One Mission, Two Legends

When many people think about YMCA Camp Onyahsa, two names or legends, if you will, usually come to mind Spiro Bello and Jon O’Brian.

Bello was the camp director from 1962 to 1984. O’Brian took over the helm in 1987 and has been in that position ever since.

With more than 26 years experience in that role and more than 47 years affiliated with the local YMCA, O’Brian is truly a man behind the mission. The journey was definitely not easy for O’Brian, who aspired to carry out the same YMCA values as Bello, his hero, mentor and friend.

“My parents’ marriage started to fail when I was 7 to 8 years old and became increasingly dysfunctional for several years after that,” said O’Brian. “It was a rough time for my brother (Paul), sister (Jean) and I, and the marriage eventually ended in divorce.”

O’Brian’s father, John O’Brian, was a strong supporter of YMCA camps because of his upbringing and camping experience over the years.

“My dad attended YMCA Camp in the Woods on Bear Lake, and he made it a priority for me and my siblings to be involved with the YMCA camping program,” O’Brian said. “Camp Onyahsa was the nearest camp, and my father wanted me to go like he and my Uncle Jimmy had.”

Through Indian Guides and father/son camping at Camp Onyahsa since age 5, being on the swim team under the direction of Harold Leach and attending the Saturday action program at the Jamestown YMCA, the YMCA became a refuge for O’Brian during his youth.

“The YMCA, Onyahsa and our grandmother’s (Mary Smiley) home were sources of stability for us during our childhood,” said O’Brian. “My dad and Bello wanted to make sure camp was available especially when family finances were limited.”

Jon, Mark and Jean all went to camp all summer through financial assistance provided by the camp. Grandmother Smiley also made sure that Onyahsa and Y activities were part of their regular activities.”

My dad would paint signs posted at the Jamestown YMCA to advertise day camp and overnight camp at Onyahsa in exchange for camperships for us,” said O’Brian. “In return, I worked as hard as I could as a staff member to compensate at camp for this opportunity for my siblings. Now, I want to make sure this opportunity still exists for kids.”

At age 16, O’Brian recalls going to camp all summer and having friends who did not go, and who ended up going in another direction.

“If I had not gone to camp and experienced the opportunity to give back, I might have followed that same path as my friends,” said O’Brian. “I have been a witness to the value of camp and sharing the experience of community.”

From being a YMCA Camp Onyahsa camper to a YMCA staff member (kitchen crew, cabin counselor, lifeguard, swim instructor, lifeguard instructor, waterfront director, assistant camp director, current camp director), O’Brian is a testament to the makeup of hard work, determination and purpose.

O’Brian, who was recently honored with the YMCA Paul B. Sullivan Award in May, is a tenured associate professor of history at Jamestown Community College since 1998. He is proud to be the representative of YMCA Camp Onyahsa’s 115th year, made successful by eager campers, dedicated staff, committed volunteers and generous donors.

For more information on camping and other other YMCA Camp Onyahsa programs, call 664-2802, ext. 238, or visit onyahsa.org.