Begin interview today is May 23, 2017 and the time is 11:00 AM eastern. This is Ed Toole on behalf of the YMCA Retirement Fund interviewing Melanie Roth. Mel, thank you for agreeing to share your story with me today.

Ed Toole

Ms. Roth

Happy to do it.


Ed Toole

So my first question for you is what was your first YMCA experience?

Ms. Roth

Oh my, my first Y experience was through the Tri-Hi-Y at the Boyertown high school, and I remember specifically a dance that Jerry Blavat came to as a DJ, and he was a big DJ out of Philadelphia and kids, we just went wild for Jerry Blavat. And so the Tri-Hi-Y sponsored a Jerry Blavat dance, and it was at a local fire hall, because we didn't have a YMCA building back then. So that's my first recollection, and boy how things have changed since then.


Ed Toole

So I know you've had many years of Y experience. So tell me about your first paid position within the Y and what led up to it. And then tell me about the end of your career, the second half, if you will, and a little bit about that role and position?

Ms. Roth

My first position with the Y was as an aerobics instructor. I was an elementary health and physical education teacher and my girlfriend was a secretary, a part-time secretary for the Y. And the Y here in Boyertown was starting to grow, and so they wanted to grow their aerobics program from one instructor to two instructors. And so she thought of me because of my background, and asked if I was interested in becoming an aerobics instructor. And I loved it. And from that I then did part-time things with the kid's classes. I did day camp director.

I actually taught swim lessons in my backyard pool, and it just sort of grew while I was still teaching. And then at one point while I was on maternity leave the Y actually built a facility, opened the building and the executive director came to me and asked if I would be willing to be a part-time physical director, because the Y was just getting started with membership and stuff. So I thought, oh my gosh, I'm going to have the best of both worlds. I will have a part-time job for 20 hours a week with adult conversation and exercise, and all the rest of my time I can still be at home with, and this was with our second son Chase. So I'll be at home with Chad and Chase. So I thought this is great.

So I started with that and it was a lot of fun working to the fitness center and watching the membership grow. And then very quickly the executive director resigned. And then the opening for the director of the Y occurred, and I never thought about working for the Y full time, but I knew teaching wasn't what I wanted to do forever.

So a couple of people here in town encouraged me to apply for this job and I thought, oh my gosh, what do I know about running a YMCA? I don't know how to supervise people and do budgeting and all that stuff. I can create programs, but that's where I felt my strength was. Well, long story short is the good lord willing and people seeing potential in me that I don't think I even knew was there, I got the job.

So I then was at the Boyertown Y, and I was there for 14 and a half years. And then I had the opportunity to become part of the Y-USA staff and I was very excited about that, because again, while I had a great time at the Boyertown Y and we did wonderful things, I knew there was more I still wanted to do. And I felt that more was not necessarily working with a larger Y, but working with more Y's. So being able to become a consultant for the national Y was just wonderful. And I had the opportunity to work with Y's in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. And so for 18 years then I was on the national staff and loved every day of it.


Ed Toole

So in all those years and in multiple roles and positions, tell me about a mentor you had in the Y, or mentors and how that person or persons influenced you?

Ms. Roth

Well, I'll tell you about two quickly. The first one was Larry Jilk. Larry Jilk was the president of the National Bank of Boyertown and he was the chairman of the board when I was hired as the director of the Y and the CEO. And he took me under his wing, every other Tuesday he and I would have breakfast and he taught me the things that he felt I needed to know to be the manager and the leader of the Y, and to do the budgeting and to think about marketing and just all of those things that I didn't have the experience to do. And I have to be honest with you that I left some of those Tuesday morning meetings and went and sat in my car and cried and said, oh my God, what have I done, I don't know if I can do this. And then I just get myself together and I'd stop the tears, and I'd walked right back into the Y with a smile on my face and I'd just get right at it and tried to do the things that he was teaching me to do. And so I give him a lot of credit for helping to teach me and mold me into the type of leader that I became at the Y.

And then the other person that I would say was a real role model for me was Bill Cameron, and he was the MRC director in Philadelphia while I was the CEO of Boyertown. And I looked up to Bill for the way he always presented himself in such a professional way, the way he would just be able to talk so firmly, but yet caringly, and I just held him up in the highest esteem and wanted to be more like Bill Cameron in anything that I did. So those are my two mentors and really role models that have really impacted my life.


Ed Toole

What do you believe during the course of your career or whether as a CEO or at Y-USA was the most significant thing that happened within the Y movement during your career, or significant things that happened that you think back on were pivotal moments?

Ms. Roth

I think while I was a CEO, the part that I think was a big change was municipalities, governments wanting to tax YMCAs. The tax challenge I think changed so much, and because I experienced it firsthand, the Boyertown Y was the second Y in the state of Pennsylvania to be challenged. And it forever ignited my passion for the YMCAs because the thought of the Y having to pay taxes and what that meant we would have to give up doing because we weren't going to have enough money then to be doing some of the services and programs that we weren't charging for, or perhaps as many people wouldn't be able to get scholarships. It just, oh my gosh, there was a fire that came out in me that I didn't know I even had, because this just was not going to happen.

I just felt it was so wrong, and to this day I still get fired up about this, but I have to say that over the course of time we as a YMCA sometimes started losing who we really were. We lost sight of our mission, we lost sight of what we were really intended to do, and we started trying to be things that we weren't really to be.

And so now I think we brought some of it on ourselves, but fortunately I think the pendulum is swinging the other way again and I think people in the Y are really much more focused on the mission and our cause, and the branding of the Y has really helped to I think bring back the foundational roots of our Y. And I hope we never lose that.


What were some of those things if you think back that you felt that led the Y astray then, that we were trying to be what we weren't, you remember particular things happening locally or nationally?

Ed Toole

Ms. Roth

Well I think the whole discounting it was a big thing, and we were trying to compete with the growing number of for-profit fitness centers, and we wanted to be more like them, and we started doing ads and campaigns with girls in exercise stuff that were slim and trim, and we just looked like them. And we started behaving more like them, when in truth they saw that we had a good thing, that we knew what we were doing in the fitness world, but we lost sight of that and we let the image become more important than the wellness of the whole person.

And the wellness of the whole person was greater than just the fitness part. It was the way we took care of families and the way we took care of seniors, and we took care of the people who didn't know how to take care of themselves through many different programs or through the caring of their children. But we just let the pendulum go too far the other way. And so I'm so glad that we have found our way back to our mission and to who we are.


So you were talking about that as a CEO is one of those experiences. How about during your time at Y-USA, what significant impacts did you see or what happened during the course of your career, and at that point in the Y Movement that you feel is really significant one way or the other?

Ed Toole

Ms. Roth

Well, I think toward the end of my career collaborations and Y's being sustainable or not being sustainable really started to change again the way Y's we're doing business, so to speak. And I think seeing that Y's could reach out to help one another with management agreements and shared services and more collaboration, instead of sometimes competing against each other. And here in Pennsylvania, we have more Y's than any other state.

So we have Y's on top of each other in some parts of the state. And we didn't always view each other as partners and as good neighbors, but sometimes actually ended up competing with one another, and trying to change that mindset that when one fails, we all fail. And when one Y is successful, we can all be successful. That was a change of attitude that needed to occur, and fortunately in the last couple of years that I was working I did see that change occurring and it was so good, because stronger Y's reached out to help their neighbors because they didn't want to see them fail.

And when other Y's in the neighborhood started seeing that, it started changing everybody's attitude that, hey we are all in this together and what a difference that has made. So that collaboration and now leading to more mergers is really, I think, very smart and is going to be a way to strengthen the Movement.


Ed Toole

Talk a little bit more about the mergers that you have been involved with?

Ms. Roth

Well, I was involved with in the Lehigh Valley area, the first one was actually with suburban north and the Nazareth Y. The suburban north Y CEO was going to retire and so he talked to. Because we had been talking as a neighborhood of five YMCAs for probably five years before this even happened about all these Y's on top of each other, they ought to all just come together. All the CEOs agreed to it and said, yes we should come together, but we couldn't really figure out how to make it happen, and people were worried about their jobs. But as the first one retired, he said, I'm going to get this started, so he had a conversation with Frank Fry and together they said, let's make this work.

So we had conversations with the boards, but the boards weren't quite there yet, so that took some time and we had to work through a management agreement, but it did eventually lead to a merger. Then we had a troubled Y, unfortunately the eastern Y fell on some financially difficult times, and again the Nazareth Y I went to Frank Fry again and said, what would you think about doing another management agreement and helping the eastern Y? We did that, and again it took time to bring the volunteers along, because what sometimes happens when you work through a management agreement first is once the Y starts becoming healthy, the volunteers of the board, that was the unhealthy Y they suddenly say well we're healthy now, so now we can do this on our own.

Well, but then you have to have that tough conversation and say, but let's really look back, what have you done in the past six months to change the way you are leading this Y that has actually led to it becoming healthier. And when they realized it wasn't really them changing yet, but it was the operation changing and that was due to the help of the other Y they start seeing that they have to do things differently. And it becomes part of the educational process that they have to learn their role and learn that some of the decisions that they've made, their lack of fundraising, their lack of oversight of the CEO, some of those things had been part of the cause of the Y sliding.

But eventually I will say that we worked through that merger, and then we had another one come up in that area. So they are all now, the last one has happened after I left, but all five Y's have now come together in that area, so it's a great thing. And the other one that I worked on that I'll just mention, that I'm very proud of, and it was a difficult merger and that was the Upper Main Line and the Brandywine Valley YMCA, two very great Y's, a $50 million Y and a $25 million Y coming together, and hats off to Joe Teckel the CEO and to Denise Day for them wanting to see this happen. And it wasn't their egos that made this, it was their egos that said this is what's right for our Y's, we have to make this work. And with a lot of work with their boards and through their tenacity it did work. So my hat's off to them as well.


Ed Toole

I'm sure you're proud about the mergers and fighting the tax challenge and the collaboration. So what other things are you proud about when you reflect on your Y career that maybe people wouldn't know that maybe you did over the course of a career?

Ms. Roth

Oh, that's a good question. And you don't really think about those things, you just do. One of the things that I always loved was teaching and training, and being a faculty person for the many different trainings and courses that we had through the Y. And I would like to believe that by doing that I was able to influence a lot of staff at all different levels, not just professionals, not just the directors, but also the part-time staff, but also the CEO's as they came to some of the trainings as well. So I'm proud of that. One of the other things that I'm proud of that I did very early at the start of my career at the Y-USA and that was while I was working with the management resource center of New York.

And depending who listens to this they won't even know what the management resource center was, but it was an arm of Y-USA and it was the way Y-USA provided services to local Y's. But back in the late 90s we had a number of drowning’s in the YMCAs, and so I was charged with coming up with something for the Y's in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut that could help reduce the number of drowning’s in YMCAs, because if memory serves me right, we had 13 drowning’s in one year. And so I put together a task force of aquatic directors in that Tristate area and we actually created and developed an aquatic safety manual and an aquatic safety appraisal process where we trained people to go to YMCA pools and appraise their operation, to look at how they were functioning and to make sure they were following aquatic best practices.

And so we created this 250ish page manual and we created this process to assess and to appraise our pools, and I'm very proud of what that did, that manual and the impact that that had on pools across the Tri-state area. And maybe if there would be one other thing, it sort of again still goes back to teaching, but I loved being able to work with boards and do board development work. It became a passion of mine through my consulting years and being able to help teach volunteers how to do their job and to understand what their job was and how important their role was to the YMCA, oh, was just something that I really, really enjoyed.

And hopefully when I finished working with a Y through a board development project or if I did volunteerism training with them or board development training with them or led board retreats, that they left there with a better understanding of what their job was and they were more confident in doing it, and they helped to make that Y a little bit better.


Do you remember any particular situation working with volunteers where you worked with them and you just saw the light bulb go off in terms of what their role was or you know, you saw six or seven years later wow that group of volunteers really understood what their role was compared to where they had been at?

Ed Toole

Ms. Roth

That's a great question. I would like to think that the light bulbs went off with a lot of them, because many times the reason I was called in to do this was because they just weren't doing what they needed to be doing, but I think a couple of the Y's that had really strong boards and I think it came about as an evolution. The York YMCAs board, I saw them grow in strength the Central Bucks YMCA, The Upper Main Line Y, and also the Nazareth Y board changed over time as well. So I don't know, that's probably not a very good answer because right now I just can't come up with one specific thing, but I know I loved doing that work and it was just fun to see them grow.


Ed Toole

What does the YMCA mean to you? The YMCA, what does that mean to you?

Ms. Roth

You know, as a youngster I didn't even know about the Y, it wasn't until I became a teenager that the Y in Boyertown town started to get going, and I still don't even really know what the Y was at that point. But then after I started as an aerobics instructor and then when I became involved as a volunteer, which I didn't mention that before, but as a volunteer to the Y and serving on a building committee and bringing a community together to support the Y.

I really got to understand that the Y is a community, it has the ability to bring a community together, to make a community better, but it does that one person at a time. And that one person can be a child, it can be a senior citizen, it can be a single parent, and that grows into a family, and that family may live in the same house, but that family also becomes a family by groups of people at the Y finding things that they have in common and that they care about each other and they look out for each other. And that little group of people becomes a family.

And so I don't know, when I think about the Y I just think about this organization that has the ability to change lives. It builds people from the inside, not their muscles, oh yeah it does that, but it builds people so that they can be better. They tap potential that they didn't know that they had, that's my story. I didn't know I had this potential in me. If you would have asked me when I graduated from high school and college, if I would have ever thought I would be a CEO of a YMCA or get to be a consultant for an organization that is worldwide I would have never ever imagined that.

But the Y showed me that I had this potential and it taught me and I just can't even really describe what it has done for me. But it's made me a better person and I just now have these little Y's, they just flow through my bloodstream, and they're there forever and it's never going to go away, never ever. And I am blessed that the Y has come into my life.


Ed Toole

If you could share any advice with leadership throughout the entire YMCA Movement, what is it that it would be, what do Y leaders, staff or volunteers need to know?

Ms. Roth

I think they need to know that they have the capacity to make the world a better place. They have the capacity at their fingertips to change people, to build people, to help them be the best that they can be, whether it's a member or a staff person or a child. They have opportunities in front of them that they can't turn a blind eye to. They can't let dollars stop them and they can't let buildings confine them. They have to look at what is in front of them and see the potential and find ways to let people become the best that they can without being judged and without being restricted.

The Y is an amazing organization. We have YMCAs in countries all around the world, but right within our own communities, we can be making individuals, families, towns, suburbs, cities, states the best that they can be. We need to be example, we as Y leaders need to be role models, and when we stop and forget that we are working for an organization that can change the world. And when we think rules don't apply to us, we are missing the boat on lessons that we can teach people, because people look to the Y with great expectation and we can't let them down.


Is there anything else significant that you can think of that happened in the Y Movement while you were a resource director or working for Y-USA?

Ed Toole

Yeah. Actually the whole branding and the rebranding of the Y, my gosh, that was huge and so important. And especially because at that time and as I had mentioned earlier, I felt that the Y had lost its way. The branding really brought the focus back to what the mission and the purpose of the Y was. Now of course not everybody was jumping on the bandwagon right away, it took a little time for people to wrap their arms around it, but I think that is one of the best things that has happened to the Movement.

It's gotten everybody on the same page, we all have the same logo now, and yes there was some concern that we were having five different color palettes and whoever heard of anything like that. But it's worked out beautifully and I think that we're all now talking in the same language and we're saying the same things has just been a real plus for the moment. So I think that's just been a wonderful, wonderful thing.

Ms. Roth


When the rebranding happened on multiple levels and we know that there were multiple layers to it, was there anything that gave you pause personally when it first came out? Or were you like, this is great?

Ed Toole

Well, I had paused when it first was talked about because I just couldn't understand how this was all going to happen, but I remembered being at a meeting in New Jersey where they showed a slide of like 100 different Y logos, and when you saw all those logos and many of them I had not seen, but many of them I had seen.

But when you saw them all up on one slide on this big wall, you said, oh my gosh, well no wonder everything's so confusing and nobody knows who we are because we have all these different looks. But I knew there would be tension with Y's not being willing to give up that logo, their identity, because they felt it was unique to them and that that's how they were known in their community. And I thought that was going to be quite a struggle.

But I will say that with plenty of conversation and I think some real effort and education and getting people to understand the benefit to us all having one look and how that would help us in many other ways. I think people, I think the light bulbs finally went off for people and they were willing to give up their look so that we could all have one look, and boy what a difference it's making.

Ms. Roth


Ed Toole

Is there anything I did not ask you today that you hoped I would or that you would like to share? Maybe something that you've thought about as we were having this conversation?

Ms. Roth

I can't say that you have. I just, it's just been such a privilege to work for the YMCA, it's given me so many opportunities and I hope in some small way what I've done through the Y has also impacted others, and that they've felt that they've had some potential tapped in them as well. So thanks for the opportunity. It's been quite a ride and I'm not ready for it to end yet.


Ed Toole

Well, I know from personal experience you have had an impact, so we appreciate all you've done for this Movement and still doing on a part-time basis. So thanks for taking time to talk with me today.

Ms. Roth

My pleasure. Thank you.