Inspired by the YMCA: Mike Stollery
Written by: Esther Griffin, Georgian College
Mike Stollery joined the YMCA, located in St. Thomas, Ontario, when he was in his early 20s. As a runner, and fairly new to the city, he was drawn to the YMCA because it had the best exercise facilities in the area. It was the early 1980s, and the “old Y,” as Mike calls it, was located in a brick building that looked like it had been there for 100 years. Exercise facilities and a restaurant were located on the main floor, with residences located on the top floors. The YMCA had it all. Mike could work out and eat a meal while on a lunch break from work. When Mike moved to St. Thomas to build his career in the automotive industry, he had no idea that joining the Y would impact his life.
As an avid runner at the time, Mike joined a running group and got to know the team at the Y during his daily visits. Through conversations with them, he discovered more about what the Y had to offer. This was the first time Mike realized that it was a very integral part of the community. This knowledge opened his eyes to the Y around him. Over the weeks, Mike started noticing individuals coming and going from the residences above. Not only did he notice them, he noticed their transformations. Many of these people were given subsidized housing, which provided them with a second chance and an opportunity to improve their lives. They were able to work on their physical well-being through exercise, as well as get assistance with counselling and job skills to get them back in the workforce. Over the course of six months, Mike noticed that these individuals, many who had struggled with serious challenges in the past, now had “a kick in their step and a sparkle in their eye.” Something had changed in them: they had hope. The YMCA had made all of this possible.
Soon Mike became involved with the St. Thomas United Way, which at the time was a 22 member agency. As a volunteer, Mike donated his time as Retail Chair to organize the fundraising campaigns. These funds were provided to local organizations, including the YMCA. Through his time with the United Way, Mike was on the funding assessment committee and learned about YMCA programs he knew nothing about before. There were many valuable programs that the United Way helped the YMCA fund, like camps, child care, employment and newcomer to Canada services. Mike discovered that the Y provided heavily subsidized childcare that families could access without fear that it was discounted child care. This also gave people a peace of mind. While they reevaluated their lives and gained new skills to get back into the workforce, they knew their kids were being well taken care of at the YMCA.
The United Way funds also went to supporting the YMCA camps. Mike remembered the camps being around forever and feels very strongly that “every kid should have a chance to go to camp. And when they do, there’s no one I’ve spoken to who didn’t find it a life enriching experience.” With the help of the YMCA and Mike’s fundraising efforts with the United Way, children, regardless of their financial situation, were able to experience camp.
When Mike and his wife Lesley first came to Barrie and bought Barrie Ford at the beginning of 1998, Barrie was experiencing an exciting time of growth. The new MacLaren Art Centre was just being built where the old library had been located on Mulcaster Street, providing more opportunities for culture within the city. This was important to Mike, as visual and performing arts, including the MacLaren, the Griffin Theatre, and now the new Mady Centre for Performing Arts, are all part of a healthy community that make Barrie a great place to live. Combined with opportunities to experience culture and pursue post-secondary education, everyone should have access to services that help better their lives. This makes the Y an essential service that every community needs. Mike feels it complements other community services like the food bank and David Busby Centre. All residents can benefit, not just everyone’s pre-conceived idea of who needs the services. People never know when they may find themselves in an unexpected time of need.
Business took Mike to Kitchener-Waterloo for a few years, but then he moved back to Barrie in 2007 to raise his children. Because Mike has businesses in the St. Thomas/London, Kitchener-Waterloo, and Barrie areas, he has strong ties with other southern-Ontario businesspeople and entrepreneurs like himself. Mike, as well as hundreds of people he works with, feels strongly that it’s the responsibility of businesspeople to give to their communities.
As a dealership owner in the Ford Motor family, Mike is involved in We Days across Canada. We Day is an initiative of Free The Children. They are an international charity who believes that this generation “can truly end the worst forms of poverty, embrace we thinking and we acting and remove the barriers to youth being agents of social change.” (www.weday.com) Mike feels passionate about contributing to youth and social justice programs. He fully supports the President of Ford of Canada, Diane Craig, on this initiative and is proud of Ford’s partnership with Free the Children. This initiative gets millions of school children thinking about what they can do locally and globally to better communities.
“The impact these days are having on children, as young as 10,11, and 12 years old, to get involved and think about organizations like the YMCA and important services in the community is phenomenal,” Mike says. “These children have earned their way into the day and can’t experience the day without being changed.”
Mike believes that these moments are life-defining, similar to how his eyes were opened at the YMCA and this experience set his life on a course of philanthropy. We never know when our minds will be opened to the world around us and to the endless opportunities to give and nurture a community. Many people are born into challenging socio-economic situations or hit bumps in the road. With organizations like the YMCA, funding organizations like the United Way, and dedicated and generous people like Mike Stollery, lives can change for the better and dreams can be actualized.
Mike believes that the common thread is shared values. He connected with the St. Thomas YMCA all those years ago because he shared the same values, morals, and ethics. This is the same common thread that exists at the Barrie YMCA and Ys across the world: dedication to “the growth of all persons in spirit, mind and body, and to their sense of belonging to each other and the global community.” Mike Stollery is thankful he discovered the YMCA when he did and believes that because everyone is familiar with the Y, “it’s a good testament to what they’ve done for the communities in Canada.”