Back when Judith Levkoe began her career with the YMCA, women with children typically stayed in the home and out of the workforce.
But the long-time North York resident was the exception. Not only did she work part-time as a nursery school supervisor at a Keele Street and Wilson Avenue church, she then took on permanent work with the YMCA of North York as program director.
During her employment with the nursery, Levkoe said she attended a conference at which the YMCA was also present, setting the scene for what would become a fruitful career with the organization.
“I thought, someday I’d like to volunteer with the organization,” she said. “I was a woman and Jewish, but they struck me as being very community-oriented people.”
After setting up a lunch meeting with the YMCA’s general manager in 1971, where Levkoe thought she would discuss volunteer opportunities, she was floored when she was offered a job.
“The North York Y, which was at Bayview and Sheppard, seemed to only have had eastern orientation,” she said. “I lived in the west end, I knew the people, I knew the facilities. I was to be the face of the YMCA in the west end, which was pretty unusual, given I was a woman.”
Levkoe was one of 13 people who were recognized with the YMCA Fellowship of Honour medal for outstanding leadership - and the first female employee of the YMCA of Greater Toronto to be appointed to the medal - at a ceremony in Ottawa Jan. 22, presided by Governor General David Johnston.
The YMCA Fellowship of Honour was established in 1978 as the highest recognition for YMCA volunteers and staff and is presented every three to four years by the Governor General of Canada.
A graduate of Ryerson University’s early childhood education diploma and degree programs, Levkoe nearly doubled program delivery and created a surplus of more than $100,000 during her first year as program director for the YMCA of North York, despite significant funding and staff cuts.
After leaving the North York location in 1981, she went on to serve as general manager of the High Park YMCA before being asked to lead child care for the YMCA of Greater Toronto in 1986. By 1993, the YMCA of Greater Toronto had become the country’s largest provider of not-for-profit childcare in Canada.
Levkoe, who held many positions in the organization, including manager of government relations for YMCAs in Ontario and vice-president of children’s services, created a consultation program to support the rollout of school age childcare in more than 80 sites with the North York School Board, and the creation of common standards of practice and resource guides to bring consistency to YMCA school-age child care, preschool child care and camping programs.
Upon retiring in 2000, Levkoe, who now resides downtown, had been involved with the Life Institute, an organization providing education, leadership, personal growth and social activity opportunities for people aged 50 and up.
And though she no longer works for the YMCA, Levkoe is still active in a volunteer role with the organization.
“It’s very, very exciting,” she said of receiving the Fellowship of Honour medal. “It’s a wonderful mixture of elation and humility.”
Levkoe wasn’t the only person with strong North York ties to be honoured with the YMCA Fellowship of Honour medal.
The year was 1958 and George Rodger set out to find work, landing a job as camp counsellor and archery instructor with Big Cove YMCA Camp in Nova Scotia.
Four years later, he was hired as a fellowship student at the Halifax YMCA’s resident’s desk. Five years after that, he found himself in Toronto as a youth worker and camp director with the YMCA of Greater Toronto. He would eventually rise to the position of vice-president, financial and facility development.
During his time in Toronto, Rodger helped to lay the foundation to build five new YMCAs - including the North York facility - which saw membership grow from 4,500 to 45,000 in a decade.
In 1991, he returned to the East Coast to lead the Halifax/Dartmouth YMCA before heading west to Vancouver five years later to take on the role of senior vice-president of development to manage the campaign and construction of the Tong Louie Surrey Family YMCA, British Columbia’s first YMCA in 25 years.
Rodger retired in 2012 after a 54-year career with the YMCA.
Rodger was travelling outside the country and was unavailable for comment by The Mirror’s deadline.
The YMCA was on the verge of bankruptcy when a plan was put together to build five new locations in the city, with the North York site being the first, said Medhat Mahdy, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Toronto.
“George was the primary driver of the North York Y,” said Mahdy, who worked with both Rodger and Levkoe for 30 years. “Judith was the driver behind quality child care. I think (the medal) is a tremendous recognition of their dedication, passion and commitment. They have both been instrumental with the YMCA.”