Under Fitzgerald, Y is ‘no longer just a gym-and-swim’

Under Fitzgerald, Y is ‘no longer just a gym-and-swim’

The Westerly Sun

WESTERLY — When Maureen Fitzgerald arrived in Westerly a decade ago, she invited residents to dream. To dream of something bigger, better and stronger.

It was November of 2004 and Fitzgerald had just accepted the top leadership position as president and CEO of the Westerly-Pawcatuck YMCA. Membership at the “Y” was a little more than 8,000 and the operating budget was roughly $3.5 million.

Ten years later, the Ocean Community YMCA has become a $5.5 million-per-year operation, membership has exploded to 15,000 and there are three branches — Arcadia, Mystic and Westerly-Pawcatuck — two camps — Charlestown’s Camp Watchaug and Mystic Day Camp — and an ice skating rink, The Washington Trust Community Skating Center.

The Westerly-Pawcatuck branch recently completed an $8.2 million renovation and expansion, and in September the Y completed the purchase of 90 High St., for $525,000, to ease demand on its main parking lot and to provide additional office and meeting space. The organization’s Reach Out to Youth Campaign — a program that enables the Y to provide memberships to people in need — has grown steadily over the years. In 2013, the program helped roughly 2,000 families participate in Y programs and services by providing more than $450,000 in financial assistance. The Silver Sneakers program, a fitness and exercise program designed specifically for adults 50 and older — is booming.

With a newly-added juice and coffee bar in the lobby situated next to cozy seats overlooking the child- care area, the Westerly-Pawcatuck branch of the ocean Community YMCA is a thriving, active community center filled with people of all ages. From the time the facility opens at 5 a.m. to the time it closes at 10 p.m., roughly 1,400 people pass through the doors to swim laps, work out or take a spin, yoga, Pilates or weight-training class.

“The credit absolutely belongs to the staff, the board members and the volunteers,” said Fitzgerald last week as she sat in her office on the lower level of the High Street building. “They’re the ones who connect with the public. They’re the ones who do the real work. They’re the ones who open the building every morning at five a.m. and coach the basketball teams and the swim team. They’re the ones who came to work every day when half the building was gone. They make my job easy.”

Then there’s the late Paul Lynch and the late Ray Cherenzia, said Fitzgerald, listing the movers and shakers she called the true leaders, the people responsible for spearheading the changes. Deflecting attention away from herself, she continued with her list; Ed Smith, Bill Nardone, Mal Makin, Kurt Kramer, John Coduri, Rogean Makowski, Dick Holliday, the Royce Family and Sergio Cherenzia. The leaders, the fundraisers ... they’re the ones, she insisted. The credit for growing the Y belongs to them.

“I’m pretty sure she’ll give credit to her staff and the board,” predicted Makin, the Y’s former chief volunteer officer, “but the fact is that she is the one who’s assembled the team. She is the one who had the vision. She’s the one who sold her vision to a group of people who then rolled up their sleeves and helped her accomplish a project just this side of unbelievable.”

“We are lucky to have Maureen,” said Attorney William A. Nardone, the organization’s present chief volunteer officer. “She’s done a phenomenal job and not just with the obvious expansion.”

Listing the accomplishments under her tenure, Nardone said Fitzgerald possesses “an uncanny ability to connect with people from all her constituencies.”

“She also has the ability to engender confidence in people while fostering interest in the YMCA and its mission,” added Nardone. “She’s touched a lot of people in her ten years and we are fortunate to have her.”

Makowski, who chaired the committee that chose Fitzgerald back in 2004, called the Y CEO “a shining star.”

“We were looking for someone to help us grow, someone who understood the mission of the Y, who could demonstrate how critical the Y is for this community, someone who could see the big picture,” said Makowski. “Maureen has done all that.”

Additionally, added Makowski, Fitzgerald has been “a strong mentor to her staff.”

“She has allowed them to grow,” she said. “It takes a good manager to be able to do that.”

Again stepping out of the spotlight, Fitzgerald applauded her predecessors. She walked into an ideal situation when she arrived from the Community YMCA in Red Bank, N.J., to take over from then-CEO Kurt Kramer, she said.

“I was so impressed with what Kurt and John Coduri had done,” said the Aurora, N.Y., native. “They made it easy. They were so well-known and so well-respected. It was a great community to step into.”

Fitzgerald said the Y is now positioned to take several more steps; working with the schools and hospitals, she said, the Y can continue to develop programs for diabetes prevention and combating the childhood obesity epidemic, and strengthening the mentoring program that is under the direction of Debbie Scheinblum.

“The Y is no longer just a gym-and-swim,” said Fitzgerald. “It is so much more. We really have become a community center.”

“We will continue to keep children safe and we continue to be a resource for people who want to be healthy,” she added. “We are a place where every child can feel welcome and safe, and we are here to stay.”

A Springfield College graduate, Fitzgerald started her career with the Y in 1990 as an aquatic director at a branch in the Albany, N.Y., area. She climbed up the leadership ladder and ended up being the executive director of the Troy, N.Y., branch of the Capital District YMCA. She has a teaching degree and a bachelor’s degree in physical education, has coached sports teams and taught health, biology and physical education at a school in Fort Myers, Fla.

Fitzgerald, the first female CEO for the Westerly institution, admits that 10 years has not been without controversy. Balancing the budget is always a challenge, she said, and while closing the old “Y Men’s Club” may not have been an easy decision to make, it was the right one, the legally appropriate one.

“The board made the right decision,” she said.

As she again praised the work of the volunteers and the staff, Fitzgerald confessed to one regret.

“I wish that Paul Lynch and Ray Cherenzia were here to see everything,” said Fitzgerald, noting their combined and individual contributions. “They were huge figures. Fortunately their legacies live on.”



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