In The Last Word, we sit down with an industry expert to share their wealth of knowledge. This issue, the conversation features Dexter Johnson, the president and CEO at the YMCA of Greater Springfield, in Springfield, Massachusetts.
1. How did you get started in the community recreation industry?
I initially got involved with the YMCA on the youth development side, back in 1992. I planned to become a school teacher and enjoyed working with young people. I started working in summer camps and after-school programs. I spent my youth on military bases with their own recreational facilities, so I did not even know what the YMCA was at the time. It wasn’t until I was working for the Y that I became aware of the many areas of the community being impacted by the Y. I have been the CEO of the YMCA of Greater Springfield for the last three years.
2. What’s been a key to your organization’s success?
The key to our success has been adaptability. The YMCA is great at adapting to the needs of a particular community. The YMCA has three key areas of impact. They are youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. However, the Y does not take a cookie cutter approach on how those will be implemented in a particular community. We are led by members of the community and so every Y becomes something unique. My YMCA in Springfield is one of the oldest in the history of the YMCA movement. It is a pleasure to lead an organization with such a longstanding history in the area.
3. What are you most proud of?
Opening our new child development center was the proudest moment of my career. My organization debated options for our downtown child development center for more than a decade. The board and I made the decision in early 2019 that the time had come to make a move. In November 2019, we opened the doors to a 14-classroom child development center serving 200 children. Seeing the smiling faces on those children nearly brought me to tears. All of that effort immediately became worth it.
4. What has been one of the biggest challenges you have faced in your career?
I think the COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest challenge I have faced. The part that makes it so tough is it does not have an end date. This is not something just impacting the organization, it is impacting the world. We are challenged with making course corrections while flying without knowing the destination. The YMCA and its adaptability will be put to the test, just as our society will be. I believe the nation and the organization will emerge from this chaos and grow from it.
5. What is one lesson you have learned that other community recreation professionals can learn from?
Use your resources. While there are a lot of diverse things about our different organizations, there are a lot of commonalities as well. Network and find out where those commonalities exist. I have my trusted list of people I can call about various areas of my operation. Leading can feel lonely at times because a department or organization might have only one leader. However, there is someone somewhere who has done something similar to what you are trying to accomplish. Use the knowledge that is out there.
6. Tell us one fact about yourself others may not know.
I was born in the southernmost city in the continental U.S., which is Key West, Florida. You are more likely to meet someone who retires there than you will someone who was born there. I was born on an island but don’t like walking on sand or eating seafood. Go figure.