On the level with Jason Shearer
The Wood River Community YMCA provides programs and services to thousands of people from a wide range of backgrounds. Executive Director Jason Shearer has seen them all walk through the door, from underprivileged schoolchildren to well-heeled retirees.
“It doesn’t matter if someone has significant resources or is working three jobs and stopping by The Hunger Coalition to keep food on the table,” Shearer said. “Everyone is equal when they come to the Y.”
Shearer, 49, grew up near Kalispell, Mont. His parents were social workers. His father worked as a janitor in the office at night, tended a fruit orchard and worked as a part-time ski instructor to make ends meet.
“My parents were often concerned about how they were going to pay bills, keep their home and pay for groceries,” Shearer said. “I went to business school to make sure I would never be financially insecure.”
After graduating from the University of Montana with a business degree, he took a job as a wilderness guide.
“During the last summer I had before taking my life seriously, I worked at the Missoula YMCA, and never left,” he said. “It sparked a powerful empathy in me.”
The experience led him away from the cooperate sector and into youth service. Over the next 20 years, Shearer worked his way up from camp counselor to assistant executive director. He was then recruited to serve as CEO of the cash-strapped Golden State YMCA in the Central Valley of California. The struggling organization faced a choice between selling an 800-acre property on a mountain lake or going bankrupt.
“They had owned that land for 100 years. Some of our board members had built cabins on that lake with their grandparents,” Shearer said.
His job included streamlining YMCA operations, establishing a new business plan and telling the long story of successes and failures that had led to the current predicament. He told the story to donors, board members, city and state governments and bankers.
“Some people were frustrated, others cried, but no one want to sell that property,” he said. “In the end, many people came to our aid, even the creditors. They still have that property, with no debts on it.”
Shearer came to the Wood River Val-
ley four years ago to run what he de-scribes as a “unique” YMCA, among some 2,400 similar nonprofit health organizations nationwide. Within a service area population of only 15,000, the YMCA served 6,664 individual members in 2018.
“That’s just incredible,” he said. “And no one is ever turned away due to an inability to pay. This is a reflection of just how much the neighbors here care about one another.”
Shearer said the YMCA spent $878,000 on scholarships and subsidies in 2018.
With 40 programs for people of all ages, including yoga and Pilates, swim lessons, child care and a Power Scholars afterschool summer studies program, Shearer said the YMCA is growing its membership and moving in “an amazing direction.”
Shearer is not likely to lose sight of the Y’s mission, no matter how flush the organization becomes.
“You might not notice it if you are on the ski slopes, but a lot of kids in this valley understand financial need,” Shearer said. “When I go into a Power Scholars class, I see myself in those kids.”