The first Black president of the YMCA shares how the organization changed his life and continues to positively influence others
By TAIIA SMART YOUNG
Many urban youths dream of shooting three-pointers in the NBA, and Philadelphia-bred Kevin Washington was no exception. Back in the day, his long arms earned him the nickname Extension Cords and the budding hoop star dribbled his way to a basketball scholarship to Temple University. Washington’s skills were impressive enough to secure a spot one summer in the Pro League alongside Lloyd Free (aka World B. Free), the athlete known as the Prince of Mid-Air because of his reported 44-inch vertical leap. But meeting this gravity-defying opponent caused him to rethink his aspirations.
“[Lloyd] jumped over my head so many times, I realized I needed to get another profession!” says Washington, now 61 and the president of the YMCA of the USA, laughing. He traded in getting schooled by superstars on the hardwood for shaping minds as the youth program director of South Philly’s Christian Street YMCA in 1978. It was a full-circle moment for the young man who had joined that very same center at the age of 10. The safe haven was a few blocks from his home and kept him away from the negative influences of the street. There, he became immersed in a mix of activities, including basketball, archery and swimming, and met his mentor, Bill Morton, who ended up hiring him.
Almost 40 years later, Washington is still employed by the organization, and his wife of 34 years, Sheila, has been by his side as he climbed the ranks. In February, the trailblazer made history when he became the Y’s first national Black president and CEO. But adding a little diversity to the C-suite is nothing new for Washington. He changed the game as the first Black Y president on the local level in Hartford, Conn., (where he served for 10 years) and Boston (where he served for five years).
He traces much of his success to great mentorship from Morton, whose altruism demonstrated how community service should be an important part of his life. “The way he cared about young folks was authentic. He’d go to the ends of the earth to ensure that they had opportunities to develop,” recounts Washington.
That type of caring, genuine real-life connection is one that he wants to keep encouraging, especially from Y alumni of various walks of life. “All ages, all economic levels, all ethnicities and all mixes of diversity have a YMCA story. Celebrity endorsements help, but the reality is, it’s more important that the everyday person who’s part of the organization tell [his or her] story.”
Like Washington, there are plenty of people who fit that bill. The organization has about 22 million members, 9 million of whom are minors. The former point guard’s immediate mission of service is two-fold: To shine a brighter spotlight on diabetes prevention and to fill the dreaded summer gap. Both goals resonate with him immensely. “African-American kids drown three times as often as their Caucasian counterparts … When we talk about all kids, we mean all kids—but we know specific programs for academic achievement and water safety really have a bigger impact on African-American children.”
The YMCA’s Diabetes Prevention Program is another initiative that hits close to home; 13.2 percent of Black adults battle the disease and are about twice as likely to be diagnosed with the condition as Whites. With so much work to do, Washington knows the importance of keeping fit and minimizing stress, and nowadays, one of his favorite methods is on the golf course versus the court. “I’ve seen too many guys my age come in with pulled Achilles tendons and knee replacements. I’m not going through that. I play golf and watch basketball.”