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Charles Collins

YMCA chief draws on his unique upbringing to give kids all over the Bay Area the chance to grow and thrive.



GROWING UP AS a kid in Marin is often an insular experience — there is not a lot of the cultural diversity that is common across the bay in San Francisco or Oakland. As a child, Charles Collins moved to Mill Valley with his family in the 1950s. His father, Daniel Collins, was a professor at UCSF’s School of Dentistry. His mother, DeReath Curtis James, helped to create Marin Aid to Retarded Children, now known as Lifehouse. At the time, the Collinses were the only African-American family living in Mill Valley. After graduating from Tamalpais High School in 1965, Collins received a B.A. from Williams College, an M.S. from MIT and his J.D. degree from Harvard Law School. For the past decade, Collins has been president and CEO of the YMCA of San Francisco. Now his life is filled with diversity, as he heads an organization that serves more than 42,000 children a year in Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties.

How did growing up in Marin when you did help to shape and prepare you for adulthood? Our family moved to Marin in 1951. I was just entering kindergarten. We were the only African-American family in Mill Valley — other than in Marin City, there were, basically, no other black people in Marin County. That was the time, those were the conditions. The context of that really shaped a lot of the way that I looked at the world. Because I was, as a kid, in an environment that was alternately very welcoming but also, in other ways, very questioning and hands-off. I think that you learn to develop a sense of independence but also it forces you by nature to learn how to engage with people one person at a time.

Both of your parents were very active on social and civil rights fronts in Marin. How did that influence your development? My mother helped to start what is now called Lifehouse in 1954. And that, in terms of a huge narrative in my life, probably shaped me as an adult more than anything else. It was the journey of my parents, being the parents of a developmentally disabled child who was born in 1951, that they had to discover and create a system of care for people with developmental disabilities. When my brother Craig was born, there was nothing. It was with the help of my mother and other women, largely, that the Lanterman Act was passed and a regional system in the state of California was put into place. When Craig died a few years ago, the Marin Independent Journal, in its last edition of the year, named the most important people who had died in Marin County and my brother was one of them. He was one of the children who changed the course of the future for disability, and that is inevitably and indelibly inscribed in my feeling about Marin.

Did you ever imagine that the YMCA might be a place that you’d end up? Not the Y in particular. But I was always drawn to social service. To a very involved life that was intertwined with community-based organizations.

How has the YMCA, as an organization that goes back as far as it does, been able to grow and change and remain relevant during all this time? I think it remains relevant because the most persistent work of the Y is to ensure safe and trusted environments for young people. And that was what George Williams had on his mind in the 1840s when he founded the YMCA in London. He could see that having a safe place would foster better outcomes for young men who needed to have that kind of community environment. And that is a persistent, consistent, transportable phenomenon in society. Many people need to grow and to be nurtured in trusted, safe environments.

"Our youth court program in Marin County is one of our most important pieces of work because we are dealing with alcohol and drug prevention."

What do you think attracts people to the YMCA as opposed to other programs? I was talking to a young man in his 30s just the other day and I asked him, “Why do you come to the Y?” And he said, “Because I am overwhelmingly drawn to the community the Y represents.” They like to be in diverse communities.

You’ve served as the head of the San Francisco YMCA since 2004. How much territory does the system cover in the Bay Area? It serves San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo counties. We also have almost 1,000 acres of park in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where we have an absolutely wondrous camp. And we have the gorgeous Point Bonita Y in the Marin Headlands. So what we try to do is create a lot more fluidity among these youth resources so that we can compound the experiences. We like to bring Marin kids down to the Santa Cruz Mountains and into San Francisco. We like to bring the San Francisco kids to Point Bonita and to give them that type of exposure.

What is the experience of the kids who attend the YMCA in Marin versus the kids who show up at the Y in San Francisco? All kids are the same, and all kids are different. Every Y, by nature, has to be responsive to its community. Look at the Marin community and, as a Marinite, you know that community is different than the San Francisco community, or New York. Or the East Bay. There is a certain Marin vibe, which is probably more relaxed and more in touch with nature, just because of its ever-presence. That’s the great benefit of Marin County. But Marin also has extraordinarily high rates of high school drinking. And binge drinking. It has a high rate of teen suicide. There are things in Marin that are very important, if not disturbing, which have to be addressed. Because kids, no matter who they are, no matter what privilege they have, still have to learn positive behaviors in order to be successful adults.

How is the Y in Marin set up to deal with those kinds of issues? Our youth court program in Marin County is one of our most important pieces of work because we are dealing with alcohol and drug prevention, and learning to look beyond that particular behavior to try to understand the underlying issues that are getting kids into trouble. Marin has always been a community where there has been a high degree of experimentation and that experimentation can get you in trouble, whether you live in Marin or you live in San Francisco. That work is extremely important to us.

How much direct contact do you have in working with the kids? Every couple of years I take about a dozen and a half kids on a big trip to Europe, to the World Youth Festival. There are some 10,000 young people from throughout the world. Our kids get a chance to interact in this polyglot multinational stew of kids who are all together for 10 days. Learning about each other and learning there are minorities and the challenges they face as young people. And that gives you a keen insight, on an international basis, on what’s happening with our kids.

Given the amount of social responsibility that your organization takes on, does the Y have stances on particular issues of the day? In youth development, we work across the board in the area of safe environments for children. And so we get deeply involved in child abuse prevention. We’re also extremely concerned about health disparities and about the condition of population and health — in particular, about the incidence of diabetes because of obesity. So childhood obesity is of great concern to us and there is much to understand and unpack around those issues. We are part of the Centers for Disease Control diabetes prevention program where we look at lifestyle changes. We take stands on mental health because mental health is the outcropping of other issues that exist in children, families and communities that we have to address. We take public stands on national parks and about access to open space and accessibility for people with disabilities. We take stands, absolutely.

How many people does the YMCA serve every year, here and around the world? When I’m talking about the Y in San Francisco, that covers Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties. And we serve about 42,000 kids on an unduplicated basis, annually, in our three counties. We also serve 70,000 or 80,000 adults. In the YMCAs of the United States, we’re serving 9 million youth a year, and 13 million adults. And in the world — that’s 119 countries in which the YMCA is present — we serve 25 million youths and 58 million people in all.

Are there places in Marin where you like to eat and hang out? I do like to go to D’Angelo’s and hang out. I remember some of the most wonderful parties there. That’s where we went for my father’s 90th birthday, and that meant a lot to me. And I love El Paseo. As a little boy, going through the Sequoia theater and turning the corner there at the five-and-dime store and going through El Paseo and all those shops there, I was transported into a place that I had never been. It was magical.

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