Courtesy Kyle Cronk

When he was a kid, Kyle Cronk thought he wanted to be a teacher. He expressed this dream to one of his teachers when he was 15, and in doing so unknowingly set into motion a lifelong career path at the YMCA. 

“(My teacher) said that I should figure out if I liked kids before I decided on teaching,” Cronk said, laughing. “So, he sent me to work at a summer camp up on Orcas Island called Camp Orkila, which is run by the Y.” 

Cronk loved it, and continued working at the camp each summer through college. Rather than sending him down a career path to be a teacher, however, that first summer at Camp Orkila marked the beginning of a 33-year career with the national nonprofit. Today, he’s CEO of the South Sound YMCA.

The impact the Y has had on Cronk’s life goes well beyond the career he has built, which includes roles like the branch operations director at the YMCA of Greater Seattle, the Active America National Facilitator for the YMCA of the USA, and the CEO of the Olympic Peninsula YMCA. 

“(I met) two of my current best friends at that camp when I was 15. Because of the Y, I went to college — I’m a first-generation college student, and I never would have gone if I hadn’t been surrounded by people who were already going. And I met my wife through the Y. We did similar jobs in Seattle working with teenagers. So many things in my life are wrapped up with the YMCA, it really is unbelievable.” 

Having worked in so many YMCA locations, Cronk has a unique perspective on the way the organization has served the needs of different jurisdictions over time. We sat down with him to learn more about the economic impact of the YMCA on the South Sound and the nonprofit’s approach to bridging gaps in communities.

You’ve worn a lot of different hats in a lot of different communities with the Y. How does the organization assess how it will help meet each of these community’s needs? 

The one thing that’s consistent is that the YMCA does not go into a particular community ­— big, small, rural, or urban — and say, “We’ve got all the answers.” The Y goes into those communities to find whatever the gaps are, and then the Y meets those community needs. I’ve seen that no matter where I’ve been. It’s really about the volunteer leadership understanding what the community gaps are and then figuring out how the YMCA can bridge those gaps. 

What does that look like in the South Sound? 

Well, we’re the largest provider of childcare in the South Sound, and that has two parts: youth development and economic development. The youth development is the work we do with 1,400 kids before and after school in six different school districts on 33 sites. We work on solving problems, making friends, talking to peers. 

The second part that people don’t really realize as much is that without childcare, people don’t work. So, it becomes an economic-development tool: If you have affordable, safe childcare, people can join the workforce, and that helps strengthen the broader community. 

We’re also one of the top 20 employers in Thurston County, so our impact is quite broad in that respect as well. 

The Y is building a new location in Shelton. What has that process been like? 

This has been in the works for 25 or 30 years. Shelton has known for a long time that it needed something to help fill community gaps, and that there wasn’t anywhere positive for kids to go: The bowling alley burned down, there’s no skating rink, and no community center. A group of volunteers started trying to figure out what they could bring to the town and how, and a community survey revealed that people would be more likely to join something if it were a YMCA.

How has Shelton responded to knowing it soon will have a Y? When do you expect it to be open? 

I’ve never been in a community that didn’t have a Y like Shelton. It’s amazing to see the amount of enthusiasm, passion, excitement, and longing for what (people there) believe a YMCA will do in their community. We have people who are giving hundreds of thousands of dollars because they understand that when a YMCA comes to your town, it becomes a lasting part of the fabric of that community. 

We launched this campaign in April, and we’re on a trajectory to get to our $16 million goal, break ground on the building sometime in the third quarter of 2019, and have kids in the pool by late 2020. 

What makes the Y unique among national nonprofits? 

Everyone is welcome at the Y. Whatever your circumstances, it doesn’t matter; you’re welcome here. We’re about building relationships, making people feel like they belong, and putting people in positions to achieve what they can achieve. We have a fundamental belief that we are better together, and we use that to strengthen communities. Last year, the South Sound YMCA gave away $709,000 in financial assistance, which ensures that people who can’t afford the whole cost can still participate. 

In this time of greater division, one of the centralizing things is that people believe in kids and believe that kids need positive things to do and good role models. The other thing that is true even in this divided time is that people are concerned about their health. And the Y manifests itself as a place that meets both of those needs and that is open for everybody, no matter what. I think that’s pretty unique.