A Fit Assignment

Mary Burns’ vision for the YMCA was sparked in the crucible of her childhood in Burlington’s Old North End

by Janet Essman Franz

ymca_lead_0047Mary Burns was hired by the Greater Burlington YMCA 25 years ago as an administrative assistant. She now puts all of her passion and knowledge into her work as president and CEO.

Mary Burns knows what it’s like to grow up in Vermont without money. She understands how it feels being excluded from activities because you live in a “bad” neighborhood. She can identify with parents struggling to find childcare so they can earn a living.

As president and CEO of the Greater Burlington YMCA, Burns has made it her mission to ensure that all families in the region, regardless of income or social status, have access to quality childcare, sports, and recreation.

While her memories of growing up in Burlington’s Old North End are fond ones, the area’s poverty and her family’s struggle to make ends meet stand out in her mind and shape her values. Burns, 52, was the fifth child of seven born to Dorothy and Joe Metivier, who had been raised on farms in northern Vermont.

The family lived in a four-room rental apartment. Dorothy was a stay-at-home mom while Joe worked for the city parks and recreation department, landscaping in summer and supervising the Roosevelt Park ice rink in winter.

The children attended Cathedral Grammar School and Burlington High School. She recalls hanging out with siblings and friends at the rink, proud that her father was in charge, and helping her mother sell handmade wreaths to buy Christmas presents. They had few material possessions and stretched their dollars to keep everyone clothed and fed.

“We didn’t have nice clothes and shoes,” she recalls. “We didn’t go to summer camp. Our parents couldn’t afford it.”

They also did not participate in after-school activities. Her parents kept their children from playing in the neighborhood where domestic violence, alcohol abuse, and crime were prevalent. They forbade going to the YMCA because they were Catholic and mistakenly believed Catholics were not allowed there. Burns spent her time helping at home, reading, and, when she turned 14, working as a motel chambermaid to help support the household.

She married at 20 and divorced shortly thereafter. The marriage produced a son, Tyler. Tyler went to childcare while she worked in the University of Vermont’s admissions department.

These experiences frame Burns’ vision for the Y. She is adamant that every community member be able to use its facilities.

“We never turn anyone away. That’s what makes me one of the proudest members of our organization,” she says. “I tell our employees, if they come across a family that wants to access Y programs and can’t afford it, tell them they can; send them to me.”

Last year the Y gave away $400,000 in free and subsidized services, including gym memberships, swim lessons, exercise classes, summer camps, and childcare, she says. Recipients included low-wage earners and those who struggled for other reasons, such as illness in the family.

Burns’ involvement with the Y began in 1985 when Tyler attended after-kindergarten care. She wanted a new career challenge; her boss at UVM suggested a Strong-Campbell Interest Inventory to identify career preferences. The test revealed her top jobs as school principal, guidance counselor, and YM/YWCA director.

Because she had not interviewed for a job in 10 years, she did some practice interviews. One of those was at the Y, which needed an administrative assistant and offered her the position. She started May 5, 1986.

“There was something about being in this building that felt special to me,” she says. “It reminded me of elementary school, which I loved. I always had a sense of peace and belonging there. As an adult I realize it is about spirit.”

Fostering people’s spirit is an important mission of the YMCA, a nonprofit organization with 2,600 U.S. locations. The Greater Burlington Y, established in 1866, operates 25 locations in five counties. These encompass O’Brien Community Center in Winooski, childcare centers, after-school programs, summer day camps, and a residence camp in North Hero. It employs 100 full-time and 250 part-time employees.

The main facility at 266 College Street is a historic brick structure built for it in 1934. Administrative offices occupy former dormitories for working men, then GIs, then Champlain College students. Burns’ office overlooks Burlington’s busy downtown, her old stomping grounds.

Burns’ responsibilities as administrative assistant to Dave Johnson, then the CEO, expanded gradually to include human resources, facilities supervision, and operations, putting her in charge of everything from exercise programs to childcare, aquatics, and camps. “Over the years my job changed, and I never gave up anything, so it grew and grew. And that was okay with me,” she says.

She especially enjoyed personnel matters. “I was the cheerleader for the staff, advocating for employee benefits, doing team-building activities, purchasing equipment, negotiating for health insurance. I love negotiating,” she says, recalling how she developed her negotiation skills as a child selling wreaths door-to-door with her mom.

“At one house a husband and wife said they didn’t want decorations. I said, ‘You’re not just buying a decoration, you’re helping a mother provide Christmas for her family.’ They bought five! That is what I like about the Y: that we’re not just providing exercise classes and swim lessons — we’re helping people.”

In 1995 she met Everett “Butch” Burns, the man she married in 1996. He did not immediately sweep her off her feet, she admits. He was a Burlington police officer who came over to say hello when he spotted her having lunch with friends. When she told him she worked at the Y, he told her he did not like the Y because he arrested someone in the pool there once. She asked him to give it another try.

“He came back. They called me and said, ‘Mary, there’s a police officer here to see you.’ I thought, ‘What happened to my son?’ I came down the stairs and saw him and said, ‘Oh, it’s just you.’ He was taken aback. I gave him a tour of the Y and shortly thereafter he became a member.”

At their wedding in Malletts Bay, their friends danced to the Village People’s YMCA and Bad Boys, the theme from television’s Cops.

When Johnson stepped down as CEO in 2003, Burns’ title was vice president of operations. He encouraged her to apply for his position but she declined, believing the organization needed new blood. The Y hired Tim Rollings, who was CEO until 2007.

During Rollings’ tenure the Y struggled with a potential move to the decommissioned Moran plant on Burlington’s waterfront, a move that city voters struck down. Burns had ideas about how to grow the Y in other ways. When Rollings left, she felt ready to take the helm and guide the Y on a strong course.

“She said she wanted to do it and here’s why and here are my goals, and she knocked people’s socks off,” says Penrose Jackson, director of community health improvement for Fletcher Allen Health Care. Jackson served on the Greater Burlington YMCA board of directors for 24 years and remembers Burns’ taking minutes at board meetings in the 1980s. “She had always been in a subordinate role. Now she was prepared, ready to made tough decisions, and resolute in her approach. We had the sense that these dimensions existed in her but never had seen them displayed. We said, ‘Give it a try.’”

The directors named Burns acting CEO. Six months later they appointed her to a permanent position.

“When we brought her in and offered her the job, it brought a tear to my eye,” Jackson says. “I was so proud of how we had done the right thing in selecting her.”

The national YMCA requires local Y CEOs to hold college degrees, which Burns did not yet have. In the 1990s, she had earned 60 credits toward a business administration degree through Trinity College’s weekend program. When she became acting CEO, she enrolled at Springfield College’s St. Johnsbury campus, and completed her studies for a bachelor of science in human services last May. She plans to eventually earn a master’s degree in organizational leadership and development.

As CEO her focus has been on raising funds and collaborating with community partners such as COTS and Spectrum Youth & Family Services, and programs like Vermont Blueprint for Health. Under her leadership, the Y recently completed a rigorous process to receive a grant from the national Y and Centers for Disease Control to develop policy initiatives that foster community wellness. Burns hopes to raise funds to accommodate a larger childcare space and make the College Street site accessible to physically challenged people.

Understanding the importance of regular exercise, she makes time for early morning workouts with a personal trainer. She enjoys gardening at her South Burlington home and going for rides through Vermont’s countryside on the back of Butch’s Kawasaki Vulcan motorcycle. She and Tyler frequently visit her mother at Starr Farm Nursing Center. “2009 was the first year we didn’t buy wreaths for her to decorate,” says Burns.

Her dad passed away in 1990, and she remains close to her siblings. Butch, now a lieutenant criminal investigator for the Department of Motor Vehicles, does the cooking and cleaning so she can work long hours.

“I’m in love with my work,” she says. “I know I’m having a healthy, positive impact on people’s lives.”

To illustrate, she describes a recent scenario when, opening the Y at 6 a.m., she arrived to find people waiting at the door. “These are people who are homeless and have scholarship memberships, waiting to use the showers and facilities. They had the biggest smiles, happy to be somewhere where they were welcome,” Burns says. “My goal would be to have everyone who walked in here feel that way.” •