Civic Warriors

Celebrating 100 Years of Service With the YMCA

Civic Warriors Episode 36 With YMCA of Metuchen, Edison, Woodbridge and South Amboy

YMCA of Metuchen, Edison, Woodbridge and South Amboy (MEWSA) is dedicated to building strong kids, families and communities through a variety of programs. From the YMCA MEWSA, we speak with Rose Cushing about the different kinds of programs and services the Y offers to children and their families. Hear about how the Y adapted and continued to serve families in need during the pandemic and some of the challenges that were and continue to be faced. Listen to learn about how you can support your community YMCA. “For YMCA’s what we really focus on is the whole child.”


This podcast was transcribed through a third-party application. Please disregard any misrepresentations.

Brad Caruso (00:00):

Welcome to civic warriors brought to you by Withum. On this podcast, we bring the conversation to you. Sharing, engaging stories that motivate and build consensus in the non-profit community. This podcast is about the innovators, the leaders on the front line of adversity, guiding lights in the non-profit industry affecting change and through their stories. We can all join forces to become civic warriors. Hey warriors, welcome to today’s episode of civic warriors brought to you by Withum. We have two guests with us on the podcast today from an organization that’s integral to the community, the YMCA. It’s a destination so important for families, especially during the pandemic. We all need places to go for an outlet. And for many, the YMCA is also a place to turn for support. For childcare and activities that nurture our future generation. Joining me today is Rose Cushing from the YMCA of Metuchen, Edison, Woodbridge and South Amboy. And also with us is my colleague, Devin Desmond, a rising star over here at Withum and our not-for-profit group who works closely with the YMCA. So welcome to the show Rose and Devin.

Rose Cushing (01:00):

Thank you for having me.

Devin Desmond (01:01):

Thanks, Brad.

Brad Caruso (01:01):

Great. So I, I figured maybe we could start out, you know, Rose being the president and CEO of the YMCA uh, maybe you could tell us a little bit about your background and how you rose to your current leadership role.

Rose Cushing (01:10):

Sure. I started with the Y the YMCA of Metuchen, Edison, Woodbridge and South Amboy. We do service Middlesex county. Um, we have programs that run also in Piscataway and Perth Amboy. And I started with the YMCA back in 1989. I opened up their first childcare program. I was a young mother at the time. I had a master’s degree in education, and I knew the importance of early childhood education for a community, particularly with women, you know, working and needing a safe and good spot for their children while they went off to work from there, I opened up, um, 11 of their childcare centers, um, and grew the program to right before the pandemic. We were serving about a thousand kids a day in childcare. So we, we have quite the robust childcare, um, infrastructure. Uh, we have 11 offsite childcare centers on top of that. We also do some school age childcare in four school districts. And during our summer months, we run about a thousand kids also in a summer camp program, uh, from there. Um, I guess I’ve been hanging around so long that I worked my way up. And in 2016, I started this position. The board came and asked me if I would take on the leading role for the organization. And so I became the president and CEO in January of 2016.

Brad Caruso (02:32):

What draws you to the, Y’s mission and, and what, you know, what do you love about your job?

Rose Cushing (02:36):

I love the fact that I can have impact on my community and I can, I know that I can make a better place for families and for children moving forward. And that has always been my focal point to make it better, find a way to make my community stronger and healthier. Um, and knowing that I, I have left it in a better spot.

Brad Caruso (02:57):

Right. I think that’s, you know, definitely the right mindset that we need for leaders like yourself at organizations like the YMCA and just knowing that you’re there to help the community. Um, especially in the challenging times that we’ve had of late, uh, from, you know, I have two young kids, three, three years and five years. And the, the pandemic certainly has brought about a, a significant change in how we approach our young child education, how we approach their life activities. And I think we’re all as parents just in, in, in my world, uh, it’s a confusing time, right. So I know, um, you know, we relied, we, we have our young children in, in daycare and, you know, we relied a lot on their expertise in this because it was, you know, we were all trying to figure it out. We tried to figure out how to get a three year old to jump on a zoom call, uh, which, you know, we all know that that lasted about 13 seconds before they decided to go do something else. And, you know, it’s certainly been, been interesting for all of us, but, um, I guess through that, you know, from your perspective rose, how has the YMCA been able to help members, you know, meet the challenges of the pandemic, some of those, those many challenges that have popped up,

Rose Cushing (03:59):

Right. So, um, we all remember March of 2020 and, and how quickly we had to completely shut down. So again, we had about 11 childcare centers. Um, I would tell you, before we hit April 1st, we were reopened for essential workers. So throughout the pandemic, the entire time we provided childcare services for essential workers, um, we’re approximate to one of the local hospitals. Um, and believe it or not, we had children in our programs from male delivery people, um, through doctors’ childrens that were enrolled with us. So we remained doing childcare throughout the pandemic. Um, on top of that, um, we did a lot of senior outreach. Um, we called every one of our senior members. Um, we have over 10,000 members. Um, and so we, we made sure that we stayed in touch with them. We switched quickly to some virtual, um, wellness programs and outdoor wellness programs to provide health programs for people that were in need and to help with isolation.

Rose Cushing (05:02):

On top of that, we did some work with food insecurities, feeding families, collecting food for local, um, food banks and, um, distributing food to, to some of the families that we knew were in need. Um, I would tell you that much of our work since the pandemic has continued, um, we, we have changed some of the way we think, uh, we, prior to the pandemic, it was about bringing members into our facilities and we’ve pivoted to making sure that we’re providing outward service to our families. And so we still continue to believe it or not outdoor wellness classes for folks that are still a little concerned about coming into a building.

Brad Caruso (05:42):

Great. And, and through that, through the, um, pandemic, has, has there been for your organization, a flurry of new funding coming out, like revenue from the government, have you seen, you know, did that help, did it hurt? <laugh>, I’ve heard varying stories and degrees and, and maybe Devin, you can chime in on that after, but there’s, uh, you know, what, what, what was your experience like with all the different federal and state and other funding that came out?

Rose Cushing (06:05):

Well, I, because our, our, our programs are membership-based and because childcare shut down so quickly, um, we did participate in many of the opportunities that the government provided for us. So, um, we did have PPP loans that we took out, um, and had forgiven, um, based off of the fact that we, we continued to employ, or re-employ our employees, as quick as possible. We took advantage of the tax credits and, um, you know, for, for our staff, um, on top of that, uh, state and federal money for childcare is starting to definitely help us sustain our system. Uh, I would tell you that on top of the membership childcare was pretty severely impacted families that normally counted on us. Again, as I had mentioned, we had about over a thousand kids a day, those families, some of them were not working any longer. Um, some of them were working from home. And so we shut down quite a bit of childcare, bringing it back has been a little bit of a struggle for us. So we definitely have taken advantage of many of the opportunities that the state and the federal, um, government has provided for funding for these programs. Uh, Devin, I don’t know if you want to add to that at

Devin Desmond (07:21):

All. No. Um, thinking, you know, I’m working with you rose and, you know, helping your finance team kind of through some of the hurdles of those programs. You know, I do think you guys, we’re very quick to look for, for that availability of funding and to reach out and, and make sure you understood when all the, um, aspects of work, you know, I think the key thing on keeping the picture is that, you know, I, I think a lot of people are surprised is maybe the exact level of how much funding was actually out there. Right. And so just making sure, you know, look big picture that, uh, it helped kind of extend the tide and keep everyone afloat, but, you know, going forward, uh, and kind of how we are going to evolve coming out of this, this is a better organization, which I think you’re, you’re speaking to.

Brad Caruso (07:56):

Yeah. And I wanna drill in a little more, I think, into, into your childcare programs. Um, I, I think it’s important to, to talk about it and, and I, I, I think just traditionally, I think when, um, you know, publicly, I know when I think of the YMCA I don’t always directly always think about the childcare programs that exist. It’s not always top of mind. Um, but obviously a very, very integral part of a community based organization like yourself, um, you know, has childcare always been a priority of the YMCA

Rose Cushing (08:19):

Childcare has always been a priority of the YMCA. So I would tell you, um, during the pandemic, across the United States, there were about 1300 childcare programs that opened up immediately for essential workers. Um, typically there are about 500,000 children that go through Y childcare, um, in over 10,000 sites. So Y’s, generally are focused on childcare. We have a large footprint, uh, Y’s function off of three pillars. Um, we are for youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. And so childcare falls under our youth development, um, initiative. And we focus a lot on that. And we do that again, through our childcare programs, we do it through our camping programs. We do it through our educational and leadership programs. Um, and we also do it through our swim and sports programs, but childcare is generally a service that you’ll find Y’s are very committed to.

Rose Cushing (09:17):

Um, many of our programs are partnering with other organizations like a school district, or, um, um, you know, a food, a food distribution service or something else to help support our youth in our communities. Um, something that people don’t realize is the majority of our programs are state funded or, um, federally funded. And so a lot of times the families that we’re serving are the families that can’t afford the full cost of childcare, um, and might be, might be utilizing some of the subsidies that are available. Um, and, and we accept them and, and, and that’s how pretty much, um, we’re making sure that we’re serving the underserved in our communities.

Brad Caruso (10:05):

And do you find with respect to your child programs, is there a combination of time that children are with you and what are the typical ages that you’re caring for?

Rose Cushing (10:15):

We do have childcare from children that are six weeks up through the age of 12. And so many of our early learning centers will take children infancy through five years of age. Some of our programs do have kindergarten components in it, infant and toddler childcare is something that is terribly struggling, um, economically, because it is so costly for folks. And so there are some, there is some legislation out now that would help reduce the cost for families. Um, typically we charge between $1,200 and $1,400 a month for childcare. If you have multiple children, if you start to add that up, it gets quite costly. So we do have the infant care or early learning that as we call it. Um, on top of that, we have school-aged childcare programs where sometimes we stay right in the school building and care for the children after school, or sometimes the children are bused into some of our facilities for care, things to keep in mind, or the important things that we do try to focus on is we are providing meals.

Rose Cushing (11:16):

Sometimes we’re the only hot meal for a child maybe, um, that comes to an early learning program. So we have, uh, adult and child food programs going on, where we’re giving nutritional meals to our families. We pack lunches and send them, or pack dinner sometimes. Um, some of our programs have backpack programs where we’ll put stuff in it and the children will take it home for the weekend so that we can ensure they’re getting fresh fruits and vegetables on a weekend as well. So we do, we do offer this plethora of care for youth from six weeks up and through 12 years of age,

Brad Caruso (11:49):

Six weeks. Yeah. Six, six week old is probably that’s, that’s probably a challenge, right? <laugh>

Rose Cushing (11:54):

<laugh> yeah. I mean, you can only take care of so many, six week olds. You know, the funny part is infant and toddler care. Um, there’s many what we call childcare deserts in, even in, even in the state of New Jersey, which happens to be one of the more progressive states, infant and toddler care is so costly to run. Um, for every three children, you have to have one full-time adult there with the babies. Oh, right. Yeah. So, um, that, that was the other thing I would tell you that the pandemic did to the childcare system. It kind of highlighted the fact that, uh, childcare has been underfunded for so many years, business and government really has not taken or stepped up to the responsibility until recently to help support families. Um, and so if you have a, if you have a family that’s living just above the poverty level or living paycheck to paycheck, it’s very difficult for them to afford quality childcare, whether that’s at home care with a private provider or in a, in a full center where, where there’s, um, you know, where many of our centers are open from 6:30 AM to 6:30 PM.

Brad Caruso (13:00):

Got it. And, and with, with respect to, you know, the YMCA, you know, what, what do you feel sets you apart? What do you feel are kind of your competitive advantages and, and, you know, why is your childcare, you know, from your perspective, you’ve created this program, many programs you’ve provided a, a, a safe home for many, many children, um, you know, throughout the day, what, what is, what do you feel? How do you separate yourselves from other childcare centers? What do you think makes the Y so special?

Rose Cushing (13:25):

Well, I think one of the things that we do have to offer is we are, we are a continuum of care. So we have care services that start again, it’s six weeks, and yes, it’s difficult to have a child or to leave a child at six weeks, but we go from six weeks right up through 12, 12 years of age. And again, many of the things that we look at is how else can we impact our families, right? So not only do we want our children in childcare, but we want to teach them how to swim. We want to, we want to have them enroll in some of our educational programs, whether it’s a robotic program or a stem program in an afterschool program. Um, and, and then we hope that they stay with us so that they become part of our youth and government program or our leaders club once they meet the middle and high school years of age. So I think for YMCA, what we really focus on is the whole child, the whole length of a child. Um, and you know, some of our best employees believe it or not have come up right through our childcare system. That’s our ultimate goal in childcare. When you see an employee come back and give back from what they have received. I mean, that, that’s just, that’s just so awesome to see

Devin Desmond (14:34):

After attending the annual dinner, you know, for a number of years, and just seeing some of the, those, the award, uh, recipients to the, for the employees that have shared their, their great stories of exactly what you’re saying, what was kind of coming up from, I don’t wanna say they’ve been with the Y for life, but it really feels like that at time. So with a lot of they have, and it’s just, it’s great to hear from them and their perspective as how much the Y has given them. And, and they look forward to, to giving it back to the next generation.

Brad Caruso (14:56):

You know, what are some of the continued challenges that you’re facing as an organization?

Rose Cushing (15:00):

If we talk about the organization as a whole, I would say the biggest challenge that we have right now is, um, human capital, we’re staff starved, I call it, um, we’re having a very, very difficult time with staffing. And I’ll give you an example, um, for us, one of the things that we’re struggling with beyond childcare, because of course, we’re struggling to get childcare staff back up and running, but is lifeguards. And when you start to think about that process, if you don’t have lifeguards, um, and your lifeguards are not being trained, you’re, you’re talking about drowning, right. And, and nobody should ever drown, no child should ever drown. Um, so one of the things that my organization has done, um, to attract lifeguards and to help train them is we are pretty much giving away lifeguard training. So lifeguard training might normally have cost you about $350 to register.

Rose Cushing (15:53):

You would register online. And then you come in and it’s a, it’s a three or four day course. And, um, over those number of hours, you know, you do staff, you do the training in the pool and you do the academic training. Um, so what we’ve done is we’ve offered it to the community at $75, knowing the importance of having lifeguards available, we are not requiring them to stay with our organization. We just want to make sure that people in Middlesex county are not drowning. Um, and so, um, you know, getting and retaining staff, lifeguard, staff, swim, instructors, childcare staff, that’s been very difficult for us since the pandemic. Um, we’re not sure why, um, you know, there’s the whole childcare cycle. Many women are not going back to work. They’re staying home. Parents are not putting their children, um, back out, you know, particularly the majority of our staff are young staff.

Rose Cushing (16:51):

I mean, we are usually one of the first providers of jobs for our youth. We employ many youth in swim instructors and lifeguards, um, and, um, you know, it’s staff around our facilities, high school kids don’t wanna work. Parents don’t want their children in, in a, in a wellness facility like that probably be since the pandemic, um, their safety concerns. They don’t know when the next variant might come. And so again, for us to retain and, and get staff has been very difficult for us. Um, on top of that, our funding sources, we do have a couple of childcare programs that we still have not been able to reopen. One, one of the reasons is we can’t find bus drivers. I can literally, we cannot get people to drive our children, um, between the schools and our facilities. And so two of our programs have shut down because of lack of bus drivers.

Rose Cushing (17:45):

Um, and then on top of that, there’s childcare staff, you know, um, many of the women that work for us or men, young men that work for us in childcare are making minimum wage and the risk of, of coming into a center and being having that exposure far outweighs you know, the hourly rate that you might receive. So, uh, again, thank goodness that the state and the federal government has been stepping up to the plate. And we now have some childcare incentives for our staff based off of some funding from the state of New Jersey. And we’re gonna continue to do that. We’ll continue to tap into those funds to secure staffing. We have waiting lists for all our childcare centers. At this point, we have waiting lists for swim lessons. Um, and when you start to think about the services that we have to cut back, because we don’t have the staffing, it, it, you know, it kind of almost takes your breath away sometimes regardless of the money, right. It’s just, it’s the lack of services that you’re able to provide.

Brad Caruso (18:41):

Right. Right. Is that reduction in, in the ability to, to provide that and to carry out your mission and to do the things that, that you, that you want to do, um, solely because of some operational challenges that, you know, supply and demand <laugh> right. There’s not enough not enough supply because of it.

Rose Cushing (18:57):

Right. You know, again, we continue to do, we continue to, to do and, and to work at it. And, um, to come up with initiatives like we did for our lifeguards. Um, we know the importance of getting services back into our community. Um, we continue to do our food collections and, and serve the underserved because that I think is where we function best. We’ve increased some of our senior outreach programs because we know senior isolation doesn’t help physically, mentally, spiritually for our seniors that are isolated. And so we, we just keep doing, as we always do, even if it’s with less, we do have an annual, uh, support campaign that’s going on right now for help to help us raise some funds. And we have our annual dinner coming up, which, you know, any type of support that you can give to your local, Y would be so grateful and be so welcomed that, you know, we, we encourage the support. If you feel that your, your support is not in a dollar amount, but you wanna give by volunteering. We love to have volunteers. I mean, we’re a volunteer driven organization. We exist on volunteers. All of our boards of managers are volunteers. And so any, anything that you could give to contribute to a Y to help us improve the quality of life in our communities, we, we welcome.

Brad Caruso (20:19):

That’s great. How, how many volunteers approximately for your organization, how many volunteers approximately, you know, donate their time each year?

Rose Cushing (20:26):

During the pandemic, we were probably somewhere between 70 and 85 pre pandemic. We would, we would have over 120 to 150 volunteers come in throughout the year, right?

Devin Desmond (20:37):

Yeah. Yeah. That, that number, I think rings true off of 990 memories. <laugh>

Brad Caruso (20:41):

Yeah. Yeah. So you mentioned a few things there. Um, I guess, I guess very directly, let’s say that I wanted to donate, or I wanted to volunteer, you know, how can the listeners of our show here provide that those needs to the YMCA what’s the right mechanism for them to go about stopping by and helping or contributing.

Rose Cushing (20:56):

There’s many ways that you can do this. So first, YMCA, um, if you Google YMCA, there’s a website there, and that will get you to your local Y doesn’t have to be my, Y it has to be the Y in your, within your community. Um, on top of that, if you go onto your generally go onto your Y websites you’ll have a donate now button, they’ll always accept donations right through the website. And as far as volunteering, usually if you check out your local Y’s website, there’s opportunities to volunteer and they’ll list them right there for you.

Brad Caruso (21:28):

I hope everyone out there that listens to this knows that if you can spare time, if you can spare resources, it, it goes a very, very long way on, on organizations that, you know, run a tight ship that, that operate very, very well needed programs in their communities. And, you know, the, the Y is a perfect example of one that does that. And, you know, without help, uh, it, it’s very hard to operate that program, especially with all the challenges that, uh, that we’re facing these days with, you know, regulatory changes and people shortages and, you know, funding shortages to that degree. And I think we’re all waiting to see what’s gonna happen with contributions and how much funding continues or doesn’t continue. And, uh, certainly a lot, a lot of, a lot of variables that a leader like yourself has to factor in. And well, we appreciate your time, Rose.

Rose Cushing (22:11):

I appreciate the time, you know, Withum has been so generous to us, um, and working with us and helping us secure some of our funding. And, um, we look forward to continuing another a hundred years.

Brad Caruso (22:23):

Yeah. And we look forward to having you in the community for another a hundred years, and, and certainly look forward to your upcoming dinner, a lot of great opportunities to just be involved. And, and from our perspective, really appreciate your time Rose, just being on the show. Thanks. Thank you.