Lindsay Peyton
The West Seattle YMCA’s new executive director Shalimar Gonzales is on a mission to make sure “the Y represents the community we’re trying to serve and that we create safe spaces for everyone.”

Shalimar Gonzales, shaking things up at the West Seattle YMCA

By Lindsay Peyton

Not only did the West Seattle YMCA recently receive a facelift – but the location also recruited a new face to serve at its helm.

Shalimar Gonzales took over as executive director just a couple of weeks ago – and is eager to put her stamp on the place.

Gonzales spent the past three years as executive director at the Meredith Matthews East Madison YMCA, where her main mission was “making sure the Y represents the community we’re trying to serve and that we create safe spaces for everyone.”

Now she wants to do the same thing in a different neighborhood.

As Gonzales walks through the newly improved West Seattle YMCA, she is visibly brimming with excitement. A new family wing is one of her favorite parts, and she reports recently challenging a teenager to shoot some hoops in the “Tween Zone.”

A number of storage closets and seldom-used rooms have been converted to more functional spaces, she added.

The main fitness area has been completely redone – and light now pours into the cardio area -- thanks to a row of windows. There’s also a new gender-neutral and family changing area.

“I get to reap the benefits of a new space,” Gonzales said.

She is still unpacking her belongings and setting up her office.

While the set-up may be different, the Y is familiar territory to Gonzales.

Originally from San Francisco, she moved to Seattle in high school and started working for the YMCA not too long after. While on the way to receiving her degree in liberal studies from Seattle University, she got a job at the downtown Y location her sophomore year, about 14 years ago.

“I totally stumbled into the Y,” she said.

A friend suggested that Gonzales apply – and she took to it like a duck to water. It wasn’t long before she was head of a unique new program for young adults, creating an all-ages music venue out of a few empty rooms.

“We ended up having really awesome touring bands coming through the downtown Y,” Gonzales recalled. “We’d have 250 to 300 kids there a night.”

She also ran a youth gallery and art program, which gave young artists an opportunity to sell their work and gain exposure for their talent.

Gonzales went on to join the YMCA’s membership team – and then moved to Los Angeles to become associate director of membership for the nonprofit. Eventually, she started working with the diversity program.

“We were creating pathways for people of color to get into leadership roles,” Gonzales said. “Our intention was to give people the training and opportunities they needed so when jobs became available, they could be ready.”

She met her partner only two days after moving to California – and when the post of executive director for Meredith Matthews opened up three years ago, the couple packed up and drove up the coast to Seattle.

Gonzales feels like she helped rebuild that location as a cornerstone of the community. She brings the same motivation to West Seattle.

“Our goal is clear – to do our part, with great love, to give each person in our community the opportunity to be healthy, secure, informed, connected, creative and compassionate,” she said.

Rachael Steward, board member at the Meredith Mathews East Madison YMCA, said Gonazles left her mark on the location.

“She literally brought the branch back to life with her energy and vibrancy,” Steward said. “She definitely made a difference.”

Steward said Gonzales energized both the physical space and the staff.

Nicole Hill, senior director of education for the Meredith Mathews East Madison YMCA, recalls when Gonzales first started. “At the time I had no idea who she was,” Hill said. “All I knew is that she her reputation preceded her, in a good way.”

Hill said Gonzales has a unique ability to build relationships with employees and community members alike. “She is extremely approachable and has a very light-hearted way about her,” Hill said. “She has a talent for being able to rally people around a common vision or goal in a way that feels really collaborative and empowering.”

Hill also admires Gonzales’ commitment to supporting diversity, inclusion, and equity efforts. “While we were sad to lose her at Meredith Mathews, I am excited that the West Seattle Y and surrounding community will be able to benefit from her leadership,” Hill said.

Gonzales said her top priority now is learning more about the neighborhood and the nonprofits that serve it.

“There are so many organizations doing amazing work,” she said. “If we don’t talk to each other, we end up duplicating work.”

Instead, she hopes to forge partnerships. “There are so many ways we can have a stronger, greater impact together,” she said.

Gonzales is also reaching out to families, schools and community stakeholders to determine needs.

“We’re focusing on developing programs that empower those who are most vulnerable in our community to have opportunities to succeed, grow and change their own lives,” she said.

But she also wants to make the Y more fun – a gathering place for neighbors, where they can focus on health.

“This is my YMCA and I like to have fun,” she said. “I want people to have fun in whatever they do. The Y is about the power of possibility, the power of community and the power of individuals coming together.”

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