The mission of the YMCA is “To put Christian principles into practice through programs that help build a healthy spirit, mind and body for all.” For the La Crosse Area Family YMCA, this mission remains at the forefront during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic of 2020. From providing emergency childcare for local essential frontline workers and their families to serving much-needed meals for youth, the Y continues to fulfill its mission during this unprecedented time of great need.
At the helm of two Wisconsin Y facilities—the Dahl Y in La Crosse and the Houser Y in Onalaska—is CEO Bill Soper, who has served in the role for 25 years. He explains that supporting each other and taking good care of employees while navigating the COVID-19 crisis was a top priority when the two facilities were closed. This included posting weekly challenges on the Y’s website with “virtual fitness” on-demand videos to help members and staff stay active at home, as well as providing mental health resources and contacts for staff. In addition, the Y’s community health worker spent a majority of his time in the community connecting with the most vulnerable, including those who have lost their housing and those who have lost their jobs—especially due to COVID-19.
In response to the critical need of feeding children in the community, the Y also collaborated with the School District of La Crosse, the City of La Crosse, and the Northside Library to serve hundreds of free “grab and go” meals at multiple locations as part of a successful Free Supper Program.
“My biggest source of pride as the director of the La Crosse Area Family YMCA has been the way the Y has grown and changed to become an integral part of the community.”
Bill Soper, CEO of the La Crosse Area Family YMCA
For the past several weeks, Soper and his staff have attended daily conference calls with 30 other Ys in the state, discussing reasonable steps to take for reopening. “We’re ‘seeing’ everybody every day. It’s a really tight group and we’ve learned a lot together,” he says. Their collective priority is making sure each Y location remains safe for members and staff in a way that it can still operate in the current climate of uncertainty.
Soper explains that a lot of time was spent developing protocols in preparation for reopening on June 1, 2020. State and county health guidelines also were implemented and continue to be enforced at both La Crosse area facilities.
While reflecting on the events and impact of recent times, Soper shares that reopening during the pandemic feels a lot like opening day of the Houser Y 14 years ago. “Much like how we didn’t know what to expect that first day, we just don’t know the comfort level that members will have coming back,” he said. “Our members have been amazing in supporting us. We’re going to make it as safe as possible.”
Q&A with Bill Soper
From YMCAs in North Dakota and Delaware to the La Crosse Area Family YMCA in Western Wisconsin, Bill Soper has dedicated more than two decades of his professional career to supporting this nonprofit.
During his time in La Crosse, Soper and his team have successfully managed, grown and positioned the YMCA as a cause-driven organization committed to strengthening the community through youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.
Now shortly after reopening at a time when these services are perhaps needed the most, Soper reflects on the past and looks to the future of serving his local community in new and impactful ways.
What are some things you know now that you wish you knew when you first started as a nonprofit leader?
The first thing I wished I knew when I started with the Y more than 30 years ago is the importance of having the right staff members on the staff team. That being said, I could not be more proud of our staff team, the job they do for our Y and the role they play as leaders in the community. We seek out highly motivated and dynamic people and then encourage them to be innovative and reach out into the community. As I have gained experience, it has become easier to identify the right individuals and lead them in a way that allows for their personal growth, as well as the Y’s success.
The second thing would be the importance of fiscal management and fiscal responsibility. When I started in the Y as a Youth Sports Director, my energy was focused on introducing and growing sports programs—not on managing the finances of my departments. Within the structure of the YMCA of Delaware, where I worked at the time, the finances generally were handled by others. When I took my first CEO job at a small YMCA, I had a great deal to learn about finances and nonprofit accounting. The ability to operate a nonprofit in a fiscally responsible manner ensures that there are resources available to adequately fund Y operations, programs and activities that are so critical to the community. Additionally, donors have an expectation that nonprofit organizations are going to be operated in this manner and that the organization is going to be a good steward of the donated dollars.
What has been your biggest source of pride as CEO?
My biggest source of pride as the director of the La Crosse Area Family YMCA has been the way the Y has grown and changed to become an integral part of the community. It has been a privilege to lead an organization that serves more than 30,000 (our pre-COVID-19 number) of our neighbors as members annually.
The growth has come through the engagement of effective policy volunteers, providing quality programs and activities, meeting critical community needs, and the willingness to expand the role of the Y in the community.
What are your two biggest accomplishments in your career as a not-for-profit leader?
First, expanding the role of the Y in the community and the expansion of our facilities and services. In the past 15 years, thanks to the incredible generosity of our donors, we have been able to bring the Houser Y to the Onalaska and Holmen communities. Additionally, we were able to bring to the community:
- A Miracle Baseball Field
- The Food Forest at the Dahl Y
- The new Community Teen Center
- Expansions on the Dahl Y and the Houser Y, including the Healthy Living Center in partnership with Gundersen Health System
In the near future, when our operations are back to a “new normal,” we will be launching projects to remodel the locker rooms at the Dahl Y and add a warm water pool at the Houser Y.
Second, the Y’s focus on the health and wellbeing of the community. As our Y began focusing on addressing critical community issues, particularly those outside the walls of the Y, we were able to expand the role of the Y in the community. This focus on community health has led to the Y playing a role in teen and adult mental health, cancer survivorship, chronic disease prevention, adaptive and inclusive programming, food insecurity, and much more. I have been incredibly proud of the success the Y has had in addressing many issues in our community.
What are the dominant challenges that you see nonprofit organizations facing and what do you think would be viable solutions?
My answer today is very different than it would have been pre-COVID-19. At this time, the economic challenges and unemployment rate will affect all nonprofits. We have greater needs and fewer resources. We are working every day to balance our ability to provide needed activities and programs to our community with our ability to raise funds and generate revenue. Our donors have been very generous throughout our 137-year history and will be very important to us in the near future.