By David Blanchette

Angie Sowle grew up in a small town in Iowa where the YMCA was an integral part of the community. The summer before her senior year of college, she had an internship at her hometown YMCA, overseeing a summer program for low-income children. Seeing the profound effects it had on the children’s lives influenced her career trajectory. After graduation, she was hired by the Springfield YMCA and has devoted her entire career to the organization. Sowle was appointed the CEO in 2013.

She and her husband, Todd, live in Leland Grove. They have four grown children; the youngest is away at college. Sowle was a recipient of Springfield Business Journal’s Women of Influence award in 2018.

Where were you born and raised, and how did you end up in Springfield? I was born in Belleville, Illinois, and my family moved to Keokuk, Iowa, when I was 5 years old. That was my home until I went to college. I went to Northeast Missouri State University in Kirksville, which is now Truman State, and majored in parks and recreation with an emphasis on exercise physiology.

I applied for two jobs when I was approaching the end of my senior year in college, both of them at YMCAs. I got hired at the Springfield YMCA, and I have been here ever since.

What was it like being involved in the planning and realization of the new YMCA facility? Looking back now, I can say that it was a little bit scary. But we encountered so many fabulous people who believe in the Y and what the Y does for the community. So it was really refreshing and validating to meet with various community leaders about it.

The scary part was really the feelings we had before we started doing it, but once we started going out and having those meetings, asking community members what they wanted to see in the new facility, it was very affirming.

What are the nuances of the job at the YMCA that most people may not realize? We are actually a large employer; we employ over 400 people, so personnel is a big piece of it. And being a nonprofit doesn’t mean that you don’t have to make good financial decisions. You have financial benchmarks and milestones that you have to make to continue to operate.

click to enlarge Q&A with Angie Sowle
Angie Sowle, right, reads with Decolbie, a participant in the YMCA Strong Kids after-school program. PHOTOS COURTESY SPRINGFIELD YMCA

How do you stay on top of the services members want to receive? I have a fantastic team, and that is the key. To lead an organization, you need to surround yourself with fabulous people. People who work in nonprofits are a different breed; they put other people in front of themselves, they work tirelessly for a cause. They are always promoting the bigger issue and helping to represent the underdog. I am surrounded by people like that, and that’s how I do it. I have an amazing team.

How do you stay competitive with the myriad of health and fitness facilities that are out there? We just do what we’ve always done. Our ability to pivot and to change who we are as an organization is what has kept us in this community for 150 years. But at our core, we are the same organization that we were when brilliant people long before me started a YMCA in this community.

We have experts in each field of service, whether that’s health and wellness or youth sports or aquatics. We study the trends, we know what is present on a national level, and we are very intune to community needs from a variety of sources. We collaborate with a lot of other organizations, and we take stock in what those organizations tell us about what this community is missing and needs. We also have a really large workforce, and these front-line staff know what the members want and what the community wants. We go to the source and find the right information, and if we are able to provide that service, we absolutely do.

What recent wellness and recreation trends are you noticing? Virtual fitness options did not go away when COVID-19 dissipated. We still offer many of our group fitness classes through Zoom. There are a certain group of people who don’t come in to participate in a group fitness class, and I honestly don’t see that going away any time soon. The health risk is kind of over for most of the population, and yet we still see a large number of people participate via Zoom each week. So we’re going to continue to do that as long as that is what the community is asking us for.

The Springfield YMCA was recently at the center of a national controversy. How did you balance dealing with that attention while still keeping the facility fully operational for members? We are governed by a board of directors and a board of trustees that offer a lot of support and advice. Our staff team puts the needs of others before themselves. People picked their chins up and came into work every single day, and we continued to do our best to serve the community.

We are aligned with the national YMCA, which is headquartered in Chicago, and we get advice, guidance and information from them that helps us to face adverse situations. It was a national issue, and there was definitely some ugliness surrounding it, but there were also a lot of really good people who came out in support of the YMCA, and we got through it together.

What did you learn while dealing with that national issue? We are a strong organization. I always knew that, but I’m not sure we had really been tested. I thought COVID-19 was a test for us, and it turned out that we had another test in front of us. But we rose to it, and I never doubted that we had supporters and people who believe in us and what we do. They maybe weren’t as loud and boisterous as the others, but they were definitely large in number and really wrapped their arms around us and helped us to face the adversity.

The core of who we are is we treat people respectfully, we treat our community members with decency, we accept individuals for who they are and we just stay true to who we are. That helped guide and lead us.

What advice would you give to young people who may be considering a career in your field? It’s hard work to serve as many people as we do and maintain the hours that we do. I definitely wouldn’t undersell it to anybody. But I can’t imagine being involved in an organization or a job that is more fulfilling, that helps you to see the best of humanity, a place where you can walk out of your office and be inspired by any one person you come into contact with. You know their story and the role that the Y has played in their life. I don’t know where to find that sort of inspiration that lives outside of the Y, so I would encourage anyone to do it. It’s a fabulous place to work.

What might people be surprised to learn about you? I have a goal to become a published author of children’s books. I have written a few of them and that is something I’d love to pursue, possibly upon retirement when I have a little bit more time.

Got something to say?

Send a letter to the editor and we'll publish your feedback in print!

Comments (0)
Add a Comment