Cameron McDowell knows what comes to mind for most people when they think of the YMCA.
“Even I used to think, just like everyone, that it’s a swim-and-gym, and you just go there to have fun and leave,” said McDowell, who has served as the executive director of the Eastside Family YMCA since 2018.
McDowell doesn’t fault anyone for holding that notion. As he is quick to admit, he had similar thoughts himself when he first came onboard to work at the YMCA 14 years ago. Having graduated from Western Carolina University, where he studied sociology and sports management, McDowell said he was still wholly unprepared for the nonstop work he had ahead of him.
“I learned that mission work is very, very draining,” he said. “It’s around the clock. Particularly when you work in the YMCA, which is open seven days a week. I didn’t really understand the work and the time you had to put into it in order to make a YMCA function at a high level.”
It wasn’t a job of clocking in, clocking out — not when he was dealing with so many people’s lives on a daily basis.
That job, he learned, is multifaceted. There are practical needs of the facility: keeping the pool open, the treadmills humming, the lights on. But just as much of his time is spent encountering people who need help, using all his emotional and physical reserves to make a difference in ways big and small.
A mother in need of financial assistance for her children. A teenager going hungry at school. A child with a learning disability.
All come to the YMCA. All come to McDowell and his team.
“One day you’re a counselor, the next day you’re a motivator, the next day you’re trying to inspire our youth, and the next day you’re working with conflict resolution,” McDowell said. “And that’s all while having to motivate a staff team to make sure we’re helping our community reach its full potential.”
At no time has that challenge been more significant than it has been in the last year, as COVID-19 put significant strain on the community’s financial resources and mental health, all while health and safety concerns led to a diminished pool of volunteers. McDowell, who lives in Taylors with his wife and two children, knew the community needed help.
So he and his team — including Director of Development William Coates and Operations Directors Rebecca Barnes and Matt Green — met that challenge head-on by monitoring the Greenville County Food Insecurity Index, which tracks where food deserts are and other factors that impact food security. The YMCA established a new food delivery program in the Taylors and Greer area. It partnered with local schools and Taylors First Baptist Church, along with Loaves and Fishes and Greer Relief, two nonprofits that work to fight hunger. It established a farmers market to combat food insecurity in food deserts. And it worked to uplift and mentor those suffering with mental health issues, a goal McDowell said is key to the long-term mission of the YMCA.
“As a future endeavor, I hope we’re a leader in mental health,” he said.
It may have been a lot more work than he anticipated when he first came onboard 14 years ago, but that work also came with a far greater reward.
People stopping to hug him in the grocery store. Parents writing him letters of thanks and crying in his office. Kids he mentored a decade ago now grown enough to be mentors themselves, creating a cycle of support that shows no end in sight.
“I didn’t realize what it meant to them,” McDowell said. “We just want to be a conveyer of hope, to help people reach their full potential.”
And if that sounds like McDowell is an overly serious guy, know that he’s not above goofing around on occasion — even if it means getting doused in thick green slime, like he did at last year’s summer camp.
“The kids were begging me to come out there and get ‘super-slimed,’” McDowell said, laughing. “That slime was some thick stuff, though. It took me about three or four days to get all that stuff out of my hair. My wife was like, ‘Go sleep on the couch for the next couple of days until you’re not so raunchy.’ But it was worth it, because you can’t let the kids down.”