LIVINGSTON, NJ — Longtime West Essex YMCA Executive Director Helen Flores, who led the Y in becoming an integral part of the community, has announced her retirement at the end of the year.
Under her leadership, the West Essex Y has grown in membership, outreach, and recognition. Through partnerships, Flores has helped to establish, the YMCA has been able to address the needs of a diverse population of residents and underserved groups, such as senior citizens and those with chronic diseases.
“Under Helen’s leadership, the Y became a ‘go to’ community partner and well-respected organization in Livingston,” said Richard K. Gorab, president and chief executive officer of the Metropolitan YMCA of the Oranges. “Through her dedication to advancing our cause, she’s made an impact on the YMCA organization that will be felt for years to come.”
Flores, a former kindergarten teacher, said that the YMCA gave her an avenue to help others, which has always been a passion of hers.
”It’s been a great run," she said. "I’ve been very fortunate.”
Flores’ career with the YMCA began 35 years ago at the South Shore YMCA in Staten Island, where she started teaching aerobics classes part-time while raising a family. She spent 15 years there, advancing to senior level positions and eventually becoming the associate director, helping to break a glass ceiling for women at the time.
According to Flores, this was during a time when female directors were uncommon outside of child care and fitness.
She joined the Metropolitan YMCA of the Oranges in 2000, starting at the South Mountain YMCA, where she received the Branch of the Year Award during her first year as branch executive.
She left after two years to be the executive director at the West Essex Y, a full-facility YMCA located in Livingston that offers a wellness center, indoor pool, fitness classes, child care, camp and other programs. She’s responsible for more than 300 full-and part-time staff members and a nearly $10-million budget.
When she came on board, the West Essex Y was not well-regarded in the community and needed a revamp of its programs. She hired staff, introduced quality programs for families and began working with stakeholders in the community to build awareness about the YMCA.
Under her leadership, the West Essex Y helped to launch the annual Bike Livingston event for families, which started in 2012 with 70 participants and has grown to more than 600. This year, the West Essex Y marked its 50th anniversary, with more than 500 people in the community joining in the milestone celebration in October.
Working with Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston as a Healthy Living partner, Flores has championed various causes in the community, such as school community gardens at Edison Middle School and Redwood Elementary School in West Orange, as well as the La Vida Deliciosa program in West Orange, which provides fitness and nutrition education to Hispanic families with low incomes.
During her time as executive director, the West Essex Y was named Branch of the Year for the Metro Y association six times, most recently in 2018. She’s also received numerous honors and citations from the Township of Livingston for her work and collaboration with other community leaders.
Flores takes pride in the Y’s inclusivity and effort to make sure people of all abilities, ages, backgrounds, races, religions, gender identities and sexualities feel welcome. She said the Y gives people the opportunity to help others, especially those who need the Y the most.
At the West Essex Y, Flores helped to introduce programs like Healthy Aging at Home for senior citizens who are recovering from a fall or illness and cannot come to the Y. Instead, a YMCA trainer goes to them to help them exercise and provide socialization so they don’t feel isolated.
"Helen has made numerous contributions to the YMCA over the course of her career,” said Ed Philipp, senior vice president and chief operating officer of the Metropolitan YMCA of the Oranges. "Her leadership is going to be missed and her replacement will certainly have big shoes to fill."
People who have worked with Flores over the years describe her as caring, passionate, well-respected, and dedicated.
“Helen’s enthusiasm and dedication is infectious,” said Kris Boni, chair of the West Essex YMCA Board of Managers and a member of the Metro Y Board of Directors. “Helen has not only involved herself in the West Essex community by serving on various committees, she has established herself as one of the leaders of the community, a person to go to if you need help. Helen is the face of West Essex Y. We will miss her terribly.”
Rudy Fernandez Jr., deputy mayor of Livingston and member of the Kiwanis Club of Livingston along with Flores, said that her "contributions to the Kiwanis Club can never be overstated."
"You could always count on Helen to volunteer at our fundraisers, and the Kiwanis Club was proud to partner with Helen in a number of projects, including sponsoring the Y’s Piranhas Special Olympics swim team," said Fernandez, who also serves on the West Essex Y Board of Managers. "Through Helen's partnerships and meaningful involvement in the community, she increased awareness of the mission of the West Essex Y; nurturing the potential of kids, promoting healthy living and fostering a sense of social responsibility and has made the West Essex Y a better place for the entire community."
Flores acknowledged her strong team of staff in contributing to the branch’s success.
“I’m proud of everything we’ve accomplished,” she said of her staff at the Y. “I have a vision. As a team, they make it happen.”
Flores, a Staten Island resident, said retirement will give her more time to spend with family, including her three daughters, Andrea, Nicole and Sabrina, and her five grandchildren, who range in age from 2 to 12.