When Courtney Troyer talks about teaching low-income Somali refugees how to swim to help prevent their children from drowning, her word choice conveys military can-do.
“I’m confident we’re going to pull the trigger on this thing,” Troyer said from the corner office of the St. Paul Eastside YMCA on Arcade Street. “It’s in our scope.”
Troyer talks like what she is — a third-generation U.S. military combat veteran, a self-described “Army brat,” an Air Force technical sergeant, a Texas girl turned Minnesota mom, and executive director of an organization that often provides a lifeline for many of the poorest populations in the Twin Cities.
Over the past three years, Troyer has set her sights on two aims: diversifying her leadership staff to better reflect the community — 75 percent of her top administrators are people of color — and finding ways to fill community needs.
“We partner with anybody — anybody and everybody,” said Troyer, who ticks off the names of community agencies such as Hmong American Partnership and the Latino social services agency CLUES.
Those partnerships have led to job and general education development training for Karen youth, swim classes for refugee moms, a Hmong-language “Forever Well” senior wellness program, day-round child care, a foster-grandmother program that introduces the very young to a community elder, and more.
It’s also meant a unique partnership with John A. Johnson Achievement Plus elementary school, which directly adjoins the YMCA by sky bridge.
A secure door separates school kids from YMCA classes and gym space, but it yawns open wide several times a day so teachers and youth workers can move kids to the Y’s activity areas.
Troyer sees that door as a fitting metaphor for her efforts. She’s all about forging connections between people, and encouraging them to do the same.
Her sports director is Chilean-American. Her youth outreach worker is a Hmong youth minister. Her child care coordinator is an African-American woman. Another leader is Korean-American. Another is Puerto Rican. And Troyer is proud of her Mexican roots, which include a grandpa who fought for the U.S. in the Korean War.
“Some of these Somali girls are taking swimming lessons, and they’re in full garb,” said Phyllis Salchow, a retired occupational therapist who learned to swim at the Eastside YMCA in the 1940s, back when it was located on Magnolia Avenue and Arcade Street. “It’s amazing. I think it’s wonderful. Some of these kids were scared to death to even get in the water.”
Sitting in the Y’s lobby in full view of the swimming pools, Salchow took a coffee break Wednesday morning with Dave Yarusso, who arrives at the Y at 6 a.m. most weekdays to ready workout equipment and hand out treats to youngsters.
“I’ve been a volunteer for 10 years now,” said Yarusso, who retired in 2008 from the Yarusso Brothers Italian Restaurant on Payne Avenue.
It takes both pride and humility to lead in a community full of needs: Troyer’s organization is one of the smallest YMCAs in the Twin Cities, and by some measures, one of the poorest.
Some 85 percent of children who walk in the door do so with a Y scholarship, assistance from Ramsey County, or both.
“This is a branch that operates in the red,” said Troyer, who makes it her mission not to turn anyone away for lack of funds. “This branch does not make a profit. Our annual goal for fundraising was $76,000 — we actually raised $81,000 — but we give out $644,505 in scholarships or financial aid.”
Grants and donations to the Twin Cities YMCA network help make up the sizable difference.
Across the Twin Cities, the YMCA is giving out 200 free teen memberships for the summer at each of 25 locations, and some locations offer free swimming lessons for low-income youth.
Mercedes De La Rosa, who juggles two jobs as a hospital assistant and group home worker, has enrolled her 4-year-old daughter Kaleah in child care at the Eastside Y since the girl was 8 months old.
“I was thinking of pulling her from day care, just because I didn’t think we would qualify this year (for financial assistance),” De La Rosa said. “But they still helped us, which we were very grateful for.”
‘THEY SEE PEOPLE WHO LOOK LIKE THEM’
Troyer’s staff of some 200 workers is young and diverse, and most of her 12 top administrators are people of color.
Youth development program manager Longkee Vang, 29, who graduated from nearby Johnson High School a decade ago, now oversees the Y’s year-round tutoring efforts at the school, which is home to a high-minority population that is more than 50 percent Southeast Asian.
“A lot of our staff reflects the community that we serve, and I think it’s so important that when young people and families come here, they see people who look like them,” said Vang, who is Hmong.
Realizing that the $300 lifeguard certification was a barrier to entry, the Eastside Y often waived the fee, taught Hmong and Karen teens how to swim, and then hired them as lifeguards.
Troyer’s next goal — shuttling busloads of East African moms to a pool where they can swim in privacy — will be more challenging.
“If the parents learn how to swim, that’s one of the best defenses against drowning, and the majority of parents can’t swim, men or women,” she said.
Troyer, who has led the Eastside YMCA since 2014, recalled finding groups of Somali-American women and their daughters waiting in the lobby for what seemed like hours while their sons hit the gym. The women preferred not to break a sweat in front of males, and some even felt to do so would violate their culture or faith.
“The moms were essentially coming so their boys could get all their energy out and play basketball,” Troyer said. “We were pretty intentional with the conversation that we had on how to better engage them. So we thought up the first Muslim women-only fitness and aerobics class in studio. Some instructors felt (the marketing) should be quiet, by word of mouth, so it doesn’t seem exclusive. I said heck no. We need to blast this out!”
FROM MINNESOTA ROOTS TO AFGHANISTAN
The class has been a popular draw, and a reminder to Troyer of difficult times in her own youth. If there’s one thing Troyer knows, it’s being on the outside looking in.
Troyer recalled when her father, who hauled the family from Texas all over the world as a U.S. Army sergeant major, informed her they’d be leaving Hawaii during her senior year of high school and relocating to Farmington, Minn., for a special duty assignment. It was 1992, and her brother was immediately hailed as Farmington High School’s hunky “Latin lover,” while she was the tan-skinned newcomer who didn’t fit in.
“People were like, ‘Who is this girl with jet black hair and dark skin?’ It was very uncomfortable,” said Troyer, who finished high school in a funk. “It was the most awkward situation I’ve ever been in in my life. All I could think of is how can I get out of this state? I went to an army recruiter because my brain said, ‘Go back to what you know.’ ”
She suited up with the U.S. Air Force for 14 years. Early on, after the birth of her first daughter in 1996, her supervisor informed her that her baby weight was well over military fitness requirements. Little did she suspect at the time that her chubbiness would years later set her on a path back to Minnesota, and on a route to becoming a neighborhood leader and nonprofit executive director.
Her supervisor told her to sign up for step aerobics three times a week.
She showed up to her first class feeling out of place in her ex-husband’s baggy sweatpants. After realizing there was no way she could keep up with the lean, fast-paced aerobics instructor, she walked out mid-class and found herself facing disciplinary action.
She was written up for disobeying a lawful order from a superior officer. Losing weight had been an order, not a suggestion.
Soon, Troyer was back in front of yet another aerobics instructor, but one with an entirely different attitude.
Every step was broken down into simpler steps. The class felt more inviting, and Troyer stuck with it — even when the instructor, who had certifications that Troyer did not, couldn’t make class because of a traffic incident.
In a panic, the instructor called Troyer, her star student, and begged her to fill in. Troyer did.
Troyer felt good about herself. Years later, she took that same confidence and step-by-step approach into the YMCA in downtown Minneapolis, where she got her start as an associate fitness director in 2008.
Between those two turning points, two more marriages and a war loom large in her memory. In the fall of 2001, she and her second husband were returning from a routine deployment to Saudi Arabia, and her return flight home was to take her through Italy, Ireland, Maryland and Minneapolis.
It was Sept. 11, and terrible news arrived mid-flight.
Terrorists had launched multiple attacks in the U.S., knocking down the massive twin towers of the World Trade Center buildings in New York City with airplanes. Soon after landing on American soil, Troyer shipped out to Afghanistan for “Operation Enduring Freedom.”
BACK IN THE U.S.A.
It’s memories like these that make Troyer wince and change the subject.
The next few years of military conflict upended her second marriage and left her with troubling war memories. That experience helped make her more sensitive to the plight of the refugee populations she now serves, she said.
The St. Paul Eastside YMCA is one of 10 YMCAs in the country dubbed a “New American Welcome Center” — an official resource center for new immigrants.
Troyer envisions launching a partnership with the St. Paul-based HealthEast Care System to provide low-cost therapists for low-income clients.
“Post-traumatic stress disorder is not just for military people,” Troyer said. “(For some people), it’s from not having food. Now you’re in a country where, from the political pulse, we’re saying, ‘We don’t want you here.’ A lot of people of color, we don’t talk about mental health. There’s some stigma to going to a clinic. How are we going to identify those people who had those high stressors in their life, where they’d benefit from meeting with a therapist? This is all in the works.”