By Alina O’Donnell
Retiring CEO of Hamilton Area YMCA reflects on 25 years of growth
When James Fell assumed the role of president and CEO in 1990, the Hamilton Area YMCA operated out of a small office on Route 33.
A quarter century later, that same YMCA is the largest community organization in Hamilton, with a membership of 14,000 people and five locations.
Fell said he never imagined that he would see such unprecedented growth during his tenure.
The first year of a new facility is always difficult, and the opening of the John K. Rafferty branch in the early 1990s was no different. It took time for the YMCA to learn the wants and needs of the community, and as the community learned more about the YMCA, its staff and membership grew as did its reach and services, Fell said.
“I thought I’d be fired in years when the branch was first built,” he said. “It was a rough opening.”
Yet, he had little reason to doubt his qualifications. A self-proclaimed “Y brat,” Fell was raised an active member and remained one through adulthood.
“It was my mom’s best way to keep me out of trouble,” he said. “I kind of never walked away from it. So when an opportunity presented itself in Hamilton, at a brand new facility, I jumped on the bandwagon, as large and as fast as it was growing.”
Now, after nearly 25 years at the helm, Fell has announced his retirement from the organization he helped grow. YMCA staff will be interviewing prospective CEOs starting Feb. 6, with the new chief to start in June. Meanwhile, Fell and his wife are preparing to move to South Carolina, to be closer to family in Florida. Fell plans to stay involved at a local YMCA.
“It’s tough to imagine doing anything different than what I’ve done in Hamilton,” Fell said. “It has gone by so fast, when you look back at it. We have all accomplished so much. It’s a combination of anxiety and melancholy.”
Among those accomplishments are the creation and expansion of the YMCA’s main John K. Rafferty Branch and administrative offices on Whitehorse-Mercerville Road, as well as the construction of a state-of-the-art recreation center on Sawmill Road, baseball fields on Maple Shade Avenue and a satellite classroom at Mercer County Community College.
Five years ago, Fell decided to expand the YMCA’s mission and respond directly to the evolving needs of the community. With his guidance, the organization created a host of programs that promote healthy living, youth development and social responsibility. Leading examples include Y Connection, which provides middle school students with supervision and activities during after school hours, Special Kids Organized Recreation (SKOR), and Special Organized Adult Recreation (SOAR), sports programming for individuals with intellectual, physical and emotional handicaps.
Fell’s achievements have been honored with awards from organizations like the MidJersey Chamber of Commerce and the Hamilton Township Economic Development Advisory Commission. In 2005, he received the Stephen Wensley Award from Project Freedom in recognition of his contributions to the special needs community.
When asked how he has been so successful at growing his branch, Fell’s answer was simple: He listened.
“It just takes an idea, usually from volunteers or the community,” he said. “Our job is to listen to that idea. And I think we did. It’s one thing to provide a high caliber facility that is clean and tidy but it’s another thing to stay on the fringes of what people are actually looking for.”
Fell’s proudest accomplishment, he said, was overseeing the 2005 construction of Mercer County’s Miracle League Field, a baseball complex at the Y’s Sawmill facility designed specifically for disabled people.
The idea to bring a Miracle League field to Mercer County was first conceived in 2005 by the Robbinsville-Hamilton Sunrise Rotary, which was celebrating its centennial. Their leaders approached the YMCA to help build and manage the program, and the result was the first barrier-free baseball field for children with disabilities in the state and the seventh in the United States.
Fell also credits his success to the YMCA’s “unbelievably dynamic staff,” and their diverse skillsets.
“No one works alone, everyone’s got a vision and everyone’s got an idea,” he said. “The key is to allow those ideas to flourish and get out of the way, don’t be an impediment to success.”
When asked what qualities he hopes to see in the next CEO, Mercer County Freeholder and Hamilton Area YMCA Board Chairman John Cimino said, “A cloning of Jim, for lack of a better term. The legacy that Jim is going to leave, well, that person will have some pretty big shoes to fill.”
Cimino first became interested in the YMCA at a SKOR wine tasting event seven years ago. He attended advisory board meetings to learn more, and eventually approached Fell in hopes of becoming a member. He was elected chairman in 2012.
“When you think of the Hamilton YMCA, you think of Jim Fell,” Cimino said. “The YMCA staff recommended changing the Employee of the Year award to the ‘James J. Fell Employee of the Year’ award, which speaks volumes. I don’t think we could underscore the importance and the impact he’s had here enough.”
Fell said the YMCA plans to introduce many new initiatives in 2015, including a chronic disease prevention program.
“There is so much great work being done each and every day by staff and volunteers,” Fell said. “Tremendous new initiatives are planned for 2015, like our chronic disease prevention programming, that will have a profound impact on our community. I will miss being directly involved with the evolution of these ideas and the creative staff and volunteers that are driving them.”
Though Fell feels he has unfinished business, he is confident that the YMCA will continue in its path of progress without him.
“There’s so much momentum, the train is flying, and I’m just barely holding on,” Fell said. “It’s probably time for someone else to be the engineer of that train.”