The following is the first in a two-part series about the development of the YMCA of the Cayman Islands over the past six years, and its recent transition in leadership. The next story will introduce the Y’s new executive director.
In 2014, the YMCA of the Cayman Islands was established as the newest official chapter of the 119 worldwide movements. Dating back to its initial birth in London in 1844, ‘the Y’ (as it is referred) is the oldest and largest youth services organisation in the world. This year marks another important chapter in the local YMCA’s history, which is the transition of its first executive leader, Gregory Smith.
Established by a group of volunteers spearheaded by Pastor Randy Von Kanel, the desire for a YMCA in Cayman stemmed from social challenges increasing in prevalence on the island. “We witnessed a tragic time in our history where young people were shooting one another, and concern was mounting for the future of our beautiful islands”.
From his experience in the US and abroad, Von Kanel knew the YMCA could help provide positive opportunities for youth, as well as the wider community. “The Y does so much for communities, offering youth activities, sports, childcare, wellness, and so forth that are based on wholesome, positive values that reflect the identity of Cayman.”
In 2013, with funds raised from the initial volunteers and a grant from Wilmington Trust, the steering group conducted a search for a YMCA professional to give direction to its cause. Andrew Johnson, former board chairman, led the global hiring search that produced the first staff member for the YMCA, CEO Gregory Smith.
Johnson stated, “After sifting through over 100 applicants, Greg stood out as the clear choice, having all the requisite experience we needed plus so many intangibles. Versatility, knowledge, steadfast leadership, unwavering commitment, passion for excellence, and a willingness to work hard is what Greg brought to Cayman.”
Smith was the only employee of the YMCA during the organisation’s inaugural year of operations. During those early days, Smith recalls the critical need for collaboration. “The Family Resource Centre (FRC) was the first and strongest collaborative partner with the Y. We joined together on multiple projects, such as Family Fitness classes across Grand Cayman.”
Smith attended a few of FRC’s staff meetings in those early days to plan activities. “Those were some of the most special memories of establishing the Y in Cayman,” he said. “The Y was brand new, and we needed help to serve and connect with the community. Miriam [Foster], Miles [Ruby] and the entire FRC team were so committed to serving youth and families, and we worked tremendously well together.”
Smith was also grateful to eventually add another full-time member to the team, Carl Morgan. “It was essential to build the team with people of strong character who had a passion for working with youth”, added Smith. Morgan (now a teacher at John Gray) worked with the after-school, teens, sports and day camp programmes. An excellent Caymanian role model, the kids loved him and knew him at camp as ‘Flash’ for his skills on the track. Just over five years later, the YMCA now consists of as many as 10 full-time and 100 part-time staff.
Over the first few years, the YMCA quickly established youth camps, after-school activities, teen leadership and team-building programmes. These offerings were expressed as strong areas of need and interest based on community assessments conducted by the YMCA. Since then, the Y has added a range of additional activities and events to serve the community, including operations for the Government after-school programmes since 2015, as well as management of the Little League programmes since 2018.
Smith steps down from his role after 25 years of service with the YMCA and he sums up the purpose of the organisation as “building character”, which is what drew him to the Y. Smith engaged with the YMCA in 1995 when he started out as a camp counsellor in an overnight camp in the US. At that point, he had recently completed tours in the Middle East with the US Army, which served to convince him that his post-military career would focus on developing youth in positive ways.
“I believe most problems we face as a world stem from individual core principles and values, or lack thereof. There will always be challenges and adversity in the world, but good solutions are always the result of ‘good people’ working together in the name of doing good. Kids are not always learning strong values at home, and it can be difficult capturing their attention with so many alternatives and pressures”.
Smith further explained that the YMCA approach seeks to meet children where they want to be – exploring, having fun, and achieving, which he believes are critical to developing self-worth and purpose. “Outside of school, church and various hobbies, the Y provides a place where kids really want to be, then capitalises on that interaction to model and incorporate ‘character building’ into everything we do. It’s an excellent approach to positive youth development”.
Smith plans to remain in Cayman and will continue to serve the community in a variety of ways. Throughout his career with the Y, he maintained involvement and a keen interest in team building and leadership development programmes. With the addition of the Ropes Challenge Course (a series of high and low obstacles recently built on the back property at the Field of Dreams), the island has an excellent resource to further expand these targeted workshops. The Challenge Course was built as a collaborative project with the Y and local support, anchored with proceeds from the 2017 Deputy Governor’s 5K Challenge. However, the Challenge Course is just one of many tools used to successfully conduct team-building exercises with groups like Rubis, Maples, and CUC.
Off the course, Smith has worked with multiple well-known companies on the island, such as Cayman Airways, Dart, Subway, Ritz-Carlton, Flow, Massive, Civil Aviation Authority, and a variety of departments within the Cayman Islands government. “It’s very rewarding to help others develop high-performing teams,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, strong relationship-building is at the core of teams that excel. Team success requires establishing shared values and a commitment to function within those values, holding each other accountable. This is best achieved once some level of personal relationship is established, unless we’re working with robots.”
The departure of Smith from his CEO role fulfils the YMCA plan from the start. Upon his hiring, he was charged with establishing all the necessary procedures, programmes and protocols for the YMCA to function well into the future.
“The board made it clear that my role was to hire and train up a Caymanian to provide future leadership to the Y, and that was the expectation all along,” he said.
Although they agreed on an estimated five years for Smith to accomplish his objectives and develop someone to fill his position, he remained in his role for six and a half years before now stepping down.
In 2015, Smith believed he found his replacement when hiring Gillian Roffey, a talented young Caymanian just completing her MBA in the UK. “I remember the interview very well,” he said. “I usually assess a score for each interview, and I’m a tough grader. Her score was as high as any I can recall.”
He described Roffey as confident, committed to the development of her home island, and articulating a genuine willingness to work as hard as necessary to achieve the goals of the YMCA.
After working together for a few years, not only was it obvious that Roffey was the one to follow Smith as the Y leader, but also “the one”. The two wed in 2018. “Therefore, the Y will remain a huge part of my life, as I remain ‘hitched’”, Smith jested.
Gillian Smith became the new executive director for the YMCA, effective 1 April, 2020.
“It’s truly an honour to provide leadership to our YMCA and I’m humbled to follow someone I respect and admire so much,” she said. “Greg has embodied the YMCA and established the ethos that have allowed our community to ‘get to know’ who the Y is. We have come a long way and have a great deal more work to do. I am grateful for Greg’s unmatched example over the past 4 plus years and I look forward to continuing to serve Cayman’s youth and families.”
With gratitude for all that Gregory Smith has brought to the Cayman Islands, Pastor Von Kanel shared his insight: “It is not an overstatement to say that the YMCA of the Cayman Islands is where it is today as an outstanding community organisation because of Greg Smith’s leadership over the past six plus years.
“From day one, Greg has given himself to the growth and development of our YMCA, providing an incredible sacrifice of time, effort, and life. His leadership gifts, organisational expertise, team-building skills, and personal integrity, all combined with his passion for excellence and all things ‘Y’, have created a dynamic environment and catalyst for the remarkable growth of the Y movement in these islands. Rarely do you find such a combination of professional acumen and personal character as we have found in Greg Smith.
“We prayed for the right leader for the Y several years ago, and we believe God answered those prayers in Greg, using him in a remarkable way to lead us—and we are deeply grateful.”
Submitted by the YMCA of the Cayman Islands.