Life's work: Jill Robie, new director of the Island's YMCA
Jill Robie is an athletic, energetic woman who has worked with the YMCA nationally for her entire adult life. She made her first visit to Martha's Vineyard on Labor Day weekend this year, to interview for the position of interim executive director of the Y of Martha's Vineyard. She says she felt a strong personal connection to the Vineyard through her father, who had spent summers here in the 1930s.
The youngest of four children, Ms. Robie grew up on the coast of Connecticut. She often went sailing with her parents around southern New England and might have rowed ashore for provisions here when she was young, but she has no definite recollection of the Vineyard from those possible visits in the 1970s.
"My father passed away three years ago," Ms. Robie says, "and when I got the call about this job, I thought, 'My father would be very proud that my career with the YMCA took me here.' He was really supportive of my career, and I learned a lot about what I do from him. He loved this place."
Ms. Robie didn't grow up dreaming of becoming a YMCA administrator, but she settled on her career through a natural progression of interests, which quickly grew into leadership positions in the Y. "I grew up close to New York, and when I went to college I wanted to be a professional ballet dancer," she says. "I developed some foot problems which led to surgery, and the doctors said that I had to give up ballet."
Instead of ballet, Ms. Robie began to teach aerobics classes as a way to make money for college. "It was the mid-1980s," she says. "I taught classes at corporations and wherever I could move furniture to get a space."
Later, Ms. Robie married and moved to Alabama, where she got a job as the fitness director for the YMCA of Metropolitan Mobile. "That was my first full-time job, and I've been with the Y ever since," she says. "I started as a program director, then worked my way up to get more involved in administration and leadership. I'm kind of a visionary person. I had ideas about what I'd like to do, special events and that kind of thing, so I had to give leadership to develop those ideas. I found that I got a lot of satisfaction out of that role."
Ms. Robie took advantage of the Y's executive leadership training programs, which helped her to develop skills and learn about the business side of running a large, complex nonprofit organization. She now volunteers in that same program, teaching management courses to others who are making their careers in the YMCA.
"It's a way for me to give back," Ms. Robie says. "It's fun and it gets me out of the office." She says that the Y is not just about physical fitness and wellness, but that it's also a community service organization with inter-generational and special needs programs. "Also, some people like it as a place to socialize."
Ms. Robie's family has also been involved with her career at the Y. Her three daughters took part in activities at the Y from early childhood. She speaks warmly of the role the Y has played in their family life, and of the Y's four core values of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility. "All three children were brought up in the YMCA, attending day care, after child care, swim team, gymnastics and summer camp."
Ms. Robie's oldest daughter, Tara, now a freshman at the University of Rhode Island, has also been employed by the YMCA as a swim instructor and lifeguard. Her younger daughters have recently started school here. Paige is a freshman at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, and Anna is in third grade at the Edgartown School. The girls report that they are making lots of new friends since they moved here at the beginning of November.
In her free time, Ms. Robie maintains her own physical fitness and spends time with her children. "I run," she says. "My schedule got too complicated for anything else. I also enjoy spending time with my kids and doing what they like to do - spending time on the bleachers."
Back at the office, there's a lot to be done. The YMCA of Martha's Vineyard is still $2 million short of its $12 million goal for the building fund. Ms. Robie plans to publish regular membership rates later this month. Charter memberships are already available at $1,250 for a family and $700 for an individual, per year. The Y will also be available to casual visitors. Programs will be developed as the construction dust settles.
Meanwhile, Ms. Robie is settling in to life on the Vineyard. She says that her morning run here is particularly enjoyable, with its change of terrain from asphalt to grass, sand, and stones. "The first few days I was here," she says, "I brought a camera along and took pictures to send to my friends. It's so beautiful. I like just getting out and walking on the beach, enjoying the surroundings."
Open House, YMCA of Martha's Vineyard, Saturday, Nov. 28, 12 noon to 2 pm. Edgartown/Vineyard Haven Road in Oak Bluffs.
Amelia Smith is a freelance writer living in West Tisbury.