At work, James Smith is constantly reminded of who he used to be—a kid trying to succeed in a tough environment.
As the district executive director of the YMCA of Greater Rochester for the Carlson MetroCenter, Lewis Street and Maplewood branches, Smith sees himself in the youth and individuals he helps to guide and support on a daily basis.
Smith is focused on improving each site by growing donations, developing high-quality programming and helping community members realize what each site can offer them.
Founded in 1844, the YMCA of Greater Rochester has 17 branches, 3,000 staffers and nearly 200,000 members and program participants.
Smith, 39, grew up in a westside city neighborhood. He knows well the problems in some areas of the city; around the age of 12 or 13, he was being recruited by local gangs to run drugs.
“I was just lost in the murk, so to speak,” he recalls. “I had talent, I had potential, I had a wonderful mother who was working two jobs during that time, and so I was just trying to survive.”
The influence of his stepfather helped Smith and his mother find stability. The family moved to Greece when Smith was a young teen, resetting his path.
“I was fortunate around that time that my stepfather now—who was an ex-Special Forces Army sergeant—came into our life,” Smith says. “He was like the personification of compassion. He showed me what a man could be. When he came into our lives, he gave me the hope of not selling drugs and he saw I had potential.”
As the new kid from the city, Smith faced negative stereotypes. To prove them wrong, he channeled his energy into his future. He learned from friends who were ahead of him that college could help him dictate his own direction.
“It was a difficult transition in trying to find my new identity,” Smith says. “You come into a new community and there’s a perception of who you are. So I decided: I’m here for a reason, this is a whole new start for me. I had a chip on my shoulder.
“Someone categorized me as ‘he’s just a kid from the city,’ like the cliché thing. I stood up and said, ‘I want to show you I can articulate, I can pay attention in class, (and) I can get good grades.’ And that drove me to say, ‘What’s next?’” he adds.
Smith funneled that determination into making a career of service to others. He graduated from SUNY College at Brockport with a B.S. in psychology in 2002.
“I realized I wanted to make sure people see me for who I am,” Smith says. “I was self-aware enough to realize sitting back and not being who you are called to be is not enough. No matter what someone thinks of you, you can always change your path and change your trajectory.”
Moving out of his childhood neighborhood made it easier to see what his life options were, Smith says.
“What drove me to a career, the path I’m on now, was the fact that I was given a chance to find an opportunity in a new environment to be successful, and a few of my friends did not,” he says. “The difference between us was environmental change—that was really it.”
His perspective grew further during an internship at the Lewis Street Center, which focuses on youth development. He worked with children and teens who faced the same struggles he once had.
“That internship taught me that you don’t have to leave an environment to change an environment,” Smith says. “I realized that if you have caring adults, and you have a commitment to helping a family or a child build resilience, they can be successful. You have to bring stability—once you do that, a kid has (faith) in themselves because someone believes in them. If you’re consistent about that, it transcends all the other obstacles.”
The experience further cemented his desire to remain in and improve communities across Rochester.
“I started realizing I want to be a part of Rochester. Rochester gave me life,” Smith says. “I also had to step away to find success, but I knew that I was blessed because I had a few friends that came up with me that didn’t leave. One passed away; one’s got a lifetime sentence. I wanted to commit to Rochester. I wanted people that had success, or learned how to harness it, to bring it to other people.”
Smith has overseen the three facilities, which have a combined budget of approximately $7 million, for nine months. The sites work in tandem to bring health, fitness and youth development programs to city residents.
“This (being part of the YMCA) is a perfect fit for my mission and vision as a person and as an organization that I want to be a part of,” Smith says. “They aligned so beautifully; I couldn’t be happier.”
Smith’s work with the YMCA began at Lewis Street, where he was a preteen lead teacher, physical education coordinator, assistant director and family service associate. The site has a long history of neighborhood support, going back to its 1907 start as a settlement house. With two other such facilities, Lewis Street is part of the Community Place of Greater Rochester Inc., and the YMCA provides programming. Smith worked his way up the YMCA ranks through his energy, willingness to take on more projects and passion for the work.
“If you don’t have a foundation … as a professional and what you want to be or who you are called to be on this journey that we call life, then you can really get lost,” he says.
Smith has been involved with area efforts that include the Rochester Area Task Force on AIDS—known as RATFA—and partnerships with organizations such as the Hochstein School of Music & Dance and Nazareth College.
“The question with my leadership teams has always been: What aren’t we covering? What are the gaps? What are the opportunities for us to do something else?” Smith says.
After over a decade working in early childhood and youth development, Smith is driven to bring together people from different walks of life, introducing a diverse perspective that can start at a young age. Compassion and empathy in every situation are paramount, he says.
“One of my favorite programs is youth programs; you’re bringing kids from Pittsford and Scio Street together—different worlds coming together, finding out they have more in common than they don’t have in common.”
Throughout his life, Smith has known who he wanted to be—a person for others. The desire to pay it forward started in his early years, knowing how much his mother wanted to help him succeed.
“I’m a very faith-based-oriented individual, and I truly believe that I have been blessed because of my belief in something bigger than me,” he says. “I know who I am: I’m a professional who wants to serve others.”
#TeamPXY with Carter and Corey on 98PXY is a partner with Fast Start. Listen on Monday from 6 to 10 a.m. for their interview with James Smith.
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