On a Mission to Serve

By Brad McEwen

Naturally, as someone who has lived here for the better part of the last 30 years and has tried to stay in touch with what’s going on in Albany, I’ve had occasion to discuss the state of our community with countless individuals from all walks of life.

And while I’ve come to realize that there are far more people out there who believe that this community is moving in the right direction and that the future of Dougherty and Lee counties is bright, it’s easy for me to lose sight of that due to all the negativity I unfortunately encounter on a regular basis.

It’s for that reason that I’m thrilled when I have the opportunity to chat with someone who sees the good in our community and who views our challenges as opportunities rather than reasons to pack up and head for supposedly greener pastures.

Interestingly my enthusiasm for spending time with these fellow optimists amps up a notch when the positive-minded person and community champion in question is a transplant to the area. Maybe it’s the fact that I wasn’t born here but for me there’s just something awesome about hearing how great my community is from a relatively recent arrival who is not only proud of Albany but who has made a choice to make a life here.

A case in point would be recent discussions I’ve had with retired Marine Corps colonel and current Albany Area YMCA President and CEO Dan Gillan. Aside from being the kind of person who inspires me to want to do more in my community, Dan is someone who can offer unique perspective about the great things in this community—perspective he’s gleaned through the experience of living other place and through his mission to serve.

From the time I first sat down with Dan—not long after he took his current post and just a few weeks after I first joined the Albany Herald in the fall of 2013—it was obvious to me that he had developed a deep affection for this place since first being stationed at Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany as commander of what was then known as Maintenance Center Albany in 2007 and that he was proud to be in a position to improve life for his friends and neighbors.

At the time of that interview, despite having only been in the role for a very short time Dan expressed his fondness for the community and the excitement he had about getting the chance to lead Albany’s storied YMCA and thus make a positive impact on the community that had embraced he and his wife Andrea and their two children.

When I recently had another chance to catch up with Dan—and witness the historic solar eclipse—I was pleased to find that his enthusiasm for the mission of the Y and his earnest desire to be of service to the citizens of the Albany had only intensified.

“It’s been a ride,” he told me when I asked him to recap the last four years. “I never dreamed that I’d retire, after almost 33 years in the Marine Corps, leading some of our country’s best men and women in peacetime and in combat, and be able to be a part of an organization that’s really making an impact. But we do that here.”

The “we” Dan referenced is the group of employees, board members and volunteers that help make the YMCA run like “a well-oiled machine,” and, true to his humble nature, throughout our conversation he kept returning to the ideas of team and the importance of building relationships and connecting with people in order to produce a positive outcome for everyone.

“It’s a people business,” he said. “It’s not unlike my experiences with the Marine Corps—it’s an organization with a mission, with core values. In the Marine Corps it’s honor, courage and commitment. At the YMCA it’s caring, honesty, respect and responsibility. And both are people-intensive. Your interpersonal skills, your people skills are very, very important.

“So for me, transitioning from the active duty Marine forces to an organization that’s still service-oriented, just focused on service to the community, made sense. You can connect the dots between those two.”

The notion of service factors heavily into the way Dan interacts with the YMCA team and how he views his role as a leader, which not unlike his approach to leading Marines during his time in the Corps.

“It has a community atmosphere, a family atmosphere,” Dan said of a well-run organization like the Y. “And it’s the people that make that happen, the people that literally I am privileged to, some might say lead. And I really do feel that way—that I’m privileged to serve. And that’s kind of a spin from my time in the Marine Corps. It was successful to apply a servant leadership-type approach.

“By serving those you lead, by enabling them, by empowering them, by providing all the resources that they need to be successful in their jobs, not only am I successful, but our organization is then successful.”

I, for one, am of the opinion that his approach to leadership has been an important factor in the YMCA’s success in recent years, success Dan says reflects on his ability to do what is expected of him.

“Now, four years later almost, to be here at the YMCA, not a lot of people can say, ‘yeah I’m making a difference; I’m making an impact, a positive impact,’ but I can measure that in many respects.”

One of the measures of success Dan is particularly proud of is the work the YMCA is doing with the community’s children through its summer camps and afterschool programs. During the summer Dan said the Y served over 500 children and there are almost that many currently enrolled in the organization’s afterschool program.

“These are kids that are in a safe environment, kids that can get assistance with their homework, have physical activity, (and) parents can be comfortable and confident knowing that their children are in that safe environment with competent counselors to interact with their children,” he explained. “These are children who historically parents have often been challenged with finding a place where these children can go after school.

“You talk about being able to make an impact? There is visible, tangible relief that you can see in parents knowing that their children are in an environment where they’re cared for, where they’re loved, you know. They’re in that type of nurturing environment. And they’re fed.”

That these children are being fed is especially important in Dan’s eyes because for a great number of these children access to nutritious food is limited. Dan said the kids in the after school program get a snack and they get supper, while the summer camp children are provided with breakfast, a snack and lunch.

“And the reality is some of those children, those might be the only meal they get for that day,” Dan said. “So you talk about being able to make a difference? If a child’s hungry, the next day in school that’s going to have an effect on their ability to focus, pay attention, to learn and we get to say we have a role in that. We play a part in helping give those kids a boost. In this case a nutritional boost to be good students.”

While Dan is certainly proud of the work the organization is doing with children he’s quick to point out that the YMCA also provides services for people of all ages and all walks of life. To illustrate that Dan points to the group that regularly takes his early morning fitness boot camp class, which he began teaching prior to becoming CEO and that he continues to teach three days a week.

“I’m still teaching the boot camp class Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning; I still do that and it is just phenomenal. And these are people that I like to say are all makes and models, age, gender, ethnicity, physical abilities. These are just people, like most people, adults, that come in the doors of our Y. These are just people that are members of our community that are coming here being a part of something greater than themselves. They come into the Y for fitness, for health and wellness, for camaraderie with their friends or as a place to go with their families.

“It’s our whole community that benefits (from the YMCA).”

The desire to benefit the community and be of service is something that is literally engrained in Dan Gillan thanks to the lessons he learned growing up outside of Chicago.

“I think I was raised that way,” Dan told me. “My dad was a firefighter and although he died when I was 12 years-old, that foundation of service was there. He volunteered in the community doing different things as well as serving the community as a firefighter in Maywood, Illinois, outside of Chicago.

“My grandfather was a firefighter too.  And when my dad died when I was 12 and my mom remarried both my mom and my dad, stepdad, they both were still very supportive of me and my brothers and sisters—I’m the oldest of eight, so I guess seven younger brothers and sisters—and we were always able to do different things in the community.

“But the point is that the foundation was set at a young age.”

Because of that foundation Dan said he has always been mindful the importance of service, which is something he felt he was doing when he joined the Marine Corps and dedicated himself to serving his country.

Service, although in this case to his family, was also at the root of his decision to retire from the Corps two years after taking command at the maintenance depot.

“I was in command (at the maintenance depot) for two years and I’d always heard over the years in the Marine Corps that ‘you’ll know,’ when it’s time to retire,” he continued. “And in my case, my family situation—my son was just starting high school and my daughter was going to follow him the next year. So it was one of those things where if I took orders again I knew that I was going to the pentagon or I was going to Hawaii. Those were the two choices.

“And in either case I was going to get there and I was going to deploy again, which is thrilling. To deploy with Marines and do the things that you’ve trained to do, with the people you’ve trained to do them with, there’s nothing more exhilarating than that. But I also knew that over the years my wife has been the one who was home with the kids in their younger years and I’m the one that’s travelling and going to all these exciting places and being that Marine. It was time to say home and be a dad.

“To recognize that, it was an easy decision to make.”

Of course the decision was made even easier based on the fact that he and Andrea had come to love Albany, felt accepted here and believe this is an ideal community in which to raise a family.

“Andrea and I have been so welcomed in this community,” he said. “This community is a very welcoming community and I think that’s very attractive for young families coming to this community.

“To put an even finer point on it, both Andrea and I felt, ‘what better place to raise our kids and see our kids grow?’”

Of course, true to his nature Dan said his positive feeling about raising his family in Albany has a lot to do with this belief that in Albany there are countless ways to be of service and that there’s a spirit of service that resonates throughout the community.

“I didn’t see me staying in Albany, GA, when I retired from the Marine Corps,” Dan said. “If somebody would have asked me 20 years ago, ‘where are you going to end up when you retire?’ Albany, GA would not have been in my thoughts. But to be here, be in a community where you can see the results of an organization like the YMCA in this community (is important).

“The impact of (our children’s) teachers and their friends and the different organizations that our kids were involved in—whether it was the youth groups at St. Teresa’s, or Boy Scouts (has been great). Heck our son’s an Eagle Scout, he’s now gone and he’s in the Marine Corps now. He’s a Lance Corporal in the Marine Corps. He’s really excited about that and yet here Andrea and I are, still involved in Boy Scouting. I’m still assistant Scout Master for Troop 3 at St. Teresa’s.

“There’s a lot of personal connection and a lot of personal commitment to that, but again, that’s just another organization that I appreciate being a part of in this community.

“The programs that are there for kids, through the YMCA, through the Boys and Girls Clubs, through the different schools and churches, I mean they’re there. I mean if you want a wholesome place to raise your children, the Albany, Ga., Leesburg, Ga. Dougherty and Lee County area is wonderful.”

Although there’s no denying Dan’s affinity for the community he now calls home he does acquiesce that getting involved in the community—something he thinks is important no matter a person lives—was easier for he and Andrea because of his experiences in the Marine Corps, when moving to new places was a regular occurrence.

Using his children as an example of how important attitude and a willingness to get involved is when settling in any area.

“My own kids, they were middle school age when we got here and so for them, frankly, they couldn’t wait to leave,” Dan explained. “Our son he is now a Marine and he’s getting his wish, he’s moving around. But he couldn’t wait to leave. Our daughter, similarly, when she met her husband to be and they got married, she couldn’t wait to leave (either).

“But what she’s finding out—and I think a little quicker than our son because he’s been kind of sheltered by virtue of being through Marine boot camp and his military police training—is that every community has its challenges. Every community has its warts. But she’s told us this now—it’s one of those things when you’re a kid you see it one way and when you grow up you kind of see the wisdom or your mom and dad—and, our son has even told us in his way, that they see what we meant or they see what we were talking about when it comes to other communities—that when you move you have to make a difference in how you view your community.

“Maybe it’s easier for me to see that because we uprooted every three years or so in the Marine Corps, but we learned by moving places how to get into the community and make a difference sooner than if you were just raised here and kind of take your time. That mentality I think was helpful for us to be able to do that.”

Certainly that mindset has been hugely beneficial for this community as it’s clear, to me at least, that Dan has become an important part of what’s going on here.

Whether it’s through his work at the Y, his involvement with Boy Scouts, the Marine Corps League, the Knights of Columbus or other civic organizations, his service on local boards or his being the go-to bagpipe player for events across southwest Georgia there’s no doubt Dan Gillan and his dedication to service enhances our community.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen