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Darrell Johnson, Outgoing YMCA CEO, Leaves Enduring Legacy

Greg Elliott

Friday, January 17, 2014 • 2:12pm

SUMMIT, NJ - Darrell Johnson may be leaving the Summit Area YMCA and the Summit area itself, but the outgoing CEO's legacy of relationships, solid financial footing, and innovative programs will endure long after his departure.

Johnson's retirement, effective today, concludes a 32-year career with the YMCA, which began with his hiring  at the Philadelphia YMCA in 1982.  After teaching science for nine years, Johnson joined the camp program there, which began his rise to Vice President and, later, his appointment as CEO of the New Orleans YMCA.
 
Even pre-Katrina, the New Orleans Y was on tenuous financial footing.  "There wasn't a long line for that job," said Johnson.  With the organization nearly bankrupt, Johnson and his team worked diligently to stabilize the operation, only to then see the hurricane devastate the city.  After weathering the financial and literal storm in Louisiana, Johnson learned of the opportunity at the YMCA in Summit, and applied as he and his wife both had family in the area.
 
Unlike the New Orleans situation, Johnson "inherited a solid organization, literally at the opposite end of the spectrum,'" but his hiring in November of 2008 coincided with the onset of the nation's financial crisis and the arrival of several high-profile fitness chain locations, the combination of which put a significant financial dent in the Summit Y's bottom line.
 
Johnson stabilized the Y's finances through some "difficult and painful" cost-cutting, some of which involved the elimination of staff.  Since that time, the Y has developed myriad new programs and created strong, sustainable financial footing.
 
"Our biggest challenge has been, and i believe continues to be, communicating -- and making sure folks understand -- that we are a not for profit, that we are not simply a gym and swim business" said Johnson.  He points out that a relatively low percentage of the Y's 12,000 members actively donate to the organization, and that nearly 30% of participants in many of the Y's youth programs, including childcare, receive scholarships.
 
There have been many current flagship programs began and-or elevated during Johnson's tenure, including The 7th Grade Initiative, the LIVESTRONG program, Healthy U., and Darkness to Light, to name just a few.
 
"All you have to do is come to the Y on a Saturday morning to see what makes it so special," Johnson noted.  "It is that 'Sense of Place", where you see the entire community represented.  It is something I am not sure exists anywhere else in Summit."
 
Johnson and his wife are retiring to Black Mountain, NC, just outside of Ashevile.  There, he has renovated a vacation home into their new permanent residence, and where he hopes to lower his golf scores.  He also looks forward to indulging two other interests, travel and, yes, beekeeping.  "I had my beekeeping going well here, and then the bears came to Summit," he concluded, with a tinge of angst.
 
He states the toughest part of leaving the Y is leaving the organization's 110 full-time and 550 total staff, whom he calls "tremendously dedicated, highly competent servant leaders."  He was especially proud that, during Hurricane Sandy, "I did not have to tell our staff what to do, they just did it."
 
"If I had to point to my main success, it is that we have assembled the right people, gave them the resources to be successful, and that they embraced the culture which we stand for.  The Summit Y has been here for 128 years, and I know it will be here 128 years from now."
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