By Bob Yearick
Photos by Justin Heyes/Moonloop
It’s fortunate that Jarrett Royster, who assumed leadership of Delaware’s YMCAs last October, is a man of varied interests and skills.
He’s a runner; he meditates; he’s a pescatarian who fixes a tasty salmon with asparagus; he loves hip-hop, and he has a black belt in Kenpo karate. He’s also a sharp dresser, favoring well-tailored suits set off by bow ties and stylish sneakers.
Born in New York City, Royster grew up in Providence, R.I., but he (fortunately) became a Philadelphia Eagles fan before moving to The First State. And he has a sometimes self-deprecating sense of humor and a hardy, infectious laugh.
All of these tools and talents should stand him in good stead as he leads a diverse and growing statewide YMCA whose membership area encompasses the affluent environs of Greenville, Wilmington’s urban neighborhoods, and the rural and seashore communities of downstate Delaware. Adding to the challenges facing the new executive director are the ambitious goals he has set for the organization.
The 54-year-old Royster replaces Deborah Bagatta-Bowles, who left in March of last year. A 10-member selection committee plucked him from a starting field of 41 applicants, according to Enid Wallace-Simms, YMCA of Delaware Board chair. Candidates were whittled down to eight, then four, and then a final three.
“Jarrett stood out,” says Wallace-Simms. “His energy and vision for the YMCA of Delaware is exactly what we were looking for in a leader.”
“He was a Y kid,” she adds. “He has the heart for the YMCA, and with his experience, he knows both sides of the organization. He can work with everybody from the street corner to the board room.”
As Wallace-Simms indicated, Royster’s YMCA roots run deep, and he benefitted early on from the organization’s many services. The oldest of four brothers (“and the wisest,” he says with a laugh), he grew up in poverty, but the East Side Y in Providence was a safe haven where he learned to swim in second grade. As the child of working parents, he also was part of the latchkey program there.
In high school, he played football and excelled in track, where he was the Rhode Island 400-meter champion and part of the 4X4 400-meter relay team that tied the state record in 1986.
That same year, he saw Top Gun and decided he wanted to attend the Air Force Academy. Unfortunately, the wannabe ace lacked 20/20 vision, which extinguished that dream. But Springfield College came calling with what he calls “a very generous aid package.” He enrolled, became a record-setting track star there, and initially had thoughts of going into sports medicine.
The Massachusetts school was founded by the YMCA, thus continuing Royster’s Y connection. What’s more, it was at Springfield in 1891 that a phys ed instructor named James Naismith nailed a couple of peach baskets to the gym wall and invented basketball.
During Royster’s sophomore year, the school’s guiding philosophy — “leadership in service to others” — kicked in for him, and led to his life’s calling.
His epiphany came during a trip to Philadelphia with a friend whose mother had passed away. “We stopped to pick up one of his brothers in the Bronx, and that experience changed my life,” Royster says. “That family lived in desperate poverty; the father was addicted to drugs, one brother was in jail, and the mother actually had committed suicide.
“When I got back to school, I wrote an essay as part of my English class in which I said I was going to live my life to serve the community so that other young people don’t have those issues.”
Impressed, his English professor sent the essay to Julius Jones, CEO of the Pittsburgh YMCA. A legendary Y leader, Jones, who died in 2018, mentored many young men. After reading the essay, he flew Royster to Pittsburgh, interviewed him, then gave him a scholarship and committed to giving him a job for two years after Royster graduated from Springfield.
That kicked off a 35-year career which brought him to Wilmington last fall.
He comes to Delaware fresh off a stint as the executive vice president and chief operations officer with the Greater Boston YMCA — America’s first Y. There, he steered the organization through the COVID-19 pandemic, led efforts to recover membership, helped create new health products and a virtual studio, and refined how the Y tells its story to build brand awareness and equity.
He previously held posts of steadily escalating importance in eight cities across the country. He has served as vice president of Urban Development and Eastside Operations for the YMCA of Greater Charlotte, and has held leadership positions at YMCAs in Philadelphia, Birmingham, Oklahoma, and Providence.
Just prior to Boston, he worked in the national office in Chicago as director for Urban & Educational Development. In that role, he led the association’s efforts to meet the needs of some of the nation’s most distressed urban communities.
Royster has gained invaluable experience in building social capital, serving the underserved, and even creating jobs, especially during his stays in Charlotte and with the national office. He will be doing much of the same here as the Delaware YMCA addresses education, homelessness, and chronic health issues among the underserved.
He says there are three “strategic outcomes” he would like the Delaware Y to achieve “over the next 10 to 15 years.”
“First,” he says, “we want to ensure that every child we serve is on a pathway to success. We know what it takes for a child to learn, grow, and thrive. Youth development is essentially a science, and I want to make sure we’re following that science.
“The second goal is to improve individual and community health. I want to take on big issues like the obesity crisis and the growth of chronic disease — Delaware has some of the highest cancer rates in the United States. And I want to take on mental health. People are struggling, especially since the pandemic, and I see our organization playing a role in helping them.
“The third goal involves equity for all. I don’t want kids’ ZIP codes to determine their destiny.” In this effort, the Y aligns with colleges and other institutions throughout the country who are emphasizing DEI — diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Royster says that initially, many of the strategies aimed at achieving these goals will involve Wilmington’s Central YMCA.
Inexpensive housing has been a traditional offering of the national organization, dating back as far as the Civil War. In Delaware, the Central Branch is the only one offering rooms for rent. Expanding that service is high on the list of priorities for the executive director.
“Originally, Y housing was primarily for men coming back from a war,” Royster says. ”But now it’s a different concept; men are coming back from a war against drugs, or a war against despair. We want housing to be a beacon of hope for men who are transitioning from whatever trauma they’ve experienced in their lives. We’ll be doubling down on the types of housing services we’re going to provide, and that will include wraparound services like mental health counseling, drug addiction counseling, and job training.”
A major tenet of the Y’s founders was “Muscular Christianity,” and Royster, who works out regularly at the Brandywine and the two downtown Y branches, says member fitness will be another focus of his administration.
“The Central Y will be a hub of innovation for us,” he says. “We think it’s an ideal place to test some of our bigger concepts and create more boutique-like experiences. We want to double down on mind and body and spiritual development. We’ll redesign some of our spaces in that building to focus on mindfulness or meditation as a practice.”
Spinning — stationary biking in a classroom setting – will be another focal point. “We’re going to renovate our spinning studio and make it more boutique-like and introduce more high-intensity exercises,” he says, with the goal of creating “a transformative experience” for members.
Once those concepts are fine-tuned at Central, they’ll be introduced at other branches, he says.
Fundraising and growing the membership continue to be Y priorities.
This year the statewide organization has set a fundraising goal of $2 million and is looking for $8 million in funding from government, corporate and foundation sources. Royster notes that government sources were generous during the pandemic, but funds may be a bit harder to come by in the post-COVID environment.
Membership dropped during the pandemic, so growth is measured against 2019 numbers, when the statewide total was 92,306. Royster says membership grew 10 percent last year to reach 70 percent of the 2019 benchmark, and he anticipates another double-digit percentage increase this year.
The new executive director got to know a bit about Delaware when he worked in Philadelphia, and he is enjoying his adopted state. He says the cost of living, compared to Boston, is a plus, and he’s looking forward to spring, when he plans to hit some of the running and biking trails in the Wilmington area. Working out, he concedes, sometimes can be challenging. “I still think I’m an athlete,” he says, “but some days my body doesn’t agree with me.”
He’s also looking forward to his wedding. He and his fiancée, who will relocate from the Boston area, have set a May 25 date.
In the meantime, he’s leading the Y’s ambitious initiatives while working with United Way, school districts, area hospitals, other agencies and government officials and community leaders.
“No one agency can address these deeply rooted social issues alone,” Royster says. “This requires us all to work together to make lasting social change.”