South Mountain YMCA’s Program Champions turn vision into reality

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Tom Kerns witnessed the benefits of mindfulness in teenagers and wanted younger children to learn it. Looking for ways to prevent bullying, Mike Summersgill believed character development would build resilience in children. Both turned to the South Mountain YMCA to set their vision in motion.

Kerns and Summersgill became the South Mountain YMCA’s first Program Champions, an initiative that allows community members and businesses to partner with the YMCA to create programming. Their proposals were implemented in the Y’s after-school care program this fall.

“The Program Champions initiative allows supporters to turn their ideas for improving our community into reality,” South Mountain YMCA Executive Director James Goodger said. “They get to see their contributions at work in a very tangible way.”

“I knew the program would get off the ground with the YMCA’s commitment,” said Summersgill, whose employer, Salesforce, matched his contribution for the 12Cs character-building initiative. “The YMCA’s after-school program has a consistent audience, reliable time in their curriculum for new programming and a demographic that spans all of our community.”

Kerns, who like Summersgill serves on the South Mountain YMCA’s board of managers, said, “The YMCA has such a successful, educational and child-focused after-school platform that I knew the likelihood of this program’s success would be high.”

The YMCA cares for 720 children at 10 sites in South Orange and Maplewood.

Kerns asked SOMA restaurateur Mary Vayas, who founded the nonprofit AV Hero Fund in memory of her husband, Angelo, to help fund CLIMB — Character, Learning with Intention, Motivation and Be Present, which are the tenets of mindfulness. Financial support came from AV Hero Fund and Vayas’ retail store, No. 165, as well as Kerns and his wife, Jeanmarie Hargrave.

Through the HK Project, the couple’s former nonprofit, teenagers who struggled with behavioral issues changed their outlook on life through mindfulness, Kerns said.

“Their perception on self-worth increased, and they came to understand that they can’t change the past, but if they focus on the present, they can build their future,” he said.

The teens told Kerns they wished they had learned mindfulness at a younger age, a notion that gave him the idea to offer the social-emotional learning in the YMCA’s after-school care.

Staff members at the Y’s after-school sites went through mindfulness training. Afterward, each site developed and presented proposals to implement CLIMB, with the winning concept chosen “Shark Tank”-style.

Through CLIMB, “mindfulness is threaded through everything we do; it’s part of the culture,” South Mountain YMCA program administrator Nya Earrusso said.

Each location presents age-appropriate mindfulness activities such as yoga and meditation, art projects and active games, Earrusso added.

“It creates a calmer atmosphere in which children are more responsible for their actions,” Goodger said.

The 12Cs program is a weekly series of eight workshops in which second- and third-graders learn character concepts through activities, discussions and role-playing, said Leah Greene, South Mountain YMCA senior director of School Age Child Care. The program was created by local entrepreneur Gretchen Burman, who founded Character U to help children learn how to manage their emotions and behaviors.

“The goal is to help them enhance their character and be a good person,” Greene said.

The South Mountain YMCA hopes to add more programming to impact a wider range of ages by collaborating and partnering with the community, Goodger said. “I see the Y as a connector. There’s more that we can do,” he said.

“The result of our Program Champions partnerships is personal and meaningful philanthropy for our donors and long-term benefits for our community,” Metropolitan YMCA of the Oranges Chief Development Officer Lisa Kelly said.

The South Mountain YMCA is one of the Metro YMCA’s seven branches. For more information about becoming a Program Champion, the YMCA invites community members to contact Kelly at or 973-758-9622.

Photos Courtesy of Margaret McHugh