WYFCS Executive Director Steve Taylor Looks Back as He Prepares to Retire

WYFCS Executive Director Steve Taylor smiling with partner on beach

Steven Taylor has made his life’s work philanthropy and advocacy, from championing environmental protection and conservation, to helping thousands with mental health care and social support services.  After an impressive 32-year career, Taylor announced he will retire from his position as Executive Director at Worcester Youth and Family Counseling Services (WYFCS) this December. The legacy he leaves behind is a diverse and powerful one.

Raised in Berlin, he grew up on an Angus cattle and row crop farm with his brother, sister and two parents before moving to a house on Ayers Creek. That house stands next to the location where he and his wife Suzy run Ayers Creek Adventures, a kayak and eco-tour business, to this day.

From an early age he found himself engaged with the outdoors, a passion that would later influence his career in environmental preservation and policy.

“My childhood was good,” he said, “I spent a lot of summers in Ocean City enjoying watersports like surfing and waterskiing in the bay. I love the ocean, swimming and fishing. I’ve always liked being on the beach and in an open-air environment. It was a big influence on my life, just being outside.” He attended Stephen Decatur Highschool before going away to college.

After graduating from University of Baltimore with his Master’s in Business Administration in 1987, he began to work for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

“When I was at college, there were organizations that came in and talked about what they do; the Chesapeake Bay Foundation was one of them. I was very interested in what they had to say and followed up with them, eventually going to Annapolis to meet with those who worked there. I had a good feeling about the work they were doing. I liked the idea of working outside and experiencing and doing the kinds of things I did as a child.”

Though he was drawn to the return to the Eastern Shore, employment opportunities at the time were slim, and he had met his wife during his college years.

“We supported one another. She had a job in Harrisburg and I was in Baltimore, so we lived in between. She would commute north, and I would commute south. It worked for the two of us at the time. It wasn’t about what I wanted, but what worked well for both of us.” He identifies his wife as being his mentor in advocacy and philanthropy.

“Her family was very generous even though they weren’t extremely wealthy. They just felt it was important to give. Her grandmother used to say, ‘every dollar you give you get two dollars back.’ That’s what she taught me as we got to know one another—the importance of giving and even if you don’t have a lot to give—give something.”

It was through his wife he had his first exposure to working with young people, something that would later be echoed in his career at WYFCS.

“Suzy was involved in some church groups and we did things with the kids like take them ice skating or to the park. For a lot of kids, it was their first time out of the neighborhood. I really enjoyed doing and experiencing what these kids were experiencing for the first time much like what we do here [at WYFCS.]”

After the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, he went on to work for the Environmental Protection Agency in the National Estuary Program, where they received an application for an initiative that would eventually lead him to become Executive Director of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program (MCBP.)

“We were receiving applications for new estuary programs. They are an exclusive bunch, there are only 28 across the nation out of 100 plus estuaries. I was there at a time when they were accepting and reviewing applications for new ones. The Maryland Coastal Bays was one of them.”

The team he was working with didn’t share his enthusiasm for the project at first.

“They didn’t want to fund the Maryland Coastal Bays Program because they felt like the Chesapeake Bay Program was already getting a lot of money and Maryland was getting more than their fair share through that.”

He was eventually able to convince them that the MCBP would have the highest likelihood of success compared to all the other estuary programs because of its size.

“It’s primarily one county in one state, 175 square miles. Comparatively it’s a small project area; some estuary programs are three or four states, ten or fifteen counties which makes the process much more complicated when dealing with various jurisdictions.” Despite the typical standard of five years of planning before program implementation, as luck would have it that particular round was only requesting three.

“Convincing my team members that it was a small project area and coinciding for the less amount of time for planning was sellable and they accepted that argument.” A short time later, one of his colleagues suggested he apply for the position of Executive Director of the MCBP, effectively being “lent out” by the federal government for a three-year term. His work with the MCBP would become a landmark moment for his career and a turning point for the local environment.

“The Maryland Coastal Bay Program’s mission is to improve water quality and habitat in the Maryland Coastal Bays Watershed. It’s imperative to know what’s happening on the landscape before you can start to address water quality problems because it’s influencing the water quality.”

His position required beginning the planning phase for the project—getting all the partners and stakeholders involved and talking about what potential solutions there were to habitat and environmental issues and to the water that was impacting wildlife. After that three-year planning period, they put the program into motion.

“They’re 22 years into implementing that plan. It includes restoration projects, clean ups, public education, talking about navigation and recreation, how multiple uses can impact one another. It’s a comprehensive look at a particular water body and what things can be done to fix it.”

The end of his tenure for MCBP coincided his wife receiving a job offer to work in New Jersey. Realizing the opportunity that offer presented her, he decided it was time to make a change and leave Maryland.

“I felt that it was my turn to support her… and so I said, ‘you know what, I’ll find a job in the environmental field after we there, let’s follow this career path that you’re on and see where that takes us.’” He described the move as being a culture shock.

“Here on the Eastern Shore things move a little slower, which is nice. In New Jersey everyone just seemed to be in a hurry.” There were however benefits to the change in pace and the move didn’t stop him from keeping close to his favorite habitat.

“There were a lot of things for our kids to do, a lot of activities, sporting events, recreational opportunities. We lived near the shore, about three miles from the beach, on a peninsula. To the east was the ocean, to the south was the Navesink River and to the north was Raritan Bay, it was a great place for me to be so close to water-based opportunities.”

Once in New Jersey, he began working on a watershed project for the Manasquan River and a short time later was offered a new opportunity by one of the members of the planning committee, a professor at Monmouth University.

“He approached me with ‘Steve you’d be a great teacher at Monmouth University. You can be an adjunct professor and teach a class or two on the subjects of your discretion.’ I taught environmental law and policy. I taught about Clean Water Act and what laws and regulations were a result of that. I didn’t find it foreign because I that was where my experience lay.” He also taught environmental science at Brookdale Community College, which he found a bit more challenging, but soon invested himself in establishing the Clean Marina Program (CMP), the first of its kind in the state.

The CMP is what he describes as a “good housekeeping plan for marinas.”

“Marina owners or managers think about where paints are stored, how they would clean up a gas spill; essentially considering potential hazards and what the response would be. It’s all about good management of the marina.”

He decided to bring his knowledge of similar projects to the table in his new home.

“Maryland had already had a Clean Marina Program. I was in a meeting with Environmental Protection Officials and told them about the CMP and that I thought we should bring this to New Jersey. It’s a great thing, it’s voluntary, it’s non-regulatory. They were about to issue a lot of regulations on marinas at that time. But they decided the CMP might be a good way to ease off the marina owners by submitting this voluntary program to avoid the regulation component.”

He spent time using his own experience working with officials to help adapt the policies that had been used in Maryland to New Jersey laws. When that was done, they found pilot marinas willing to try the program out. The success was so great, the CMP was adopted state wide. The call to come back to the Shore, however, was always in his mind.

While living in New Jersey, Taylor’s grandfather listed his property for sale, but due to the market at the time, was unable to attract a buyer. He and his wife decided it made sense for them to purchase the land themselves.

“Suzy and I were talking one night and thought, ‘you know what we should buy that property.’ We were at a point in our lives where we could afford it, so we drafted a proposal to my grandfather and gave him life rights to live there. He said, ‘absolutely.’ He was delighted that another family member would have the land that he lived his life on and raised his children on. It was a win-win for him and for us. We are so fortunate to have had that opportunity and to be living there and so happy.”

After they bought the property, they rented their house for nearly a decade. They planned to retire there but talked about what they wanted to do when they finally returned from New Jersey. Eventually the discussions led them to the concept of Ayers Creek Adventures.

“We did some brainstorming and jotted down ideas and the kayaking piece bubbled to the top; it seemed obvious. It’s a great location for that, it’s a passive recreation, it’s not like a marina with a motors boats cruising around. It seemed like a good fit for the property, and with my background and my ability to provide nature tours on the creek—it was just the perfect thing. Everything came together, my experience and my knowledge, my family being there, our idea of moving back to the Eastern Shore. It all fit into place.”

After a few years operating Ayers Creek, a close friend and current WYFCS board member, Karen Clayland, approached him about become the new Executive Director for the organization.

“She was familiar with my nonprofit experience and thought that I would be a good fit, not because I was knowledgeable about mental health issues or social issues, but because of my experience in managing non-profits. She encouraged me to apply and I did.”

The transition from environmental policy and conservation to mental health and social service was a challenging one.

“It was hard at first, I questioned, ‘what am I doing here?’ But I focused on the business side because that was what I was bringing to the table. There were great staff that were able to handle the mental health component and the social service component, so I really didn’t have to worry because I had a great team. That’s what I still focus on, how I can make this a strong business.”

Despite being on the administrative side, being able to interact with the people WYFCS has been a highlight of his work.

“It’s rewarding working here even though my job doesn’t give me hands on work like some of the team. I get to experience how beneficial our services can be; I see that through the work that we do and the communications I have with the staff. It’s inspiring to see people so dedicated to giving to others in a different way, teaching kids right from wrong and a good and healthy way to live.”

He says being Executive Director has taught him a lot about mental health and its treatment.

“I’ve learned a lot, I didn’t know that so many people struggle with it. One in five at some point in their lifetime will have a mental health diagnosis. I had no idea that it was that significant. That was a huge revelation for me that it was so significant in the community.”

The social issues and struggles within the area also surprised him.

“Worcester County even though it seems like a wealthy county is not. The schools report significant numbers of folks at the federal poverty level or lower. The United Way did a report that they call ALICE that is identifying people working but are living paycheck to paycheck. With the federal poverty level and the ALICE group numbers combined, 30-35% of the people in Worcester County are paycheck to paycheck or worse. I don’t think people realize the extent of social need that’s out there.”

He said he’s seen the benefits of reaching out to the public about these issues.

“The great thing is that when we share this information and call for support from the community, we get overwhelming response. People come forward and they’re willing to buy school supplies or donate money to the organization or volunteer. There are wonderful people in the community willing to come forward and help.”

Taylor believes spreading this information is one of his proudest accomplishments while being at WYFCS.

“Something that I worked really hard on during my tenure here is making sure that community is aware of who we are, what we do and why we do it. I attend almost all the Chamber of Commerce functions and not just go but participate and network and talk about what I do and the challenges that are in the community. I think that that’s where I’ve probably helped the organization the most; helping people know about the services that we provide and the number of people that we help every year, and that there is a need.”

Under his administration, he’s seen WYFCS grow financially as well.

“Aside from spreading our message, my other area of concentration has been making the nonprofit financially stronger; when I started there really wasn’t too much in reserve should something go wrong. We didn’t have money to fall back on if we lost a grant or something tragic happened to the building. By being conservative and looking at staffing arrangements I’ve been able to create that rainy day fund and keep our bank accounts healthy.”

When asked where he saw the organization going in the future after his retirement, he hoped the mission would be to expand into the southern end of the county.

“That’s something we’ve been talking about for a long time. It’s just going to require more resources. We need to find additional grants to fund that. I haven’t been able to do that, so I hope the next person is more successful than I was.”

He also said he hoped WYFCS could receive more financial support.

“I look at our funding allocations; we’re receiving a lot of money locally and from the state and very little from the federal government. It should be the opposite; the federal government should be providing the lion’s share of our funding to be supplemented by state and local sources. I think that next person needs to focus on that too.”

The challenge for his successor will be partnering with larger entities to get that assistance.

“The federal government doesn’t have the resources to manage hundreds of thousands of grants to small nonprofits like us. They prefer to provide money to the states so the they are only managing 50 grants as to opposed to thousands. I think WYFCS needs partner with other similar or like organizations in neighboring counties and apply for grants that will come to Delmarva or the region and support similar work.”

After his extensive career, Taylor says he’s looking forward to retirement.

“I think the nicest part will be able to wake up in the morning and not have to rush to do anything. I can just have coffee and sit there, read or watch the news, do some woodworking, or relax. I think that will be the greatest thing, having that peace of mind. Then my wife and I will do some traveling. We want to go visit some national parks and out west. We want to visit our children and spend time together.”

He says he’s proud of the work that he’s done over the past 32 years and the legacy he will leave behind.

“I feel like I’ve done everything I can do help give back to Worcester County and the people who live here. My work with the Coastal Bays Program has had success and that success is really for the children… the kids who are going to grow up here. It’s not for me, because I’m going to leave that behind, but it’s for all the people that are coming up and want to enjoy the things that I used to do. The same is true for Worcester Youth. The kids that live in communities that are challenging hopefully will have greater opportunities to explore and grown on their own. I feel like the programs that I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in have given back to the community. I think that if every person can say that about themselves, we’d live in a better world.”