Inside Track: Former lifeguard immerses himself in new CEO role
From pool lifeguard to executive positions in several cities, Scott Lewis has had a lifelong career with the YMCA.
Scott Lewis is one of the newest members of the Grand Rapids community, having moved here in January to take on the role of president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids.
Lewis’ career with the YMCA goes back to when he was 15 and took a job as a pool lifeguard with the Y in Montclair, New Jersey.
He said even before that, he’d participated in YMCA programs.
“I went to swim lessons, day camp, afterschool programs, youth basketball league — all of it through the Y,” he said.
But he didn’t really enjoy it. Lewis said back then, he was painfully shy.
He also had no intention of becoming a lifeguard.
“My mother wanted to become a lifeguard when she was a girl, but right before she turned old enough, they moved, and the town they moved to didn’t have a pool,” he said. “She never realized her lifelong dream of becoming a lifeguard, so she put that on her firstborn son.”
It was only through the prodding of a friend that he put to use the lifeguard certification his mother made him get.
When he left for college at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, he transferred his membership to the local Y and continued to work. He never saw it as anything more than a part-time job, however.
“My junior year (of college), the executive director asked if I’d ever thought of making a career of it,” he said. “I’d been working for the Y for six years at that point. My answer: no,” he said.
Around this time, Lewis decided to change his major from architectural engineering to secondary education, and his boss offered to take him under his wing and show him what a career with the YMCA could look like.
Lewis went from lifeguard to swim lesson instructor to training other lifeguards.
“That really charted my course,” he said. “I was looking to go down the education track, but he showed me I could do what I loved in the Y — which was teaching kids to swim, building lifeguards and having a direct impact with our members — but I could also become a director and have that administration and oversight and that long-range strategy.
“I saw in education it was going to be teach for a while, get a master’s degree, and then let the teaching go for an administrator job.”
Lewis said working for the Y helped him overcome his shyness and allowed him to excel at the things he most enjoyed.
“I liked interacting with people,” he said. “It was about working with people, keeping them safe, but also educating and teaching them and building relationships, and I loved that.”
After eight years working with the Y in Greensboro, he got the opportunity of a lifetime: He was asked to become the senior aquatics director of the swim program he’d been involved in as a kid in Montclair and moved back to New Jersey.
“We had three pools, 200 kids on swim team, almost 1,000 kids a session in swim lessons,” he said. “It was amazing what we were doing in those three pools.”
His next big opportunity came after two of his colleagues quit just ahead of the Y’s summer camp season.
“I was the only one who’d worked at camp,” he said. “I was a waterfront director in high school. I knew how to run the lake and the aquatics stuff. I didn’t really know how to run the camp, but I was hired as camp director for three summers in addition to running the three pools.”
Lewis said during his last year with Montclair, he racked up another important experience: membership director.
“For a year, I ran all three things,” he said. “It was the best time ever and also the most stressful time.”
The experiences he gained positioned him for his next role. He took a job with the Greater Rochester YMCA in New York as associate executive director and spent three years there. Lewis said the highlight of his time in Rochester was leading the construction of a new wellness center and adventure center project.
He said when he was asked to move to Albany to lead a large urban branch, he was hesitant.
“I had never worked in an urban setting,” he said. “All my experience had been in suburban branches.”
His mentor at the time encouraged him to take the job to round out his experience. It turned out to be one of the most fun jobs he’s had.
“I’ve had fun at all my jobs, but I got the best feedback from what we were doing,” he said. “In Albany, the response for the little things was phenomenal.”
Lewis next was recruited to Delmar, New York, where he participated in a unique project.
“The ice rink had closed, and the mayor wanted the Y, so we purchased the property and renovated it into a full YMCA,” Lewis said.
The new branch, which was part of the Bethlehem Area YMCA, included an ice rink, gym and two pools.
“I was involved from start to finish,” Lewis said.
He moved to Philadelphia next for a position as group vice president and was put in charge of three Y branches. The job appealed to him because it involved building a new Y. By his last year in Philadelphia, Lewis had risen to the position of senior group vice president.
Then he found out about a CEO position in New Jersey that seemed like a “perfect fit.” He spent three years as CEO of the YMCA of Metuchen, Edison, Woodbridge & South Amboy, where he focused on strengthening the board, promoting team unity and redesigning the delivery of services to the community.
While in New Jersey, Lewis remarried. His wife, Sara, is originally from Grand Rapids.
“When we were dating, she’d asked me if I’d consider coming here, and I said I wouldn’t mind it but was expecting my next move to be south,” he said. “I wanted to go some place warm.”
As he was reviewing opportunities, Lewis and Sara found out she was pregnant. That news came around the same time Ron Nelson announced his retirement from the Greater Grand Rapids YMCA. The couple liked the idea of being near family, especially with a new baby.
“My ex and I always moved for the job, and it was tough not to have family to help out,” Lewis noted.
“The more I found out about the Y and the support in the community for all the organizations in town, it sounded like a good fit.”
Lewis and Sara relocated in January, and their daughter was born a few weeks later.
Though he is still becoming acclimated to the area and the YMCA community in Grand Rapids, Lewis has a clear vision of what he wants to achieve. He said while the Greater Grand Rapids YMCA is known as a cutting-edge organization, particularly for its buildings, he wants to see it become known more for the full scope of its services.
“I want to challenge us to refocus our efforts — less on the infrastructure and more on the impact. What we really do is impact lives; we transform people.”
Lewis said he wants to grow the reputation of the Greater Grand Rapids YMCA around its programming, especially beyond the walls of its branches.
“We are going to change our messaging and we are going to work on developing stronger and new partnerships with organizations that will help us continue our mission but further it outside of our walls,” he said. “I think we should be out of our buildings more.”