ESSEX COUNTY, NJ - So many of Brian Sheafer’s childhood memories revolve around the YMCA. Sitting at the edge of an aerobics class to watch his mother teach. Shooting hoops with friends on Friday nights. Helping to set up for the fun-filled Healthy Kids Day events.

“Looking back, there was this sense of belonging. It really was a community, where you could engage with people across generations,” said Sheafer, 35, who has spent most of his professional life working for YMCAs.

On Feb. 22, Sheafer will join the leadership team of the Metropolitan YMCA of the Oranges — the largest association of YMCAs in New Jersey — in the newly created position of vice president for strategic operations.

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“Brian has proven himself to be an effective leader who can implement the ambitious goals the Metro YMCA has set as we strive to expand programs and create new initiatives. I feel confident that he will be an asset as we further our mission to strengthen community through youth development, healthy living and social responsibility,’’ Metro Y President and CEO Richard K. Gorab said.

Among an impressive list of initiatives, Sheafer will introduce Livestrong at the YMCA, a well-being program for cancer survivors, lead the member experience initiative, and help expand the reach of Stewards of Children, a training program to combat child sexual abuse. Sheafer will track the effectiveness of the new Y efforts through data analysis. 

“I’m excited to do this impactful work in an area near where I grew up,’’ the Union Township native said.

He was 18 when he got his first job teaching basketball part-time to 4-,5- and 6-year-olds at the Five Points YMCA in Union Township.

“What I learned was, I wasn’t very good at it,’’ he said. “Knowing how to play basketball doesn’t mean you know how to teach it to children.” Fortunately, Sheafer said, a parent volunteer took him under his  wings until he got the knack of it.

While earning his bachelor’s degree in economics at Rutgers University, Sheafer worked at the Y coaching youth sports on weekends and teaching personal training sessions. Eventually he became the on-duty manager on Friday nights and weekends.

Sheafer was hired as associate sports director at the Summit YMCA when he graduated. A year later, he landed a job at the Rahway branch of the Eastern Union County Y as senior program director.

A chance to work with former Gov. Jim McGreevey lured Sheafer into the private sector working for the child care company, The Learning Experience. As part of the senior management team, Sheafer opened and managed more than 50 locations in 12 states.

The job eventually took him to Florida, where an opportunity opened at the YMCA of South Florida. “I always had a connection to nonprofit work,’’ said Sheafer, who served on the Summit Y board of managers while in corporate work.

As vice president of children’s services at the YMCA of South Florida, Sheafer oversaw before- and after-school programs and preschool for more than 3,500 children a day, as well 14 summer camp locations.  Through collaborations, including a partnership with the University of Miami, the Y made strides in reducing obesity and closing the achievement gap. 

“We saw a 95 percent increase in fitness and literacy levels,’’ he said.

Sheafer also developed a young professionals group using the Y-USA’s Togetherhood model, in which volunteers develop and execute four service projects a year that benefit the community. The group, for example, collected more than 400 holiday gifts for preschoolers living in one of the poorest, crime-ridden sections of Miami. 

“Engaging volunteers is at the heart of our mission,’’ he said.

The Y-USA selected Sheafer to help create a training program for future Y CEOs, a course he plans to eventually take on the path to fulfilling his career goal of heading a Y.

“I come from a Y family,’’ said Sheafer, whose wife, Lisa, is a Y youth and family development director. The couple has a 3-year-old daughter, Mila, and a 7-month-old son, Maddox.