Meet Alina Pop of YMCA Romania, winner of the first YMCA President’s Award

Tell us about your current role, Alina.

For the last 10 years I have served as National General Secretary of YMCA Romania. I consider myself privileged to work with a team of young professionals – project managers, mentors, youth workers – most of them serving before as YMCA volunteers. My role is to implement the strategic directions set by the General Assembly and the Board, coordinate the national office staff and volunteers’ team, manage the bigger projects with national and international impact, lead the advocacy work, and create partnerships with local, national and international stakeholders. 

In YMCA Romania we firmly believe in the role of young people in society, promoting empowerment as a core principle so that young people can learn, grow and thrive, get involved in the YMCA and in their communities, and use their voices and actions to bring positive change. 

I see leadership as inspiring others by being the example, so my role as a leader is to create a safe, inclusive, intergenerational environment in which great ideas can flourish in order to serve our mission and empower young people. 

Alina (4th from the left) at YMCA BAlkan Leadership Training _Ohrid, North MAcedonia

Tell us the story of you and the YMCA – from the beginning!

My YMCA story began in 2000 when I was asked to help pro bono with the legal documents of the local YMCA in Baia Mare. After that,  I was invited to a meeting about implementing an after-school program in one of the schools from Baia Mare. It was very innovative for those times in our city and our country! I loved the energy and enthusiasm of the team of students who were recruited to implement it… 

So when I was asked to join and facilitate weekly workshops, I did not hesitate. It was fun and a great learning experience, but I felt also that it is my duty to give back, to create for kids opportunities that were not available in my own childhood. 

And from there, I was … hooked. At those times we were building up the local YMCA and we were all in our mid-20s, with big dreams, eager to learn about governance, programming, needs assessments, event management, project writing and implementing. Of course, we did not have a space of our own, and we were dreaming about a building, a space where kids and young people could come. It was always a huge debate about a YMCA space (and still is).

Personally, I will never forget the lessons learnt from Jeff Krause, who back then was CEO of New Rochelle YMCA (CT, USA), and an inspiring partner and leader for all our team. He said: “Go, take a ball, go where the kids are playing, and there you have a YMCA program”. And there was Bill Parise (former president/CEO) and Mike Harrich (President and CEO of Beaver County YMCA, PA, USA) from whom I learnt the importance of cooperation with community stakeholders, good governance, program impact and more. They were such visionary and inspirational leaders. For sure we were (and still are) standing on giants’ shoulders. 

Inspired by them and many more international leaders from YMCA Europe, YMCA USA, YMCA Latin America and Caribbean, YMCA Asia Pacific Alliance, YMCA Africa Alliance and World YMCA, we created a new mindset regarding programming – doing outreach youthwork, partnering with schools, other stakeholders to ensure spaces where we could do our activities, putting in place good governance. That was meaningful grass roots work. 

After many years serving at the local Board and 4 years serving as National Board President, I was asked to take over the operational level as CEO/National General Secretary. It was a huge challenge, but together with the board and a small operational team (a group of young people who started volunteering with us when they were teenagers) we established our strategic directions and acted on them. 

We applied for EU funding for our youth work on promoting human rights and stamping out hate speech; we created projects together with the local member associations; we initiated day camp programs; we connected with national authorities, engaging more and more at national level; we strengthened local YMCAs and learned from each other, exchanging programs and good practices, and advocating for what we believe in.  

For sure, YMCA and youth work is my vocation. I love the law (all the knowledge and structure helped me in my YMCA work as well) but working together with young people for kids and youth is definitely my passion and my vocation, and it became my area of expertise as well. 

 

Tell us about winning the President’s Award at the 2022 World Council

That was totally unexpected…. It caught me off guard! But my first thoughts were for the YMCA Romania team. They are the ones who deserve this Award. With them we build year by year the YMCA in Romania, and together we have been at the front line providing first line services, and after that integration services for the Ukrainians who were fleeing from the war. The past 7 months were very intense and overwhelming for the entire team. It was a non-stop carousel of emotions – actions, assessments, then actions again. 

Our small team increased with people who wanted to join us in order to provide different support and services, and for whom the Ukrainian cause and our team spirit, values and dedication put in action were essential. When the Ukrainian kids and teenagers come every day to the program provided by the YMCA (even if it’s raining or scorching hot) and they say that their safe space is at  the ROUA Community Center [which we created and ran with other non-profit organizations) and that they know the YMCA Youth workers will support them no matter what – then we know that we are fulfilling our mission. We realized once more that this is what the YMCA creates all over the world. For 178 years.

I am very grateful for and proud of the YMCA Romania team – young people who are not only creating programs and empowering contexts for others … they are also beautiful human beings: caring, supportive, good leaders with initiative. Together we are shaping the present and future of YMCA Romania, because we have the duty of care for the young people in Romania.

A massive thank you to Carlos Sanvee, Secretary General of World YMCA, and to Patricia Pelton, former President of World YMCA, for this wonderful Award. This inspires and motivates us to better serve, to lead positive change in our communities. I am because you are.

 

Tell us how you felt and feel about World Council, and Vision 2030

World Council 2022 was an intense week that showed once more the great spirit of YMCA fellowship. My journey started 2 years ago as member of the Implementation Team for this event and after all the hard work of the team, from vision to implementation, we can say that we created something unique. It was YMCA’s first ever hybrid event, and was held in a safe, collaborative and empowering environment. It was a privilege working with you all. 

One of the highlights was definitely the adoption of Vision 2030, the first ever global strategy of the YMCA movement, which positions YMCA on a journey of internal transformation, community empowerment and global advocacy around key pillars of impact: Community Wellbeing, Meaningful Work, Sustainable Planet, Just World. 

I love the Co-Labs team of facilitators – their energy, active involvement, passion and understanding – who committed to bring their expertise and personal touch in order to start the journey for the next steps of Vision 2030, as we moved towards putting it into practice. Vision 2030 is our North Star to advance global transformation.

The election of a new Executive Committee was another highlight. Having another female president for the next four years, Mrs Soheila Hayek, shows the transforming path of our organization, and the maturity and celebration of diversity and women’s empowerment. Core values put in practice.

Massive thank you to all my colleagues from all over the world for creating together such a milestone event for our Movement. My appreciation goes to the Danish Host Team for making this happen and for showing us youth empowerment in action.

 

Why is YMCA special – to you, to Romania, to the world?

I love YMCA because of the people, the values that we promote and put in practice, and because of the “Y spirit”. YMCA is important because young people and communities are important. Today, not just tomorrow.  And everything we do is aligned with this principle. We create safe and inclusive spaces for all, where we nurture the development of every child and young person, because we believe that all deserve the opportunity to discover who they are and what they can achieve. Personally, it gave me a new career, a new vision about community, and really meaningful work to bring about positive change and transformation.

YMCA in Romania was created by YMCA members from USA and Europe under the high Patronage of our Queen Maria. Many illustrious writers and academics are and have been part of the Board. Cultural activities were organized in the interwar period, such as chamber music concerts, creative camps, symposiums, vocational programs. 

The Second World War represents a period of maximum activity for the YMCA in Romania. Thus, the camp from Timişul de Sus (donated by Queen Maria) was used as a shelter for young Polish refugees.  Nowadays YMCA in Romania offers safe spaces for young people to learn, grow and thrive, to become active citizens, to widen their horizons by understanding the European and global dimension of things. It is a trusted partner for public authorities, an advocate for youth work, youth, human rights, peace and dignity. 

Globally, I love how the YMCA has kept its relevance during these 178 years. That means visionary leadership, grass roots work, innovation, and always serving those in need. In the last years, a more integrated and united global voice is raised and heard for our greater impact. The YMCA fellowship is caring and supportive as much for its members – individuals and movements – as its beneficiaries.  

I love how much we can learn from each other, even if our realities are different, how we can multiply best practices, adapt them, and in this way create a wider impact. I love how collectively we advance youth empowerment and transformation. In the early days of the YMCA there were people who simply chose to call the YMCA – the lighthouse. I truly believe that the Light continues to shine at the YMCA throughout the world.