Podcast Transcription

Saranda West: Welcome to the Accelerant podcast, where we are impacting thought leadership in the nonprofit community.

Hi there. Thank you for joining me on the show today. My name is Saranda West, your host for the Accelerant over the past many weeks. I really still wish I knew what week it was. Our world has been turned upside down in many ways. One of the things that always helps me get recentered, if you will, is working with so many great nonprofits that are doing wonderful things in the community, which is why I’m looking forward to today.

I am joined by Adam Schilling, Executive Director of Membership and Programs and Shannon Matthews, Chief Operating Officer from the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids. Welcome to you both.  

Shannon Matthews: Well, good morning. Thanks for having us.  

Adam Schilling: Happy to be here.  

SW: She did, Adam. Let’s start out. You know, I think for all of us, it’s hard to know, with the pandemic and everything that’s going on in our world today.  

I kind of joked about what day it is, but it really has felt like that in a lot of ways. So, will one of you start out by summarizing just the past several months in Grand Rapids and then what the current state of where you are in terms of your YMCAs.  

AS: Yeah. Like most people around the country, I like to say it’s just been a whirlwind.

We went from March when the governor sat us down and it was shut down, closing the facilities, and then we got into the mode of recovery and it’s time to rebuild and to go from all the information flooding in around CARES Act and the shutdown to reopening has definitely been very stressful and just very busy.

As we brought our team back together, we started discussing what reopening looks like. We realized we needed to take a pause because we just came off the emergency of shutting down and all the quick decisions that had to be made, but we know reopening, we had to be a lot more thoughtful and a lot more intentional.

So, we slowed our pace down. And I want to say one thing I’m very proud of is that we pause and we just took time to research what’s out there. We did a big data data dump. We, uh, looked at, uh, what’s happening. What is the CDC telling us? What is the health department telling us? Let’s reach out to our counterparts around the country and the Y to see what they’re doing.

We started to compile all this one for installation, and we really took about a week or so to go through all this information, all this data before we even started to work on our recovery plan. I think that has really fared well for us and played well for us because we came in with a lot of information and data to help us make educated decisions, to move our organization forward.

SW: That helped me understand more… When you said you took a pause. What did that pause look like? Did you have to furlough any staff, or was staff involved? Looking back, just all of the services you offer to the community overall, what does that process like?

The Great Pause

SM: Well during the shutdown, yes of course we had the furlough staff, so it was devastating to call our facilities and lay off and furlough our family. We did that, but we did keep a small executive team on board, because we had to make sure that our facilities, although we shut them down, we had our facilities, people going in and making sure that we were okay daily.

We had our executives here again, just as we’re in research so we can make educated decisions moving forward. When I talk about resourcing all the execs came together, we did, of course, everyone was on go to meeting or Zoom, and we just started talking about how is everyone feeling?

Where is your mind at where’s your heart at? What do we want to focus on as an organization to make us stronger? What I love about the YMCA is our national office and the great resources they have, and they actually had a pandemic playbook that had just published. So, we kind of went through the pandemic playbook, and then we talked about, we need to know more outside of just the Y.  

So, we released our execs just to go research. Everyone went out and found articles and what was happening around the country and we downloaded it in the folder and we all just spent time going through reading it and discussing it as a team.  

SW: You’re no stranger to data, so I’m sure you had a hand in that as well.  

AS: Yeah. You know, I’ve been really placed in a fortunate position to help take that skill set of using data and try to make sense of it. To help lead our team here in this, you know, recovery of reopening our facilities, one of the things that Shannon identified, there was a lot of the decision-making that we were doing.

We tried to use that data to help bring about a well-rounded picture for making these decisions. Our whole decision-making process has really sped up during this time. As a large organization we have somewhere between 1600 and 1800 employees typically on staff when we’re opening and have all our programs running to the extent that we did preclosure, some of the decision-making processes can take a little bit of time because there’s so many layers and people to consult in the different processes.  

Well, during this time period, there’s not really as much bandwidth, so I don’t have much time to have that extended decision-making process.

Our group has gotten really comfortable making decisions and then a day later saying, “Oh, maybe that decision wasn’t the right one. Let’s change it or tweak it a little bit.” I think in the past that wasn’t a trait that we were necessarily too comfortable with. We would make a decision and we try and stick with it.

But during this time, we know that we’re going to have to be a little bit more loose with some of those decisions. That’s where that data and the information really comes in. As we’re getting more information, as we’re learning from other YMCAs that are reopening across the country, we’re taking their experiences and using it to help shape, reshape, even the plan that we have right now.  

I can’t tell you how many versions of our reopening plan we’ve gone through because every day we’re tweaking one thing.  

SW: Oh, Adam, that the decision-making, as y’all know, I’m in product development.  We have this roadmap where it’s like, “Here’s exactly all of these new things that we’re going to build.”  

I’m pretty sure that has changed, literally turned upside down 10 times in a week. My team lead actually at one point he was like, “Okay guys, let’s run, but let’s run with safety scissors instead of like really sharp scissors.”

It’s okay if we fall and hurt ourselves, but all that’s good. Let’s keep moving fast, but let’s not try to hurt too many things, because we can, you can pivot and make it make tweaks later on.  

AS: One of the items that our CEO, Scott Lewis, said when we first embarked on starting to reopen our Ys and figuring out what his plans were, was he advised our team to not go too deep into decisions, to not go to a layer that was going to cause us too much work to get down to, because there were so many things for us to be focusing on.  

There were so many fewer people than we were used to having that he knew we were all going to be happy for him to run pretty fast on a lot of things. That’s where all of that great research comes into play is that it allows us to get an understanding of what’s happening and then make a decision and then move on to that next thing  

SM: I just want to say research is definitely a part of it, but you have to also inspire your team, and how do you pull your people up when we’re going through so much tragedy and so much uncertainty in the world?  

We looked to our history, we brought in a historian to talk to us about when the Y has been in crisis before, and that was so fabulous.

We did that the first week we brought all the team together, and we just looked at how the Y showed up with morale work. They did sports and recreation for the soldiers. Then we looked at how the Ys showed up in 1918 for the flu pandemic, and we were on the frontline then as we were on the frontline now, working hand in hand with the public and the community, but we also raised dollars behind that to support the work.

Then we look at how the Y showed up in the Great Depression, constantly changing and having to adapt. We feel we laugh because like here we are, again, having to constantly change and adapt, but what I thought was an “aha moment” for me is during the great depression, the Y pivoted towards public policy again.  

They pivoted towards youth work, which is exactly what we’re doing now in COVID-19. I am so proud to work for an organization that’s not afraid to be on the front lines and to figure it out with the people and with the communities and in the communities that we serve.  

“I am so proud to work for an organization that’s not afraid to be on the front lines and to figure it out with the people and with the communities and in the communities that we serve.”

SW: Yeah, absolutely.

What are some of those ways that you have pivoted and turned towards the community as you’ve been closed? Are there new services that have come from this time?  

SM: Well, we went right back to youth work, so childcare for our essential workers. We’re currently partnered with about four hospitals to make sure their staff have a safe place to drop their children.

We also expanded our food distribution program. As of last week, all the over 75,000 meals have been served to the families. Then opening our doors up for blood drives to make sure that our hospitals have enough supplies and resources. I’m so proud to be able to say that we were able to show that we’re so much more than a gym during this trying time.

SW:  In terms of reopening, what are the current plans?

Re-Opening Plans

AS: With our reopening plan, we do not yet have a date from our governor for when we’re able to have our facilities operational or open to the public for the gym and the fitness side of what we do with the community, but we have our plan that is in a final draft form. I’m very proud to say that, if we open our facility tomorrow, we could make that happen. We would be ready for that.

We are just really waiting for that date. Our governor has really been at the forefront of making decisions that prioritize safety and health of the community. We’ve had a few different outbreaks that have been a little bit larger, especially over in the East side of the state in Detroit.

I think our governor has wanted to slow walk this a little bit more than in some of the other states. We’re looking to full reopen sometime in this month, in June.  

SW: That’s great. You have such a good plan.  

You mentioned earlier, there are other Ys across the country that you can learn from, so hopefully you’ll be able to take all those great, great learnings and apply that to your plan as well.  

AS: Well, and I think we’re seeing the power of the Movement right now, especially in things like what we’re doing right here is we’re sharing information with others and there’s more sharing of what’s happening within our associations than I’ve seen in my entire 15-, 16-year career at the Y.

There was a great webinar the other day with the COOs from Oklahoma City and Tulsa. They’d both been open for almost a month and they were just sharing what they’d been experiencing and see, as far as trends, and that was really helpful. It was really eye opening. It provided some experience or learning from those Ys to the rest of the Ys and the Movement that were needed.

We’re seeing that more now than ever. That’s what makes me so proud of how we’re showing up, where we’re not just showing up in our cities, we’re showing up across the country. We are banded together, and we are really going to do everything that we can to utilize the power of this Y brand for our local communities.

Let’s say it’s the epitome of think globally act locally.  

SW: And in terms of your, I guess a day into your opening plan… Can I be honest, you guys? I hate buzzwords, but one of the buzzwords, and it may have changed by now, but it’s this “Touch Free” or “Contact Free” or “Touchless.”

Thinking about coming into a YMCA to a program or to work out, whatever it is, there’s so many things that you could potentially touch, and of course, then the spread of germs and everything goes from there. What is your reopening playbook look like in terms of trying to limit that contact with people?

Limiting Contact

AS: What our reopening plan looks like for the touch-free environment is that we have, in our YMCAs, a business service center, and that provides an opportunity for centralized administration and houses our center, but it also houses the data processors and the other team members who are working on the backend of our system with index to make sure that everything is being entered correctly that’s available for sale.

They also do transactional processes for member registrations and program registrations. We have chosen to centralize what happens within our facilities when someone comes in to, to register.  

We’ve moved to an online experience, so, Saranda, if you were to enter into our YMCAs and asked to join as a member pre closure, we would have had a team member there. They might’ve asked you to fill out a piece of paper. They may have just walked you through and typed it on a computer for you and got you to sign everything you need to sign.

What’s going to happen now is that we will have iPads and computer stations for individuals to complete that transaction themselves.

We will have team members that are there alongside them, trying to help them work through that process, but it will not be an exchange of paper or pens between individuals. That’s really going to be a key step, and what is exciting about that is that it frees up our team members that are within our branch locations to really focus on the experience that our members and participants are having within our YMCAs.  

That is what our team members at our branches do best. They focus on building the relationships, seeking to understand what our members are going through and then trying to help them reach their goals, whatever those goals might be. To be able to remove some of the administrative burden of having to process transactions, that’s going to free them up to do the work that’s going to be so important for our community once our doors are open, which is helping people get reconnected and get back on a path towards wellness, whatever that might mean for them.

We’ve also had a full transition to all online membership sales. That includes our corporate and financial assistance categories, which previously you had to come in to the facility to fully activate those.

That’s going to be the main way that we are going about trying to have that touch-free environment. There are other items that we’ve done to adapt our facilities. If you are going to be exercising on the fitness floor and you’re using free weights, once we reopened right now, we’re saying no spotters, because if you’re spot in someone and they’re doing a bench press, you’re going to have to be kind of directly over their face in order to lift that bar for them. We know that, because this is mostly a respiratory disease, that that is going to be a way that you’re going to be able to contract it as if they’re breathing that air right up to you.

We’ve gone and made a few other adaptations within our spaces as well.

SW: It differs by state, and you said that the governor is still deciding every open date. Do you have an idea of guidelines in terms of mask and other things like that that may be required for members? Or is that still to be determined?

AS: Yeah. We’ve been working with the health department during this whole journey, bouncing the plans that we have off of them, asking them really pointed questions, and that was one of those questions. What is the guidance on the masks?  

Our health department here in Kent County has said that it is not mandatory for individuals in our facilities to exercise, to wear masks if they feel it’s going to put them in a space that makes them less sick.

There is restricted breathing that comes along with wearing the mask, so when you’re doing heavy cardiovascular exercise, you have deep diaphragm breathing. If you’re wearing a mask, that can really reduce some of the oxygen flow, which could increase your risk for getting dizzy, faint, and possibly a heart attack.

We haven’t seen anything officially come from the governor’s office yet. They have created a work group of different organizations from across the state that’s currently advising the governor. There are three meetings that are happening this week, and we’re going to put forth a proposal for what the guidelines are for how gym and fitness facilities can operate once we are given the green light to open up.  

I do not expect masks to be mandatory coming from those guidelines, but if that is a mandatory guideline, we will obviously abide by it, but so far, our county health department has said that it’s not really.  

SW: That’s good. That’ll make it easier.

I did try to exercise with a mask on last week that did not go so well.

AS: One of the things that we’re doing though, and this is different than some of the other organizations that individuals within our community are doing, is when you come into the YMCA, we will have some health check stations.

We will have a set of questions that we’ll be asking members, and we will be taking their temperature via a contact-less digital thermometer. That is to help ensure the safety of others in the facility, especially because we know that many are likely to be wearing masks while they’re exercising.

SW: Yeah. Let’s get an extra precaution and just make sure that people are healthy as they’re coming into the facility. That continued to spread one of the things I wanted to go back to in terms of, because the YMCA is so much more than just a place to exercise, right? It’s all about the community.

Adam, you said this in terms of being connected, and I’ve seen this so many times as I’ve visited YMCAs is I think a lot of people right now don’t know how best to put this. They just need a hug. They just need to see people and connect with people and to talk. How do you see that? Just the mental health and the community and all of that. What does that look like?

SM: Well, it is going to be difficult because we are a community-based organization and we’re huggers here, so how we show up with our actions is really going to be paramount as we move forward. We’re going to take time training our staff before they are able to interact with our members to talk about how we can be engaging with our eyes and with our affections.

We’re really gonna focus on just being an ear to listen, and then just loving on people as they come in the door.  

AS: Yeah. From the mental health side, number one, we have just an amazing community engagement team here at our YMCA. We are so blessed to have amazing leadership that has been doing work in this Grand Rapids community for decades.

They have put us in a place where there is so much trust with other community organizations and partners that we are able to reach out to organizations that specialize in mental health services and receive feedback.  

We’ve been doing that for really about the last year now. We’ve started a health equity advisory group that has been meeting to put some life into some of the healthy living strategies that we have as an organization, so that we know that we can reach out and serve more people, especially people who have needs that really aren’t being met by other organizations at this moment.

Once our facilities are reopened and we’re able to start engaging more with the community, we’re going to be uncovering needs that really weren’t as high of a priority in previous months and years. Some of those mental health needs are going to be unknown, but we do have a good plan for looking into figuring out what they are.

Social isolation, we are pretty sure it’s going to be one of those major needs, especially with older adults. If they had been having to isolate and go into quarantine, we know that that’s going to be a major issue that we need to focus on. That’s what our Y does so well.

Like Shannon identified, we build relationships with our community, amongst our community. That is really the cornerstone and the bedrock of not just our lives but really all life.

That’s what separates us and really makes us a different and unique organization is the priority that we put towards that.  

SW: Yeah, absolutely. It definitely goes back to what Shannon said earlier, in terms of, in a time of crisis, just recognizing the needs in the communities and then serving them and y’all have done that so well.

One I wanted to dig in and learn more about in particular is you have a YMCA to say a couple of times I’ve visited Grand Rapids. I haven’t gotten a chance to experience myself, but Shannon, could you tell us a little bit about the Mary Free Bed YMCA and its unique design?  

SM: Love Mary Free Bed.

I’ve been here in Grand Rapids two years, and I want to say when I came for my interview, walking that branch was one of the reasons that kind of sealed the deal for me because it was so forward-thinking. Our Mary Free Bed is a universally designed building. What I love about it is that it’s an inclusive atmosphere of this facility encourages social cohesion and dignity of integration, where you can see able-bodied and disabled body people working side by side.

When I think about universal, the greatest idea, all the greatest ideas are universal, right? Because it’s for all, and that’s the bedrock of who we are as an organization, so our architects and planners did such a good job to design a facility for aging population, for special needs children, those in temporary need of sports injuries and those recovering from medical conditions.

When you see our facility, when you first come up to it, you’ll see it’s no curve. It is a seamless transition from the parking lot into the building, from the sidewalk into the door, the widening of our walkway so wheelchairs can fit on them.  

When you walk into our beautiful facility, you’ll see that our ramp is a center point of our facility and it wraps around, so folks can get to and from all the levels. But what I just love about is you can see different ages, different abilities all together as one and it’s just so seamless.

It is a beautiful design, much needed designing. I even think about the wonderful baseball fields that we have in the back for our special needs children to play baseball. It’s just all inclusive. It’s for all, because that’s who we are as an organization.  

SW: I have to come see it. That’s all I can say is I have to come see it.

Shannon Matthews: You are welcome anytime. Adam and I will take you around. We like to show it off. It’s the first of its kind.  

AS: Yeah. You know, what I love about this Y here is that we have five core values, right? Caring, honesty, respect, responsibility, the fifth one is inclusion. That Mary Free Bed facility really exemplifies that.

That core value of inclusion seeps in to really all of the decision-making that we have. We had a recovery meeting a few weeks ago where we were talking through our PPE supplies and making sure that we were going to be able to get everything ordered, and one of our team members said that they had been either reading an article or talking with someone and they learned that for individuals who have hearing impairments, that it is really helpful for them if people can wear masks that are clear in their covering so that you’re able to see the lips moving so that they can still lip read.  

From there, we’ve went and we’ve sourced out clear masks so that we can have even that much more inclusivity into how our staff are showing up or community. When I think of our Mary Free Bed YMCA, I just don’t think about the facility. I think of all of the values that that represents and just how that seeps into all of our thinking processes  

SW: Of course you’re all wearing masks and we all found ourselves even asking, “What, what did you say?”

I think we all rely on that so much, so the masks definitely make that difficult, but I can’t even imagine for someone with a hearing impairment.

As you all have been navigating all of these quick decisions, how do you respond to the community, getting the plans back for re-opening, how are you staying healthy yourselves? Shannon, we’ll start with you.

Staying Healthy

SM: That’s hilarious, because we’re running. I’m just making sure that our staff are taking care of themselves. We’re doing a lot of check-ins with our people, those who are at home. Before we closed, as soon as we closed, we made calls to our seniors to make sure they were okay.  

Taking the same concept over to our staff call to check on them, making sure that they take a couple of days off and they feel the right now, a lot of people said, “Well, we don’t want to take off we’re in the middle of the hustle and bustle.”

I tell them, “Well, you can’t pour into others if you’re not full yourself, so I need you to take off.”Our motto here is family first. We love our Y. We love our community, but if you don’t take care of yourself first, you’re no good to us or yourself, so we’re just loving on our team members.

We’re being very aware when we see they’ve hit a wall to say, “Hey, don’t come in tomorrow. Don’t jump on the call tomorrow. We’ll get you caught up and take some time for you because we value you and we love you. We want to make sure that you’re okay as well.”

We have learned to pause just to check on our teammates and just to give them the go ahead to take a day, take half a day, and just pour into yourself and your family to make sure that you’re okay.

We’re very intentional about that. Our culture, before the pandemic, we really had a lot of culture work on how do we show up as a team? How do we want our behaviors to be seen? We cheer each other on more now. I’m so glad that we did that work last year because it’s showing up this year when we needed the most to say that, “It’s okay and you don’t have to be a rockstar every day.”

You just have to show up, and you showing up is more than enough at this point.  

SW: So, Adam, what I’m hearing is that when you see Shannon hitting that wall, you’re going to have to tell her the same thing?

AS: Oh yeah, I have no trouble there. Yeah, don’t worry about that.  

It’s tough because working from home, what I have found is that work has seeped into sort of all hours of my day. Working at the Y, that’s not something that’s abnormal. Working a lot of hours has been the norm my entire career, but I do find that I open my computer way more than I used to.

One of the things that I try and do is when I find a few moments, really, regardless of what time of day it is, I will find opportunities to get some exercise in, to go out in my yard, but to work there, take some time and eat with my family. I have an amazing wife who is truly just the best thing that ever happened to me and two young children being able to eat lunch with them in the middle of my workday, it’s just been a revelation.  

I had no idea how much good that would do for my soul, so trying to find that those opportunities, those moments, it doesn’t have to be a whole day or a whole week, but if I can spend 10, 20, 30 minutes with my family or spend a little bit of time in nature, sometimes that can be all of the respite that I need in order to get the energy that I need to go finish, whatever that next thing is that I have to do.

SW: Absolutely. And then just, and keep yourself energized. Cause this is, you know, our world has been flipped upside down and probably will do so again, but it goes back to the it’s a marathon, not a sprint. So just settling in finding those. Those different tricks. So as we’re wrapping up any final words for, for those that may be, you know, just trying to navigate the situation as best they can, uh,  

SM: Just be encouraged.

As a country, we’ve been here before. As an organization, we’ve been here before, and just stay the course and make sure that you’re going slow and steady and keeping the safety of your, our members and staff at the forefront. If you can’t keep the area clean, don’t do it. Shut it down quickly, but slow and steady.

Stay encourageed. We’ll get through this together as a family, as a community.  

AS: No, I think that’s great advice. One thing I could add to that would be let’s take the time to listen. Let’s listen to what our communities are telling us. Let’s listen to what our members and participants are telling us.

“Let’s listen to what our communities are telling us. Let’s listen to what our members and participants are telling us.”

There’s going to be a lot of unknowns and our future coming up and we need to make sure that our organization is able to help respond to whatever those unknowns are in the most appropriate way. We can do that if we are willing to listen and then take action. In whatever way you can do that, I would just encourage you to show up with more ears than you have in the past.

SW: Great advice.  

Thank you both so much for all of the wonderful work that you’re doing in your communities and know impacting many lives. Keep up the good work.  

SM: Thanks for your partnership.  

SW: Thank you for joining us on this episode of the Accelerant podcast. To check out previous episodes, see the full list on daxko.com or on your favorite podcast app.

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