YMCA CEO Glen Gunderson's Perspective on Programs to Strengthen Mind and Spirit

As a culture, we are facing all kinds of challenges: The 24/7 news cycle, the expectations of bosses that are ever-increasing, family life demands and much more. In this digital age, we don’t seem to have time to fully and effectively unplug, even for minutes.

Are we ever far away from our smart phone or connected watch? 

The pace of life keeps cranking up — and technology isn’t slowing down.

Our devices and communication vehicles only speed up every single year.

I feel we’re reaching a breaking point, as human beings, on how information travels and how we communicate, and we’re just trying to hang on instead of thriving. 

And that pressure surely impacts the mental health crisis we are facing in our country.

That’s why I really love “Journey to Freedom.” It’s perhaps one of the most transformational programs we’ve brought on. It’s a powerful idea on a number of levels.

First, it creates a safe space for folks to be real and stop pretending. There’s so much focus on filters and likes, I wonder if we’ve devalued the power of expressing ourselves in a vulnerable way. 

I was so moved by the story of Diane Schnell, the member services director at the New Hope Y. She likens her life to “Groundhog’s Day.”

“I was not finding joy in things I used to love doing,” Diane says  in a video (YMCA Journey to Freedom: Diane’s Story). “I know now, having gone through the process, that I had been definitely struggling with depression.”

When she bravely shared with the group, she shed lots of tears, realizing she had been honest with herself for the first time in years. Though there was some fear, Diane continued to read the book and was moved by the group discussions.

But Diane’s story provides a reminder of a second blessing to the program: Those who are comfortable with their own vulnerability can be better leaders.

Anyone and everyone we’re serving at the Y is human and has foibles and stresses. As leaders, if we act in a way that’s above that brokenness or vulnerability, it can come across as inauthentic. It’s hard for team members to relate to you. 

I was fortunate to work with such a leader, Kyle Rolfing. I knew right away that he was very different from the leaders I had worked for in the past. 

“After I met him, I called my wife and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but a CEO can be a nice guy!’ ”

Kyle is humble, transparent, knows who he is and wants to build a leadership team that wants to know who they are as well. He wasn’t autocratic and didn’t foster fear. Kyle knew what he was good at and what he was not good at and professed that. He nurtured a positive environment and truly wanted to lead for good. 

I’ll never forgot one opportunity he provided me. I was new to the organization and hadn't yet presented to the board. I was preparing for a board meeting, and I thought I was prepping Kyle. But he said,”Wait, I want you to present that. You’re the expert.”

It made me feel like I could go through a brick wall! But Kyle was very effective at building people up. 

Diane has experienced what Kyle excelled at. Through Journey to Freedom, she has been able to develop a deeper connection with her team of 28. 

“I was always trying to be the super boss,” Diane says. “As soon as I let them in, they started to work harder for me.”

I think about my team all the time. At the Y, we are all caretakers, in a lot of ways. We carry the burdens of individuals and communities, day in and day out. 

That’s not always pleasant. 

That leads to a third blessing about Journey to Freedom: There’s a powerful spiritual element. So many people think of the Y and think of the swimming pool or gym, or fitness equipment. But the program offers so much more and focuses on the values of the Y mission.

“It’s the mind and body,” Y member Terry Killian says in a video (YMCA Health and Wellness: Mind-Body Connection). “The mind and body follow each other. It’s just a circle and enhances your whole being and personality.”

I return again to Diane, who shares that she was struggling with her spirituality for a few years and was weighed down by guilt. 

“I felt I had put God on a shelf for a long time,” she says. “The group helped me open up spiritually.”

Diane says Journey to Freedom immediately helped her began to heal her relationship with her mother.

It’s incredibly rewarding to think that’s happening. The program’s intention is to serve the community. But guess what? Our team members are a part of our community! If they are well, they can more effectively serve. 

Now that’s worth celebrating!