(Samantha Ryan Photo)

Northwest Neighbors: Mike Brown

After a rough beginning, YMCA leader Mike Brown is finding his way and energizing this longtime institution as it builds the foundation for its future.

(Samantha Ryan Photo)
(Samantha Ryan Photo)

Mike Brown knows firsthand the impact that the YMCA can have on young people. It was once his safe haven.
“I moved around a lot,” says Brown, CEO and president of the YMCA of Rock River Valley. “I was the kid who went to 12 elementary and middle schools and four high schools. I lived in a home where I was abused; I attempted suicide when I was 17 – that was a real eye-opener. But the Y was always there for me. It’s where I went to preschool. I sold peanuts to raise money to pay for Y Camp. I went to work there as a teenager and never looked back. The Y has been a defining moment in my life.”
Brown has spent his entire career working for YMCAs, in California, Texas and Georgia. In 2011, he came to Rockford, when he was hired to replace Wray Howard, the longtime leader of the area YMCA. Brown found out the hard way that it’s never easy replacing an icon.
“Coming into the community as a newcomer was extremely difficult,” he says. “I was replacing someone who had been here for 43 years, who was and still is a legend. The first one-and-a-half years I was here were rough. I couldn’t replace Wray. That was hard for people to understand.”
Amy Diaz is vice chairperson of the YMCA board, and served on the hiring committee four years ago. “Mike was the one candidate who had the biggest vision for how the YMCA of Rock River Valley could evolve into what the community needed it to be,” says Diaz, associate vice president of student development at Rock Valley College. “I identified in Mike his ability to be a social change agent; he was going to disrupt the norm, and that was going to be really invigorating and wonderful and, at the same time, uncomfortable for some people.”
Early in his tenure, Brown faced difficult circumstances. The Y was experiencing the same economic downturn many other organizations faced. It struggled to raise much-needed capital. Staff reductions and program changes were made to stop the bleeding – losses of $500,000 annually. “It was either make changes or potentially shut down,” Brown says. “Rockford was not trusting of someone coming in and making those changes. I believe we’ve strengthened our relationships, but it took long, tough work.”
Others in the same situation may not have stuck it out. Brown almost didn’t. In fact, he moved his family out of Rockford during his first year; they’ve since returned. “I reached a low point and said, ‘I’m done,’” he recalls. “I couldn’t do this anymore. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying. It was hard both personally and professionally to make a fit and be part of the community. Let’s face it – I have a different style. I wasn’t the same person who had been here. I had to find my way and hope that I would be embraced in a community that perhaps doesn’t always embrace change.”
Fortunately, Brown had the support of his board of directors. “Some of his decisions were under guise of corrective action, but allowed the Y to grow,” says Diaz. “Some people were not pleased with Mike’s early decisions or the outcomes. The group was small in number, but they were vocal, unhappy and frustrated, and didn’t recognize some of those decisions being made for the greater good. There were acts of disrespect toward him and his family. Some people tried to make it uncomfortable for Mike. Our board made it known that we wanted him to stay. We needed him more than he needed us at that moment.”
That backing paid off. Under Brown’s leadership, the YMCA has raised $3 million in capital. It’s serving more people than ever (35,000) and expanding its operation base. Brown has created special events such as the Annual Community Dinner, and programs such as the YMCA Intern Challenge, a summer-long paid program focused on developing leadership, teamwork and communication skills within younger generations.
The downtown I.D. Pennock Family YMCA has undergone a $2.5 million renovation, which includes new equipment, a youth interactive center, a Subway restaurant and space utilized by SwedishAmerican Health System. Future plans include expanding the northeast Northeast Family YMCA.
“The YMCA model, back in the day, was that you’d build a building and everyone would come,” Brown says. “We’re so much more. We have evolved as an organization. In the 1980s, we didn’t offer day care. Why? Because many mothers didn’t work during that time. The workforce has changed and the Y has responded. It’s more than just getting on a treadmill.”
Recently, the YMCA announced a new program that will give free memberships to 505 teenagers in the community. Called “Project 505,” the goal is to keep Rockford-area young people connected to the YMCA. As part of the program, the Y will keep its downtown I.D. Pennock Family YMCA facility open until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Teens who are given free memberships will be asked to give four hours of community service a month. The free memberships are open to any teens in the Rockford area.
This spring, the YMCA announced its annual fundraising goal of $1 million to fund programs and scholarships. A recent gift of $50,000 is funding the launch of a mobile community center. The Roger Reno Mobile Community Center will visit schools and neighborhoods to provide tutoring and promote healthy activities and nutrition.
“What I like about Mike is that he’s intentional, forward-thinking and purposeful,” says Diaz. “The purpose is almost always connecting with the cause-driven approach of the Y’s three focus areas – youth development, social responsibility and healthy living. Nothing is left to chance.”
In the future, Brown expects the YMCA will open smaller facilities in Cherry Valley, Winnebago, Machesney Park and Rockford’s west side. “Downtown Ys are closing and I don’t want that to happen here,” he says. “We need neighborhood Ys that are smaller. We could use the downtown facility as a weekend destination. We are part of revitalizing this community.”
After a rocky start, Brown is now comfortable calling Rockford home. He and his family have purchased a home and his children are thriving in school. Brown’s excited about the future – both of the YMCA and the community.
“I look at where we are and where we’re headed,” he says. “It’s going to take a lot of hard work to bring the community together, but it’s already happening. What an amazing place this will be to live in.”
Displayed in the lobby of the YMCA central office, inside in the Y’s original location along East State Street, is the Citizen of the Year plaque that Brown received this year from the Rockford Chamber of Commerce. It was a surprise to Brown, who wasn’t so sure he’d still be here, when he arrived four years ago.
“It’s interesting to see where life takes you,” he says. “I look back at my life and it’s amazing to see how things have turned out. When people invest in people, you get great results. You see that happen every day here at the YMCA.”