By Judith Kahn
Judith Ottoson’s long relationship with the YMCA began when she was a child after she nearly drowned in one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes.
“My mom hauled me off to the Y for much-needed swimming lessons,” Ottoson said. “It saved my life and I had fun.”
Ottoson joined Stonestown’s YMCA in 1988 upon arriving in San Francisco from Minneapolis with her husband.
In San Francisco, Ottoson soon began fundraising for the YMCA. This led her to a deeper exploration of their programs, an exploration she was well positioned to undertake.
In 1968, Ottoson earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Minnesota and in 1972 she received a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree from the University of Hawaii. She earned her Doctor of Education degree (Ed.D.) from Harvard University in 1984.
For the past 25 years, she has worked as an academic, teaching program planning, implementation and evaluation. Most recently, she taught program evaluation in the Master of Public Education program at San Francisco State University.
Ottoson is interested in learning whether planned programs are implemented as intended, and what impact the programs have.
“As a fundraiser for the Y, I wanted to know more about the programs for which my husband and I were donating and raising funds.” She wondered how these programs looked in the community.
The first program Ottoson learned about was the California YMCA Youth and Government’s Model Legislature and Court (MLC). She said it is the premier youth program of its kind in the state since 1948.
“The MLC creates a six-month learn-by-doing experience that teaches the values of democracy by bringing together a cross-section of the state’s high school students,” Ottoson said. Here, students get a first-hand experience of government and “learn how to solve community problems through the democratic process.”
Students also have an opportunity to debate and discuss issues among peers throughout California. Ottoson believes that, in our divided nation, such a program helps to fill the void in the absence of civics classes in public schools.
A second program is the José Ortega Elementary School Umoja After School Program, a collaborative program offered by Ortega Elementary, the San Francisco Unified School District’s ExCEL program and the Stonestown Family YMCA.
“This on-site K-5 program provides students with a variety of fun activities: homework help, sports, science experiments, field trips and healthful snacks under the care of professionally trained YMCA staff,” she explained. “This program can be the difference in whether a parent can continue working since it offers families needed, reliable after-school care.”
Another school program sponsored by the Y is at the St. Francis Episcopal Church, where Ottoson and her husband witnessed a “graduation” ceremony, complete with tiny caps and gowns. The Y offers a summer camp as well, and during the summer, in Golden Gate Park, inflatable play structures dot the field along with games and activity tables.
The common thread running through all of the YMCA programs, Ottoson observed, was the full engagement of youth and staff. For example, small children having a difficult moment in the group were not left to fend for themselves, but received attention and care. Ottoson was similarly impressed by the variety of programs offered for seniors in a separate annex.
“Lesson learned: The Y wasn’t just about my fitness; it is about our community.”
With travel among her many interests, Ottoson and her husband have visited all seven continents and look forward to the time when travel is less restricted by the presence of COVID. They greatly enjoyed South Africa and going on safari. Now retired, she has the time for improv at Playback Theater at Stagebridge in Oakland, which she has been involved in for more than five years.
Ottoson’s community focus has led her to help register new voters in Oakland and assist with citizenship ceremonies. She is a member of the Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) and has served on the board of the St. Francis Wood Homeowners Association.
Ottoson’s husband, Dr. Lawrence W. Green, is professor emeritus in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the School of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. Together with other co-editors, they have completed a textbook entitled “Health Program Planning, Implementation, and Evaluation: Creating Behavioral, Environmental, and Policy Change.” It is scheduled for publication in 2022 by Johns Hopkins University Press.
Ottoson has two stepdaughters and four “amazing grandchildren,” with whom she has had “a chance for a post-COVID hug.” She looks forward to continued involvement in many community activities and in supporting the YMCA, and informing people of the wonderful programs they contribute to the health and well-being of the community.
For more information about the Stonestown YMCA, go to ymcasf.org.