LIVINGSTON, NJ — Longtime West Essex YMCA Executive Director Helen Flores, who led the Y in becoming an integral part of the community, has announced her retirement at the end of the year.
Under her leadership, the West Essex Y has grown in membership, outreach and recognition. Through partnerships she’s helped to establish, the YMCA has been able to address the needs of a diverse population of residents, and underserved groups such as senior citizens and those with chronic diseases.
“Under Helen’s leadership, the Y became a ‘go to’ community partner and well-respected organization in Livingston,” said Richard Gorab, president and CEO of the Metropolitan YMCA of the Oranges. “Through her dedication to advancing our cause, she’s made an impact on the YMCA organization that will be felt for years to come.”
“The YMCA gave me an avenue to help others, which has always been a passion of mine,” said Flores, a former kindergarten teacher.”It’s been a great run. I’ve been very fortunate.”
Flores’ career with the Y began 35 years ago at the South Shore YMCA in Staten Island, N.Y., where she started teaching aerobics classes part-time while raising a family. She spent 15 years there, advancing to senior level positions and eventually becoming the associate director, helping to break a glass ceiling for women at the time. Female directors were uncommon outside of child care and fitness, she noted.
She joined the Metropolitan YMCA of the Oranges in 2000, first at the South Mountain YMCA, where she received the Branch of the Year Award during her first year as branch executive. She left after two years to be the executive director at the West Essex Y, where she was responsible for more than 300 full- and part-time staff members and a nearly $10 million budget.
When she came on board, the West Essex Y was not well-regarded in the community and needed a revamp of its programs. She hired staff, introduced quality programs for families, and began working with stakeholders in the community to build awareness about the YMCA.
Under her leadership, the West Essex Y helped to launch the annual Bike Livingston event for families, which started in 2012 with 70 participants and has grown to more than 600. This year the West Essex Y marked its 50th anniversary with more than 500 people in the community joining in the milestone celebration in October.
Working with St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston as a healthy living partner, she’s championed various causes in the community, such as school community gardens at Edison Middle School and Redwood Elementary School in West Orange, as well as the La Vida Deliciosa program in West Orange, which provides fitness and nutrition education to Hispanic families with low incomes.
During her time as executive director, the West Essex Y was named Branch of the Year for the Metro Y association six times, most recently in 2018. She’s also received numerous honors and citations from the township of Livingston for her work and collaboration with other community leaders.
Flores takes pride in the Y’s inclusivity and effort to make sure people of all abilities, ages, backgrounds, races, religions, gender identities and sexualities feel welcome. She said the Y gives people the opportunity to help others, especially those who need the Y the most.
At the West Essex Y, she helped to introduce programs like Healthy Aging at Home for senior citizens who are recovering from a fall or illness and cannot come to the Y. Instead, a Y trainer goes to them to help them exercise and provide socialization so they don’t feel isolated.
“Helen has made numerous contributions to the YMCA over the course of her career. Her leadership is going to be missed and her replacement will certainly have big shoes to fill,” said Ed Philipp, senior vice president and chief operating officer of the Metropolitan YMCA of the Oranges.
People who have worked with Flores over the years describe her as caring, passionate, well-respected and dedicated.
“Helen’s enthusiasm and dedication is infectious,” said Kris Boni, chairperson of the West Essex Y board of managers and a member of the Metro Y board of directors. “Helen has not only involved herself in the West Essex community by serving on various committees, she has established herself as one of the leaders of the community, a person to go to if you need help. Helen is the face of West Essex Y. We will miss her terribly.”
Flores acknowledges her strong team of staff in contributing to the branch’s success. “I’m proud of everything we’ve accomplished,” she said of her staff at the Y. “I have a vision. As a team, they make it happen.”
Flores, a Staten Island resident, said retirement will give her more time to spend with family, including her three daughters, Andrea, Nicole and Sabrina, and her five grandchildren, who range in age from 2 to 12.