Much More than the 'Maintenance Guy'

By Brad McEwen

For quite a lot of folks, a job is simply a means to an end—essentially a way to fund whatever lifestyle that person decides they want to live. Often little thought is given to things like work/life balance or personal fulfillment.

Quite simply, for a large number of people out there, it doesn’t matter what the job is as long as it pays the bills.

That was certainly the mindset of Albany native Mike Harper when he first wandered into the Albany Area YMCA building on Gillionville nearly 30 years ago to apply for job doing landscaping.

But it didn’t take long for his thinking about that job to change.

“Basically I was just looking for a job,” Mike says now. “I mean, I worked with Defender Services out at M&M Mars at night and Hemby’s Cabinets called me, so I went to work with them and M&M Mars, so I had two jobs.

“I worked at Hemby’s Cabinets for about two weeks, put in my two weeks’ notice and came here. And I’ve been here ever since. That was back in August of ’01.”

As Mike explained it, he had applied for the job mainly because he knew the advertised pay would be enough where he wouldn’t have to keep working two jobs, and he knew by doing landscaping he knew he’d be working outside and with his hands—two things he has always enjoyed doing.

Plus, in his mind, the pay they were offering to essentially “cut grass” was a really good deal, considering what he knew of the YMCA property.

“When I came in, what’s so funny about it is, I knew nothing about the sports park (the YMCA facility on Gillionville Road near the Southwest edge of Dougherty county that contains an Olympic size swimming pool and several outdoor fields),” Mike explained during a recent Beyond the Bank chat about his time at the Y. “I’m like, ‘Forty hours a week, just to cut grass!?’ I’m thinking, ‘Man, I got it, this is a milking job.’

“Then I got on and they showed me everything around here and then they took me out there and showed me that and the jaw dropped.

“But that was what I started off doing, cutting grass. And I did it for many years, and still do it to this day. I’m not above doing anything that needs to be done for the YMCA. I don’t want to sit on my butt and do nothing or be behind a desk. I like getting out and just being active. My wife tells me I’m a workaholic, but I like it.”

While the sheer volume of the landscaping work required to keep the local YMCA locations looking neat and tidy (Lee County’s facility also falls under the auspices of the Albany Area YMCA and is therefore another location Mike maintains) certainly offered plenty to keep the self-professed workaholic busy, it also marked the tip of the iceberg of what Mike would ultimately be responsible for as his career with the nonprofit progressed.

In the ensuing years—as is typically the case with nonprofits—Mike’s responsibilities continued to increase, to the point where there are now few things related to the running of the YMCA that Mike doesn’t put his hands on.

“Well, I’m over this facility, all the ground and property,” he began. “That means supplies that come through here. If it’s broken, from like a treadmill or a floor machine, to a bus, to air conditioning, to boilers, to whatever, that’s my field. That’s what I do. I maintain them and I try to keep them up and running. I’m a jack of all trades.

“There are times I have to call in outside help and all, but mainly I handle stuff. I do this facility, the Lee County facility and the sports park. They all fall up under me. There’s 70 acres of grass a week that has to be cut. And as of right now, it’s just me.”

In addition to the facilities management, Mike is also responsible for coordinating all of the many volunteers who lend their time and talents to keeping the Y running smoothly so it can serve the Albany area community that relies on it.

“I coordinate the volunteers, people who come in to help,” Mike continued. “Like (Turner) Job Corps; if they want to come help out and all that, I’ll set up the schedules and things and the times for them to come in and help do things.

“Or, resource development may say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this person who needs these hours for his college or schooling,’ so I work with them to—and again it goes back to whoever needs to be helped in the community—to get them lined up. For example Eagle Scout projects. We have a garden out here that’s been done, the playground piping and the peanut hulls that were just done, the gazebo, the roof on the gazebo, those were all scout projects. And that helps those kids learn and develop maturity in their life. It gives them a sense of pride and ownership to know that, ‘I was over that. I did that.’”

It wasn’t surprising that Mike would point out not just the fact that he would be the person to help coordinate a scout project to benefit the Y, but also that those projects help both the YMCA and the scout doing the project.

Throughout our conversation the benefits that others get from a relationship with the YMCA was a topic that Mike brought up repeatedly.

For instance, when discussing the fact that the YMCA has partnerships with other nonprofits, such as a place like the Anchorage faith-based men’s substance abuse recovery ministry, Mike almost dismisses the benefit the YMCA gets and keys in on how that partnership benefits the men of the Anchorage.

“I have an agreement with the Anchorage where I can call or send them something and say, ‘I need two guys,’ and they’ll send me two guys every day for two hours that I can have weed-eat, I can have them dust, I can have them do whatever, cut tree limbs, spread mulch, anything that helps me out.

“There’s always sticks to pick up at the sports park, pine cones to be picked up. There’s always weeding that needs to be done. There’s trash cans that need to be emptied, there’s dusting that needs to be done.

“We teach them, we practice safety, they get goggles and so forth and we’re helping them. If they came Monday through Thursday then Friday would be a reward day. We would let them come in all day, swim, play basketball, racquetball, whatever they want—tennis, jog, lift weights. And that was a reward for helping us because I believe in giving back.”

Of course, by his own admission, Mike said he didn’t always think in terms of giving back or in terms of how what he was doing could benefit others. That thinking was something that developed over time and over the course of his career has actually become the driving force behind why he shows up to the YMCA every morning to face whatever challenges his various responsibilities present.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that when I was 9 years-old I was dreaming of working at the Y and not being rich,” Mike said with a smile. “Everyone, at 9 years-old, is like, ‘I’m going to be a football player, basketball player; I’m going to make lots of money, I’m going to take care of mama, and I’m going to have all this stuff.’ Things didn’t go that way.

“I didn’t do college and I mean it’s kind of a good thing I didn’t go to college because I’m not going to lie, I was a wild child in my teenage days.

“But it’s really one of those things where me just being here, being around the people and seeing what you do for the community, that to me, changed me.

“I honestly feel I could go somewhere else and get a better paying job with the skills that I have, but I don’t want to. I do NOT want to. I’m content and happy right here.”

So happy, it would seem, that Mike plans to retire from his current job when he’s old enough, before likely becoming a YMCA volunteer in his retirement.

“It’s been 29 years and when I get 62, 65, if the Lord’s willing, I’m going to be right here until I retire. Then I’ll give it to somebody else. At that point I’ll have about 43 years in and then if they need me, well…”

That Mike knows today that he’ll likely be willing to continue lending his time and talents to the YMCA after he’s retired, really is just another example of how much of an impact the organization has had on him.

When I asked if being a servant is something that was important in his family growing up, Mike was pretty honest, telling me that his desire to do for others is something that has truly blossomed because of the experiences he’s had at the Y.

He said that almost from the time he became a part of the organization he started to see the true Christian heart at the root of everything the YMCA is all about.

“I knew nothing about the YMCA,” Mike said. “I didn’t know what it was about, didn’t know what it did for the community. All I wanted was a job.

“Well, I got it. And it’s been a big change on me, it really has.

“The sense of... love, I guess you’d say, that the Y has for its community and its employees. When I started here my wisdom teeth were abscessed, but I didn’t have the money to pay for it. So the Y paid for it and slowly took small increments out of my check until it was paid. I mean what company would do that? To know that they care about the employees like that, is really something. Like I said, it’s not a job you’re going to get rich at, but it is one that you can feel prideful about being a part of because you know what you’re doing for this community is worth it.”

As a member of the YMCA whose family uses the exercise facilities and pools, as well whose children participate in youth sports through the Y, I’m keenly aware of what I think the YMCA does for the community. But I do have to admit, it was pretty special listening to Mike discuss with pride all the things the organization, and by extension he, does for this community.

In addition to providing all of the things one thinks about when they think of the YMCA, Mike said it’s important to also think about the fact that at less than $70 a month for a family membership, the monthly cost of the YMCA is staggeringly low—even for many families in this impoverished area.

Additionally, the YMCA provides multiple services geared to improving life for a large segment of our population that is desperate need and can’t get many of those services anywhere else.

One such example is the organization’s afterschool and summer programs, which allow for children to spend their afternoons and/or summer days in various camps at the YMCA, where they will be protected and engaged.

Through the summer camps—which are priced in such a way to make them affordable to nearly everyone—those children are not only learning the importance of exercise and community, they are also, quite frankly, being provided with basic necessities many of them would not have without the YMCA—things such as nutritious meals.

That program, which is geared toward low income families, but also available to the general public, is modeled after the organization’s afterschool programs, both of which provide a safe place for children to gather when adult supervision is not readily available in the home to go along with the much-needed food. Each summer, the YMCA’s summer programs serve well over 500 area children, many of which are also in the afterschool program.

“Some of these kids, when it comes down to summertime or afterschool, they’re really worried about where they’re going to get their next meal from,” said Mike of a serious local problem that’s actually being addressed by several area nonprofits and organizations. “Here we do breakfast in the morning with them and we do lunch and all with them.

“And it’s great that the Y’s able to provide that.”

Additionally, the YMCA has a partnership with Easterseals that allows individuals dealing with varying disabilities to have not only a place to go for exercise and spiritual improvement, but a place where they can also develop interpersonal and employment skills.

In fact, part of Mike’s job is helping to coordinate those volunteers and employees—many of which end up working with him on grounds and facilities maintenance duties.

“I have three guys in the men’s health center that work for me that have some type of disability,” Mike said. “And being able to employee people like that is great. We have special needs people that come in here when school’s in Monday through Thursday or Tuesday through Friday and they’ll help pick up trash and rake leaves and they’ll clean windows—whatever is needed.

“So they’re learning things about society and how to work and it’s great that they also get to help out with the kids at certain times too. It helps both sides. And again, it’s great that the Y can provide that.”

While Mike feels good that the organization that recently celebrated its 175th anniversary is doing so much for the community through its programs, he mentioned repeatedly how much personal fulfillment he gets out of being a part of that, or out of something as simple as just spending time with the many kids that come to the YMCA on a regular basis—kids he’s very aware often don’t have a strong support system outside of school or a place like the Y.

“I like talking with the kids down here in the child watching area, after school programs and all,” he said with a broad smile. “Some of those kids, they just need a little extra attention. I’m not going to say guidance, because I don’t ever want to step on mother and father’s toes, but they need a little extra attention. They need to know other people care. And we all need that.”

But while Mike is able to see so much of the good going on in the community through the YMCA, he said he still gets discouraged from time to time when he sees and hears all the negativity and hatred that exists in the community where he was born and raised—even if he feels good about the direction of the organization under its current leadership, which is led by Executive Director Dan Gillan.

“The leadership vibe here is great; Dan’s a very grateful boss, he’s caring and loving and very passionate about what the Y’s about,” Mike explained. “As far as changes, I’ve seen things coming over a long period of time, good and bad.

“It’s sad to say, but I’m going to say that some of the (bad changes) are because of the negativity of some of the people of Albany. And the reason why I say that is, you go back to where you have all this hate here in Albany. And I’m not going to name names, but I’ve talked to people that used to bring their kids up there and they don’t bring their kids here anymore because (they say) we’re primarily (serving) DFACS (kids).

“I’ve heard them say, ‘If it was 50/50, I’d bring my kids back.’

“But it’s a minority that’s actually DFACS. And even if they are, they’re still children. I mean they need love just like you. Everyone does. They need a place of safety like we’ve got here because there are a lot of kids that are orphans.

“I mean put yourself in their shoes. You’re not thinking about that child, what kind of problems that child has, what he’s been going through. You’re going to sit there and tell me the reason why you don’t come back here is because of this?

“It’s not the child’s fault. And it’s not even your fault. It’s just the way society is. Well, we need to lift up that part of society. I wish I could tell you what it would take to alleviate (that kind of thinking). Well, I know what it would take, but it’s hard to get everyone to get over the hate that we have and get to know that child.

“I guarantee if you did, your eyes would open. And your heart would definitely open.”

Throughout my conversation with Mike, his deep appreciation of what the YMCA does this community was a common theme, with the facilities chief repeatedly mentioning how much personal satisfaction he derives, not just from his job, but simply from being associated with the YMCA.

It was clear almost from the outset why Dan Gillan thinks so highly of him and why Dan urged me to spend some time talking with Mike about his role in the organization.

“Mike really is exceptional in that he has a passion for what he does and a genuine heart for our Y and community,” Dan told me. “He is more than the ‘maintenance guy,’ electrician, plumber, mechanic, carpenter, janitor, housekeeper, groundskeeper, landscaper, and pool operator.

“His commitment and tireless and selfless sense of duty is what enables our Y to serve its members and community. He is a ‘go-to’ resource when it comes to troubleshooting various facilities and equipment challenges and he always knows who to call or where to go to order parts.

“I like to think I know a lot about these trades and skills, however, Mike has taught me a thing or two and I appreciate his work ethic. He has a sincere concern for the staff members on this team and I consider it a privilege to know him and to serve with him.”

After spending just a short while with Mike, hearing him talk about his community, the YMCA and the profound impact his connection to that organization has had on his life, it was readily apparent why Dan has such kind words to describe him.

Even more importantly though, spending some time with a dedicated servant like Mike also reminded me of why we started Beyond the Bank in the first place. If there’s any truth to the notion that Albany, Georgia is a special place, it’s because of folks like Mike Harper and the powerful (if often unheralded) impact they have on this community.

To learn more about the Albany Area YMCA and its many programs, visit www.albanyareaymca.org

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

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