Anthony Walters’ career with the YMCA of South Hampton Roads spans over 20 years. But, just three months into his position as president and CEO, he was faced with the unexpected and overwhelming responsibility of leading the organization through a pandemic.
“I’m pretty strong in my faith, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted this,” he says. “I am one that believes that the Lord puts you in certain positions for a reason. Whether you like that destiny or not, that destiny is for you.”
A combination of destiny and visionary leadership brought the Foodbank and the YMCA together in March when the COVID-19 pandemic first reached our service area.
At the onset of the pandemic, the Foodbank immediately faced a set of challenges that would impact the way we operate. Because of social distancing guidelines, we needed to suspend volunteer shifts, meaning that we could no longer rely on more than 6,000 volunteers to pack, sort and distribute food. In order to protect the safety of individuals distributing and receiving food, we suspended Friday USDA food distributions at our headquarters on Tidewater Drive.
Meanwhile, the YMCA of South Hampton Roads was experiencing challenges of a similar magnitude. The pandemic forced all facilities to close and all family programming to cease.
The Foodbank’s President and CEO, Dr. Ruth Jones Nichols, approached the YMCA leadership with the idea of a partnership for both organizations to leverage resources without duplicating efforts. Anthony was on board with the idea from the get go. “We have the manpower, we have the staffing, and we have the facilities,” he says. The footprint of the YMCA of South Hampton Roads spans over 4,000 square miles, from the Eastern Shore all the way to Franklin in Western Tidewater. “It made sense for us to say, ‘We can walk alongside of you,’” Anthony says. “We were the best fit to help.”
Along with physical locations and a staff dedicated to serving their community, the YMCA was an ideal fit for a deeper rooted reason. Their organization is focused on promoting wellness and healthy living, and on a broader level, the Y is dedicated to working side-by-side with neighbors to address critical community needs to help kids develop into smart, resilient adults; for individuals to improve their health and build a sense of community; and for vulnerable young people to get the care and support they need. “This has helped really to define our purpose,” Anthony says. “All of a sudden, we returned back to our roots, which is around a charitable, cause-driven organization. It is my opinion that this is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing.”
The Foodbank collaborated to establish four distribution and five food donation sites at local YMCA facilities to be co-operated by Foodbank and YMCA staff. The drive-thru distributions are an adaptation of the Foodbank’s Mobile Pantry Program, aimed at practicing safe social distancing. Through this partnership, the YMCA continued employing several staffers who may have otherwise been furloughed due to the facility closures, and the Foodbank was able to safely continue operations despite a shortage in volunteers. “It’s harder to work in a silo,” Anthony describes. “We get more mileage and we help more people when we come together.”
While the reason for coming together wasn’t ideal, Anthony says he feels blessed to be chosen as a leader within a group of dynamic leaders across the community and region to help carry individuals through something of this magnitude—something that we’ve never seen before. “We all need that similar fortitude and vision to see not only what’s happening right now but getting to the other side of it.”
Anthony likens serving during the pandemic to rushing into a burning building, and moments like this have motivated him to keep going. “It reminds you that there’s no hesitation when it’s time to run in,” he says. “There are some people who have to run in. That is their job, and that is what they’ve been called to do. That is my job right now, to help and ask others to come with me. We have work to do.”
In some ways, Anthony says he feels like this work is forming him. One evening at the end of a distribution at the Y on Granby, he remembers seeing a woman drive into the parking lot. When the woman realized that the distribution was over and that she may not have an opportunity to receive food, she put her hands in her face and started crying. “She broke down right on the spot,” Anthony remembers. But he wasn’t going to let her leave with nothing. He ran inside to retrieve a box of food to put in the woman’s car. All of a sudden, she was crying tears of joy and relief rather than tears of disappointment. “That’s somebody who just missed the time,” Anthony explains. “She really needs it. This wasn’t anything extra. This was a need.”
Experiences like this are what keeps Anthony motivated. “It reminds you that there’s no hesitation when it’s time to run into that building,” he says. “You’re not thinking about anything other than saving people. All I want to do right now is get people out of their present-day circumstances alive.”