5 mujeres líderes de la YMCA
mar. 31, 2022

Cuando la sabiduría irradia hacia el exterior: las mujeres directoras ejecutivas comparten sus historias

Women leaders are the backbone of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago’s centers and program sites, serving as role models and change agents for youth and families all over Chicagoland.

As Women’s History Month comes to a close, we’re proud to celebrate the dynamic women who bring their whole selves—including their lived experiences and learned wisdom—to the essential work of strengthening their communities.

We asked several of our Association’s women Executive Directors: How does your perspective as a woman leader inform how you serve your community?

Here are their stories:

Jessi Prevost, YMCA Camp Pinewood
When I was 14 years old, I was told by my high school drama teacher that I couldn’t learn to do stage lighting because it wasn’t a job for girls. It wasn’t the first or last time I was denied access to something because of my gender. The devastation and unfairness that comes with exclusion creates a disconnect in maintaining healthy relationships with ourselves and our community, which are issues that the Y strives to address each and every day.

I love my work at the Y because every day I get to create opportunities for people, whether it’s through evaluating our financial assistance application process to be more inclusive or teaching a group of young people that camp is a place where you get to be your truest self. The idea that I get to do this work under the beautiful backdrop of a pinewood forest and glimmering lake is a bonus. My hope is that for every life YMCA Camp Pinewood touches, a passion for equity and nature—and equity in nature—continues to spread.

Kenne’quia Howell, South Side YMCA
My entire life, I’ve had the privilege of seeing women in leadership who look like me. From them, I’ve learned that my perspective as a woman is just as important as any other perspective that I may hold.

Over the years that I’ve worked at the Y, this community and the people that I’ve met as part of it have empowered me to become the leader that I am today. The Y has connected me to a mission that I keep front of mind in the work I do daily—as well as a network of peers, colleagues, and leaders that I continuously learn from who, too, are rooted in that mission.

This Association has opened doors to opportunities and experiences that have empowered me to grow both professionally and personally. I attribute much of my growth and success over the years to the Y.

I have learned to use my creativity to think outside the confines of what’s presented to me and find a solution that truly fits the South Side YMCA community. I have learned to use my caring and soft skills to reach those who typically shy away from everyone. I have learned to harness my laughter and humor as a way to bridge divides and create space. I have learned to affirm people and taught those around me how to do the same. I have learned that being a representative for the community does not mean that I’m the only representative of the community. I have learned to be nimble, and above all: I have learned to love.

I’m grateful to be able to call on these attributes daily as I serve my community while also creating space for those who are coming up next.

Stephanie Kuzelis, Indian Boundary YMCA and Fry Family YMCA
As a woman in an Executive Director role with the Y, I have a unique opportunity to lead and serve not only the members but the staff that I work with with a fresh perspective.

As a former Division I Full Scholarship athlete, I gained skills that are still valuable to me today that I share with others. I learned time management, how to win and how to lose, how to work as a team, and how to overcome adversity.

Being told I would never play volleyball again, or have children of my own as a result of ruptured discs in my back freshman year, was the biggest physical and mental obstacle I had to face. Due to the support of the amazing women surrounding me, I faced that seemingly impossible diagnosis and triumphed. I played competitively for five more years and have four beautiful children to love.

As a former single mother of two, and currently as a married mother of four, I lead others with compassion and empathy. I understand the struggles of building and maintaining a career while balancing and meeting the needs of my family, either by myself or with my husband now. I am able to model a successful work-life balance, and offer support and understanding from actual personal experience.

Our lived experiences as women leaders teach us to recognize life’s roadblocks, learn from them, and then celebrate the wins with grace. Leading and serving as a woman, by learning from my own struggles, is the most rewarding and fulfilling part of my career. Seeing communities come together and rise up, and knowing that I am a little part of that, is a truly amazing feeling.

Erika Wood, YMCA Safe ‘n Sound
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, it was a priority for my family to be active in the community and part of the local YMCA. As a young woman, I had an amazing opportunity to be in the YMCA Leaders Club, where my leadership skills truly developed and I found my passion for serving the community. I realized how much I loved working with others, especially children. My YMCA experiences influenced my career choice to work for the YMCA.

The YMCA is a movement, and I am both empowered and humbled to serve the community alongside others who believe in our mission and work towards the greater good. As the Executive Director of the YMCA Safe ‘n Sound programs, I work with amazing staff leaders every day. Together we make a difference, knowing we are part of a greater movement locally, nationally, and internationally.

I truly cannot imagine my world without the Y, building strong kids, strong families, and strong communities; it is part of my family’s life and our hope of making a lasting positive impact.

Jaunita Pye, Youth Safety and Violence Prevention
As a Black woman and lifelong Chicagoan who has lived in some of the most underserved communities in the nation, I have a unique perspective in the work I do with the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago. In the traditionally male-dominated field of violence prevention, this has become especially apparent.

Growing up, I recall being coached on community safety plans to avoid being drugged, kidnapped, and sexually assaulted.

In my neighborhood, this experience was unique to women and girls. These community safety plans involved communication, partnership, working together, empathy, and preparation. At a time when a hypercompetitive, “lone wolf” mentality dictates the dominant culture, I bring a collaborative spirit to the spaces and teams that I’m a part of. As a woman, I value things that have been historically described as feminine: connection, empathy, and communication.

It’s my belief that any successful organization should be both founded and led by individuals who possess those qualities, no matter their gender. Luckily, as a Y leader, I’m fortunate to be a part of an organization that values all. I have the ability to promote gender-diverse teams and an inclusive, thriving culture in which all leaders are empowered to actively share their views.