How Women Created and Sustain the “Family” Character of Our Distinctive Organization
By Dawn Medley
In a staff meeting.
At the front desk.
On the wall of personal trainer photos.
In a group fitness class.
Around almost every corner of the STAUNTON-AUGUSTA FAMILY YMCA, Associate Executive Director Candace Martin is reminded not to take the organization’s strong female presence for granted.
As we join in the YMCA’s national celebration of Women’s History Month, we invited Martin and a few of her fellow female leaders past and present to share how women have shaped not only the look, but the unique personality of our community-first Y. Perhaps the best testament to the influence of women in leadership at the YMCA is the natural reaction of those women when they’re asked to describe the atmosphere in their own words.
“To be honest, it’s not something we think about very often – the idea that there is a woman or a man in a certain position,” Martin said.
“I was just going to say the same thing,” added longtime Fitness Director Wendy Shutty. “We just see a colleague, a counterpart. The more important thing to all of us is that we want to be working toward the same overall goals in our individual areas.”
What the pair does realize is that for every situation where they don’t have to think about gender today, there was a woman decades ago on the staff whose confidence and compassion defined the path forward for the organization. “People like working here and coming here because it feels like family, and that comes in large part from the strong, nurturing women of our past and the capable women who are here now,” Martin explained.
HITTING THEIR STRIDE
Details are scarce about women’s involvement in the early years of the Staunton YMCA, aside from the fact that women were permitted to visit the library at the first facility on Augusta Street in 1877, three years after the local organization was established. Notably, women were not officially granted Y membership status until 1933, but it was a woman – the wife of famous grain reaper inventor and longtime Augusta County resident Cyrus McCormick – who 20 years before that gifted $50,000 to establish the Staunton YMCA building downtown, giving the group a place to call home for many decades.
In the 1980s women hit their stride in leadership roles at the SAYMCA, led by the first female Board of Directors President Patsy Shull, who served 1984-85. A few years later, the organization hired its inaugural female Executive Director, Yvonne Sandmann. Unfortunately, Sandmann’s opportunity to create lasting change was cut short when she lost her life in a car accident just two years into her tenure.
Enter former “Y kid” and basketball standout Mary Ann Plogger, who had just earned her master’s degree in Exercise Physiology from the University of Virginia.
“Thinking back about growing up in the Y, I realized that there weren’t that many women involved,” she said. “But by the time I came on board, gender disparity wasn’t really an issue.”
During more than a decade at the helm, Plogger and her faithful longtime Office Manager Georgiann Catlett would shepherd the struggling Y back to a thriving center of community programs. Plogger realized that key to the Y’s rebirth was acquiring a physical facility. That facility became the current location on North Coalter Street, which at the time housed the Staunton Racquet Club. She was instrumental in bringing together owners and staff at the Racquet Club and the Staunton Athletic Club in a single location under the YMCA umbrella. But, just as importantly, her leadership style naturally created the “personality” of the new organization.
“She was a great leader,” said Rhonda Shinaberry, who transitioned from a staff position at the Staunton Racquet Club to Associate Executive Director of the Y under Plogger, a position she would remain in for 25 years. “She was patient and encouraging not just to me, but to all of us who were ‘inherited’ from the racquet club,” Shinaberry said.
Shutty was another employee who carried over, working as a part-time fitness instructor. She will never forget the compassion she showed after a traumatic situation at the facility one day.
“Someone had passed away in the parking lot, and I was one of the first people to respond,” Shutty recalled. “Even though we didn’t know each other very well, [Mary Ann] called me the next day at my other job just to make sure I was doing alright. That’s the kind of leader she was.
After serving 11 years at the reimagined YMCA, Plogger took leave to focus on her growing family, switching gears to a career in teaching in the Staunton area, where she continues to work and find fulfillment today. The organization was on solid footing and ready to highlight the strengths of the next Executive Director, Morris Peltz. It was also time for Shinaberry, continuing in her role as Associate Executive Director, to shine.
PASSING THE TORCH
Shinaberry’s career might have started elsewhere, but, by all accounts, she is the matron saint of the modern-day Y that today’s staff and members know and love.
“When I think of the Y, she has always been one of the biggest parts,” said Aquatics Director Beth Valentine when Shinaberry retired in 2020. “She helped me with changing so many of my employees’ lives, even if it was just helping give them grace or providing things for their family.”
Josh Cole – who has served as Executive Director since 2014 – also lauded Shinaberry’s leadership in the July 2020 newsletter announcing her retirement. “She is the receiver of information, and she is the brain. She gets the information and reacts. How often do staff take up residence on her couch? And it’s all levels of staff, and it’s all members. Her couch is the neural network. She’s got a billion skills,” he said at that time.
Shinaberry worked closely to coach current Associate Executive Director Candace Martin from the time she was a college intern gaining experience at the front desk until she joined the full-time staff as administrative assistant and, later, membership coordinator.
Martin models her own leadership style after that of her mentor – the way she thought about how each decision affected individuals, knew the names of almost every member, and cared about the details of employees’ lives. And she continues to measure her success on the job against Shinaberry’s standard. “My goal at the end of every day is to be able to say that I made Rhonda proud,” Martin said when reflecting on her first year in the role.
Another priority on Martin’s list is developing the next cohort of female YMCA leaders.“We empower anyone looking for an opportunity. Women are drawn to us because we don’t see that male/female distinction as a colleague; we will encourage their passion and career goals without seeing gender,” she said.
Martin and others who have been on staff for many years are excited to see what more recent hires – many of whom happen to be women – will bring to aquatics, personal training, children and youth programs, and more.
Childcare Program Director Andrea Ryder had experience with the YMCA’s strong female figures even before she was hired in 2021. Her role as an advocate for people with disabilities in the workplace frequently brought her in contact with Shinaberry and Martin when she met with individuals she assisted who worked at the Y.
“When questions arose, we could always count on them to guide us toward solutions,” said Ryder. “Rhonda and Candace would also make it a point to stop and touch base with them to see if they were doing okay.”
Windsor Vaughn has spent most of her life learning, playing, and working at the Y, recently returning as a Program Director after a short hiatus. She credits, among others, Martin and Shutty for “taking charge and creating a supportive atmosphere that helped me understand what kind of leader I wanted to be.”
“It’s why I do my best to lead all children, but especially to encourage females to understand the importance of finding their own voices and making an impact,” Vaughn explained. “Having respected women at the Y and elsewhere in my life to model myself after has helped me define those roles for myself,” she added. “I see more and more women having an impact on the Y in the coming years. It can be intimidating to speak out or try to lead – I spend a lot of time reassuring young women to do just that.”
“If I can encourage even just one young female, I’ve done my job,” she said.