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Bill Kirby Jr.: YMCA of the Sandhills is back in business with new CEO


A lone swimmer slowly backstroked her way in the swimming pool during a Wednesday morning exercise as a lifeguard kept vigil.

Shuttered for the past year, the Fayetteville branch of the YMCA of the Sandhills is back in business, and with a new chief executive officer.

“The reopening of the Fayetteville branch is an exciting time,” says Brian Miranda, chairman of the board of directors. “It is so much more than just the reintroduction of a ‘gym and swim’ experience that many people think of when they think of the YMCA. It means Fayetteville can again receive the valuable program services the Y has been offering in this area for decades.

“Whether it is meeting the needs of the communities we serve through child care, after-school care, day and summer camps, aquatics training, group fitness, individual fitness, active older adult wellness initiatives to the resurgence of youth sports opportunities, the reopening fills voids the Y is equipped to fill with its ability to design and run quality programs.

“Part of our mission is being ‘dedicated to building strong kids, strong families and strong communities through programs that develop a healthy spirit, mind and body for all,’” Miranda says. “The reopening helps us to again stand ready to deliver on that mission.”

It has been a difficult 12 months along Fort Bragg Road since Sept. 22, 2022, when a broken pipe in the swimming pool pump system led to flooding in the building’s basement, where the pump system boilers and electrical panels are located.

“As the water rose, it blocked the door so no one could enter to shut the system down,” says Jeff Darling, 54, who was hired four months ago as president and CEO of the YMCA of the Sandhills that includes branches in Hope Mills and Harnett County. “The water rose to a level where it damaged the electrical system, causing a complete electrical shutdown. With no water in the pool and no electricity for ventilation, the pool surface began to erode, and the facility took on mold and mildew.”

It was a mess, folks at the YMCA will tell you.

Repairs would be time-consuming and expensive at a cost, Darling says, of about $800,000.

“One of the first priorities was to complete the repairs to the Fayetteville YMCA branch and reopen it after being closed for almost a year,” Darling says. “On Sept. 6, after many months of frustrating repairs, the branch reopened, and we are again serving the Fayetteville community. 

“We have started with a ‘slow open’ and have fitness and swimming, as well as our Active Older Adults program. 

“I am thoroughly looking forward to increasing our program offerings and partnering with other organizations in the community to address real needs and increase our services,” Darling says. “In the coming months, we will be adding youth and teen programming, as well as child care.” 

It’s all welcome news for Miranda and board of directors members Stacy Bledsoe, Ace Bullard, Julia Dean, Mollie Dunn, Neil Grant, George Holden, Mark Knight, Nelson Morris, Elaine Saleeby, Sandy Saunders, Gary Weller, and Matt Nicol, and this community.

“The repairs were exhaustive and also delayed as the supply chain caused significant delays,” Darling says. “The longer the repairs took, the more damage the facility took on. Almost one year to the day, we received the final sign-off and were permitted to reopen.”

Perfect timing

There’s no place Jeff Darling would rather be, and on Wednesday he stood by the swimming pool with a smile on his face like a proud father.

“After working with the YMCA for 16 years as an executive director and vice president, I was looking for an opportunity to move into a CEO position with a small to midsize YMCA,” says Darling, a native of Tucson, Arizona, who has been involved with YMCA programs since 2007. In 2011, he became executive director and vice president of the YMCA of Metro Los Angeles.

He finds satisfaction in seeing families and young folks expand their potential through their experience in YMCA programs, according to his biography. He has a passion for seeing kids and family’s lives change for the good through their involvement with the YMCA, be it in child care, youth sports, senior programs, or health and wellness.

For Darling, you might say timing was everything in his Fayetteville arrival.

“I was ready to leave the West Coast and specifically California, so I was looking more in the eastern part of the country,” he says. “My four grown children already began the migration with one living in Arkansas, one in Kansas and another in Georgia. My youngest is completing his graduate work in California and is likely to move this way upon completion. When I saw the position with the YMCA of the Sandhills, I was very interested. As I began researching the area, and after visiting a couple of times, I truly fell in love with the community and the culture. When the position was offered, it was the easiest decision I have made. After being here for four months now, I still believe this is the place for me.”

He also wants to see the YMCA become involved with community youths who have fallen victim to the juvenile delinquency issue that has polarized the city and county with recent vehicle thefts and gun violence.

“We intend to work with juveniles,” Darling says. “We just partnered with Obedience of Faith, a nonprofit, with many who are in foster care. We have the know-how in working with youth programs.”


Jeff Darling is laid back.

Nothing pretentious about him.

He was quick Wednesday to make time for those who were at the YMCA with a story to tell about a workout or whatever was on their minds. He has a receptive ear and looks them in the eye. He has a welcoming way.

Take it from George Holden, a board member long associated with the Y.

“The YMCA,” Holden says, “is in very good hands with Jeff Darling.”

Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at billkirby49@gmail.com or 910-624-1961.

Fayetteville, YMCA, Sandhills, recreation