In Pursuit of a Fitter Detroit
Detroit, Michigan 48226
Reid Thebault has spent 40 years with the YMCA -- the last 20 in metro Detroit -- and will retire later this year. While he presided over a period of expansion for the Y, he considers his true legacy to be the organization's risk-taking culture.
Some leaders gain power through intimidation and fear. Others operate out of a desire to inspire, not intimidate, to lead in such a way that they coax top performance out of their people through subtler means, including building a foundation of mutual trust and respect.
Reid Thebault of the YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit falls squarely into that second camp. Under his 20 years of leadership, the Metro Y has closed outdated branches, built new facilities, and most notably opened a beautiful three-story facility in the heart of downtown Detroit, which now houses the association's headquarters as well as a large natatorium and workout facilities.
The activities themselves are not as important as the confidence kids gain from trying them, Thebault says, and the Y has an environment where taking risks is okay.
He has also overseen the launch of several programs that address child well-being. One of the most successful initiatives is Detroit Swims, which plans to have every child in Detroit Public Schools swimming well enough to be safe around water by age 10.
Children in urban environments are at much higher risk of drowning and much less likely to have any kind of swim instruction. Detroit Swims offers after-school swim lessons for Detroit Public School students, along with swimsuits and transportation to nearby school pools at no cost to participants. Several hundred Detroit students have learned to swim through the program, and it expanded to other Y branches this year in suburban Oakland and Macomb counties.
The Y has also moved into the realm of education, opening three charter schools in Detroit – two K-8 elementary schools and a high school, which opened last fall.
That initiative was born shortly after Thebault arrived to take the helm of the YMCA in the mid-1990s. The Y had many aging facilities in the city, some of which originally designated for use by one gender only and all of which would have been prohibitively expensive to update to even basic standards.
But the buildings were important anchors in their community, and the Y wanted them to remain as such. One building was taken over by the Detroit Rescue Mission, another by Operation Get Down. The former downtown Y was about where right field of Comerica Park now stands, not far from the current Boll Family YMCA.
As old buildings were repurposed, Thebault grew increasingly interested in the Y taking a role in education within the city. Thebault met with Paul Hillegonds, who had recently taken the helm of what was then Detroit Renaissance, and his wife Nancy, who had been working with the Edison School corporation. Eventually, the partners opened a school at the former northwest branch at 7 Mile and Lahser. That school is no longer affiliated with the Y, but it has been succeeded by the Y Detroit Academies.
Thebault points to success in encouraging children to reach their potential as a career aspect he's been most proud of during his time at the Y. The activities themselves are not as important as the confidence kids gain from trying them, Thebault says, and the Y has an environment where taking risks is okay.
"It allows them to try that exercise or that gymnastics move that they thought they might like to do, but never dared to try," Thebault says. "There are staff who really care and who are there to create that safe risk environment. It comes down to the quality of people you have and their commitment to make sure a child has the confidence to explore."
Thebault began his YMCA career in Houston in 1969, and held posts in Oklahoma City, St. Louis, and Dayton, where he also served as CEO. When he was recruited to come to Detroit, he found it too interesting an opportunity to pass up. The association was poised for transformation in many ways, and key volunteers were looking for the right leader to help them carry it out, Thebault said.
The rich history of the Detroit Y was especially attractive for Thebault. For example, swimming lessons as we know them
"It was really an exciting time, with a new spirit of regional cooperation," recalls Thebault in coming to Detroit. "And how many times as a Y person do you literally get a chance to participate in a revitalization of a city?"
today were invented at the Detroit Y. Furthermore, the city itself seemed ready to revitalize. "It was really an exciting time, with a new spirit of regional cooperation,” recalls Thebault in coming to Detroit. “And how many times as a Y person do you literally get a chance to participate in a revitalization of a city?"
The Boll Family YMCA, which Thebault raised funds to build, is right in the middle of the incredible boom in downtown Detroit. When the Boll was built in 2006, downtown was still relatively sleepy, but greater public and private investment has brought a vibrant street life and a new core of potential members.
It took some time to really get the word out about the facility and to make it clear that it was for everyone in the community.
Thebault relays a story about coming home late at night from a West Coast work trip shortly after the Boll Y opened. It had been an exhausting, delay-riddled trip, and he hailed a cab at the airport and collapsed into the back seat, ready to doze off for the ride to his Ann Arbor home.
The driver struck up a conversation with him, and when he discovered Thebault worked at the Y he mentioned he'd just joined the new branch. It had taken him a long time though, the cabdriver explained, because he perceived that an African American like him was not the target audience for a slick new building – that instead, it was meant for wealthy suburbanites only passing through downtown. But after visiting the building, he saw lots of different races and cultures and knew it would be a place that welcomed him.
That conversation ties into the vision of a Y as a place for everyone and reflects the hopes the Y has for the people who will use it, Thebault says.
"We knew, particularly in the city, everything had to be first rate," he says. "If we wanted people to believe they can be better than maybe they see themselves at the moment, it was so critical that we create an environment that said 'you know you have an enormous amount of God-given potential, and we want you to come here and be part of this community because we believe in you.'".