Chris Siegler left the Missoula YMCA last week with superhero status.
The organization’s longest-serving board member was awarded a cape and mask to celebrate his 29-year volunteer tenure there – a fitting tribute for Siegler, whose work for the Y has touched both local and international communities in awe-inspiring ways.
“He’s seen this YMCA from inception to where it became a full-facility Y, through all its growing pains to the established community facility it is today,” said Jon Lange, Missoula YMCA executive director. “But the most notable (accomplishment) is the amazing international partnership with Sierra Leone.”
Siegler never imagined his ties to the African country, where he met his wife, Jeannie, as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1960s, would eventually result in a unique and powerful bond between Missoula and Sierra Leone.
But let’s start from the beginning: Siegler joined the board in 1986 when the Missoula YMCA was a fledgling organization still establishing itself and its programs.
“Like an awful lot of people, I had experienced growing up with the Y, and it was pretty meaningful with me,” said Siegler, who recently retired from a career in financial services. “It was pretty natural to go back.”
The first order of business was a capital campaign to raise funds to build a permanent facility on Russell Street.
Siegler helped the Y raise 80 percent of the funds from small donors.
“Which to me really symbolized Missoula,” Siegler said. “In most campaigns, 80 percent is raised from big donors. In Missoula, it was the reverse.”
There was a time when Siegler and the board focused mainly on making sure it was a good facility, including the exercise areas where members workout.
That strong facility helped the Missoula Y launch an entirely new, constantly evolving lineup of programming.
“Recently, what the board has really been asking is, ‘How can we strengthen families?’ ” Siegler said.
Through the years, especially in the past decade, the Y’s ability to identify and react to specific community needs has inspired Siegler.
“It realized specific needs in the community,” he said. “Now, an awful lot of what we do is getting kids ready for school. The big marker is if they can read at grade level by third grade, they’ll graduate high school. This year, they have a learning loss prevention program.”
It provides a camp-like setting for kids to practice things like reading so they don’t fall behind during the summer.
It was in 2004 that a seed bound to bloom into a strong international partnership between the YMCAs in Sierra Leone and Missoula was planted.
Siegler and Jeannie traveled back to Sierra Leone that year, following a vicious civil war that devastated the country.
Turns out that the YMCA in Freetown was well established, having been build in 1912.
Much like the Missoula Y, the Freetown Y was committed to shifting its mission to solve their community’s most pressing problems, and had been key in helping young people disenfranchised from the war find education and build career skills, Siegler said.
“What the Y focuses on there is getting young people involved in the communities. Helping them see if they want to make changes, they’re going to have to get involved,” he said.
The Sieglers also learned of a planned expansion of the YMCA in Sierra Leon. They need $5,000 to start the project in the northern town of Makeni.
Siegler rolled up his sleeves and got to work.
Since then, along with numerous cultural exchanges that have helped the Ys share ideas and inspirations, the Missoula Y has raised $85,000 for the land and facility in Makeni.
That partnership displays what made Siegler such a special board member, Lange said.
“He builds bridges and puts them together and creates something special,” Lange said. “I’ve loved that about him. He’s looked at how the Peace Corps and the Y and the government might work together. … He’s a guy that spins up things (like an entrepreneur), and they work. It’s pretty cool.”
When the Ebola epidemic struck the country and stalled progress of the Y in Makeni, the Missoula Y helped raise close to $19,000 for that fight.
The close connection allowed money donated in Missoula go directly to aid Sierra Leon.
“We could assure them that if they gave us money, it would go right to where it was needed,” Siegler said. “That’s the other thing about the Y movement; we ended up sending the money to Y USA in Chicago, who wired it to Sierra Leon with no conversion cost.”
The funds helped produce informational radio spots and buy crucial supplies like food packages for people in quarantine.
Siegler is confident that the partnership will continue to flourish. In recent years, he’s seen the Missoula Y staff and board take ownership of the partnership.
“I feel really good. We just have a really strong board. It’s time for them to get in and make their imprint,” he said.
For his part – as he heads into “retired” life (he still serving on four other local boards) – Siegler thinks the contributions board members make to local entities are well worth it.
“If you commit to being on a board, then you commit to learn about everything it is that organization does and how you can best give back to your community through that board,” Siegler said. “It’s very rewarding.”