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Fast Start: Taking the chance to give back

Rochester Business Journal
January 19, 2012

Jeremy Cooney never thought of himself as a Y kid-until he got a job as vice president of development for the YMCA of Greater Rochester.
It was during the interview process for the position that he looked back and realized the Y had played a big role in his young life.
Cooney, 30, learned to swim in the basement pool at the Monroe Avenue branch. As the only child of a single mom, he attended day camp at Camp Arrowhead in Pittsford and spent summers at Camp Gorham near Eagle Bay, developing a lifelong love of the Adirondacks.
And in high school, Cooney took part in the Y's Youth in Government program, a statewide initiative that, among other activities, immerses students in the Albany political process for a weekend.
"I know I benefited from those programs," he says.
Cooney heads up a development program that raises roughly $5 million in charitable support and gives out more than $3 million in financial assistance each year. The Y has more than 130,000 members plus additional community members who take part in free activities.
He oversees the annual fund, major gift donations and grantwriting, leads the Y's government relations strategy and serves as counsel to the CEO.
His path to development work wasn't always clear, but mentors have helped Cooney find his calling, he says.
A third-generation student at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Cooney graduated in 2004 with a B.A. in public policy. His first job out of college was a full-time internship in the office of Rochester mayor Bill Johnson.
One evening he drove Johnson to a talk being given by Richard Florida, author of "The Rise of the Creative Class." Surrounded by Rochester's movers and shakers-thanks to Johnson's prime seats-Cooney was enthralled with Florida's notion that young, creative, entrepreneurial thinkers could change communities. It was a foreshadowing of Cooney's current leadership role in YP work across the state, and he soon got involved in ROC City Coalition.
"How funny is that? I was just some intern trying to make my way," he recalls. "Fast-forward almost 10 years, and it's embedded in our culture."
Cooney went to work as a staff assistant in district operations for Rep. Louise Slaughter before joining his alma mater's development office as manager of campaign leadership. Driven and determined, he was doing some soul searching to evaluate his next career steps. During that time Mark Gearan, president of the college, became a mentor. Gearan, a lawyer by training, suggested that law school would help refine his goals.
"He helped me realize you can get so much out of a J.D.; he really encouraged me," Cooney says.
Cooney earned a law degree at SUNY Albany Law School and graduated in 2010 after serving as executive editor of the law review. He had an offer from a large New York firm but chose instead to return to Rochester to be near his family.
He also was growing more convinced that Rochester was a smart place to build a career. Big enough to offer stimulating professional development opportunities, it also was small enough to give young professionals a stronger voice in community affairs. It was big enough to offer the level of entertainment typical of much larger cities-and small enough to be affordable.
Cooney took a loft apartment in High Falls and joined Ward Greenberg Heller & Reidy as a litigation attorney in August 2010. He liked the firm and his colleagues, but he soon found that law firm work didn't suit him.
"I was lost. I didn't know what to do," he says.
He quit seven months later and took a contract position at the Al Sigl Center, where he met his next mentor, agency president Dan Meyer. He didn't know where things would lead, but he knew he wanted to make a difference in Rochester.
"This is my hometown. I want to take it to the next level," he says. "What is Rochester in 50 years? I want to be part of that conversation."
The Y is proving to be the place to do it, Cooney says. For more than 156 years, the organization has been one of Rochester's major non-profits. He likes that it is hands-on and mission-driven work, that he sees children, teens and seniors around the Y's Carlson MetroCenter facility, where he works.
"It's not abstract or removed. It's very hands-on, in the trenches.
"I don't have millions of dollars, but I feel like I'm giving back. Someone else was in this position when I was 8, 9, 10, making sure I could go to camp."
1/13/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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