PHOTOS BY // MICHAEL GLEASON PHOTOGRAPHY
Charles Stewart Mott, Fred Aldrich, A.B.C. Hardy and William S. Ballenger, Jr: an impressive, successive line of chief executive officers (CEOs) as there ever was. And to think these gentlemen set the tone for a local organization that has been around for 105 years – the Greater Flint YMCA (GFY)! There have been nine GFY CEOs since 1914, but on November 1 of this year, history was made. Michelle (Shelly) Hilton was appointed the tenth GFY CEO and thus became the first female to hold this position in its long and storied past.
“In my mind I try to minimize it,” she says with emotion, “but when I think of the Flint Y’s legacy and think about all the young women professionals who work so hard, it becomes very important to me to be a role model. I will not take this position lightly and while there is a sense of accomplishment, it is very humbling.”
If there ever was a person made for a position, Shelly Hilton not only followed her goals but worked extremely hard to earn her achievements along the way.
She was raised in the town of Lake Odessa, MI and because her parents were schoolteachers, summers were spent in the town of Caledonia, MI where the family manned Hilton Park, a private recreational park that has been in the Hilton family for over 100 years. Shelly and her three brothers were the workforce. Obviously, her DNA was formed during these years as she continued to pursue a degree in recreation parks and leisure services with a minor in human development from Central Michigan University. During summers, she worked at a YMCA camp near Grand Rapids, MI, where she oversaw their counselors’ training program. She remembers working with some of the international counselors who went through previous training at the GFY’s Camp Copneconic (CC) and listened to how much they enjoyed their time there.
“After graduation (in 2000) I knew I wanted a full-time camp position,” she recalls. She sent out resumes and eventually was contacted by CC’s executive director and in due course, hired as an outdoor education program instructor in the fall of 2000. She vividly remembers gelling with what CC was all about and that it was mission-driven.
Through the ensuing years, she took on increasing roles of responsibility, earning CC’s associate executive director position. After a few years, she realized CC’s executive director was solid in his position, so she started looking at other development opportunities. In the spring of 2013, the GFY’s Pierson Road branch executive director decided to retire. There was a national YMCA search for the replacement. Even though she knew there would be many good candidates, she decided to apply.
“At that time, I was ready to expand my organizational and people development experience, plus I was eager for a new challenge,” she reminisces. “The timing was right and since my career goal was to get to a CEO seat, this move was a natural.”
Hilton got the Pierson Road branch executive director’s position later in 2013 and hit the ground running. She concentrated on establishing a memberfocused culture. She formed partnerships with local organizations such as Hurley Medical Center, added member benefits such as personal training and group fitness programs and developed a cohesive and enthusiastic staff. In the back of her mind though, she had thoughts of someday returning to a camp environment. That opportunity presented itself in 2016 when CC’s executive director unexpectedly announced his departure. Keeping her sights on her career goals, she applied and moved to CC’s executive director position in December 2016.
“Once again, the timing was right and I felt extremely confident going back to camp. I felt I had some unfinished business there,” she says with a sense of determination.
With the experiences gained through her Pierson Road tenure, she looked at CC’s customers and what their needs were and developed a culture of prioritizing their expectations. With the ever-increasing safety concerns at any public venue, Hilton was proactive and aggressively positioned safety and security enhancements throughout the campgrounds and facilities. She adds, “Our staff blossomed with program innovations and what we do daily. Simply put, our team is great and the product they deliver is great.”
Earlier this year, the GFY’s CEO, Fritz Cheek, announced his retirement after 14 years as CEO and 37 years at the GFY, including 23 years as CC’s executive director. Always having a drive toward her career goals, Shelly admits she never realized a CEO opportunity would be at the GFY. Knowing the candidates would be well-qualified and the competition level very high and intense, she went through the selection process and was appointed CEO of the GFY on November 1.
“I have been here for 19 years and worked with great people,” she says. “Through all my job transitions I’ve learned a lot, but I still want to learn more. Although I’m ready to jump right in, I want to be sure to listen to what the community needs and wants from our YMCA. One thing I want to move forward with is a new building. This current building (in downtown Flint, built in 1962) has lived a great life, but it is time for a new, modern, community-focused facility. I plan to be here a long time and want people to recognize that we will unite the community by building relationships, addressing health and wellness challenges and offering innovative programming for the entire family. And, we will be the premier organization in the greater Flint area for youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. Above all, we will follow our mission because we are going to improve the quality of life for the people who visit us. The Greater Flint YMCA is a place where you belong and a have a sense of community.”