For many years, Englishman Stephen Lee was an engineer by day, martial artist by night. Now, he’s the new East Hampton YMCA RECenter executive director.
“It was time for me to do something different,” Lee, 60, said of his entrance into the YMCA organization a decade ago. “I’m a big proponent of education. I knew the YMCA was a great organization that puts out a lot of training and study programs — they have their own internal university of sorts — so I reached out to YMCA of the USA, which is our governing body, and started as a trainer while learning and teaching people how to run the organization’s programs.”
After graduating with a degree in engineering from Brooklands College, Lee worked as an engineer in Saudi Arabia, and then in Israel as a volunteer on a kibbutz. He emigrated to America in 1985 to work for an engineering consulting firm contracted by the U.S. Navy to build aircraft carriers and submarines.
“It was quite a jump to the YMCA,” Lee said, laughing. “The U.S. Navy used to ship me all over the country to where the naval bases were.”
The head office is in New York, and once in the state, he decided he wanted to be more involved in civil engineering, and opened his own consulting company, which he managed for 20 years.
But Lee had always been interested in fitness, health and sports. He has been a martial artist since he was 12 years old — competing as a kid — and while working as an engineer he began teaching martial arts classes. He went to the Master T. K. Yung School of TaeKwondo; earned a Tai Chi, bagua, weapons and self-defense teaching certification from Master David Yee; a kick boxing instructor certification from Stillness in Motion, Inc. School of Tai Chi and Chi Kung; and Reiki master certification. He also learned yoga — owning his own studio from 2005-08 — and has been a biomechanics instructor for the Academy of Applied Personal Training Education at Hofstra University since 2016.
“I’m always busy,” Lee said.
So when the executive director position in East Hampton became available at the end of last year, he applied immediately.
“In my branch, I couldn’t go any higher,” Lee said. “I thought I had the qualities to take over my own branch.”
He was interviewed shortly thereafter, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and he was furloughed.
As other YMCA branches opened up, he began looking into moving out of state, and applied for leadership positions at other facilities across the country. During that time, he got the call the position in East Hampton was his, should he still want it, and Lee began his new role when the YMCA RECenter reopened on September 8.
“Stephen Lee epitomizes what is takes to lead the path forward for the YMCA East Hampton RECenter as the new executive director,” YMCA of Long Island President and CEO Anne N. Brigis said. “With his extensive professional background in business and engineering, coupled with his lifelong passion for fitness and healthy living, Stephen has showcased an impressive ability to take the Y to new heights. In addition, Stephen is committed to serving children and families to meet their local needs.”
While not so familiar with the area, and while looking for a place to move out east, the former engineer still had some big plans for the location. He recently met new East Hampton Village Mayor Jerry Larsen, and is looking forward to working more closely with the village and the town regarding program offerings, including chronic disease outreach — this includes education on cancer — through Livestrong — diabetes prevention, blood pressure and weight loss. Lee also hopes to bring the YMCA’s child care offering to East Hampton.
Prior to the pandemic Lee said there were discussions about expanding the building’s footprint, which he’d also like to revisit at some point.
“We’ll have an opportunity to bring in a lot more people, and a lot of different types of people,” he said. “I want to work toward making it much more inclusive.”
Brigis said she can attest to this.
“As a colleague, Stephen has been an absolute pleasure to work with over the last decade in his previous role at the Y — not only is he warm, kind and good-humored, but he has become a champion for the Y’s mission-driven work with a specific focus on diversity and inclusion, often representing the YMCA of Long Island globally,” she said. “We congratulate Stephen on his new role and look forward to his great success in the company of all those who live, work and play on the East End.”
Because the East Hampton location is only 21,000 square feet, making it one of the smaller YMCAs on Long Island, Lee said the building has limitations on what it can do, especially now with coronavirus restrictions still in place.
“But one of the goals of the YMCA movement is to move the Y outside — to go into the communities that need it,” he said. “I also want to work a lot more with the senior population to make sure they have what they need out here.”
Lee said he wants to show people “there’s a lot more to the YMCA than swimming lessons.”
The organization offers a scholarship and free memberships to students. The Hurricanes travel swim team also operates out the location, and the YMCA is working on scheduling a virtual meet against the Huntington YMCA while live meets are still postponed.
Swim times are reserved in 45-minute blocks, and the pool is cleaned before each new group enters. Equipment in the fitness center is also cleaned constantly, and hit with an electrostatic spray to kill bacteria overnight. Machines were respaced to be 6 feet apart, and some pieces had to be removed to accommodate this. The entire building itself is also cleaned every two hours. There are capacity limits in the pool, fitness center and dance studio spaces, which hit maximums daily, and every third locker is also now open. The showers remain closed.
“In taking the helm during a global pandemic, and with all of the many known and unknown challenges it presents, Stephen has already shown his fortitude and commitment to our YMCA and our broader community,” YMCA East Hampton RECenter Board Chairwoman Karen Golden said.
Like anywhere else adhering to COVID-19-related restrictions, the HVAC system was mandated to be upgraded, all staff has temperatures checked daily, everyone wears a mask at all times — except lifeguards when in their stands — and everyone has to remain 6 feet apart. Visitors are no longer required to have their temperatures checked, but they are asked a series of health and travel-related questions.
“I feel confident. I can do this,” Lee said. “It’s going to be a challenge, I will admit, because of COVID-19, but we’re following the guidelines and taking things slowly. And while membership numbers are lower than we’d like them to be, we think members will come back, and people are rejoining every day. Above all, safety is our number one concern, and we’ll get back to where we used to be.”