Dave Morgan is a YMCA lifer. As an adolescent, he would sneak into his neighborhood YMCA in Madison, Wisconsin. At 13, tired of constantly kicking him out, a forward-thinking Y employee asked him to start volunteering a few hours a week. At 16, he got his first paying job at the Y.
“My first job was as a gym supervisor, and it was a great job because my main role was to make sure kids weren’t sneaking in,” he says with a chuckle. “I had done that for so many years, I knew the best ways to keep that from happening.”
Fast-forward 36 years and two YMCAs later, and Morgan, 49, now heads the YMCA of Greater Kalamazoo, which has three branches and child-care and early-education programs and administers before- and after-school programs in local schools. The organization is in the midst of a $6 million expansion focused on increasing access, from renovated, ADA–compliant, all-access locker rooms to a new pool at the YMCA’s Maple Branch that includes a zero-steps entry to efforts to strengthen the Y’s scholarship program.
“We have facilities that can really make a difference in peoples’ lives,” says Morgan.
How did you become involved with the YMCA?
I grew up in a little bit of a funky household. My parents didn’t graduate high school, and school was never really that important.
I had a lot of free time where my parents didn’t know or care where I was or what I was doing.
I used to sneak into the Y when I was 11 or 12 and cause problems. When I was 13, the sports director, Pat Klinkner, grew tired of kicking me out and asked me to volunteer a few hours a week. I did housekeeping, cleaning the weight room, but it gave me a membership to the Y.
After I started working there at 16, I started teaching everything from youth basketball to gymnastics to soccer and took on more responsibility. I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I was an engineering major. I loved it, but about a year and a half in, I decided I really wanted to work for the Y. I went back to Pat and asked him what he got his degree in, and it was some obscure program called recreation resource management, so that’s what I did. I did my internship at the Y in Madison. I’ve never left the Y.
Where were you before you came to Kalamazoo?
I spent 19 years working at the Madison Y and was an executive branch manager there when the CEO job at the Stevens Point (Area) YMCA (in Stevens Point, Wisconsin) opened. I was offered the job, but my wife and I questioned whether we wanted to leave Madison — we adored the community. My boss pulled me in and said, “No offense, but you need to leave. We love you to death, but I’ve spent the past five and a half years getting you ready for you to start leading the movement. It’s time for you to leave and take on your own Y.”
I took the job, and it was a great experience. It was a Y that was struggling financially and had issues with staff regarding trust and culture. After 13 years, I had accomplished everything I’d been asked to: The Y was out of debt and had a surplus, we were raising more money for scholarships, purchased a camp and renovated our building. I felt I could leave on good terms.
What intrigued you about coming to the YMCA of Greater Kalamazoo?
It’s a little bigger operation than Stevens Point, but there are several challenges. One is transportation and access for folks; we need to improve that either by making sure people can get to us or go to where they are. I am also a big proponent of early-childhood education, which organizations tend to shy away from because it has incredibly high staff ratios — one staff member for every four children — which is financially challenging. But we know that 80 percent of brain development happens before kids are 3 years old, so we need to get to them early on.
Finally, we need to focus on our fundraising. The more that people see us as a charity, the more good we can do. We have our work cut out for us.
Do most people see the YMCA as only a gym?
Unless someone has an intimate relationship with us already, people tend to see us as just another fitness center, gym or place to go swimming. That’s where we have to do a better job telling our story. People don’t think about the number of kids we reach through our Lincoln Branch or in our child-care programs. We also help people stay active and focus on their health. We have diabetes and cancer survivorship programs and facilities that allow people to walk, bike and exercise in the winter.
We are so much more than that (a gym). You just never know what 13-year-old is going to come into our Y that day and need someone to help change their life.
— Interview by Marie Lee