Kurtis Dawson is all Grays Harbor, all the time.
His career is centered on community activism — he’s the CEO of the YMCA of Grays Harbor — and he spends much of his free time improving the community, too.
“Grays Harbor, it’s unbelievable,” Dawson said. “We have so many people out here who rally around a cause and do everything they can to help out. It’s amazing to see, and I’m glad to be part of it.”
Dawson has lived in the Aberdeen and Central Park area for almost his entire life. And before that, he lived just down the road in Raymond.
He even attended college nearby. He earned his associate’s degree from Grays Harbor College and a bachelor’s degree in business from the Evergreen State College while still living on the Harbor.
“Besides vacation, I’ve never left,” Dawson said. “It’s where I want to be, so here I am.”
From front desk to CEO
Dawson has been the CEO of the YMCA of Grays Harbor for about six years, but his career with the organization spans his entire adult life.
He’s held nearly every job at the YMCA — from janitor to camp counselor. He began his career in 1996 while studying at Grays Harbor College.
“I saw an ad in The Daily World, and I wasn’t looking for a career by any means,” Dawson said. “I was just looking for a way to earn some money part-time.”
He was hired to work at the front desk of the old Hoquiam facility, and eventually became involved with youth sports and youth activities.
“Now those kids I worked with aren’t kids anymore,” Dawson said. “I’m old enough and I’ve been here long enough that some of those kids who were hanging out at the Y back then are bringing in their own kids.”
Dawson has never taught a swimming lesson at the YMCA — but that’s just about the only thing he hasn’t done. He did begin a course so that he would be able to teach lessons back in 1999.
“I was working there so much, and I wanted to be able to get more hours,” Dawson said. “But I wasn’t very good at it. I remember getting up early in the morning and trying to teach myself these strokes that I was supposed to be able to teach some kids.”
At about that time, he was offered another job managing the United Postal Express office in Aberdeen. He had just gotten married, and needed the money to provide for his family. Dawson never thought he’d go back to work at the YMCA.
But he couldn’t stay away. Every few months, former YMCA employee Chris Grubb would call Dawson and ask how he was doing and how much money he was making. In May of 2001, Grubb offered Dawson a job, and he became the youth and teen director.
“I was doing everything from youth in government to dances,” Dawson said.
He’s also served as the local YMCA’s membership director, interim maintenance director and associate executive director.
“I’ve done pretty much everything you can do at the Y except teach a swim lesson or teach an aerobics class,” Dawson said.
“And I have no plans (to teach a swim class) because swimming isn’t one of my strengths,” he added. “I was killing myself back then trying to learn all of those strokes.”
The best part about working at the YMCA, Dawson said, is the variety. Every day is a new challenge. He spends a lot of time talking to members and staff, making sure that the organization is running smoothly.
Unlike at larger branches, such as ones in Seattle or Tacoma, Grays Harbor’s CEO job is hands-on. He doesn’t just manage the organization’s budget and sit in his office all day.
“The board hires me to make sure that the organization’s vision is brought forth in what we do,” Dawson said. “And in my opinion, my major job is to be a problem solver. I have a great team here that makes me look good.”
“I love 99 percent of my job, and it’s that one percent that I get paid for,” he added.
Dawson said he’s a true believer in the organization and the message his staff tries to convey. He said the YMCA is all about learning and teaching skills for a happier, more successful life.
“It’s about relationships, it’s about growing, it’s about helping people be who they want to be,” Dawson said.
On average, YMCA of Grays Harbor has about 140 staff members — 14 are full-time employees, and the rest work seasonally or on varying schedules. Some part-time staff members work only five hours per week teaching classes, others work more hours as preschool teachers. During the summer, the organization hires more people.
“My staff is a home-away-from-home, and my hope is that they’ll come to work every day and be happy to be there,” Dawson said.
He hopes to continue working for the YMCA for the rest of his career.
A true believer
Dawson fosters a pro-Grays Harbor attitude at the YMCA, but his efforts don’t stop there. He firmly believes in the power of community, and that there are people on Grays Harbor who will go out of their way to help their neighbors.
“I’m a firm believer that attitude is everything, what you contribute is what you get back,” Dawson said. “It’s not necessarily being Pollyanna, or playing the glad game. There are good things going on in our community, there are great people who have committed their careers to service — whether it be at an elementary school, at the hospital or at the college.”
He uses this mentality in his non-profit work for the Aberdeen Rotary Club. Dawson has been a member for about six years, and is in the middle of a 16-month term as president.
Dawson said one of his favorite Rotary programs is the dictionary program. Club members purchase dictionaries for every fourth-grade student in the Aberdeen and Cosmopolis school districts and St. Mary’s School.
“It’s such a blast in this high-tech world to see those students with that big, thick dictionary,” Dawson said. “They’re just so stoked to open it and look up words. We’re trying to encourage that love of learning because that’s what it’s all about.”
The organization also donates scholarships for Grays Harbor College and supports other non-profit organizations.
“We try to be a gap filler,” Dawson said. “We try to make up for things organizations have to leave off in their budgets for whatever reason.”
He’s currently organizing Rotary’s annual auction, which will take place March 29.
“I’m not a fan of that top-down mentality,” Dawson said. “Change has to bubble up from below.”
“I think that what a lot of people don’t realize is that by not doing anything, they’re affecting things — and not in a positive way,” Dawson said. “By just standing still you’re not helping the community move in a positive direction. You’re not being a positive catalyst for change.”
“Right now, it’s a season where I’m stretched too thin and I’ve got too much going on,” Dawson said. “But soon the Rotary auction will be over, and things will go back to normal.”
Dawson’s job and volunteer work keep him busy, but his family members keep him grounded — especially his oldest daughter, 14-year-old Katelyn.
“She’ll see me texting while I’m talking to her and she’ll say, ‘Dad, you’re not listening,’ ” Dawson said. “And she’s right. She teaches me to be better.”
Dawson has been married to his wife, Sasha, for nearly 15 years. They have four daughters: Katelyn, 12-year-old Olivia, 10-year-old Audrey and 8-year-old Elise. Each of the girls is unique and teaches him something different.
Dawson said that Elise, who has some special needs, teaches the family to appreciate every achievement and to make sure special moments don’t get lost in the bustle of everyday life.
“Our youngest daughter Elise, she doesn’t crawl or walk yet,” Kurtis Dawson said. “With the other girls, we took so much for granted. You miss some of the smallest miracles. With Elise, we get to celebrate the smallest things that she does. The first time that she reached out and grabbed a cup by herself, it was amazing.”
“It’s one of those experiences where it isn’t fair, but I believe that nothing’s going to come my way that I can’t handle,” he added.
In an effort to provide the best they can for their children, the Dawsons homeschool the girls. Sasha stays at home with them every day.
“We’ve made a commitment that my wife is going to be home with the kids, and it’s a commitment we’ve stuck to,” he said.
Dawson said he learned his pro-Grays Harbor attitude from his parents — and it’s something he hopes to pass down to his daughters. His father was a preacher who taught his children about community activism.
“I tell my girls that life’s not fair,” Dawson said. “Fair is cotton candy and pony rides. You can’t choose your circumstances, but you can choose how you respond to those circumstances.”
“People have told me that I’m naive,” he added. “But you know what? My life is blessed. Do I have everything? No. Do I need everything? No. But I know that God has blessed me. All I have to do is look at my wife and kids, and I know that.”
Amelia Dickson: 360-537-3936 or firstname.lastname@example.org and @DW_Amelia on Twitter