For A Better Us

May 15, 2024

Scholar Spotlight: The Making of the Class of 2024 – My Path from YMCA Tiger Academy to College Graduation

By: Jewel Hardwick

When I was just a young student at YMCA Tiger Academy, the idea of attending college always loomed large. From early on, the teachers and staff instilled in us that we were the “Class of 2024” — a graduating class with a defined path to earn our bachelor’s degrees after completing elementary, middle and high school. At the time, I didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of what that meant – 2024 seemed like a lifetime away.

Our classroom themes, field trips, guest speakers – everything was oriented around exposing us to the college experience from an early age and making it feel achievable. I’ll never forget the big trip we took in 5th grade to tour Spelman College, Morehouse College, and Clark Atlanta University. It was my first time really traveling out of state, and the fact that we toured historically Black colleges in Atlanta made a huge impression on me. The teachers wanted us to see the full path of possibilities ahead.

The expectation that college was the next natural step after high school became deeply ingrained. So, when it came time to apply to universities, the process felt like an exciting milestone rather than an intimidating unknown. With the guidance of YMCA Tiger Academy and the Episcopal School of Jacksonville, I was awarded a QuestBridge scholarship to attend Colby College, a private liberal arts college in Maine, where I have pursed a double major in Global Studies and East Asian Studies. My YMCA Tiger Academy origins opened doors while simultaneously empowering me to walk confidently through them.

Tiger also provided an incredibly supportive, tight-knit community during my foundational years. With small class sizes and teachers who went the extra mile, they weren’t just educating us, they were looking out for us holistically as young kids trying to navigate life. From staying late to reviewing my college application essays, to even providing meals for my family when we struggled – the YMCA Tiger Academy staff became an extended family.

My mom had to stretch every resource to get me and my sister through those years. Not living near where Tiger was located, she’d wake up early and drive us across town each morning, then volunteer at the school during the day. Tiger opened up opportunities my family wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.

Now, I can’t help but look back in awe at how far I’ve come — and how much I owe to those earliest seeds planted by the staff at YMCA Tiger Academy. Their model works, as they reach kids from underprivileged communities early and wrap them in a supportive environment of high expectations and exposure to possibilities.

The expectation set by YMCA Tiger Academy ultimately became self-fulfilling, as I’ve earned the incredible honor of a Fulbright Scholarship. This will allow me to spend the next year after graduation immersing myself in the culture of Taiwan as an English Teaching Assistant while fostering cross-cultural connections.

I’m deeply grateful to YMCA Tiger Academy, the First Coast YMCA, and the Episcopal School of Jacksonville for their unyielding support and belief in my potential. None of it would have been possible without being empowered from that very first day when I learned I was part of the “Class of 2024.” YMCA Tiger Academy changed my life’s trajectory in ways I’m still understanding. And for that, I’ll be forever grateful.


YMCA Tiger Academy is a privately funded, public charter elementary school established in 2006 with the mission of preparing students for future academic success. The school goes beyond just enforcing rigorous academic standards by encompassing character development, personal and social responsibility, and strong family involvement. Tiger Academy’s environment nurtures a love of learning and sets high expectations for all students while bridging the achievement gap. From an early age, the school emphasizes college readiness, with curriculum and experiences designed to make higher education a natural and achievable next step.

The transformative impact of YMCA Tiger Academy is made possible through the generous support of individuals, businesses, and organizations who believe in the power of education to change lives. Donations help ensure that Tiger Academy can continue to provide a high-quality education and supportive environment for all students. These contributions provide essential resources like classroom materials, technology, transportation for field trips, meals, and professional development for the dedicated teachers and staff.

Support from the community allows Tiger Academy to continue providing this distinctive educational model that has proven transformative for many young lives.

To be a part of YMCA Tiger Academy’s mission and life-changing work, donations can be made at ymcatigeracademy.org/about/donate. Every gift helps ensure more students like Jewel can benefit from Tiger Academy’s empowering combination of high expectations, access to opportunities, and caring support system.

Make a gift today

By: Jewel Hardwick When I was just a young student at YMCA Tiger Academy, the idea of attending college always loomed large. From early on, the teachers and staff instilled in us that we were the “Class of 2024” — a graduating class with a defined path to earn our…


February 20, 2024

Staff Spotlight: February Love Stories — Kathy & Burt Cannon

Their journey at the Y began in the spring of 1996 when they started their first jobs as high school students. Starting in Youth Development, they began their careers in our Summer Camp and Before and After School Programs. Over the past 28 years, they have worn many hats within the First Coast YMCA. Today, Burt can be found at the Winston Y as the Associate Executive Director, while Kathy leads as the Vice President of Membership and Experience at our Metropolitan Office. What started as a high school friendship blossomed into a beautiful love story – they were married in the Spring of 2002 surrounded by their Y family. The Y isn’t just a workplace for them; it’s a second home where their two children, Avery and Will, have grown up surrounded by love and community.

Kathy and Burt are fully dedicated to their work at the Y . Their commitment to the Y’s cause of strengthening the foundations of the community aligns perfectly with the organization’s values. Working for a cause that directly impacts the lives of those they serve is not only fulfilling but also enriching, which is why they continue to choose to serve their community in their roles at the Y. Kathy and Burt’s experience at the Y exemplifies the power of dedication and belief in a shared mission. Their unwavering commitment to making a difference reflects the core values of the organization and serves as a beacon of hope for those they serve. As they continue to work towards strengthening the community, their determination and passion will undoubtedly inspire others to join in the cause and make the world a better place for all.

Their journey at the Y began in the spring of 1996 when they started their first jobs as high school students. Starting in Youth Development, they began their careers in our Summer Camp and Before and After School Programs. Over the past 28 years, they have worn many hats within…


February 20, 2024

Staff Spotlight: February Love Stories — Tim & Candace Burrows

Candace is the Associate Vice President of Day Camp, Family Programs & Community Engagement. Tim is the Vice President of Operations and Healthy Living.

Candace and Tim met back in 2013 when they were assigned on a new project together. As they were working together, there was definitely a spark and chemistry. After spending time together, they began dating.

After a year of dating, Tim and Candace were engaged and will celebrate their eight year wedding anniversary this coming May. Their wedding was truly a Y wedding. The First Coast YMCA CEO Eric Mann officiated the wedding; the marketing team designed all the signage; the Y’s accountant was the DJ, a few other Y staff were the day-of wedding planners and the engagement photo and rehearsal party were hosted by the Y’s Healthy Living team. More than half of the guest list were people we meet or worked with through the years at the Y. It was a magical evening full of so much love and always lots of laughter. 

Tim and Candace truly found their community at the Y. 

“We’ve dedicated our lives to serving people and doing good. We hope pass this along to our sweet kiddos, Lincoln and Willow. Plus, we even found our fur baby, Pepper running around the Y,” says Candace.

The Burrows thank the Y everyday for finding one another! They truly have a YMCA Love Story and continue to write more chapters as it continues.

Candace is the Associate Vice President of Day Camp, Family Programs & Community Engagement. Tim is the Vice President of Operations and Healthy Living. Candace and Tim met back in 2013 when they were assigned on a new project together. As they were working together, there was definitely a spark…


February 16, 2024

Staff Spotlight: February Love Stories — Richard & Jessica Bombach

The Bombachs get to live and serve in the booming metropolis of Keystone Heights, home of YMCA Camp Immokalee.  Jessica serves as the Group Retreat and Events Director and Richard is the Executive Director.

Why They Love the Y:

Our faith is a big part of our marriage, family, and our purpose. At camp, we get to practice what we preach each day. Camping is not just a job for us, but a lifestyle & a ministry. We’re called to Love Our Neighbor, and we get the opportunity to do that by creating a safe, healthy community at YMCA Camp Immokalee.  We live the mission of the Y and ensure we are a place for all to thrive.

 Marriage & a Union of Impact:

We actually met at a summer camp in Texas back in 2008, got engaged at camp in 2009, and had our Camp Director officiate our wedding in 2010!  We knew that if the opportunity ever arose that we would love to serve in a camp setting.  We moved to Keystone Heights in the spring of 2022 and have been so fortunate to have a wonderful community in this small town. As a family living at camp, we love that we get to be “mom & dad” to our summer staff over the course of 12 weeks of camp.  We couldn’t imagine a better place to raise our two daughters, which have the greatest role models and influences in our summer camp counselors.  With Richard being diagnosed (and beating!) cancer two different times since 2017, we get the opportunity to be an example of positivity, joy, and perseverance to our campers and counselors. We are beyond fortunate to be a part of the First Coast Y and live life not only with purpose, but ON purpose!  

 

 

The Bombachs get to live and serve in the booming metropolis of Keystone Heights, home of YMCA Camp Immokalee.  Jessica serves as the Group Retreat and Events Director and Richard is the Executive Director. Why They Love the Y: Our faith is a big part of our marriage, family, and…


February 16, 2024

Staff Spotlight: February Love Stories — Georgette & Tony Butler

Georgette, Brooks Family YMCA Group Fitness Coordinator, coordinates a group exercise schedule that encompasses 92 land and water based classes. 

Tony serves as the Property Manager of North Jacksonville and Nassau County YMCAs, including the YMCA Tiger Academy Charter School, Johnson Family YMCA, YMCA at Wildlight and McArthur Family YMCA.  

Military Meeting

Tony and Georgette have a 48 year combined military service career with the United States Navy (27 for Tony and 21 for Georgette). They met March 1985 on Diega Garcia, a remote British-owned island in the Indian Ocean and married two years later in Cleveland, Ohio July 1987. 

Diego Garcia is where Georgette found her love of teaching group fitness classes to a captive audience of military personnel mandated to attend Physical Readiness Training. 

In 1996, both Tony and Georgette transferred to Afloat Training Group, Mayport in Jacksonville, Florida.  Tony’s duties, which included ship inspections, required many days deployed away from home.  Georgette, though on “shore duty,” responsibilities required many long hours in support of ship operations and manpower.

Their Y Story

In search of an opportunity for physical fitness and knowing the base gym/fitness center did not allow children, Georgette recalled her membership with the YMCA in Cleveland, Ohio.  With Anthony and Jordan in tow, she found the Arlington YMCA, formerly located on Fort Caroline Rd.  

The Y became her salvation, support, and family. The dedicated and loving individuals in Kidzone nurtured and cared for Anthony and Jordan as if they were their own. They helped them with homework, social interaction skills and taught them the importance of being part of a team. Anthony and Jordan both learned how to swim and play basketball at the Arlington Y.  Later, Anthony joined the swim team and a lifeguard. 

“I sometimes look back and wonder what would we have done without the Y,” said Georgette.

Looking Forward

In 2025, the couple will celebrate 40 years together. Many of their first 20 years were spent apart due to our military obligations. Nothing could ever diminish or replace the pride and honor they have expressed serving their country. Now, they share pride and honor in serving their community through the Y, an organization that gave to them in their time of need. 

Georgette, Brooks Family YMCA Group Fitness Coordinator, coordinates a group exercise schedule that encompasses 92 land and water based classes.  Tony serves as the Property Manager of North Jacksonville and Nassau County YMCAs, including the YMCA Tiger Academy Charter School, Johnson Family YMCA, YMCA at Wildlight and McArthur Family YMCA….


November 7, 2023

Staff Spotlight: Recap from The Boys and Young Men of Color (BYMOC) Convening

Quincy’s Thoughts

My name is Quincy Wimberly and I’m the First Coast YMCA Project Manager of Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Recently, I attended The Boys and Young Men of Color (BYMOC) Convening in Washington D.C with Ja’Barris Briggs, Johnson Family YMCA Senior Program Director of Teen Programs. The BYMOC strategy was created to cultivate success, make investments, and

establish new paths that allow boys and young men of color to reach a higher level of potential. Their goal is to support boys in their communities by creating sustainable economic and social mobility as they reach adulthood.

It was transformative to hear about the support system they implement to eliminate systemic barriers for boys and young men of color, most notably in disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. This strategy is crucial for character development and builds up new leaders within our communities. As a young black man, I obviously connected with this strategy and attending this convening improved my understanding of how it directly affects a young man’s outcome.

Ja’Barris and I were quick to realize additional ways to align the BYMOC strategy with the core values of the First Coast YMCA, including by emphasizing youth development through healthy living and social responsibility. It’s more than just a commitment; it’s a calling deeply rooted in the essence of the YMCA’s mission. As Ja’Barris leads our teen programs, he witnesses firsthand the transformative power of investing in the young men in the community. This strategy serves as a beacon of hope, where we can provide support in education, college/career readiness, character development, and a space to address health and well-being. – Quincy Wimberly

Ja’Barris’s Thoughts

Working with these teens, I’ve seen the spark of leadership kindle and grow. Their journeys, often marked by obstacles, have revealed remarkable resilience and determination. But it’s not just about the individual; it’s about the broader community. When we support these young men, we’re investing in the community’s future leaders.

The BYMOC strategy means everything to me and I feel it’s necessary given where I came from. I was the product of a single-parent household, which historically put the odds against me. We didn’t have any resources like this growing up and it was hard. I persevered, though, and my position with the Y now inspires me to create an avenue for success for today’s young men. The biggest goal I want to accomplish is to be there for as long as they need me, through high school, college and beyond.

The BYMOC strategy is more than just a program, it’s a lifeline. It’s a chance to rewrite the narrative for young men of color, and a commitment to building a brighter future for the Jacksonville community. We’re actively pursuing opportunities to be a part of this transformative journey at the Johnson Family YMCA. We can set up times to mentor, offer career readiness sessions, and provide additional preparatory skills to guide men into a new chapter of their lives. – Ja’Barris Briggs

Quincy’s Thoughts My name is Quincy Wimberly and I’m the First Coast YMCA Project Manager of Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Recently, I attended The Boys and Young Men of Color (BYMOC) Convening in Washington D.C with Ja’Barris Briggs, Johnson Family YMCA Senior Program Director of Teen Programs. The BYMOC…


October 11, 2023

Staff Spotlight: Migdalys “Migdy” Sanchez

My name is Migdalys “Migdy” Sanchez.  I was born and raised in Puerto Rico.  I have two beautiful daughters and a wonderfully busy 2-year old grandson.  When I was 14 years old, I was diagnosed with Keratoconus, a sight disorder, that led to me being declared legally blind.  I went through 3 corneal transplants.  Thanks to the procedure and some special lenses, I am fully functional.

In my early 20’s, I was in the auto sales industry and working towards becoming a sales manager.  Then, in 2010, my life took a sudden turn.  I moved to the U.S with 2 daughters, 5 suitcases and $100 in my pocket.  I did not speak English at the time.  It was only through God’s grace and some determination on my end that I made it through one of the toughest times in my life.  I also began my fitness journey about that time.  Through the support of good friends and some great instructors, I lost 100 pounds.  Through my weight loss journey, I was inspired to get certified as a Zumba trainer. My Y career started as an instructor, teaching classes at the YMCA of Greater Springfield.  I worked my way from instructor to wellness floor attendant and eventually a Branch Executive Director.

In 2021, I moved to Jacksonville to work for the Florida First Coast YMCA as the Executive Director of the YMCA at Baptist North branch. For the last 2 years it has been a blessing to lead this amazing team and serve a community that has welcomed me with open arms.  As I celebrate a decade with the YMCA in January 2024, I celebrate my Hispanic roots and the opportunities that have brought me to the YMCA and living a healthy lifestyle. I received my translation Certificate to translate from English to Spanish through American Translator Association. Recently, I was a planning committee member for the Regional Emerging Multicultural Leaders Experience conference in Jacksonville Florida.  I support my Hispanic YMCA colleagues by being a part of the YMCA HLLN “Hispanic Latino Leadership Network” and mentor the Healthy Living Director at the YMCA in Puerto Rico.  I feel pride in supporting my country and advance the work of the YMCA.

My name is Migdalys “Migdy” Sanchez.  I was born and raised in Puerto Rico.  I have two beautiful daughters and a wonderfully busy 2-year old grandson.  When I was 14 years old, I was diagnosed with Keratoconus, a sight disorder, that led to me being declared legally blind.  I went…


September 11, 2023

Staff Spotlight: Maria Aristizabal

Maria was born and raised in Cali, Colombia, South America.  She is the youngest of six girls. As a youth, Maria had the opportunity to participate in many sports, including competitive tennis, swimming, and participated in the Colombian National Synchronize Swim Team. She is very proud of her Hispanic Heritage and feels very fortunate to be able to share it with many Y staff. Hispanics are warm welcoming people and they love to celebrate with dancing and food. Building relationships is in the DNA.

She has lived in different areas of the country since the 80’s: New Jersey, Las Vegas, North Carolina and Florida. These experiences have giving her a great appreciation for many cultures.  While in Florida and NC, she developed and implemented community-based programs that provide services to Hispanic populations. Her first experience with the Y was many years ago while she attended high school in New Jersey. When she was part of the high school swim team, the school team practice every week at a local Y in Randolph, NJ. She was new in this country and participating in the swim team helped her feel like she belonged. This is the place where she made her first American friends.

She started her professional Y career over 20 years ago in North Carolina as the Program Director of the Hispanic Achievers. She had multiple roles including the Executive Director of Childcare.  After 9 years, she took a position with the YMCA of the USA national office as a Technical Advisor for a National Program: “Welcoming Hispanic Families.”  Three years later, she moved to Jacksonville, Florida to join the YMCA of Florida’s First Coast to lead the Youth Development department. Currently, she is the VP of Operations and Youth Development. Maria has been able to stay true to her passion since she was a little girl, which impacts the lives of youth and families. She feels very fortunate to work for an organization that is nimble enough to become what the community needs. In 2019, Maria opened the New American Welcome Center, located off Old Kings Road South in Jacksonville. This project has been a dream for many years, and with the help of leadership, partners and staff, this dream became a reality. The center was the first of its kind within the Ys in the state of Florida.  It continues to provide needed services to the new immigrant community.

She has been volunteering for many years as a member of the Steering Committee for the YMCA National Hispanic LatinoLeadership Network, one of the Employee Resource Groups. She co-leads the Professional Development Program, and she is passionate about helping Hispanic staff advance in the national YMCA movement. “I want them to see the Y as a long life career opportunity.”

Maria has had the opportunity to travel internationally to South Africa to support the work the YMCA does in many of this country’s cities. She also makes sure to visit the Y in Colombia when she travels back to visit her family. She was part of the task force who helped in the post Hurricane Maria efforts at the Puerto Rico YMCAs. In addition, she has mentored staff in San Juan and delivered bilingual trainings to its staff. The worldwide reach of the Y is one of the many aspects she loves about this organization.

 

Maria was born and raised in Cali, Colombia, South America.  She is the youngest of six girls. As a youth, Maria had the opportunity to participate in many sports, including competitive tennis, swimming, and participated in the Colombian National Synchronize Swim Team. She is very proud of her Hispanic Heritage…


August 27, 2023

We Stand Together

Statement from Eric K. Mann, YMCA of Florida’s First Coast President and CEO, Regarding New Town Shooting

We are outraged and saddened by the senseless hate and violence that claimed three innocent lives. Our community can and must do better. Now is the time for us to come together to love and support the victims’ families and stand together against this and other hateful acts.

We must each play a role in creating a safer and more welcoming community. We must encourage one another to build a more inclusive Northeast Florida. We must protect the rights of every person in our community, including the right to safely complete errands on a Saturday afternoon.

Now, more than ever, we must inspire and empower one another to stand together against hate.

Statement from Eric K. Mann, YMCA of Florida’s First Coast President and CEO, Regarding New Town Shooting We are outraged and saddened by the senseless hate and violence that claimed three innocent lives. Our community can and must do better. Now is the time for us to come together to…


May 24, 2023

A Cultural Journey to South Korea and the Philippines

I am a proud member of the YMCA Asian Pacific Islander Leadership Network (APILN) International Leadership Institute (ILI). The APILN selected 7 YMCA leaders from across the United States, all of whom are ofAsian-Pacific Islander descent, to join in a year-long commitment as members of the 2022-2023 ILI cohort.  The ILI is designed to cultivate leadership skills, cultural competencies, cross-cultural understanding while creating a platform for intercultural dialogue and learning in the YMCA movement.  In April 2023, the APILN-ILI group embarked on an international trip to Asia in an effort to bring back experiences, knowledge and collaborative opportunities to our respective YMCA communities. Let us tell you what we saw, who we met and what we did on this unforgettable journey. We all experienced personal and professional growth, while gaining a new perspective and expanded vision of the YMCA Global Movement.

After 5 months of virtual meetings, the APILN-ILI cohort met in-person for the first time at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and began this adventure together with anticipation and excitement as we were led by Ms. Trang Truong-Hill, YUSA Director of Global Services.

During the 10-day journey, our team met with key YMCA and community leaders of South Korea and the Philippines for cultural understanding, support and information sharing.

SOUTH KOREA

Our learning in Korea focused on the history of war and the road to peace and reunification, including progress in key areas such as youth empowerment, civic engagement, climate action, university YMCAs, international programming and more. YMCA Korea is part of a collective effort to strengthen peace efforts with Korea and Japan and helping to build awareness of this important cause.

We are grateful to our hosts, National General Secretary Kim Kyung Min and International Secretary Deaun Yang, who curated a special program that provided access to spaces not typically available to visitors as well as insight into local history and culture.  <see PHOTO 1>

One of the most powerful moments was a special tour in Cheorwon-Gun, a county in Gangwon Province located next to the border with North Korea in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

I am a proud member of the YMCA Asian Pacific Islander Leadership Network (APILN) International Leadership Institute (ILI). The APILN selected 7 YMCA leaders from across the United States, all of whom are ofAsian-Pacific Islander descent, to join in a year-long commitment as members of the 2022-2023 ILI cohort.  The…