YWCA leaner now, and so is its leader

When Lisa Rockley-Cline tells people she works for the YWCA of Greater Kansas City, the response she often gets is, “I think I used to work out at that one.”

“No way,” she quickly tells them.

The YWCA doesn’t do gym memberships.

That’s the other organization —YMCA — the one the Village People sang about.

Rockley-Cline is executive director of this area’s Young Women’s Christian Association. Headquartered in Wyandotte County, the agency was established in 1901 with a mission to eliminate racism and create growth opportunities for girls and women.

Today, the YWCA offers an array of educational programs across the area, aimed primarily at promoting healthy living.

In recent years, though, the local YWCA has been anything but healthy. Neither was Rockley-Cline, the woman hired more than two years ago to save the agency from financial ruin.

Both were operating with too much fat. And both knew it.

So the agency and its director have traveled parallel paths: She went from a size 18 to a size 6. The YWCA went from a three-story building to an office the size of some closets.

She’s in great shape now, but the YWCA is still hanging on by a financial thread.

Tough road ahead

Rockley-Cline, a 2005 Kansas State University graduate, grew up on a farm in Olpe, Kan., the daughter of a power plant electrician and a special education teacher. She was known as quite an equestrian, showing Quarter horses raised on her family’s farm.

After college, Rockley-Cline led two nonprofits, including the Historic Kansas City Foundation, but then realized she wanted to work with youth.

Perfect timing.

The YWCA was looking for someone with her experience and energy.

When Rockley-Cline, now 31, sat down for an interview in the YWCA’s renovated headquarters in downtown Kansas City, Kan., “the first thing they asked me was whether I could operate in the red,” she recalled.

Rockley-Cline took the job thinking,

“this is going to be tough.”

The problem was that the YWCA had adopted an ambitious growth strategy that didn’t work.

Seven years ago, the agency launched a $4.2 million capital campaign to renovate its 14,000-square-foot, 52-year-old building. The work was done, but the capital campaign fell nearly $700,000 short. Nor could the YWCA raise the $150,000 needed to keep operations going for a year.

The agency “really started to see losses after we expanded the building,” said board president Janet Baker.

Meanwhile, YWCA officials had already embarked on a strategy that had worked for nonprofits elsewhere: Launch businesses and use the profits to beef up the charity’s bank account and finance its core mission.

A coffee shop opened in 2003, and the YWCA building also became home to a theater, women’s fitness center and a gallery. But those businesses never made enough money to offset expenses.

“The YWCA is a social work organization,” said Baker, who was not on the board back then. “We have expertise for women’s programs, not selling cups of coffee.”

From 2006 to 2008, the YWCA accumulated an overall net loss of $1.6 million.

“This was our fault,” Baker said, “because at a point we shifted from our core mission. And it drew the staff’s and board’s attention away from the mark.”

By the end of 2008, the agency had only $220 in cash and owed vendors more than $50,000.

It could not make the payments on its $1.5 million construction loan.

Too little too late

Rockley-Cline took the job in 2009, fully aware of the enormity of the problem she was inheriting. But she had no idea of the toll it would take on her.

“I was working all day and all night. I stopped working out, and I was eating fast food for just about every meal.”

At one point, her weight approached 200 pounds. But she did make the Y leaner.

She cut staff, rented space to other groups and brought in someone to manage the businesses. Two organizations brought members to the YWCA’s weekly buffets just to throw more money its way.

But by the time the businesses began turning a profit, it was too late. A public appeal for funds was unsuccessful

“We had to call the bank,” Rockley-Cline said, “and tell them we couldn’t afford to stay in our building.”

Now the YWCA operates from a tiny one-room office. Only two people remain on the payroll, Rockley-Cline and a program director.

Except for a few folding chairs set up on the pink carpet, the office is empty. Furnishings were left behind.

“We can’t afford movers, or new carpet,” Rockley-Cline said. “And besides, I love that pink carpet because it’s not costing us anything right now.”

Most of the time, Rockley-Cline works from home. At least she has a desk there.

However, volunteers still take YWCA programming to schools and community centers for about 700 girls and women each year.

“Girl Power” offers nutrition and healthy living classes to students in grades 4 through 8. Another program teaches girls about dating and relationships.

“Our programs are strong,” Rockley-Cline said.

But the Y still owes $80,000 to vendors, and it’s not making payments on the million-dollar loan it still owes the bank. Interest and fees push the loan balance higher every month.

“We have come so far, and we are so close I can taste it,” said Rockley-Cline.

A marriage of motivation

Last year, four months before her June wedding, Rockley-Cline began trimming herself down. But her desire to get fit was brought on by more than her pending nuptials.

Many girls served by the Y are obese, malnourished or both.

“There we are, out there telling girls how to eat healthy but the executive director of the organization had an unhealthy BMI (body mass index),” Rockley-Cline said.

So she got to work.

Her size 18 wedding dress had to be altered several times. Today, she’s nearly 70 pounds leaner.

Taut muscles now define her shoulders, arms and calves. A smiling, petite Rockley-Cline even posed for the cover of a Johnson County magazine.

But like the Y, Rockley-Cline didn’t lose the fat without help. With a trainer, she was in the gym six days a week. She consumed more water and protein and cut out the burgers and fries.

“The YWCA is not sustainable yet,” Rockley-Cline said. “But we are both healthier and smarter.”