For Richmond Hill YMCA branch director Mary Arocha, life is good.
She credits her strict adherence to the three Fs – faith, family and fitness – with keeping her life in relative harmony.
Arocha was born and reared in Asheville, North Carolina, and arrived in Richmond Hill in 2009.
"Right after I graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville, I took my very first job in Atlanta," she said. "My first job was with a company that made steps and risers that you do exercises on. I worked in their biometrics department. They sent me to learn about nutrition and personal training. They sent me to Washington, D.C., and I learned a great deal."
The youthful-looking mother of eight got her degree in marketing management.
"I thought I would go into IBM or one of those big companies, but I had such a love for fitness. When I started working for the American STEP Company, I was marketing health and wellness plans. Then I got my nutrition and personal fitness certifications."
Arocha went to UNCA on a four-year tennis scholarship and her employment with the STEP Company ultimately brought her into contact with the YMCA and its philosophies.
"I started teaching tennis and doing children’s camps for the YMCA," Arocha said. "That’s how I started with the YMCA. I coached tennis teams for the YMCA in Atlanta during the summer. I started working part-time for the YMCA in 1993. The YMCA offered me a full time director position in 1994. So I left the STEP Company then.
Arocha worked at the downtown Atlanta YMCA branch to begin her career. They ultimately closed that branch and she moved to another in Atlanta.
"There was a position for a health and wellness director in the Habersham YMCA, so I put in my resume and got the position."
After a stint there and at the Islands YMCA in Savannah, she applied in 2009 and was chosen to lead the Richmond Hill YMCA.
When she arrived at the RH YMCA it had about 150 memberships. A short eight years later that membership has grown to about 1,400.
Arocha and her husband, Cesar, a former Mr. Venezuela, have eight children, Cesar Jr., Alida, Ryan, Chelsey, Joseph, Ariel, Mysty and Mary Beth.
Arocha said she cherishes the time she spends with her children, six of whom are grown, the other two are home-schooled. Family time is and will always be a common theme in the Arocha household.
"I always played sports. Tennis was my No. 1 sport. But I played softball, too. With that four-year scholarship in tennis, I spent a lot of time training, so that kind of fitness started early for me. I was always in the weight room, running, jumping rope and lifting. My husband, Cesar, and I met in the gym while I was working for the YMCA. He came into the YMCA for a nutrition plan and we met and later married.
"Health and fitness is important to me because it makes people feel better about themselves. I really like working with people of all ages to make their lives better."
She said working with people helps develop friendships, and working with those who visit the YMCA is more than just coming in, working out and going home. It’s about people interacting with others and making a difference in their lives.
"There’s a lady who was coming into the YMCA classes. One of our instructors, Jackie, does our workout of the day. It’s a tough workout. The ladies who come in want to feel empowered. We had one lady come in and we never knew what was going on in her life. She came in all the time. She wasn’t very outgoing or friendly, but Jackie encouraged her and took the time to speak to her," Arocha said.
"The lady wrote me a letter that the day that Jackie spoke to her, encouraged her and took the time to listen, was the day she planned on taking her own life. She was going to commit suicide that day. Jackie’s warm smile and encouragement made her reconsider. I still have that letter. She said in that letter that she felt she finally belonged somewhere.
"My faith in Jesus Christ helps guide me every day," she continued. "I can pray with people here. We have a prayer request box here and the staff and I pray together. It’s a very important part of my life. My faith has made me the person I am today."
Arocha said the Richmond Hill YMCA employs more than 30 people, both full and part time. She is particularly proud of the new programs the local YMCA has added, including child care, during her tenure.
"Our YMCA is about the whole family. It’s the whole family picture. We have young people, professional people, more elderly people, military spouses, etc., who just want that togetherness and support. That’s what we’re about."
Although the YMCA is paid for in part by membership fees, the lack of ability to pay the fee should not keep someone away, she said.
"We will always find a way."
Arocha, a cancer survivor going on 17 years, said she starts every morning with devotions and running.
"I like to run between two and three miles a day. I start my day at 4 a.m. having tea and reading the Bible. About 2 p.m., on my lunch hour, I hit the weight room.
"I really enjoy doing things with my husband and children. We spend a lot of time together and that’s important to all of us. We have a blast together. We love to go to the beach together," she said with a smile.
Arocha said her life – much of which has been centered on family and others through the YMCA – was shaped by her parents, Alida and Joseph.
"My parents instilled in me self-sacrifice. My mother was the most self-sacrificing person I’ve ever met. She gave 100 percent devotion to everything, but herself. She always put herself second. I have tried to model my life after that and have tried to teach my children that true joy comes from putting God first, others second and yourself last. I really believe that."
She said when all is said and done, she’d like her headstone to include that she lived her life to help others, put herself last and made a small difference in their lives.
Alida and Joseph would likely agree.
For additional information about the YMCA or to speak to Arocha, call 912-756-5856. You can also go to ymcaofcoastalga.org/locations/richmondhill/richmond-hill-ymca.