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Who’s That Lady?

By Melanie Moffett
In Center Block
Feb 1st, 2014
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Ronita

Ronita Ross Re-energizes ‘The Y’ Ahead of 60th
article by Michael DeVault

onita Ross was only in town a few days, but she had already hit the ground running when BayouLife caught up with her. The Louisville, Kentucky native recently took over as CEO of the YMCA of Northeast Louisiana, and after just a few days in Monroe, she’s already wary of a major problem—food. Ross says she enjoys trying various cuisines.

“That’s going to be problematic,” Ross says. “I’ve already decided I have to ration my experimentation.” She does allow herself one “cheat” day—Sunday. And on her first Sunday in the Twin Cities, Ross learned what will be one of the strongest parts of her job as the new CEO of the YMCA.

“I love how friendly everybody is and how helpful everybody is,” Ross says. Ross comes to the YMCA of Northeast Louisiana from her native Louisville, where she worked for the YMCA of Greater Louisville—a job she took “for fun” while running her own business.

At the time, Ross had a thriving, thirteen-year run at the helm of a successful residential real estate firm. But working for the Y inspired her. After 18 months of soul-searching, she knew she was at a crossroads. “I decided I was going to start to pursue full-time employment with the Y and, if and when that opportunity came, start my second career with the YMCA,” she says. That opportunity came and, for a time, she worked at various levels within the Y in Louisville. Then, the top spot at the YMCA of Northeast Louisiana opened. Ross jumped at the chance.

The move was advantageous for Ross, who YMCA board chairman Stephanie Polk says is a transformative figure. The timing was also good for the Y, which is set to begin celebrating its 60th anniversary in northeastern Louisiana in the middle of February.

Ross told BayouLife she’s looking forward to the year and plans are already well underway for a kick-off celebration. “We’re going to celebrate for the full year,” Ross says.

At the same time, though, both Polk and Ross noted that the YMCA of Northeast Louisiana is at a defining moment—both for itself and for the community.  Already, Ross has met with numerous community and business leaders, and together they are exploring ways that the YMCA can play a part in the efforts to create the future.

“One of the objectives with Y-USA on a national level is to maximize resources, so we can maximize impact,” Ross says. The impact of the Y organization is far beyond just youth athletics, too.

The organization offers patrons after-school daycare, summer camps, Winter camps when children are out of school and numerous positive-action and positive-teaching activities.

Polk says the far reach of the YMCA is why she and her husband got involved three years ago.

“I have two small boys and was looking for a place to get involved in making the community a better place,” Polk says. Because she and her husband were interested in sports, the organization was “a good fit” for their family. Yet, it’s never been about just football or basketball for the Polks.

“Even when I started to get involved with the Y, not a lot of people knew about the Y’s mission beyond football,” Polk says. She says they were drawn to the broader mission of the Y, to the group’s unique position at a crossroads in the community. “We really wanted to look at a community transformation in Ouachita Parish.”

That’s exactly what Ross sees happening, too, as she maps out her future plans. One of her strengths as a manager is strategic planning, the development of a long-term game plan to map future growth and future priorities–something she’s just beginning to undertake for the YMCA of Northeast Louisiana.

“In my talks with community leaders, the first thing I ask them is what we can do to partner with them—and then what they see as the top three issues in the city of Monroe,” Ross says. The most frequent response: programs for youth on Monroe’s southside.

“If the issue is that youth just don’t have enough structured programs, or that they need to be taught life skills or social skills, or just have more sports activities, then the Y can help,” Ross says.

Pulling together the different communities is something the Y is uniquely positioned to do, as well. Polk notes the YMCA board is currently reviewing strengths and resources ahead of completion of its long-range strategic plans. Whatever the community needs, Polk says they’re getting ready to help.

“We want to make sure people know we have the ability to help in these areas,” Polk says. All of the planning, all of the discussions and soul searching, and all of the events have one goal in mind, which is to gaze into the future and envision the 120th anniversary of the YMCA of Northeast Louisiana. When asked what the next sixty years holds, Polk takes a minute to formulate her response.

“If we fast-forward 60 years and look back on that time, I want people to say the YMCA provided services and leadership to transform Ouachita Parish, to bring meaningful change,” Polk says.

Part of affecting that change requires a look backwards, though, which Ross says she’s trying to accomplish.

Reconstructing the Y’s history will itself be a community effort, she notes, because of the broad impact the group has had so far.

“The majority of the people I’ve met have said that, at some point in their lives, they attended the Y or they visited a Y facility when they actually had a physical facility here,” Ross says. Whether it was through an after-school care service, youth football leagues or just swimming lessons, pretty much everyone she’s asked was in some meaningful way impacted by the Y. She wants to tell that story.

“In order for us to move forward, we’ve got to know where we came from,” Ross says. “So we’re putting a call out to the community, asking them to provide us with any information they have on what the Y was in the city of Monroe.”

She hopes to receive photographs of the original facility, stories and narratives about important figures in the Y’s history, and personal stories about how the Y impacted individuals. Pretty much every person can contribute some bit of knowledge, Ross believes.

“Everybody knows the YMCA,” Ross says.

In the meantime, Ross is taking her time getting to know her neighbors and settling in. She plans to be here for a significant portion of that next sixty years. She says she’s considering pursuing a PhD at one of the area’s three universities. Also, she’s hoping to find riding partners.

An avid equestrian, she’s looking forward to making friends with local riders, especially those who enjoy dressage. And, yes, there will continue to be those Sunday cheats, as she explores the local cuisine.

For more information about the YMCA of Northeast Louisiana, visit www.ynela.org or call 318.387.9622.