YMCA CEO Glen Gunderson’s Perspective on Empowering Teens to Discover, Serve and Lead

There’s so much talk about opportunity and achievement gaps that have such a stark set of statistics in our region.

But historically, our community systems leave a lot of people behind.

We have a systemic breakdown that results in gaps in terms of equality and equity so whole segments of our population have less than a fair shake.

That’s why I’m so passionate about programs that serve all.

Like Faith, who comes from the Y’s partnership with low income apartment complexes in our community. Students may not be getting the support they need at home or school, and the Y works to bridge that gap.

“We’ve removed some of the barriers that might be there for Faith,” Dena Luna, the Y’s youth development program manager, says in a video (YMCA Teen Thrive: Faith’s Story). “She has taken full advantage of anything that has been presented to her.”

Faith has gone to camp, earned an internship and participated in the YMCA Youth in Government program.

"It’s helped me gain the confidence to speak out in front of a crowd and not be silent,” Faith says. “I can actually lead groups!”

It’s saddening when Faith answers what her alternative to Y opportunities would be.

“Some of the kids don’t act right and get in trouble,” she says. “I feel that would have been me if I hadn’t started Y programs.”

I’m proud to say that Faith is one of our Youth Thrive award winners!

She’s kind, caring, and she’s a role model — and inspiration — to many at the Y.

Faith also has big plans.

“My goal is to go to Harvard Law School and graduate in 2025,” Faith says. “I want to become a criminal lawyer.”

Or consider Walter, a 14-year-old with high-functioning autism. Michael Bornetun, our nature director at Y Camp Kici Yapi, shares in a video (YMCA Teen Thrive: Walter’s Story) that Walter had social challenges, including making friends and trying new things.

Within our community, there are kids with special needs, and unique abilities and challenges. The question is, have we done enough for all kids, in terms of fun activities, camps or adventure opportunities in town?

We’re committed to not letting anyone slip through the cracks. Everyone has value, everyone has potential.

Walter has a ton of potential, and he brings something unique that others can benefit from experiencing.

Walter is now interested in anything he can get his hands on, and he has lots of new friends!

“There’s a big change in Walter. When he first started, he didn’t really talk too much and he’d get into arguments with others easily,” Nicole Plagge, a Teen Thrive program coordinator, says in the video (YMCA Teen Thrive: Walter’s Story). “But now he’s a core part of our group, and he’ll always step up and be a leader and explain things to other kids.”

Walter’s grades have also improved; he’s now on the B honor roll.

“I feel smarter,” Walter says, “and I feel more mature.”

That’s not just what drives me but our team.

For some of us, relationships come very easy. For some folks, relationships can be challenging.

Maybe for Walter, it takes longer for those relationships to develop. But, in time, it can happen, it can work.

And look at the trajectory of his growth in confidence. He now has the foundation that he can build on for future interaction and engagement.

I think our staff gets better for it, too.

Our campers make strides. But the Y team, day in and day out, is working to be more inclusive. We have a diversity inclusion and global committee of our board that includes team members. We have an equity leadership certification and other forms of immersive learning experiences to really help develop how to see things through equity-based lenses.

Confidence is such a powerful attribute. If wielded for good, it provides someone an opportunity to thrive, not just in a teen program. We all have our insecurities and foibles, and are subject to the human condition.

Every one of us go through situations that add to or take away from our confidence. But this program, regardless of your background or capabilities, adds to your resolve and confidence. It allows you to be more engaged, more productive and more capable as you go through life.

What if all of us invested a bit more in our youth to help them thrive. Imagine the impact on our community and on our world.