Changing of the guard

As the new chairman of Dr. Phillips Charities, Jim Ferber hopes the organization will continue to think of bigger and better ways to build a strong, integrated community.

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  • | 3:21 a.m. January 7, 2016
Jim Ferber has been a board member for Dr. Phillips Charities for 13 years.
Jim Ferber has been a board member for Dr. Phillips Charities for 13 years.
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DR. PHILLIPS Youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. Those are the YMCA’s three areas of focus. But throughout Jim Ferber’s 21 years as CEO of the YMCA of Central Florida, they also were three of his biggest passions. 

“That’s been my life,” Ferber said. “What I do personally and what I did professionally, they work together. It’s hard to separate.”

When Ferber came to Central Florida in the early 1990s, the YMCA had 13,000 members and a budget of $8.5 million. By the time he retired, there were more than 100,000 members and the budget was $80 million. Dr. Phillips Charities invested more than $35 million in the YMCA during that time, encouraging some of the growth. 

But even after he retired, Ferber’s fervor for community development didn’t diminish. If anything, it grew stronger. He became chairman of Dr. Phillips Charities in July 2015 and has a plan for helping the Dr. Phillips area become healthier, more successful and more connected. 

Jim Ferber, right, and other YMCA and Dr. Phillips leaders at a 1996 groundbreaking for the Dr. Phillips YMCA Family Center.
Jim Ferber, right, and other YMCA and Dr. Phillips leaders at a 1996 groundbreaking for the Dr. Phillips YMCA Family Center.

Ferber’s YMCA career started in 1973 in Akron, Ohio, when he was 25. 

In 1976, Ferber moved to Houston to take a leadership position with the YMCA there. The community had similarities to Orlando, although it was much larger, with a population of more than 4 million at the time.

After 10 years in Houston, he relocated again to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he built a new uptown Y. He said the YMCA soon “caught fire” and became relevant in the community.

Ferber was invited to Orlando in 1993 as the new CEO of the YMCA of Central Florida. 

“I was exposed to some really great people along the way at all my stops,” Ferber said. “All of my learning for last 20 years, I was able to pull those leadership skills to Orlando.”

Ferber demonstrated his commitment to these Y’s threew area of focus during his years at the YMCA of Central Florida.

“You’re not going to legislate change — it’s not that easy,” Ferber said. “You’ve got to change people’s hearts.” 

Ferber has a passion for early childhood development and worked with YMCA teams to open two centers at Walt Disney World to serve cast members. He remembers meeting one woman from Mexico who was a Disney housekeeper and dropped off her children at one of the centers while she worked. When Ferber met her, she was in tears.

“She said, ‘I’m just so happy; these are happy tears because I’ve always dreamed of coming to America where my kids are exposed to early childhood development,’” Ferber said. “She can go to work and feel great about leaving her kids there.” 

In the realm of healthy living, Ferber is a big advocate for prevention-based health care, particularly related to the “Big Four” — heart disease, cancer, memory-related illnesses and diabetes.

“Rather than thinking about always fixing them, how do we prevent them?” Ferber said. “There’s a lot of changes that need to happen in our system.”

Shortly before leaving the YMCA, Ferber hired a dietician to help the organization integrate the importance of nutrition into all of its health-related programs. The Dr. Phillips branch will soon be starting educational services to teach members how to read food labels, avoid certain ingredients and cook in healthy ways.

Ferber retired from the YMCA in October 2014, but his involvement in the community didn’t stop there. 

About 13 years ago, Ferber was asked to join the Dr. Phillips Charities Board of Directors. He had formed relationships with leaders of the organization, including former chairman Jim Hinson, because of their support for the YMCA.

“When I was asked to come on the board, I found that very interesting and ... challenging, and I was honored,” Ferber said.

Hinson and Ferber became close both professionally and personally. Ferber had offers for positions at YMCAs in major cities around the country, but he stayed in Orlando because he was so impacted by the support of Dr. Phillips Charities.

In July 2015, Hinson resigned, and Ferber was asked to take his place as chairman. Hinson died in September.

“Jim Hinson has had a huge impact on my life and on my career,” Ferber said.

Many have described Ferber as a visionary, but that doesn’t mean Dr. Phillips Charities is about to see any immediate radical shifts.

“People think I’ve got this great vision, but it’s based on what the community needs are,” Ferber said. “There’s not a whole lot of changes that I’m going to be making — it’s the evolution. We’re just going to continue to evolve.”

He hopes the organization will help to usher in opportunities for new employers and businesses in Central Florida to sustain the families who live here. One effective way will be to start teaching more technical skills in schools, he said. 

But Ferber’s big-picture dream for the Dr. Phillips area is to have an integrated community where partnerships are strong among the YMCA, schools and health care, such as the new Spring Lake Health and Living facility, which will be opening next year.

“You’re going to have this healthy village that’s growing out of this community organically,” he said. “Everybody’s going to bring their own strength to it, but they’re all going to work together.”

Dr. Phillips Charities owns a few more tracks of land that eventually could turn into similar intergenerational villages. 

“If you can do it here, if this is working, then how do you replicate it so that it becomes something that anybody could pick up?” Ferber said. “I can get really crazy about what we’re doing here.”



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