Ryon Wheeler considers himself a lifelong Boys & Girls Club kid.
With his father, Bill Wheeler, serving as executive director of a club, he spent a lot of time there growing up and later worked there.
“I started going to the club every day since I was pretty much potty trained,” he said. “I went to work with my dad, so I was a club kid long before I was really technically allowed to be. I spent every waking hour I could at the club, got my first job there at 14 and really have been doing it ever since.”
As a freshman at Indiana University, he became program director at the club in Bloomington.
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After graduating from college, he spent time working at clubs in Richmond and Elkhart.
Then in 2014, he had an opportunity to lead his own club, becoming chief executive officer at the Boys & Girls Club of Emerald Valley in Eugene, Oregon.
When he learned of an opportunity to return to his home state to lead the Boys & Girls Club of Seymour, Wheeler applied and recently was hired after going through the interview process. He was one of nearly 50 applicants.
To the 32-year-old, it’s his way of carrying on the legacy of his father, who died when Wheeler was a senior at Frankfort High School.
“That’s when I knew I wanted to work in the club because I saw the impact he had,” he said. “After his funeral, I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ I really just spent the next 10 years trying to learn and grow in clubs around the state.”
Wheeler graduated from high school in 2003 and earned a Bachelor of Science in public affairs with a concentration in nonprofit management from IU in 2007.
From 2008 to 2011, he worked for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Wayne County as the sports, fitness, recreation and camp director. He then served as associate executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Elkhart County for three years.
He reached a point where he felt like he had gained the experience to run his own club, so he applied for positions all over the country, receiving offers in Florida, Missouri and Oregon all at the same time.
“I felt like Oregon was the best spot for my skill set,” he said. “I think it was really good for my growth. I learned a lot, too. I learned a lot of the business side. As an associate executive, you do a lot of the business side, but I really learned when you are the final stop, you learn a lot. When you have to make that final decision, that final call, that’s tough.”
Once he reached the top of the ladder, Wheeler had received a taste of every position within the club.
“What’s neat in that position is you can now take everything you’ve learned and help motivate others to help kids,” he said. “That’s what I think is the best part is you now try to build a team to help kids. That’s the board, that’s the community, because one person can’t do it.”
Wheeler found out about the job opening at the Boys & Girls Club of Seymour when Mindy Stanfield, wife of executive director Steve Stanfield, sent him a Facebook message letting him know her husband was retiring after 43 years.
Steve Stanfield and Wheeler’s father became executive directors in 1980, so they attended conferences together, and their families became close over the years.
After Wheeler and his wife, Lara, talked and prayed about it, he applied. He said he was happy to accept the job when it was offered to him.
“I wouldn’t have looked at this club if it wasn’t for Steve. The relationship he had with my dad and the history with that, it reaches beyond the walls of Seymour,” Wheeler said. “To say it doesn’t scare you a little bit to follow somebody like that that you have so much respect for, there’s a little bit of intimidation, but then the ability to follow somebody like that is also a great honor.”
He said the Seymour club is similar to the one he grew up around in Frankfort.
“When I got the job in Eugene, I’m like, ‘All right, I’ve hit the pinnacle. I’m here,'” Wheeler said. “But the longer you are in a bigger city, I realized I want to raise my kids in a place like I grew up. The job and the ability to come back to a town like where I grew up, you couldn’t beat it. The history like this, the legacy, that’s what drew me here.”
Wheeler is the fourth executive director since the Seymour club began as the Boys Club in 1947. Mike Kreska filled that role the first 10 years, and then Harry Cherry took over until 1980. It became the Boys & Girls Club of Seymour in the mid-1990s.
Being around Boys & Girls Clubs his whole life and gaining experience with program and fund development, Wheeler said he expects a smooth transition into his new job.
“I hope to build the bridge from the old school to the new school and keep that going because Steve and Harry and those guys have built an amazing legacy. I don’t want to lose that … but the club has to change to be relevant in what we’re doing,” he said.
“What that change is, I don’t know yet. I haven’t been here long enough to know that, but I do know that we’re going to have to raise some funds, and we’re going to have to build some programs that are more outcome-driven,” he said. “I’ve done that, and hopefully, I can continue to bring that here.”
Since Seymour is a much smaller city than Eugene, Wheeler said he feels like he will be able to make a larger impact on the community as a whole.
“Here, the club has been such a fabric of the community,” he said. “How can we work with others to not only impact kids but impact families, impact the community, help play a part in the schools? I’m very interested and hoping to dig in and make sure that we continue all of the legacy that happened and maybe take it one step further.”
Wheeler said he will do what he can to help local kids and give them an opportunity to be a part of the club.
“I’d like to take everything that has happened in the past year and see what happened before I got here and see if I can’t help one kid a little bit more,” he said. “It’s about building relationships. You can count your numbers, you can count all of those types of things, but when you know you made one difference in a kid’s life, that’s what matters.”
Wheeler said according to Boys & Girls of America, 15 million kids go home unsupervised after school. Nationwide, the organization serves 4.5 million youth, so the goal is to close the gap with the other 10 million kids.
He said that can be done through Boys & Girls Clubs, other youth-serving organizations and churches.
“I just want to make sure every kid has a safe place to go after school,” he said. “If we can fill the gap, great. If somebody else can, great.”
Wheeler said he knows how the clubs benefit kids, no matter their background or socioeconomic status.
“You meet kids where they are and give them opportunities to make them better,” he said. “If you have a solid Boys & Girls Club, you’re going to have a solid community because you’re going to have kids that learn how to give back. … You have an opportunity to just improve the people around you.”
Wheeler said it may be years until he knows the impact he makes on a kid, but that’s OK.
“If you can help those kids just become productive adults and they can come back in 10 years and say ‘thank you,’ you don’t ever do it for the thank you, you do it to see where they go. That’s the impact,” he said. “No paycheck is ever going to give you that.”
Name: Ryon Wheeler
Education: Frankfort High School (2003); Indiana University (Bachelor of Science in public affairs with a concentration in nonprofit management, 2007)
Occupation: Recently hired as executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Seymour
Family: Wife, Lara Wheeler; two children