60 years with YMCA in Brazil, from girl to grandmother

Date: 04 January 2021

2002: Marisia with YMCA Sao Paulo colleagues

“Every day in the YMCA is like my first day”, says Marisia Donatelli, CEO of YMCA São Paulo, Brazil, nearly 60 years after she first fell in love with the organization.  “It is my passion and my life’s work.”

“But I have never had so difficult a year as I did in 2020”, she continues. From the start of the Covid pandemic in February, she did everything she could to safeguard YMCA Sao Paulo, and its staff.

At the outset, she brought forward staff holidays while she and her fellow leaders planned the best to way to keep staff in their jobs.  The Brazilian Government helped, allowing the organization to reduce staff salaries in order to avoid letting people go. YMCA Sao Paulo’s income dropped by 60% as people cancelled their membership fees.

“During my 60 years working for the YMCA, I had never seen anything like it. It was heartbreaking”, she says.

2002: Marisia Donatelli & Carlos Guieros Director of YMCA Sao Paulo – Marisia leads YMCA Sao Paulo centenary celebrations

As a leader, Marisia Donatelli faced many difficult decisions in 2020.  At a time of distancing, in fact she needed to get closer to volunteers, staff and Board members, to chart their next steps. “I always talked to the executives, staff and volunteers. I am afraid I had to let some of them go. That was the worst part for me, as we are dealing with lives and dreams.”

Some 10% of her 700 staff had to leave, and YMCA São Paulo itself had to close for almost seven months.

YMCA São Paulo is one of the biggest YMCAs in the Latin America and Caribbean region, with 11 sports branches and 20 social centers. Annually, it reaches more than 10,000 people. It runs social programmes for children, teens, adults and the elderly, encompassing everything from meals served to professional training.

“In all this, I am proud that even though we had to retrench, we actually launched new things too, including new virtual programmes.  We ran new virtual fitness programmes like ‘YHome’, ‘YFitness’ and ‘YWellness’, not just for our members, but for the general public too.”

“We followed up virtually with all those who usually attended our social centers in person, especially with online educational and cultural activities. We mobilized donations for vulnerable families and children and, with the support of local businesses and YMCA São Paulo, collected 1 ton of supplies for low-income families.”

In 2020, Marisia Donatelli had to draw deep on 60 years of love for knowledge of the YMCA.  She remembers when she started working for the YMCA in the 1960s, when it was much smaller and barely funded.

She started working at the YMCA in 1961, working on sports and recreational programmes in the Children’s Department.  In 1964 she was invited to attend the YMCA Executive Preparation School, while at the same time studying Economics in PUC-São Paulo Catholic University.

2012: Marisia supports YMCA São Paulo’s annual campaign to gather and distribute clothes to low-income families in the winter season

She broadened her YMCA experience to include Children, Youth, Adults and Elderly. After graduating, she held roles in the Communications, Programmes, Membership and Fundraising Departments. She became the General Secretary of YMCA São Paulo in 2000, and two years later organized its centenary celebrations.

“From the earliest days, I had to take care of the kids, and at the same time clean the locker rooms, the sports courts and keep the offices in order. We all gave 110%.”

She recalls how the lessons learned over many years of resilience have helped her in 2020: working hard, working openly and honestly, and having faith.  “We are always asking ourselves how we can do more, with fewer resources.  We try, try and try again.”

She loves to watch and to join young YMCA volunteers as they go out and help in their communities with meal boxes, and small gifts of personal items.  “Watching this, it’s so emotional, so satisfying”, she says.  “At all times we must remain true to our mission, and serve our community.”