Gareth Sorsby And Bethan Spencer – Difference Makers
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Photography by Nick Hook
The English word ‘passion’ comes from the Greek root word πασχω, which is literally translated as ‘to suffer’. The word ‘compassion’ is, therefore, literally translated as ‘to suffer with or alongside’. When I recently met Gareth Sorsby (the Joint Chief Executive of local charity YMCA Exeter) and Bethan Spencer (their Marketing & Fundraising Manager), I found them both to be extremely compassionate people, in the very truest sense of the word. Their professional lives are defined by a choice to serve, equip, draw alongside and invest in some of the most vulnerable young people in our community – a difficult, heart-breaking and rewarding experience, so they told me.
Each with very different upbringings, Bethan grew up in a small rural Lancashire village with her mum and one of her sisters. After leaving school, she went on to study at the London School of Theology where she met her now husband Zac, before graduating and moving to work in a boarding school in the Cotswolds as a Deputy-House Parent. When that contract drew to an end, both her and Zac started searching for jobs in earnest and agreed that, whoever got a job first, they would relocate permanently to that location. And so, in 2014, when Bethan was offered a role at YMCA, she and Zac moved to Exeter, not really knowing anyone or anything about the city itself.
Gareth, on the other hand, grew up in Manchester, before moving to Cornwall when he was sixteen and being home-schooled throughout the last stage of secondary school. This meant that he left school without any GCSE’s and went straight to work after finishing his studies, working in several of Cornwall’s many leisure and hospitality establishments. This culminated with him working in a family-run hotel for six years, going through management training and eventually becoming their General Manager. It was during his time at the hotel that two life-defining events happened – he met his now wife, Rachel, and he became a Christian.
Rachel then moved to Exeter for a one-year work placement so Gareth started seeking work in Exeter in earnest, eventually finding a part-time role working in Employment Support at YMCA. Gareth stated with real honesty,
“I had been looking for roles in hospitality and the more interviews I did, the more I realised that I didn’t want to work in that industry any longer. My wife had suggested several times that I consider charity work, but that had never appealed to me as I didn’t see that there was any real career progression and financial headroom in it. I thought that life was all about making money, not making a difference. I couldn’t have been more wrong.”
That was eight years ago and, soon after joining, his role was made full-time and he has since worked his way through different roles, learning the broader range of services that YMCA offers and, almost without knowing it, building up vital experience for this eventual appointment eighteen months ago as Joint CEO of the organisation.
I asked Gareth how he has overcome the challenge of entering working life without any qualifications and he replied, candidly,
“It has been a hurdle to overcome but, in actual fact, it has turned out to be a real asset in my roles at YMCA over the last eight years. To be able to genuinely empathise with some of the young people that we work with and say, ‘I know what it feels like to have no qualifications but, if I can do it, then so can you!’, almost feels like a positive rather than a negative.”
The ‘joint’ part of Gareth’s job title reflects an intentional decision from their trustees to try and model a different style of leadership. In an organisation centred around looking outwards and helping others, it was felt that a strict hierarchical system based on seniority and power structures just didn’t feel right. As a result, Gareth and Si Johns embraced a shared model of leadership, holding each other accountable, sharing the load and also helping to combat the loneliness often felt by CEOs. Gareth commented, “We feel that embracing this model of leadership has been great for the organisation”, and kidded, “Bethan might disagree with me of course!”. Bethan flashed a knowing smile at Gareth, which didn’t require words to back it up. It was clear to me that they have a rapport and professional connection which has been forged over the years with honesty, shared vision and a sense of humour at the core.
At this point, I asked them to explain a little more about the mission of YMCA and the work which they do in Exeter day-to-day. Bethan expanded,
“Well, I run a small but ambitious team of fundraisers, who are responsible for sourcing funding and engaging with people externally about supporting the work of YMCA. My very favourite part of my job, which everyone else seems to cringe at, is going out and presenting about our work. Whether that is in community groups, churches, businesses or networking events, I love to stand up and tell our story, helping to educate and inspire others about our cause.”
“I am also responsible for our website, social media, marketing activity and organising YMCA events. Primarily, this is centred around our key annual events like the upcoming Sleep Easy event where local business people are sponsored to sleep on the streets of Exeter for a night. This is always an amazing and eye-opening event as we encourage people to ‘Sleep rough, so others don’t have to’. With homelessness, sofa-surfing and people living in cars becoming a more common occurrence in our society, we feel that it is important to raise awareness and money in order to combat this trend. Previous years’ events have been fantastic and this year is shaping up to be another great one. There’s still time to get involved though, so please get in touch and sign up!”
Gareth, as joint CEO, has an incredibly varied role and he explained,
“There are no two days that are the same if I’m honest. I can go from communicating with our board of Trustees one minute, to working with Homes England about managing and procuring properties the next. I also oversee all of our safeguarding, policy writing and reviewing, management of our leadership team, our operational staff and also our Youth Worker and community centre in South Molton. It’s a busy role but I also try to model as best as I can the importance of stopping, resting and enjoying life outside of work. For me that looks like offering generous holiday allowances for staff and also making sure I leave promptly each day to help Rachel with our two young boys and their daily routines. No matter how good or bad my day at work has been, it has to end with me giving some of my time and energy to my family. Otherwise, what’s the point!?”.
I was interested to find out that, contrary to common opinion, the international YMCA organisation wasn’t founded in America but, rather, by George Williams, a man from Dulverton, Somerset. Despite the somewhat confusing 1978 hit song by Village People – an association that the charity have attempted to move away from for years now – YMCA stands for Young Men’s Christian Association and is known globally for the American part of their organisation being credited with the invention of Basketball and Volleyball.
I asked Gareth and Bethan how they managed to navigate being an overtly Christian charity, in a world that is becoming increasingly multi-faith or, indeed, no faith at all. Gareth responded,
“We are completely open as an organisation and we actively engage with people from all faiths or none. That doesn’t stop us from being overtly Christian and we always make it clear that residents and others who engage with YMCA are able to explore issues and questions of faith with us in a safe and supportive environment. That said, there is not pressure to do so and we would never dream of pushing our beliefs onto people. That’s just not good human practise, let alone good Christian practise.”
“We try to embrace a holistic approach to working with people, meeting their physical, emotional and spiritual needs. The majority of individuals that we work with are dealing with significant life issues and often require advice, counselling and, when appropriate, spiritual guidance too.”
With my knowledge of the wider organisation slightly lacking, I asked Gareth to expand on the mission and vision of YMCA Exeter. He stated,
“We have two parts of our organisation. Firstly, YMCA Exeter Housing which houses fifty-two young people aged between sixteen and thirty years old. There is no one reason why people come to live within our YMCA projects, it could be a young person leaving care, someone who lost their private rented accommodation for whatever reason or perhaps someone with a health condition needing help to become more independent. There are many reasons why people find themselves with nowhere to call home. There isn’t really a set time that young people live at the YMCA, because we have several projects and buildings dependant on their needs and circumstances. Some stay with us for a year, some for several years, moving through our services before finding a secure and permanent home. We own and run a thirty-one-capacity hostel on the same premises as our offices and then have twenty-one more beds in shared houses around the city.”
“The second part of our organisation is YMCA Exeter Community Projects which ,as the name suggests, runs projects in the local community based on the needs of that community. This ranges vastly, from offering Enterprise and Employment Skills training to our residents to mentoring ex-offenders in the city, engaging with them as they are released from prison and giving them something meaningful to do. We also run an internship programme, taking students from our partner organisation in Germany and embedding them in our projects for eleven months. Finally, Community Projects is also responsible for the recruitment of volunteers for the whole organisation as well as Youth Services placements in a couple of local communities and the design and implementation of a brand-new mental health programme which we plan to launch soon.”
As our conversation concluded, I asked Gareth and Bethan what the future holds for them. Gareth stated,
“We have a seven-year-plan which is primarily focused on building and buying more accommodation so that we can provide housing solutions for our residents once they leave our projects. There is a real need in Exeter for more entry-level housing, particularly for those who are on benefits and are genuinely not able to work. The system feels to many people like it is set up for them to fail, so, along with our partner organisations, we want to provide a compassionate and realistic alternative in the coming years.”
I left our conversation feeling a strange mixture of emotions: I was deeply moved by some of the stories Gareth and Bethan shared with me of the young people that they work with; I was excited about the future and what it might hold for the YMCA in Exeter; I was frustrated on their behalf at some of the challenges and hurdles that stand in the way of their cause and I was challenged on a personal level to consider what I am doing to make a difference in the lives of those in the community around me.
I implore you to visit YMCA Exeter’s website and find out for yourself about the amazing work that Gareth, Bethan and their team of thirty staff are doing to better the lives of struggling young people in Exeter. It will surely make a very real difference to our city.
Follow Gareth Sorsby and Bethan Spencer’s admirable work @YMCAExeter on Twitter