He could have been anything, from a lawyer, a psychiatrist to a big city businessman. Instead, he became everything to the children of Richmond County, their parents, local citizens and is now one of the most admired members of the regional community.
Last week, Clifton Wise was one of the keynote speakers at a statewide YMCA conference and it was just another notch in the belt of a man who has become a fixture for positivity in Richmond County and adjacent counties.
On Thursday, Feb. 20, Wise took to the podium to explain to YMCA directors from across the commonwealth the goals and benchmarks the organization he represents hopes to achieve this New Year.
At the top of his list – incorporating teen programs into an association that has previously focused on young children, seniors and their wellness.
“Our annual dinner is where all of the directors and board members come together to discuss what happened the prior year, the budget and the financials,” Wise said in a Feb. 24 interview. “This year it was just absolutely amazing because it was the first year they had the ‘Teen Theme.’ Which is why I was so excited to be there.”
According to Wise, it is a step that the CEO of the YMCA had set as a yearly goal for Richmond County.
“Five of us were sent away to a youth worker summit in Sept. of 2013,” Wise said. “The whole focus behind that summit was getting teens to become more involved and active so they could become more successful and better leaders in the community.
“Teens are such a valuable asset to our community but often they get overlooked, and I wanted people to see how valuable they can be if we, as adults, just stand behind them and praise them every step of the way, giving them tasks to do and focusing on their accomplishments,” Wise added.
It is a mission that strikes deep for Wise, who joined the YMCA himself as a teen, finding an unexpected life journey that has given him more both spiritually and professionally than any degree, including his originally chosen profession as an attorney, could have ever rewarded him.
“I had plans to go to law school, and that didn’t change, but when I was 17 years old Donna Belfield, the director’s wife, came to my house and said ‘Hey, I think you should come work for the Y.’” Wise said. “I thought she was crazy at first but something inside told me to go to the interview and it was love at first sight. That was June of 2007.”
Then a senior at Rappahannock High School, Wise began as a camp counselor, went on to become an after school counselor and even did pre-school for a time during his journey to becoming a the current Program Director at the YMCA.
“Although originally I had plans to go to law school, I have had the opportunity to reach lives across the country and I am extremely blessed to be in this position because it has allowed me so many opportunities were I not here,” Wise said, adding that his job has allowed him to go on mission trips to South Dakota at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, where he and his fellow volunteers run a kid’s camp for a week every summer.
“They are very underserved, but those kids…they may not have much but they appreciate every ounce of every moment we give them,” Wise said. “We bring them hope and it is amazing.”
Now, Wise and his fellow compatriots at the Richmond County YMCA are trying to translate that message from one generation to another.
“What we are trying to do is bridge a gap because after 12 years old we don’t have anything for youth, but we are working on that because that is our whole goal here,”
Wise said, saying that a lot of the volunteers at the camps and other programs are teens.
“The first thing we are going to be starting in the next four weeks is a teen advisory board, where teens can get together and advise us of what they want and what direction we need to take to facilitate their needs,” Wise said. “Our goal is to see what they want and go from there. We are going to do a teen summer camp for the first time in [recent memory].”
Wise added that the YMCA will also begin a SWAT team, (Servants Working All Together), who will apply a process, much like their vetted volunteers go through.
“We hope to have 8 to 10 teens to serve…
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