Updated March 29 at 12:28am

Five Questions With: Jim Berson


Jim Berson, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Providence, serves on a wide range of boards and committees including the Quonset Development Corporation and the Rhode Island Association for the Education of Young Children. Prior to joining the YMCA in August of 2012, Berson served in executive leadership roles at Meeting Street and The Providence Center, organizations both aligned with the Y’s commitment to address critical community needs in areas like health and wellness, chronic illness, and education. He has also served as a past chairman of the West Bay Family YMCA and has been active on the board for more than seven years.

PBN: What is it like to transition from the board of directors of the YMCA of Greater Providence to the pivotal role of President and CEO?

BERSON: There is a high degree of comfort in knowing the YMCA and the amazing work that Y’s all over the country do. Now, after working with key staff and the association board, I am able to be more hands on than I was when I was a member of the board. Also, over the last nine months I have gotten involved with a number of projects that will have a positive direct impact on the populations we serve, ranging from the renovation of our Bayside branch to expanding our out of school time programs to working with insurance companies to include coverage of our evidence-based healthy living programs.

PBN: What combination of leadership skills will you bring to bear on the YMCA’s current operations? What is the one area you see that needs your attention most?

BERSON: I am a collaborative leader who is committed to strengthening our staff teams internally and building strategic alliances with key community partners in the areas of health, education, and community development. I am trying to build a culture of growth and entrepreneurship within our organization to drive innovation and new programming to meet individual, family, and community health needs and to close the achievement gap among our most disadvantaged children.

Given the demographic changes in our community and state, I am committed to ensuring that our staff, programs, and culture are diverse and inclusive so that all feel welcome in our buildings and activities. I am a steward – the Y has been around for 160 years responding to emerging community needs across the state – and I am committed to ensuring our short-term success and long-term viability so that we can continue to strengthen our communities to meet the challenges of this and the next generations.

PBN: The YMCA is partnering with the Partnership in Providence Parks to bring fitness programming this summer and fall to the city's parks. What other partnerships with nonprofits will you leverage to develop more programs for youth and adult members?

BERSON: Many would be surprised to learn that we work in close partnership with many of the public schools throughout Rhode Island to provide academic enrichment programming through our Out of School Time programs in all our YMCA branches. We are also working with the city of Providence to offer swimming lessons at city pools to insure children are comfortable and safe in the water. We work with health care providers to identify those who may be at risk of type 2 diabetes or experiencing issues from other chronic diseases to provide appropriate exercise and nutrition programming. Finally, we work in partnership with the LIVESTRONG program to offer health and wellness programs for cancer survivors. The programs are designed to strengthen and support survivors on the road to recovery after their treatment regimens.

Our healthy living programs aimed at the over-50 population are growing steadily in Rhode Island, and we are shaping much of our programming to meet the needs of that population. Specifically we offer A Matter of Balance a program based on Fear of Falling from Boston University in conjunction with Tufts Health Plan Foundation. We offer a number of programs for those who live with arthritis through the Arthritis Foundation.

This summer, we are partnering with Farm Fresh Rhode Island to help distribute Veggie Boxes throughout our communities. We are also partnering with them to host cooking demonstrations to offer advice on delicious and healthy recipes.

PBN: What is the biggest challenge to growing your membership base and how are you addressing it?

BERSON: There is great competition in the healthy living and youth development space in our communities. We try to differentiate ourselves in three ways. Innovation: We are constantly developing new and improved ways to meet the health challenges and close the achievement gap in our communities. Relationship building: We focus on building supportive relationships with all we serve – members at our Ys, students in our out of school time programs, and community partners – with shared goals. Evidence-based practice: We are increasingly using research-proven programs to move the needle on student achievement and the health status of individuals, families, and the community. By delivering tangible, measurable, and substantive results, we can scale our programs to have greater and longer lasting impact on the community at large.

When an individual or a family joins the YMCA they get more than a gym. We strive to keep all our members through relationship building. We are more than just a place to work out. We work hard at getting to know all our members, and treat them with respect and dignity. And most important, membership is open to all. Thanks to the generosity of our Annual Fund donors we are able to provide financial assistance on a need basis.

PBN: Which YMCA program poses the most promise for future growth, and why?

BERSON: Our evidence based programs that focus on reducing chronic disease that are due to lifestyle factors have tremendous promise for growth. For example, it is estimated that nearly 26 million Americans have type 2 diabetes and 79 million are pre-diabetic. Just fewer than 2 million people were diagnosed with diabetes in 2010. Our evidence based program for those at risk has, at scale, the potential to transform the health status of our community while driving significant reductions in health care costs to businesses, insurers, and the general population. At the same time, the demographic shifts in our state that are resulting in an older population have led us to provide an array of evidence-based programs for older adults that are aimed at keeping this population healthy and fit, while simultaneously trying to reduce falls – the leading cause of emergency room visits and hospital admissions for older adults.

Finally, our research demonstrated program to reduce childhood obesity has tremendous potential for short-term and long-term impact on future generations. In addition to the diabetes prevention program, we know that as people get older they want to stay healthy and fit. Therefore, we have options to meet those needs, and are developing additional programs as our members request specific classes. Our goal is to work with all our members and program participants to improve their health while also containing costs.


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