Day announces retirement as YMCA of Greater Brandywine president and CEO01/10/2023 01:28AM ● By Steven Hoffman
If you’ve had the pleasure of meeting Denise Day, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Brandywine (YGBW), you’ve sensed the passion that she pours into all that she does. From leading a team of more than 2,000 staff members to serving the more than 50,000 members across eight locations, Day operates from the heart. Now, a nationwide search is underway to find Day’s successor as YGBW announced her retirement.
“You don’t devote 37 years of your life to something that you take lightly,” Day said as she reflected on her expansive career, spanning YMCA locations in Nebraska, California, Delaware and across the state of Pennsylvania. Of her 37-year career with the YMCA, 23 of those years were spent in Chester County. The impact that she’s had is significant.
Vision meets innovation and dedication
No one knows this better than Jim Paro, chief strategy officer for YGBW– and a colleague who served alongside Day for more than 13 years.
Paro reflected on the qualities that made Day’s career such a success, noting her vision, innovation, dedication, and passion for the Y mission.
“I’ve seen Denise’s career develop over a number of years,” he said. “She’s a visionary who is able to see and understand long-term trends and motivate our team to execute on that strategy. This visionary spirit played out a number of times during Denise’s tenure as our CEO—especially in the merger of the two Chester County YMCAs which formed the YMCA of Greater Brandywine back in 2014.”
Prior to 2014, there were two separate YMCA associations serving Chester County – the YMCA of the Upper Main Line and the YMCA of the Brandywine Valley. The latter of the two was led by Day. As Paro noted, “Denise saw the increased impact a merged YMCA could have on communities across Chester County. With this merger, Denise led us through renovations at the Upper Main Line and Lionville YMCAs and the tough decision to close two locations so that we could invest in the future of the YMCA of Greater Brandywine.”
Leading under pressure
Innovation also fueled Day’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Leading an organization that is heavily built upon in-person interaction during a quarantine is not an easy task. Day worked under pressure to quickly create a new virtual format and to revise the use of bricks-and-mortar facilities to best serve the community.
“When it became clear that the community had a need, Denise jumped right in with viable solutions,” explained Donna Urian, board chair for YGBW. “She was the driving force behind us leveraging space within the Brandywine and Jennersville branches for COVID-19 vaccination sites open to the whole community. It’s part of the Y mission to serve all – and Denise really embodies our mission.”
Not only did Day repurpose facilities as vaccination sites, she also led the team to open Learning Centers for families trying to navigate the world of virtual learning.
“As a parent, I can attest to the chaos felt by families during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Paro. “It was a stressful time for families, and Denise was certain that our team could help.” YGBW opened eight learning centers in 2020 so that children could focus on their virtual classes with the support of YMCA staff and parents could focus on their day jobs.
“While the Y was closed, Denise ensured we were there to serve our communities through emergency childcare, blood drives, and food distribution sites,” said Paro.
A career built on a solid foundation
In addition to being a hub where children learn and grow academically, the Y is a place to acquire and sharpen athletic skills. And, when you think about the qualities that have fueled Day’s success as a leader, you’ll notice a striking resemblance to the qualities that make a successful athlete—vision to see ahead of the play, quick response time, dedication, focus, and ability to stay cool under pressure. These are skills that Day built early in life as an accomplished athlete.
“It’s no surprise to learn that Denise is a tremendous athlete,” commented Urian. “The dedication and passion she brought to her softball career translates through to many areas of her leadership. She’s driven to succeed.”
Day’s softball jersey, number 10, was retired at her alma mater, the University of Nebraska, in 1999, a rare feat. After college, Day continued her softball career, playing competitively in California before landing on the gold-medal-winning U.S. National Team in 1990 and the PanAm Game team in 1991.
By 1992, Day had worked for six years at various YMCA locations in Nebraska, California, Pennsylvania – and was serving as executive director at the Western Branch YMCA, Delaware’s flagship branch.
“I was being called to continue my work in the community,” said Day. “I am incredibly fortunate to have found an organization that matches my love of health and wellness with my desire to build up individuals and communities. While it has not always been an easy or straightforward path, I look back with much pride on the many people we have positively impacted.”
A legacy of growth
When Day isn’t hard at work in her offices in West Chester, she’s likely hard at work on the YGBW pickleball courts. In addition to being a passion of Day’s, pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the U.S. with LeBron James and Tom Brady among the high-profile figures investing in the sport. Day’s passion for pickleball is more than a hobby, it’s a strategy. One that is characteristic of her leadership style - and perhaps will be her legacy.
“We continue to see benefit from our commitment to pickleball,” explained Paro. “Earlier this year, we partnered with the Association of Pickleball Professionals to host the Philadelphia Open – a tournament that brought nearly 450 players from across the country to the Upper Main Line YMCA. With the appeal of pickleball reaching people of all ages and abilities, the Y is the perfect place for our community to discover this sport. The inclusive nature of pickleball fits with our mission. We’re excited about where the sport is heading and how we are positioned to grow alongside it.”
With more than 40 courts, YGBW offers hundreds of hours of playtime weekly to their more than 1,900 pickleball players - and the numbers continue to climb. Day continues to develop plans to bring a dedicated pickleball facility to the Chester County community in 2023.
“Even while writing this next chapter in her personal life, Denise has her eye focused on growing YGBW,” said Paro.
That isn’t out of the ordinary, given all of the ways that Day has grown the association and the Chester County community over the past 23 years.
Urian said, “She introduced the 7th grade initiative as a way for local teens to form healthy habits. She christened the West Chester Area YMCA – and found a way to reimagine the Oscar Lasko YMCA to keep its doors open when asked by the community. She gave new life to our branches in Kennett and Jennersville through remodels. And, she even offered leadership to a neighboring Y association in Lancaster, providing shared services for two years. Denise always has an eye on the future and a hand to lend to the community.”
Paro added, “We are going to miss Denise’s influence on our association, but she has left a lasting legacy on our Y—and her influence will be felt for years. She’s positioned us to continue to grow far beyond her tenure.”
Day is set to retire from her role as CEO in June of this year. She is working closely with Urian and YUSA, the organization’s national headquarters, to conduct a nationwide search to find her successor.