Monday, October 22, 2018

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New YMCA director ‘stood out’ among candidates

Theresa Hillis has extensive experience leading Y centers

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    Contributed photo

The last weekend in January, Theresa Hillis got married, visited with family and dropped her sister off at the Mall of America in the Twin Cities on her way to a reception in Eau Claire for the three finalists hoping to become the next leader of the Eau Claire YMCA.

Hillis, executive director of the Kandiyohi County Area Family YMCA in Willmar, Minn., interviewed for the position held by Ken Van Es the next day. She got the job.

“We had a number of qualified candidates, but Theresa stood out with her wealth of experience, knowledge in operational budgets, staff development and fundraising,” said Jenny Fesenmaier, Eau Claire YMCA board chairwoman. “This experience made her the No. 1 candidate to continue to grow our Y, continue to spread the mission in the community, collaborate with our partners (Mayo Clinic Health System and UW-Eau Claire) in the new facility.”

The YMCA is a partner in the planned Sonnentag Event and Recreation Complex on Menomonie Street, where the Y would relocate from its downtown location after it eventually is built.

Hillis has worked for almost 30 years at YMCAs in California, Missouri, Maine, New Hampshire and Minnesota.

“I used to joke, ‘Next stop, Greenland,’” she said Thursday, chuckling. “Wisconsin is practically Greenland.”

Hillis has been executive director of the Kandiyohi County Area Family YMCA since 2006. During her tenure, she also has served as interim CEO for the YMCAs in the Minnesota communities of Alexandria and Brainerd.

“After 12 years, I was ready to take the next step and move to a new community,” Hillis said. “I really love the Midwest, so I looked at the list of YMCA job openings and found Eau Claire.”

“The (Eau Claire) YMCA is very attractive, and it has an amazing camp,” she said, referring to Camp Manitou near New Auburn. “Eau Claire is a beautiful community; it’s so walkable. I’m a big walker, and when you see all the investment Eau Claire has made in making the community healthy (with trails and green space), it’s really a big plus.”

Van Es, who became executive director of the Eau Claire YMCA on July 1, 2002, will be on the payroll until March 30. He intends to work with her during the transition.

“In the communications I’ve had with Theresa, I think she has the depth of experience and knowledge to do a good job,” he said, noting YMCA staff also were impressed with her. “I’m pretty excited to get her on board.”

Hillis has two adult sons. She is an avid hiker, a self-proclaimed bad golfer and a lifelong consumer of books. She is a U.S. Air Force veteran and served as a medic in the Gulf War.

“I am thankful for the opportunity to lead a YMCA that has such a long-term presence in the surrounding community,” she said. “I am excited to continue to build upon that success the Y has experienced and to deliver on our Y mission.”

Contact: 715-830-5838,, @CTOBrien on Twitter

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