Palisades-Malibu YMCA’s Jim Kirtley Takes Dollies to Haiti

By Laurel Busby
Staff Writer

Jim Kirtley, the new interim executive director of the Palisades-Malibu YMCA, recently returned from building a septic system for a new medical clinic in Haiti, where he also distributed dollies and teddy bears to children.

The medical clinic, which is being built in stages by various churches, is going up in Sobier, a town with approximately 5,000 residents who have no electricity or running water, although they do have cell phones, which they charge with solar panels. Kirtley went as part of a First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica team, and he spent much of his time digging a 6-ft.-by-6-ft.- by-10-ft. hole for the septic system.

Jim Kirtley handed out dolls made by Dollies Making a Difference to children in Haiti.
Jim Kirtley handed out dolls made by Dollies Making a Difference to children in Haiti.

The crew, which included many Haitians, used sledgehammers, picks and shovels to dig through the rock.

“It was awesome to do something that is going to last for the community,” said Kirtley, a fit athlete who competes in obstacle-course races. Even with his intense training, which began four years ago and helped him lose about 50 pounds, Kirtley found that after five minutes of swinging a sledgehammer, he needed to take a break. The Haitian teens, on the other hand, could work steadily for 20 minutes at a time. “Their endurance and stamina was incredible.”

The entire group also put a tin roof on the clinic and cleaned and painted previously installed steel work.

The Haitian community, which speaks French creole, worked alongside the church members, both in construction and through providing the crew tasty meals featuring items like spicy peanut butter, goat, octopus, conch and “Haitian spaghetti,” which included butter, ham and vegetables.

“It was all really good,” Kirtley noted.

In addition, during break times, he sometimes played with the kids in games like stickball, jump rope and tag, which was a new game to them and a little hard to grasp with the language barrier.

“I don’t know where I got the energy, but I did it,” Kirtley said.

The entire experience, which included distributing 40 handmade dollies and teddy bears from the Palisades charity Dollies Making a Difference, was precious to Kirtley.

“The collaboration of community and team members was fantastic,” he said. “The level of love that they gave and that we gave was great, and the purity of everything there” was impressive.

In his first foray to a third-world country, Kirtley, who joined the project because he felt called to service, had some worries about the level of need he would encounter and whether the community would accept the group. However, those anxieties soon dissipated.

“We were totally accepted by the community,” he said. Also, he was surprised by “the happiness of the people—not letting the situation get them down . . . It was hard to say goodbye, and it’s been an interesting transition back to the Western pace. The pace there is much slower and simpler.”

The experience had some commonality with his work at the YMCA on Via de la Paz, in that in both endeavors, he is working to “do good work for people.”

Kirtley, who grew up in a small Kansas town, attended the University of Nebraska and studied education. In 2000, he moved to Santa Monica to work as a student teacher at Lincoln Middle School, but then realized he didn’t want to be a full-time teacher. Instead, he was drawn to the Y, where he could still teach, but also focus on sports.

In 2001, he took an associate program director position at the Palisades Y, which has about 40 employees, and he eventually became an associate executive director under Carol Pfannkuche from 2005 until 2008.

In 2009, he oversaw the construction of a Y facility in Antelope Valley, then worked at a Boys & Girls Club in Thousand Oak before moving to the Westside Family Y to aid in its transition to the University High campus. In September, he returned to the Palisades to lead the local Y.

Since then, Kirtley has introduced some new programs. For example, in April, small-group training for six to eight adults starts with specialized and intense classes, including TRX yoga.

Kirtley also began a winter youth basketball league just on Saturdays that offered both a practice and a game in one day for the youngsters. The idea was to make the league more convenient to families, he said. Soccer and T-ball (from April 8 to June 3) will have a practice during the week with a separate game day.

In addition, the Y offers both a PaliHi lunch club, which includes resume-building and test-taking skills, and the popular teen Youth & Government program, which took about 85 delegates to Sacramento in February to create model legislation.

On April 29, the Y will have a Healthy Kids Day at Simon Meadow, and summer camp has begun accepting registrations. In all of the programs, Kirtley’s hope is to increase the Y’s benefit to the community.

“This Y used to be the predominant option for Palisades families, and we want it to be that again,” said Kirtley, a father of two children, Gavin, 9, and Quinlyn, 7. “We have good leadership with myself and my team, and we’re making some good changes.”

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