New Y director emphasizes importance of building family


For Paula Jacobson, the new executive director of the Kent County YMCA at 900 Centerville Road, the Y is not just a “gym and swim” facility; it’s a family-friendly community center that gives people of all walks of life and ages the chance to strengthen their core values while staying mentally and physically fit.

Jacobson, who recently served in an interim role following the departure of former director Eileen Barber, is new to Warwick but she isn’t new to the Y. Up until a few months ago, she was working as the executive director at the East Side/Mt. Hope Y, and previously worked in the same position for the Wang Y in the Greater Boston area.

But she began her journey with the organization part-time in the early 1990s as an aerobic instructor in Woburn, Mass.

“At the time, I was a single mom with two little kids, so the Y was the perfect place for me,” she said. “I was able to bring my children and they were cared for in the active family center.”

Having the opportunity to work while knowing her children were being properly cared for is the heart of the Y, said Jacobson, and she takes pleasure when she sees families not only enjoying themselves, but bettering themselves there.

Take for instance Cranston resident Charlie Paley, 5, a student in the “Y’s Owl Nursery School.” Charlie, who has been going to the Y since he was about a year old, attends the pre-school program five days a week, and participates in all sorts of activities. He doesn’t let the fact that he has a prosthetic leg hold him back.

“I like painting and swimming,” Charlie said. “I paint lots of things.”

Charlie is in his second year of swimming, and about a month ago, he swam from one side of the pool to the other without any assistance from instructor Jessie Simoneau-Smith or swimming devices for the first time. He is also beginning to learn to swim on his back, as well as put his face in the water.

“He had a huge smile across his face, and the teacher was practically in tears,” Jacobson said. “This is the stuff that makes up the Y. This is what the Y is really about. It separates us from a regular health club. We really cater to the entire family.”

Charlie’s parents, Sean Paley and Caitlin McGrath, said they are grateful their son has spent most of his life as a Y student. They each expressed their thanks to the staff for providing Charlie with a top-notch education, and making them feel at home.

“It’s been a great opportunity for him to grow up, mature and be around other kids,” Paley said. “That’s something we’ve enjoyed seeing. I think a lot of the reason why he’s such a great kid is all the tutorage the teachers have given him there.”

McGrath agreed. She praised teachers for treating him just like any of the other children, and motivating him to accomplish tasks on his own.

“Charlie’s never been singled out or gotten any special acceptations,” McGrath said. “They just modify little things for him so he can get to where other kids are, and that’s important for parents like myself. They are really good at dealing with different situations, and I’m happy this is a place that I can go to that has a great curriculum. We love it. They make you feel comfortable no matter what.”

Again, Jacobson said making families happy is the essence of the Y. They have three areas of focus that often intertwine with one another, including youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.

For example, programs like youth swimming, soccer and basketball don’t just provide children with athletic skills, but life lessons.

“Basketball is the tool to learn how to be happy, healthy and socially responsible,” she said. “That’s our mission.”

Though crucially important, assisting children is only part of what the Y does. Helping adults is also high on their list of priorities. In addition to numerous programs, The Greater Providence Y recently joined forces with The Providence Center, a non-profit health care provider with locations in Providence and Burrillville. An official announcement was made at the Kent County Y Monday morning, with Mayor Scott Avedisian, as well as other local dignitaries in attendance.

The partnership will support Rhode Islanders in recovery from substance abuse, and will include the launch of the second Anchor Recovery Community Center on the YMCA's Kent County Campus. People in recovery will become Y members and will receive support through Anchor services designed to encourage healthy lifestyles.

“It will provide opportunities for people in recovery to get the support they need, not only from the experience of the Providence Center, but the YMCA can help in the health and wellness phase,” Jacobson said. “They need healthy opportunities like exercise or a yoga class, or the opportunity to bring their children in the active family center. The kids want to come, and when mom or dad is healthier, the kids are happier. We think it’s going to be a great partnership.”

Y staffers, such as senior program director Sue Shanley, who has been with the Y for more than 30 years after she joined the staff as a college intern in the late 1970s, and Health and Wellness Recreation Director Josie Dutil, say Jacobson and the Y are just as great of a partnership. Shanley literally embraced Jacobson when asked what she thinks of her new boss.

“This is a woman who understands people, where they’re at, and what role she plays as a vehicle to help them, direct them and encourage them,” said Shanley. “I’ve had a lot of supervisors and a lot of executive directors, but when you get one that you connect with, it makes doing what we’re doing that much easier.”

Dutil and Jacobson were previously acquainted, as they served on a few committees together in the past. She admires Jacobson’s leadership style, and enjoys working with her.

“She’s down to earth and a really good person,” Dutil said.

Before coming to Warwick, Jacobson’s Y experience includes serving as executive director of the Wang YMCA of Chinatown in Boston, a location she helped open. She also worked at three other Y’s in the Greater Boston area, serving in various positions.

As noted, she began working part-time as an aerobics instructor in the early 1980s. By the time her children were old enough to attend school, she increased her hours to full-time, and began working her way up, first becoming a fitness center manager, then fitness director, senior program director and associate executive director through the years. Now, she commutes to the Kent County Y from her home in Westwood, Mass.

Additionally, she earned an Associate’s Degree in Applied Science from Bay State Junior College. In 2008, she obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Services from Springfield College.

“I feel really lucky that I was able to find a career in something that is so meaningful,” she said. “I have to work hard, but it’s well worth it. It’s so rewarding every day. And knowing that I have a staff that is dedicated and hardworking is fulfilling for me. I’m looking forward to learning about the community and excited about the relationships and collaborations that are already established. I want to continue that, and enhance our presence.”

To learn more about the Kent County YMCA, as well as the other eight locations in the Greater Providence area, including the Cranston Y, visit


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