In The Last Word, we sit down with an industry expert to share their wealth of knowledge. In the 2024 January/February issue, the conversation features AJ Hernandez, the president and CEO of the YMCA of Wichita Falls.
1. How did you get started in the community recreation industry?
AH: I got started by being a product of the industry through YMCA programs as a youth. The desire to want to give back to others the way I was invested into has always been there. I began my career in youth development over 13 years ago and worked through all levels of leadership to now being president and CEO of an amazing association.
2. What’s been a key to your team’s success? What are you most proud of?
AH: I believe our team keeps the main thing first, which is our community. If we constantly invest in what our community needs while pouring the right culture into our staff, then the sky is the limit. Our team sees people as the priority. I am most proud of our consistent and innovative service to others.
3. What has been one of the biggest accomplishments of your career?
AH: I have been blessed to work with amazing leaders. I’m proud that a lot of my part-time leadership has stayed within the movement and grown to director roles across the country. That’s highlighted through a training initiative we created called Triangle Leadership Academy which is designed to specifically grow leaders in our movement. Another major accomplishment would be my current Y’s ability to raise $25 million in capital dollars over the last three to four years to grow our impact in the communities we serve.
4. What has been one of the biggest challenges you have faced in your career?
AH: The struggle in recruiting and retaining staff has been exasperated over the last few years, but truthfully, we’ve been battling it for a long time. The YMCA is often considered to be a great first job for many but that typically leads to leaving at some point. The need to train and grow our future leaders has never been greater.
5. What is one lesson you have learned that other community recreation professionals can learn from?
AH: Don’t be scared to ask for support. Reach out to other industry leaders through networking. If you admire another organization’s work, then reach out and tell them so. It may lead to them sharing how they have cultivated the success in that space. We do not collectively share enough which results in many great programs failing to multiply on the national level. We need to lift each other up.
6. Tell us one fact about yourself others may not know.
AH: I am a former University of Tennessee, Knoxville Volunteer, so my love for all big orange athletics is ever flowing. There is nothing better than a game day experience inside Neyland Stadium cheering on the Volunteers.