by Lynn Colburn
Bob Freesen YMCA Executive Director Mary Henry retired on February 3. She leaves it in better shape than when she took over in June 2005, with optimism for its future under the next leader.
Henry shares, “I have heard it said, ‘The YMCA is not just a community center, it’s the center of the community.’ I would say this is so true in Jacksonville and the surrounding communities. The YMCA collaborates with the community to fill needs while meeting our mission of putting Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy mind, spirit and body for all. It is all about the people here.”
The YMCA building in Jacksonville, once on West State Street (the current location of Grace United Methodist Church), was running out of room and the YMCA Board of Directors and concerned citizens conducted a building campaign from 1964-1967 to raise money for the present YMCA building, which sits on the hill on Sherwood Eddy Lane in Jacksonville.
These men included people like Bob Freesen, who throughout his life has always quietly supported the needs of the YMCA building. The building opened in 1968 as the Sherwood Eddy YMCA, named after Dr. Sherwood Eddy, who in 1946 married Jacksonville native Catharine Louise Gates, and had career as a Christian teacher, evangelist and leader for the YMCA and youth movements around the world. The couple moved to Jacksonville from Long Island, New York in 1949 and he died in 1963.
To honor all of his quiet support of the Jacksonville YMCA — from its conception throughout its history, even moving the ground upon which the building stands — the board of directors under Henry’s leadership accepted a donation from Bob and Deb Freesen and changed the center’s name to the Bob Freesen YMCA in May 2012. “Deb, Bob and the entire Freesen family have been amazing friends and supporters of our Y,” says Henry.
Henry says she was honored to be able to lead the YMCA through the last 18 plus years and build on all the excellent work and forethought of the community members who financed and planned the facility, buying 31 acres of land in 1958.
“When the YMCA opened in 1968, I took tennis lessons in the gym. So, I grew up here, my kids grew up doing Mighty Mites here, and now my grandchildren are growing up here going to camps, sports, swim lessons and more.”
Henry continues, “I inherited an aging building and we have worked hard to maintain and update the building to keep it current and moving forward. We put in an elevator, which was something the building desperately needed. We took the new national Y rebranding and put it on the outside of the building and spruced it up with benches and beautiful planters maintained each year with the help of the Morgan County Garden Club and watered by summer day campers who show responsibility by helping. We were able resurface the tennis courts twice thanks to a generous donor, and were the first to bring pickleball to the Y and paint lines on our tennis courts and gym and have developed a large pickleball group.”
Henry oversaw so many things over her tenure, including new flooring throughout the facility, a refurbished Women’s Triangle Center, parking lot and road improvements, a new maintenance shed, The StoryWalk™ and 1-mile walking trail, a cross-training gym, new spinning bikes and fitness equipment, and pool improvement such as a new drain, new lights, new windows and tiling work.
Henry adds, “One of the programs I am most proud of is the Parkinson’s program including Rock Steady Boxing, because we see the impact it has had on so many! Each year, 60,000 people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the U.S. and we have a large contingent in our surrounding communities. Our Parkinson’s certified trainer, Amy Little, does an excellent job with this program. We are grateful to donors like Phil Pohlman, whose JRP Golf Tournament at The Links in June, donates to keep this program going.”
“It has always been a challenge for nonprofit organizations,” explains Henry. “We have a mission to follow and unlike other fitness facilities, part of our mission is to assist people in need with memberships and programs like childcare, team sports or swimming lessons. These days, the challenge includes shrinking budgets at state, national and municipal levels, meaning there is less to go around.”
“We faced the additional challenge of the Covid shutdown on top it all,” relates Henry, “and the rising minimum wage for our workers. We were able to secure grants and local donations to keep the doors open during COVID and maintain our staff.”
One of the YMCA’s Board of Directors’ goals when searching for a director in 2005 was to find someone who could also fundraise.
Henry developed the “Soirée for the YMCA” event to assist with both funding assistance programs and expenses that support those programs. The old means of fundraising though large donations from corporations and other means are no longer available today. “So, my goal was to raise half a million dollars with the Soirée, and over the past eight years (with only seven actual events due to COVID), we have surpassed that and we have been able to support a lot of adults and children in their fitness endeavors thanks to generous donations and volunteers at this event where everyone has fun at the same time.”
The 2024 Soirée will be March 15 at Hamilton’s. Although taking place after Henry’s retirement, she has helped with pre-planning and recruited community volunteers to assume responsibility for the Soirée. Henry hopes it will continue to thrive for years to come.
“I didn’t have experience in the YMCA arena when I was hired but have been in the not-for-profit area throughout most of my career,” says Henry, whose career includes roles as executive director of the Jacksonville Area Chamber of Commerce and executive director of the Children’s Museum of Brownsville in Brownsville, Texas.
Henry states, “I’ve been honored to carry on the good works of the YMCA and credit past executive directors such as Larry Meyer for all they did for this YMCA. I’m very excited for the future of the Bob Freesen YMCA, I know I’m leaving it in good shape and in good hands with board chairman Heather Leonard in position to hire the next executive director to move the Y into the next era.
“We have a strong staff in place and Jared Maggart has been appointed to interim director. … Jared has been with me for the last 17 years and during that time has been in different positions, so he knows the YMCA very well and is active in the community.”
Henry notes that one thing she will miss most is the people. “I love seeing the children come through programs like childcare and then end up teaching classes at the Y later in life! I love all of the people and fellowship here which happens on a daily basis. Not just the staff, but everyone!
“The Y family really picks you up. People here support each other both at the YMCA and outside. Neighbors helping neighbors. Groups like the water exercisers and the pickleball participants plan lunches or outings together outside the Y.”
As for Henry’s next chapter, she is looking forward to spending more time with her children and grandchildren. Plus, she will sleep better not getting calls in the middle of the night on snow emergencies and other weather issues or any worries of building issues that might happen, she jokes.
She said her grandson, Wells, summed it up for her last summer when they were driving away from the YMCA after he had been to summer day camp and was leaving for vacation. He said, “Man, I’m going to miss this place!”