News - Not Just a Gym: Career, Calling and The “Y”

Not Just a Gym: Career, Calling and The “Y”

by Rachel Heston-Davis Not Just a Gym: Career, Calling and The “Y”

Could working for an exercise facility be considered a calling?

It is for John Heater ’01, who has worked for the service-minded YMCA organization since he was 15.

Currently the executive director of the YMCA in Belleville, Illinois, John will soon relocate to Cincinnati, Ohio, to serve as Group Vice President of Operations. He’ll provide guidance and direction, as well as infuse his colleagues with the same vision that has driven him through a long career with the YMCA: that of transformed lives.

Kingdom-Oriented Career

John’s history with the organization began at age 15 when he got his first job at his local YMCA. He resumed work at the Y after college, leading to a long career as director or executive director for various branches in Mississippi, southwest Illinois and the greater St. Louis area.

To John, working for the Y is more than a paycheck. It carries Kingdom significance.

Serving Neighbors, Meeting Needs

“A lot of people don’t understand the Y,” John says. While many envision it as a nice gym, John says, “Our job is to strengthen the foundations of community by meeting social needs.”

Originally founded in the 1844 by a group of Christians, today’s YMCA offers youth development services, healthy living programs and social responsibility services. Though not considered a “Christian” nonprofit, Christian principles undergird its work, and John believes this dovetails perfectly with his convictions to serve his neighbor and meet social needs. explains, “Our programs, services, and initiatives enable kids to realize their potential, prepare teens for college, offer ways for families to have fun together, empower people to be healthier in spirit, mind and body; prepare people for employment, welcome and embrace newcomers and help foster a nationwide service ethic. And that’s just the beginning.”

One Life At A Time

John goes to work each day with the hope of transforming individual lives.

That looks different depending on the day. One day, he might meet an elderly widower who recently lost his wife of 40 years and needs social connection. On another day, he might meet a teen who needs tutoring, encouragement and life planning skills. With individuals from every economic, political, racial and social demographic seeking services through the Y, the possibilities for helping others are endless.

“One life changed, one life transformed, at a time,” is how John describes his success. 

Paying A Debt Forward

John feels strongly about helping others because he received help at a vulnerable moment in life.

He underperformed in high school. A guidance counselor told him he’d never do more than factory work, but his dislike for the factory pushed him to try college anyway. He was accepted to Greenville through the PASS program. Mentors and professors helped him succeed in class and reevaluate his own potential.

“I’m forever in debt to Greenville University,” he says.

He remembers influencers like Tom Morgan, Tonya Holman and Norm Hall.

Jack Trager is one of the single greatest influences of my life,” John says. “He taught me so much about life as a young man. He used to say, loving Jesus is simple. The Christian life is simple: love Jesus the best you can.”

Even his classmates, like Patrick Miller and Michael Ritter (who both later worked at Greenville University), helped John transform his life. He remains friends with many Greenville classmates to this day.

John hopes many more Greenville University graduates will pour their time and talents into the YMCA. Each year, he returns to Greenville to speak to the Intro to Management class about his job and the mission of the YMCA. 

“I truly believe this idea that faith and learning—our Greenville experience—combined with our love of sport [makes] the Y a great opportunity for Greenville students, if they’re looking for a career that’s going to bring social change,” John says.


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Thanks to generous donors, students like John claim the financial awards that allow them to find transformation and support at Greenville University. Thank you for giving.

This story was published on June 05, 2018

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