encompasses four locations: the Downtown YMCA, Pleasant Street YMCA, Sweet Community House and the Norton Outdoor Center.
Calling Main Street home since 1909, the Downtown YMCA includes 100,000 square feet of space within walking distance to many town amenities. Features include two state-of-the-art fitness centers, three gymnasiums, two swimming pools, four early education classrooms, a teen center, café and 14 full-time residents. The Pleasant Street location is currently providing childcare programs and fitness classes at the outdoor pavilion.
Two blocks away from downtown is the association’s newest addition — the Sweet Community House — with 5,000 square feet of dedicated meeting space and a full-sized commercial kitchen. It represents the backbone of the Y’s work with the community to provide food, nutrition and belonging activities for all ages.
And located on 80 acres of conservation land is the Norton Outdoor Center. The center is home to Camp Finberg, an eight-lane outdoor pool, playground, splash pad and interactive water wall; a challenge course with low, intermediate and high rope elements; basketball and pickleball courts, miles of hiking trails, and the 5,000-square-foot Fred M. Roddy Children’s Pavilion.
When community members think about a place to belong that meets all their needs, nobody does it like the Attleboro Norton YMCA. So, when Robin McDonald — the previous CEO of 13 years — announced her retirement, the board knew they had very big shoes to fill.
Fortunately, they found the perfect fit in Courtney Harrness who has been leading the Attleboro Norton Y as CEO since January 2022.
The Unanimous Decision
Jann Alden, the chief volunteer officer at the Attleboro Norton YMCA, vice president at the Bristol County Savings Bank, and chair of the selection committee that hired Harrness, said she was thrilled to see his name in the applicant pool when the new CEO search began.
“From the very beginning, he was such a front runner,” said Alden. “Everyone who was part of the interview in the search committee felt he was too good to be true.”
Alden explained the process of narrowing down the search from 12 applicants to three, including hiring outside consultant Michael Fournier who helped facilitate the process. Due to the pandemic, initial stages of interviewing were conducted through Zoom until it came to facility tours and meeting with the recruitment team, search committee and staff. Alden then described meeting to debrief each candidate and going over a comprehensive scoring sheet of main objectives they were looking for in an applicant.
“Courtney had a lot of strategic thoughts on forming partnerships, and that was one of our key objectives — to make sure we collaborate with key partners in the community so we’re not duplicating efforts and can play to each other’s strengths,” said Alden. “This, in addition to being innovative coming out of the pandemic and keeping the Attleboro Norton Y very strong financially.”
Alden added one of Harrness’ biggest strengths is his interpersonal relationships in collaboration with community partners, which made the choice unanimous. “He has done such a fabulous job leveraging the experts in the community to discover what the Y can do in collaboration with those agencies,” she added.
As a graduate of Springfield College, Harrness explained humanics and the concept of giving back to the community for a greater good was instilled in him at new student orientation and has followed through to this day.
A Lasting Impact
Harrness found the Y in 2006 in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he led personal training and youth fitness programming. He described the impact those first five years had on his career path.
“There was a discovery of sorts that happened while I found myself, my passion and my people in the YMCA,” said Harrness. “I could work with someone recovering from cancer one hour and then coach a group of teens through an indoor track workout the next hour. I could learn better ways to engage and work within different parts of the community and collaborate with agencies and organizations to provide equitable pathways to holistic health for all.”
Along the journey, he became enamored with connecting people in a way that fostered discovery, learning and understanding of how communities work and where gaps exist. “Ultimately, it’s others who have helped nudge me down my path with their support, encouragement, coaching and friendship,” said Harrness. “Folks who — out of their own kindness — found a reason to believe in me and show me how to leverage my passion for a cause beyond myself.”
One of these notable nudges happened early in Harrness’ career when colleague Chad Hiu facilitated the opportunity to travel to Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, and work with the local YMCA for six weeks. “It was incredible to live in a totally different community, understand how history and government can help or hinder progress, and work alongside fascinating leaders,” he described. “People pushed me to think differently and be a bolder influence with ideas and thought leadership. I was different when I came back — energized, ready to take on the world and prove to everyone that an investment in one person can leave a lasting impact on so many more.”
Furthering that investment, Harrness was asked to support the development of a curriculum that would provide access to a circle of holistic health options for men of color to eliminate health disparities while working for the Springfield Y in 2010. After convening more than a dozen partners and facilitating three focus groups each with 50 men, they discovered health disparities went far beyond access to care, physical health and screenings.
“It was a powerful, moving process that shaped how I approach every single aspect of my work with communities,” said Harrness. “In the grand scheme, my efforts were small but the combined efforts of a group of committed partners unleashed a meaningful program — Men of Color Health Awareness — that still exists today.”
Additional leadership development that led Harrness to his current role includes joining the YMCA’s National Steering Committee for the Emerging Leaders Resource Network in 2017 and being part of the YUSA Leadership Symposium in 2019. “The Leadership Symposium helped me uncover what is important to me and how I want to show up with communities,” he said. “I spent nine months researching how certain community ecosystem factors impact social capital and, in turn, philanthropic investments in those communities. For me, it’s how we strengthen communities and how we partner to improve the very root causes of belonging.”
Utilizing all of this experience, Harrness said the intention to collaborate with purpose for more meaningful outcomes is what drew him to the Attleboro Y community. “It’s about a long-term process,” he said. “Here, we brush aside the flashy stuff and move head on into the hard stuff with partners to co-create meaningful change.”
Partnership and Co-Creation
Meghan Hamilton, the director of annual giving and stewardship, has been at the Attleboro Norton Y for 12 years. While she’s filled multiple roles and worked in different Ys along her career path, she’s spent most of her life in the Attleboro community and described it as fiercely proud.
“We have some residents with extreme needs who need support to thrive in our community, and we have others who are very comfortable,” explained Hamilton. “The people working out in our gym side-by-side come from very different backgrounds — whether it’s age, gender identity, etc. — and their kids go to the same school. We have everybody, and that’s true for our community. The people who choose to live here are really proud of that, and they’re very community focused.”
A testament to this pride is the Y’s active board of directors and volunteers. Hamilton elaborated they’re not a group who just pop in once a month, rather many of them are in the Y daily, working out or attending a class.
“They’re just so engaged,” said Hamilton. “We always think of the word philanthropy as a big gift or major donor, but because our community is so diverse — one way being financial capability — we work hard to make sure everybody has an opportunity to feel like they’re engaged, giving and contributing to the good of the Y.”
To Hamilton, philanthropy is giving opportunities for people to feel like they’re contributing to and bettering their community, whatever their capacity is. This view, coupled with Harrness’ vision to co-create meaningful change, continues to support many community partnerships.
One such partnership is with the Attleboro Schools to get every second grader into swim lessons as part of gym class. The whole class is bused to the Y once a week for eight weeks in the fall and spring. “It’s been a partnership with the schools who want to make it happen and there’s also been a partnership with different donors who want to support those efforts,” said Hamilton. “It’s been a collaborative approach to make sure every kid in our city knows how to swim and is at least able to be safe around water.”
Another partnership includes the senior meals program. While the need for this program was exacerbated by the pandemic, the Y also learned about the need to educate around healthy meals. “We were donated our Sweet Community House in March 2021 and the commercial kitchen will make sure we have the capacity to keep growing this program,” said Hamilton. “It’s been a huge community collaboration across volunteers, private and corporate donors, and a group called Empty Bowls Attleboro — another initiative to fight food insecurity — to make this happen.”
An additional example of co-creation as a result of the pandemic is the Stronger Together Fund. Rather than having separate funding, 30 nonprofits in the community came together to support the work they were doing through the shutdown. “One of the reasons we were able to mobilize so quickly during COVID-19 and have a community-wide fund was because trust in those partnerships and collaborations were already established,” shared Hamilton. “We weren’t reaching out to someone we had never talked to before — there was a good bond and a trust among the organizations that helped make it happen.”
Looking ahead, this trust is what Alden and the board know Harrness will nurture and continue to grow the Y with. “He is a very strong leader and very open to communication,” said Alden. “He’s really for the good of the team, for the good of the Y and seeing it forward.”
The 2023-2025 Strategic Plan
The Attleboro Norton Y set forth a bold, challenging and exciting 2023-2025 strategic plan with the vision to “Channel the collective energy of community to co-create healthier futures for all.” The strategy for the plan includes two key focuses:
The Y is recognized for providing – and partnering to provide – relevant programs and experiences for youth, families and older adults that have targeted outcomes to realize the Y’s vision. Main objectives include increasing reach, improving overall member experience and innovation to improve programs.
The Y executes a bold facility redevelopment and repositioning plan, supported by an engaged, stable and satisfied team of staff, volunteers and partners. Main objectives include efforts to imagine new, bold possibilities, expand year-round engagement, and improve the people and culture work environment.
Hear more from Courtney Harrness on the Causenetic Podcast, where he and hosts Keith Vinson and Rodrigua Ross of the YMCA of Metropolitan Dallas, dive further into this story, leadership, and more. Listen to the episode on Spotify or YouTube.
Photos by Vail Fucci.