WESTPORT — At a YMCA professional development training session early in his career, Jay Jaronko realized the limitless potential and impact program directors, like him, can have.

“A guy my age, in my role, invented basketball. (James Naismith) was the sports and fitness director at a YMCA college,” Jaronko said. “The message was, not only can you do things like this, but we want you to do things like this. We want you to take a look at the community you’re working in and we want you to change things for the better and that really jazzed me up. It really spoke to me.”

Despite growing up next to a YMCA in his hometown Southington, Jaronko did not consider working there until his friend urged Jaronko to take a summer job as a YMCA camp counselor while he was home from the University of Connecticut, a job he continued each summer until he graduated with a history degree.

Still uncertain of his path following graduation, Jaronko took a job at the Southington-Chesire YMCA as a youth program director where he was in charge of all youth sports and ran an after-school program. His time there was transformative, particularly, his team-building program for middle schoolers. The fifth-graders who were set to enter the two local middle schools in Southington gathered on separate days for a friendship building session.

The students were guided through discussions on understanding cultural competency, minimizing risky behavior and promoting tolerance. One of the groups of students, when they finished that sixth-grade year, came back for another team building exercise — this time with their teachers.

“When this group came back, the sixth-grade teachers came in and they said, ‘This is the best group of sixth-graders we’ve ever met. They just gelled in a way we’ve never seen before,’” Jaronko said.

“I’d like to think that the goal was met, but that just blew me away,” he added.

Since he moved over to the Westport Weston Family YMCA in 2013, Jaronko, the senior program director, has been instrumental in bringing special-needs programs to the Y, among other initiatives.

In its first year, the program had 57 youth athletes compete in basketball tournaments and swimming competitions. Now, swimming takes place year round, there are two seasons of basketball and Jaronko is looking to add track and field this coming year.

“We started the Special Olympics programs in January of 2016. That’s been a passion project this year of mine,” he said. “It’s been a runaway success at this point.”

Another significant program added in 2016 was a blood pressure self-monitoring service. The four-month program teaches participants to monitor their blood pressure, increase their exercise, improve their diet and, ultimately, lower their blood pressure.

“We’ve currently got about 80 people enrolled in the program throughout Westport and Bridgeport,” Jaronko said. “We’re getting into chronic disease management and prevention programs at the Y. The phrase is we want to bridge the gap between the house and the hospital. So what we’re trying to do is help people manage their health so they don’t need to end up needing to go to the hospital.”

Jaronko added that the blood pressure prevention program is one of many to come. Diabetes prevention, Livestrong — a cancer survivor program — and arthritis exercise programs are some of the ideas in the pipeline.

@chrismmarquette; cmarquette@bcnnew.com