He’s said hello to several dozen children who have entered the building. He’s answered approximately thirty questions from staffers. He’s coordinated a test fire drill. He’s discussed facilities and programs with more than one prospective member. He’s provided medical care for a person who tripped in the hallway.
And it’s not even 9:15 in the morning.
For many, this might cause an overwhelming feeling of malaise. Not for Jim O’Rourke, though. He’s dealt with much tougher situations.
O’Rourke is the CEO of the Greater Waterbury YMCA, an organization – or more aptly-titled, a community cornerstone – that offers health and wellness programs to citizens of all ages, backgrounds and abilities.
As the oldest Y in the state of Connecticut (a title politely contested back and forth with their peers in New Britain), the Greater Waterbury YMCA features a comprehensive mix of youth and adult initiatives.
For 16 hours each weekday, and 14 more hours over each weekend, the Y footprint hosts everything from swimming to school readiness activities, total body training to tai chi, basketball leagues to balance-and-flex classes.
Its sprawling downtown Waterbury campus includes the main community center, a newly-renovated classroom and activity center on Rose Hill, and the recently-acquired Rose Hill mansion – which houses administrative functions, and was originally built for one of the Brass City barons, William H. Scovill, in 1852. Beyond the city proper, the Y has two camps – Mataucha in Watertown, and Oakasha in Southbury – which serve over 600 kids throughout the summer.
Collectively, the organization provides more than 20,000 children and families throughout Waterbury and the surrounding communities with opportunities to develop healthy minds and bodies. O’Rourke says he doesn't have a favorite program or service, but is quick to mention that, "when you look at all the aspects of the things that we do, it's pretty powerful. It's a powerful thing."
Not just because he is the Chief Executive, Jim is a YMCA lifer. Quite literally, the Y helped shape O’Rourke for almost as long as he can remember – going back to his formative years.
He grew up in the 1970s Bronx – smack dab in the middle of a diverse, and difficult-to-navigate, maze of neighborhoods. Crime and other dangers weren't just around the corner. They were right in front of young Jim.
"We had a one-room apartment," says Jim. "Kitchen and living room together. When it was time to sleep, you opened the couch, and that was it."
Despite working two, sometimes three, jobs, his mother, Dorothy, found herself in the welfare line, little Jim holding her hand. They stood there regularly, until a moment in 1978, when Mom turned to her five-year old son and said, "This is the last day we're going to do this."
Jim's mother had a boyfriend, who had a grandmother, in a place called Southington – so the O'Rourkes got out of the New York City borough, and headed north to central Connecticut. Across the street from the grandmother's place was a sign offering a room for rent in a two-family house. Dorothy and Jim moved up a week later.
"The next thing I know," recalls Jim, "it was just my mom and I, and she needed a place for me to go while she worked."
That place, was the Southington-Cheshire YMCA – which O'Rourke says, "became my stepfather."
Through his elementary and teen years, Jim was a fixture at the Y – but he, admittedly, struggled to remain in good standing with the staff. "I was a punk kid," recounts O'Rourke. "I got into trouble, and I got kicked out of the Y a lot." Part of what agitated the situation, it seems, was that Jim "used to sneak in, because I just couldn't afford it."
Everything changed when a Y staffer named John struck a deal with 15-year old Jim. "John said, 'Listen, whatever you have in your pocket on the first day of the month... you bring that to me, and that's going to be your membership."
With the membership issue stabilized, and the fatherly vote of confidence, Jim tried to get through his high school years, while setting his sights on joining the YMCA staff. After putting in application after application, over the course of several months, he was given his first YMCA job on New Year's Eve, 1989.
"The Y was great," says Jim about the first years as a staffer, "because I could work early in the morning, go to college during the day, and go back to work at night. That was key, because I had to support my family, and pay for school."
He's been employed by the YMCA organization since that last day of '89 – at the Southington-Cheshire YMCA for 18 years, followed by a stint at the Kennebec YMCA in Maine, and beginning in 2008, at the helm of the Greater Waterbury YMCA.
When the pandemic turned the world upside down, O'Rourke and the Waterbury community sprung into action.
O’Rourke is not one to take individual credit for anything. In his mind, everything is about teamwork.
Underscoring the point, Jim glows over his team’s response to the pandemic.
As the first COVID wave crashed through the Waterbury community, it effectively caught all YMCA programs in its wake – which forced O’Rourke and the YMCA to quickly answer a previously-unthinkable question:
Do we shut down everything we’re doing?
Knowing it was best for the health of its members and staff, they made the excruciating decision to close the YMCA doors.
And then, Jim got a call from Reginald Eadie, the CEO of Trinity Health New England (which owns Saint Mary’s Hospital in Waterbury). Eadie explained that his nurses and doctors couldn’t work because they had no childcare.
The YMCA staff mobilized, and met with local organizations – including the Mayor's Office, the Health Department, the Fire Department, and the Office of Early Childhood – to hatch a plan where hospital workers and first responders could be offered emergency childcare.
Within 48 hours, the Rose Hill facility was relicensed – and the YMCA staff jumped back into action. For several months straight, the Y kept upwards of 60 kids a day safe and stimulated.
Waterbury is an incredible city that's willing to work with any business, any not-for-profit, to get things done... no matter what.
Toggling back to his mother, O’Rourke proudly mentions that, despite the challenges of his childhood, “she never showed any weakness, and gave me everything I needed.”
Most importantly, he says, she gave him a mantra:
“Roll up your sleeves, and you can do anything. And, no matter what… you help others.”
One of his earliest recollections is leaving the Bronx A & P grocery store one day, where Dorothy found $5 on the ground. Jim was ecstatic. “Ooh, we need that money. And she goes, ‘we need it, but other people need it more.’” Then she went back in, asked to break the bill into coins, and put half of the findings in the Salvation Army kettle.
That moment has stayed with O’Rourke his whole life – and has triggered an adulthood full of fundraising and volunteerism.
“Philanthropy is so important to our community. I can't give millions of millions of dollars, but I can make it fun, and maybe make a light bulb for others to say, ‘I could do that too.’”
O’Rourke seems willing to do anything to rally community support: serve as MC and auctioneer for the Boys & Girls Club events; belly flop into a frigid lake, in full business suit, for Camp Mataucha; wear thigh-high Kinky Boots for the Palace Theater. Photos of Jim in the Kinky Boots went viral, with endless questions about whether his legs were airbrushed. (They were not.)
Jim makes clear that he is merely one of the countless people and organizations contributing to Waterbury’s resurgence. He also appreciates being amongst “the tight fabric of people who have a desire to support one another here.” Continuing, Jim remarks, “Everyone I meet in Waterbury is a hero. Everyone has an interesting story, and everyone does good things in their own way.”
Among other partnerships that the Greater Waterbury YMCA is heavily involved in, O’Rourke notes the Mayor O’Leary Kid’s Marathon, and the Post University alliance, as shining examples of what Waterbury is all about.
The Kid’s Marathon is an 8-week program that teaches youth about physical fitness and healthy lifestyles.
For the program’s grand finale, more than 2,000 kids run a final mile through the streets of downtown Waterbury, as hundreds of spectators cheer them on – including O'Rourke, who often serves as the event's Master of Ceremonies.
O'Rourke at the starting line of the Kid's Marathon.
YMCA members shoot hoops on the refurbished, Post University-branded basketball courts.
Regarding the Post University partnership, Jim says, “[Post University CEO] John Hopkins and I had many conversations on what a collaboration could look like. We began by offering memberships to their students – and discussed how we could do a reduction in costs for my staff, if they went back to college.”
Post University came through, with 50 percent off tuition for Greater Waterbury YMCA staff members. Then Post went even bigger – offering the same discount to staffers at all YMCAs in both Connecticut and Rhode Island.
Post also helped refurbish and brand the basketball courts in the main health center at the Waterbury Y, which O’Rourke says is now “absolutely beautiful.” (He says this while standing on the court, as he asks the pick-up game to pass him the ball – and then, in business suit and all, Jim drains a three-pointer.)
O’Rourke has an infectious quality about him – bright and accommodating, wrapped in a steely look of determination.
On the tour he provides us, Jim flies around the YMCA campus – his brown dress shoes almost levitating, the flaps of his blue suit rippling from the motion. He chats with members in the parking lot, and holds the hands of kids walking across the turf playground – connecting with each, while never completely stopping.
Despite his constant state of movement, O’Rourke notices the most minute of details, and immediately addresses them. While we take a look at one of the new classroom areas in the Rose Hill building, Jim glances down, and without notice, rolls up an entire space rug. When he sees our puzzled faces, O’Rourke says, “This rug has a little rip. Going to get it replaced right now.”
It’s befitting, then, that Jim has been referred to as the Get Things Done Guy – a moniker further legitimized by the fact that he is an Ironman triathlete.
O’Rourke has completed four Ironman competitions, and is training for a fifth. Nearly every day, he runs, swims and bikes.
Today, he has decided to only run and swim – skipping the bike ride that he often takes to get to the Y, which Jim says is “no big deal… about 25 miles round trip.” (O’Rourke has also taken a liking to running several miles on the treadmill – while participating in Zoom conversations.)
On being a triathlete, Jim proclaims, “That's my place where I'm able to cleanse, and meditate, and have time for me.”
His passion for triathlons led also O’Rourke to serve as an integral player in the Race4Chase program.
Jim’s eyes well up as he talks about Race4Chase – named after 6-year old Chase Kowalski, an aspiring triathlete and one of the twenty-six victims in the 2012 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Jim is a proud board member, event coordinator, and leading voice for the CMAK Foundation – which has held several Race4Chase events in Waterbury.
Jim speaking at a Race4Chase event.
With the Ironman slash Get Things Done Guy leading the charge, the Greater Waterbury YMCA is doing remarkable things – and has ambitious plans for the future.
Having already expanded their childcare programs, and started new initiatives like the Livestrong cancer program, Jim and his staff are dreaming up more ways to grow their kids camps, add community programming, and utilize their campus for special events.
“I want to offer picnics up on our hill, which overlooks the City,” says O’Rourke, “and make it so families can watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July. There’s a lot of little things like this. And, there’s all the big things that we will continue doing.”
When asked to give his take on where Waterbury stands, the sometimes stoic O’Rourke lights up.
“It's going and it's going fast! You’ve got the arts. You've got the Palace Theater. You’ve got Seven Angels [Theater]. You’ve got the Mattatuck Museum. You have incredible schools. You have so many things happening in the neighborhoods, in the parks across the City. There’s events like the Gathering, the Brew Fest, and parades. The Greenway is coming to life, downtown is improved, the Green is amazing, and Library Park is new. It's an exciting time for Waterbury.”
While it’s something he rarely does, we ask O’Rourke to look back on what he’s accomplished, on how he’s persevered through what many would consider overwhelming obstacles. (It’s a theme Jim loves, given his listing of Good Will Hunting, Rocky, and Escape From Alcatraz as favorite movies.) O’Rourke reminds us that HE hasn’t accomplished anything, and acknowledges that his arduous journey has led him to some important clarity.
“I realized that failure is what you learn upon, what you're able to build upon, and then also continue through.”
He pauses briefly, and sums things up.