It's fun to play (and serve) at the YMCA

As Y CEO, Corder makes a career out of serving people of Cleveland County

Five years after graduating from Wingate College, Cam Corder found that he had moved up in his career – all the way to the basement of a house in Shelby, N.C., using pilfered pens and legal pads to sign kids up for soccer. At times, he confesses, he would pine for the five years he had spent as sports director at the YMCA in High Point.

“I can remember those first couple of days thinking, ‘Why am I doing this? I have nothing,’” says Corder, a 1987 Wingate grad. “And ‘will they take me back if I go back?’”

They didn’t take him back, because Corder stuck it out. Hired to be the executive director of the Cleveland County YMCA, which didn’t really even exist yet, he didn’t have much in the way of facilities or resources to work with. But he did have a community that believed in him and that was starved for the programs traditionally offered by YMCAs: fitness classes, swim lessons and especially recreational programs for children.

Corder spent a few months getting to know Shelby and Cleveland County, understanding what programs were most in demand, what people could afford to pay, who the deep-pocketed potential donors were, and who he needed to get to know in order to see his vision through to fruition.

And he started selling. In 1992, the YMCA was well established in larger urban areas of the Carolinas but not in many smaller counties. Corder gave the people of Shelby a primer.

“You’re almost like a PT Barnum,” he says. “You’re everywhere trying to tell people what a YMCA is. They didn’t know.”

Well, some people knew. Transplants, professionals who’d lived in other areas. Those were the kinds of people Shelby was trying to attract: Doctors and lawyers and businessmen who understood what a Y could do for a community. Many of them wanted the amenities they were used to back home and would move on if they didn’t see them on the horizon.

So Corder found himself working, for the first year, out of the basement of a board member’s house. The board had scrounged up three years’ worth of startup money, and Corder’s job was to create a self-sustaining YMCA out of it. At the age of 27.

“It was a big leap of faith,” he says. On both their parts, presumably.

The board supplied him with a checkbook and little else. He used office supplies that the High Point YMCA office manager had handed him on his way out the door. “Take this with you,” she’d said. (The Y is one big happy family, after all.)

Corder got to work, and loved it, but his plan was to spend a few years establishing Cleveland County’s YMCA and then move on to a bigger city himself. Instead, he found a home in Shelby, a town of 20,000 an hour west of Charlotte. He has made a career out of giving back to a community he has grown to love.

“This became a prayerful opportunity,” he says. “A door was opening for me. In hindsight, it was a great opportunity.”

As a result, his resume is pretty short: 1992–present, CEO, Cleveland County YMCA.

Getting to play for a living

Corder majored in communication studies at Wingate, a choice that has served him well in a field that requires him to write, do public speaking, and connect with people from every socioeconomic background.

Predictably for a guy named Cam Corder, he gravitated toward the broadcasting side of communications in college, but his real love was basketball. Corder had come to Wingate as a recruited walk-on, a sharp-shooting guard from a football school in Greenville, S.C.

He lasted a couple of practices. “I instantly realized I wasn’t good enough,” he says. “I couldn’t guard anybody.”

But basketball was his first love, and he wanted to stay involved, so he contacted a local high-school coach and went to work with him, unpaid, as an assistant. That led to a three-year gig as an assistant to Johnny Jacumin, Wingate’s successful women’s head coach.

Barely out of his teens, Corder essentially constituted the Bulldogs’ recon team, spending his nights in noisy gyms scouting the next opponent or assessing a potential recruit. Long before we all became slaves to turn-by-turn GPS, Corder relied on foldable maps to get to Catawba, Mars Hill, Atlantic Christian College and all manner of high schools in Carolina towns and cities. It might seem like grunt work, but Corder was in hog heaven.

“I would go home to Greenville, and Jacumin would get me to scout a girl on the way home and pay me mileage,” he says. “And on road trips, I’d get a room to myself.”

The intimate involvement with Wingate Athletics has continued ever since. Corder is a faithful supporter of the Bulldog Club and over the years has done everything he could to catch Wingate teams in action at Gardner-Webb, Belmont Abbey or even Lenoir-Rhyne.

Currently, he’s the Bulldog Club ambassador to the women’s basketball team. Because of pandemic-related restrictions, he can’t watch the team play in person right now, but he’s been encouraging them from afar, handwriting letters to players and even filming a video message for the team. “I’m really just an advocate for them,” he says.

Basketball is in Corder’s blood. Coming out of college, his biggest desire was to coach college men’s basketball. Working at the Y, where his dad had made a career (Darrell Corder was director of the Greenville, S.C., YMCA at the time), was a fallback plan. In 1987, Corder angled for a job as an assistant coach at Furman University, where he had worked summer camps for years. But that year the NCAA had cut back the number of assistant coaches teams were permitted, making for a tight market. The Furman coach didn’t have a spot free for him.

When the High Point YMCA came calling, Corder left his coaching dreams behind. “I said, ‘Well, I’m unemployed. I might as well work at the Y,’” he says.

Corder absolutely loved it. “My title was sports director,” he says, “but really you’re basically hired to just play with kids.”

Flexible leader

After getting his feet wet running programs in High Point, Corder took on a much bigger challenge in Shelby. Despite a few initial apprehensions, he soon realized the potential to leave his own mark on a community.

Scribbling on legal pads that once belonged to the High Point YMCA, Corder sketched out his plans for programs. First, soccer leagues for young kids. Then summer camps. After a while, aerobics classes, basketball leagues, flag football, swim lessons.

And buildings. The Y had to have its own facilities. After a year in the basement, Corder moved his operations to a storefront, which gave him some space to offer more programs and bring in some much-needed revenue.

“I had to be everything,” he says. “I was doing the programs, I was leading the board meetings, I was planning the fundraising. I was actually paying the bills and doing the payroll. For seven years I was doing payroll and payables and everything – until I screwed up payroll one too many times and the board said, ‘Hire a payroll person!’

“In hindsight it was a great training ground for leading people. There’s very few things that people come to me where I can’t say, ‘Well, I did it.’ I’ve been a lifeguard. I’ve mowed ball fields. I’ve done maintenance, you know, refinished gym floors. I’ve done every job, other than I haven’t taught an aerobics class. Nobody wants to see me in front of the group.”

Whether he’s out front and vocal or leading from behind, Corder, 56, has overseen steady growth during his 28 years in charge. Today, the Cleveland County Y comprises three traditional facilities (in Shelby, Kings Mountain and Boiling Springs) and an 18-hole golf course. It’s an important part of a tight-knit community, a service organization with a Christian emphasis that has greatly enhanced the quality of life for thousands of people.

During the pandemic, the YMCA has proved its worth in several ways. Within a month of the country’s shutdown, Corder had arranged for the Y’s buildings to serve as makeshift childcare facilities for first responders. Since August, the basketball courts at the three main facilities have been converted into “learning academies,” where students can attend virtual school. The Y ran a nutrition program, to make sure schoolkids received breakfast and lunch every day. And Y employees have been conducting well checks with senior citizens.

As with most businesses, the pandemic wreaked havoc on the YMCA’s finances. Corder and the other highest-ranking employees immediately took a paycut after the Y shut its doors in March. Other than day care and a few camps, the Y’s facilities were closed for six months, and Corder had to cut about 100 part-time staff positions.

But thanks to grants, PPP loans and the generosity of Y members who continued to pay their dues during the shutdown, Corder has not had to lay off any full-time employees, though he did ask all of his employees to take a temporary pay reduction recently. With membership down about 30 percent and facility use cut in half, times are still tough. But Corder can now see better days ahead.

He believes he’ll come out of the pandemic a better leader. He’d already begun “leading with love” more than he did early in his career, when he was still in sideline-coaching mode. For instance, Corder says he’ll be a little more forgiving during performance reviews this year.

“You’re going to know that I genuinely care about you, and we’re going to do this together,” he says. “If you care about your people, and they know you care about them, they’ll pull together with you.”

Even after 28 years, Corder is still refining his approach, all in the name of service to Cleveland County.

  • ODOD 2021