No amount of practice could have prepared Diane Newlin for the tear-filled eyes that met her own when she told the Oregon Youth Center kids of her resignation after nine years as director Sept. 4.
Or for the group hug that followed.
“It was hard and beautiful,” Newlin told the Observer. “And maybe for a half-second I reconsidered.”
Instead, she said, it became a bittersweet “learning moment.”
“I told them I would be there to listen to them even if they wanted to yell or talk or cry,” she said. “We talked about how change and transition are the only constant in life. And sometimes it’s scary and hurts, but it’s important to embrace it.”
The youth center has experienced much change during her tenure as director. Not only did it incorporate as a nonprofit when the YMCA stopped operating the center in 2014, it also opened the doors to a nearly million-dollar facility this spring.
Both of those moves were made possible by community support under Newlin’s leadership.
“One of my goals when I came here was to get to know the people within the community and find ways for the kids to connect to the community that gives so much to them,” she said. “Now you see those same kids wanting better and more for their community and wanting to give back. It’s really cool to watch them grow and become the people that you always you knew they could be.”
Newlin recalled her first Oregon Village Board meeting after she started in 2010, when then-village president Steve Staton asked about her plans as director since the position had been turning over quickly. She told him she would commit to five years.
“Kids need someone who is there, judgment-free, to hear what they need and encourage them in what they love for them to continue to grow and flourish,” Newlin said. “That was something I could do for students in Oregon. It wasn’t just my job; it was my career, my path.”
That path started in college, when she heard stories of other people’s childhoods.
“Most kids didn’t have the stability and strength of love like I did at home, and it hit me like a ton of bricks,” she said.
Newlin decided to move back home, where she had once been a lifeguard and swim instructor, and applied with the YMCA at the youth center in Monona.
There she met her mentor, Shane Gahagan, and knew she had found her passion working with kids. Gahagan later left to take the director position in Oregon but had to step away when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness.
“He taught me that if you give kids respect, you will get it back 100 fold. If you don’t give it you will get that back 1,000 fold,” Newlin said. “I hope he would say I picked up the torch and made it burn a little brighter.”
Although the OYC will need continued financial support, Newlin takes comfort in her departure knowing she left it better than she found it. She said “it’s in a healthy, stable space and we have a strong board and staff who care about and love the kids and program.”
She gained confidence in that assessment one day this summer, when she looked out of her office window in the new building and saw two former OYC kids – assistant director Elisa Kaether, 18, and AmeriCorps member Brett Trinkle, 21 – playing ball tag with the kids on the basketball court.
Newlin said she’s going to take some time to find where she would like to start her new endeavor.
She thanked her husband for affording her the opportunity to do what she loved, even if that meant working odd hours and not taking home a big paycheck.
Her role has evolved over the years to include things like grant writing and fundraising, which took time away from her passion of working directly with the kids.
“It’s a testament to the growing program,” she said. “I think it’s healthy for organizations to have some level of turnover to keep it fresh.”
On Newlin’s last day, Sept. 12, the whiteboard above the youth sign-in sheets reminded kids to give her “a big squeeze” before they left for the day. So when Newlin had to step out for a few minutes to transport a student to the OYC, the rest of the kids and some board members and parents hid in the kitchen and waited to surprise her with a cake, balloons and tons of hugs.
Among the gifts was a butterfly bracelet from Oregon Youth Center board president Erin Chisman as a reminder for Newlin to “spread her wings.”
Newlin hopes that the center continues to be a “safe, homelike beacon for any kid who needs it,” allowing them to be themselves.
“It really has been my honor and great joy in my life to have served the kids in this community,” Newlin said. “I have learned just as much from each of them if not more than what they have learned from me.”