“It Is All About the Kids.”
How the Alfond Youth Center became a model for the country and helped transform central Maine’s future
By: Philip Conkling
Photography: Nicole Wolf
The days begin early at the Alfond Youth Center in Waterville. At 7:30 each morning, parents from Waterville and surrounding towns begin arriving at the 72,000-square-foot building on the east side of Waterville to drop off their three-to-five-year-olds at the licensed early care center inside. The preschool kids make a beeline to their room and enter their own small world, filled with books and activity materials. Between 2:30 and 3:00 in the afternoon nearly a dozen buses from area communities deliver up to 210 middle school children for after-school activities. “By the second or third day, we know every kid’s name and age,” says Katie McCabe, the center’s childcare director. Her after-school staff of 20 counselors, four teachers, and two administrators has also learned the names of the children’s parents and has begun to understand each of their stories.
Ken Walsh is the chief executive officer and impresario of this jaw-dropping facility. He meets me in the entry hall, not long after the preschoolers arrive on a recent morning. He is all coiled energy, with a high-wattage smile as wide as his face. He is a man who has become an indispensible part of Waterville’s current rebound and its increasingly encouraging future.
While Walsh provides a quick overview of the packed daily schedule at the youth center, we walk through an expansive activity room for the middle-schoolers, including a full- service cafeteria, and past two all-purpose gymnasiums, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and a dance studio all on the main floor. On every wall are pictures of area youth and the adult mentors and supporters who have helped them excel at one activity or another. I also cannot help but notice a large sign over Walsh’s shoulder in the lobby: “The biggest, the best, the most successful—one incredible facility.” General Colin Powell’s 1999 testimonial from his visit is as accurate today as it was 18 years ago. To Walsh’s left, I note a display announcing National Mentoring Month with the encouragement “Remember Those Who Believed in You.”
A lot of people have believed in Walsh, as I learn from the story of his unlikely path to Waterville. Walsh spent the first 13 years of his life in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, the sixth of seven children from an Irish-Italian marriage. His father, whom Walsh describes as “a struggling commercial artist,” and his Sicilian mother were later able to escape the city to settle the family in the more bucolic town of Amenia, two hours north of New York City. One of the first things that Walsh and his brothers did was lay out a baseball field in the cornfield next door, creating a field of dreams long before anyone popularized that notion in a movie.
Sports became an enduring metaphor for Walsh, who recalls his father teaching him how to throw a curveball at age nine. As the youngest boy with three older, competitive brothers, he says, “I used to get pounded all the time.” But his father “set the bar for all of us.” The unwritten rule in the family, says Walsh, “was to work hard and accomplish your goals. We were never not going to college—none of us.”
After Walsh graduated from college, he landed a job as an assistant director of the Boys and Girls Club of New Rochelle, New York, then run by an all Italian-American staff. “I was an Irish guy—all energy—and I was going to change the world,” he recalls. Shortly into his tenure in New Rochelle, Walsh met a man who would change his world. The fellow began speaking to him urgently, but Walsh could not understand a word. A few hours later, the man returned to the club with an interpreter and told Walsh he wanted to volunteer to teach karate classes.
When Walsh approached his boss with the idea, the director was incredulous: “What, you are going to teach these kids to fight?” But Walsh was so interested that he began working out one-on-one with his new “Renshi,” Javier Diaz, a respected karate master. It did not take long for the director to see the potential for teaching kids valuable life lessons through karate. Walsh liked the self- defense and competition elements of karate, but it was the character-development part of the philosophy that stuck with him. Walsh related to the step-by-step progress a student makes in karate, from white belt to brown belt to black belt, and so on up the ladder. “Without goals and timetables you don’t get anywhere in life. It goes by pretty fast,” Walsh says.
In New Rochelle, Walsh’s life was going by fast. He had destroyed his knee playing semi-pro baseball and had just gone through a painful divorce. He began looking for a new post at a Boys and Girls Club anywhere in America, preferably far away, when the once- proud Waterville Boys and Girls Club came knocking and invited him to interview for the position of its director.
In December 1991, Walsh drove to Waterville for an interview in his Datsun 280ZX sports car and parked in front of a dilapidated brick building downtown. The club was “all beat up,” he says, and worse, had run deficits for the previous ten years. “There was talk of shutting the club down, while the staff was trying to find money just to pay the oil bill.” On top of that, if he accepted the challenge of trying to turn the club around, he would be paid less than he was making as an assistant director back in New Rochelle. But Walsh did not care. “I had nothing to lose,” he told himself.
“That first month I turned that sucker upside- down,” he says. Walsh remembers being on his hands and knees with his staff scrubbing the floor of the gym. “We had to work with what we had.” But his basic philosophy was simple: “It is all about the kids.” Walsh soon organized a teen center and brought in karate and dance programs. After his first year, the club had a small surplus in the budget. But Walsh’s next hurdle loomed—how to renovate the crumbling 50-year-old building, a big challenge with a $2 million price tag.
That was when one of the former members of his board of directors, Johnny Mitchell, a local sports hero who played basketball for the Boys and Girls Club of Waterville and was brother to then-United States Senator George Mitchell, introduced Walsh to Harold Alfond. Alfond had built the Dexter Shoe Company into an economic powerhouse in central Maine. Mitchell brought Walsh over to Alfond’s house, ostensibly to talk about a contribution to the building campaign, but they spent the first hour and a half watching the Patriots play in a Monday Night Football game. At halftime, as Walsh recalls, “Drew Bledsoe had just scored a touchdown and everyone was feeling good. Harold looked over at me and asked which I wanted, either $50,000 a year for five years, no questions asked, or a $500,000 challenge that had to be matched in a year.” Walsh wanted the challenge, and could see Mitchell nodding at the other end of the room.
Over the next two years Walsh and his board raised $2.1 million and, according to Walsh, “got the club back on track.” Alfond was pleased. The renovated club was soon bursting at the seams, so Walsh prepared to go back to Alfond to talk to him about a brand- new facility. Alfond, already thinking ahead, told Walsh that he should aspire to create “the best Boys and Girls Club in America, but maybe not in its current location.”
In the meantime, Greg Powell, a lawyer who had grown up in Waterville, was recruited by Harold Alfond to help run his foundation. Powell, brand new to the job in 1996, was also aware that in addition to the Boys and Girls Club, two other youth-oriented Waterville organizations—the local YMCA and the city’s recreation department, which was in charge of the public swimming pool—had approached the Alfond Foundation for capital campaign funding. All three needed help to repair their overtaxed and aging facilities.
Alfond and Powell came up with a bold proposal. The pair called the heads of the three organizations to a meeting, also including the two board chairpersons and the mayor of Waterville, to deliver the bad news. None of them would get any money from the foundation. However, the foundation was prepared to make a very large investment in new facilities if the three entities were prepared to cooperate. Alfond and Powell’s reasoning was simple. As Powell explained the rationale to me, “In a city of 14,000 with a declining tax base, everyone could not have their own Taj Mahal.” Furthermore, says Powell, “Instead of three struggling enterprises, maybe you could get one great organization.”
The two foundation leaders then went a step further—a very big step. They laid out their basic criteria for the merger: first, there would be one common facility; second, each organization would contribute assets to the combined effort, and they would agree to work collaboratively to raise the necessary funds for the new facility. To cap off their offer, Alfond and Powell drew up an organizational chart for an umbrella entity with three subsidiaries and named Walsh the leader of the new organization. “Any merger is a big deal,” says Powell, “and needs the right person to lead it.” Alfond and Powell chose Walsh because he had just completed a successful capital campaign. “He was talented, energetic, and engaged in the community—and he had a very strong board,” says Powell. In other words, leadership mattered. “We picked him,” he says of Walsh, “but he earned it.”
Powell smiles as he describes the next part of the story. “All hell broke loose on the boards as the organizations struggled to find common ground,” he says. “Locally respected and committed board members of each organization feared their brands would be diluted.” But slowly the organizations came together. Waterville Mayor Ruth Joseph got the city to donate land next to the town-owned swimming pool and put up a $1 million bond to repair the outdoor pool. Within two years, the $10 million fundraising campaign to meet Alfond’s three-to-one challenge had picked up real steam under Walsh’s leadership. In May of 1999, the organizations established the first- ever combined YMCA Boys and Girls Club in America, named the Alfond Youth Center. Behind this new organization is a story of dedication, passion, and teamwork on the parts of many people. Even more impressive is how these same qualities play out day after day at the center—whether in the myriad sports programs, the dance or gymnastics programs, or the karate program that remains close to Walsh’s heart.
Craig Sargent has been the director of the center’s karate program since 2002. “I have been at the club,” he tells me, “since I was five. I pretty much grew up here.” Sargent met the man he calls Shihan Ken (shihan is a Japanese term translated as “master instructor”) when Walsh became director in 1992. “I was going through hard times,” says Sargent. “I was making bad decisions—shoplifting and fighting at school. Drugs were around. I could have gone down the wrong path. Karate kept me here, but it was also the atmosphere—it was very positive—everyone cared and it was genuine.”
Sargent now oversees 150 kids in programs ranging from “Little Dragons” for three-to- seven-year-olds to classes for teens and adults. “We are focused on character building,” says Sargent, “giving those kids who need it most a chance to learn that discipline.” Walsh says that Sargent “has made a difference in thousands of kids’ lives.”
When Greg Powell reflects back on that first project he worked on with Harold Alfond, he recognizes that the pair had developed the key elements that have become the principles of the foundation’s investment philosophy ever since. Powell and his fellow board members carefully consider whether a leader can catalyze the teamwork necessary and mobilize people to get behind a vision that everyone can be proud of—or, as Powell puts it succinctly, “getting competing organizations together to accomplish bigger objectives, rather than each operating on its own.”
The spectacular success of the Alfond Youth Center in Waterville, which occurred during some of the community’s most stressful economic times, has helped create a blueprint for other private and public investments that are reimagining and reinventing the vibrancy of central Maine—beginning with investing in its young people.
This article was originally published by maine. magazine. Maine Media Collective © 2017