Ask Joe Headen what helps someone live a gratifying life and he would tell you to start by finding a job that doesn’t feel like work. Headen has found that gig as the Nantucket Boys & Girls Club Athletic Director, and along the way he has helped many students become better versions of themselves.
“I have a job where I have fun and that is my main goal. When I am not having fun at the job that is when you start going home wondering how to get out of it,” Headen said. “But I don’t have those thoughts when I go home.”
Headen grew up in North Carolina and after spending a summer on the island in 2004, he moved to Nantucket year-round in 2005 to work at Marine Home Center. While at Marine Home Center, Headen volunteered his time to assist the club with its football program. Headen knew working with kids was his calling and something he would one day like to do, prompting him to study physical education and health at North Carolina Central University. After getting that initial taste of working with island kids, he knew he wanted to make it his primary focus.
“Jamie (Foster) brought me to the Club,” Headen said of the Club’s current executive director and former athletic director. “I had seen Jamie around and he would say ‘hey we have an opening, you should apply.’ So I said okay sure. The crazy thing is, and I don’t even think Jamie knows this, but before he got the (athletic director) job, I had seen in the newspaper they had an opening for it and while I said ‘oh that is in my background' I took the job at Marine. I met Jamie a few years later and the chips fell where they fell.”
Headen has been with the club since 2010, when he began as the assistant athletic director. He has been the club’s head athletic director for nine years. Today, Foster speaks glowingly about Headen and his ability to help the club and community, forging important and lasting relationships with the hundreds of children who show up on a daily basis.
“For more than a decade, Joe has managed over 500 children involved in athletics throughout each school year and has mentored thousands of children who walk through our doors.” Foster said. “Joe not only teaches our members about athletics but more importantly he helps to guide them through life. Joe has a knack for building relationships with youth and they gravitate toward him. We, as a community, are so very lucky to have Joe taking care of our children and he should be acknowledged for the work he has done. Joe is a humble leader with a big heart and this Club would be lost without him.”
Nothing shines a light on the impact Headen has had on those children than what took place during this year’s Tim Russert Summer Groove event, the Club's primary annual fundraiser. Mykolas Zilys, a nine-year old student who regularly spends time at the club, read a letter he wrote during his second grade class to Headen in front of the crowd, which you can listen to by clicking here.
“He is the one who coaches me. He is the one who prints military papers for me. He is the one who plays chess with me. He is the one who helps me with conflicts. He is the one I can tell secret information to,” Mykolas begins his letter with.
Headen said he was unaware that the letter would be read until the day of the event. He said moments like that are what keeps him at the job and he recalls when Mykolas gave him the letter privately.
“He brought it to me and approached me saying ‘hey Joe, I wrote you something at school.’ I said okay and then read the letter and I was just like holy smokes,” Headen said. “My thoughts were just one, the kid has good grammar. Two, like I am honored you look at me in this light. Then for it to be brought to the main stage at the Summer Groove was great. It was one of those things where I didn’t know it was happening until the day of, which is probably for the best because I am not big on being out in the public eye. I am the background person. I don’t need the kudos or anything like that.”
“It is something I take as an honor. It means a lot to know that kids feel comfortable around me and safe around me to say those kinds of things. I get to come in to work and my job is to make sure the kids have fun. To me, again, that isn’t even a job. If you find something that you love, and you get to do that? That isn’t work. That is fun.”
The key to developing those relationships, he said, is understanding that all kids are different. Some are outgoing and social while others may be quieter and keep to themselves. Headen has mastered the ability to adapt to each child's needs and how to be someone all the kids can relate to.
“I can’t treat Johnny the same way I am going to treat Timmy. I might know what Timmy is going to do but Johnny I may not be so sure. That is day by day,” Headen said. “You never know what kind of mood they are going to be in, so you sort of just have to feel them out. ‘Hey this kid isn’t having the best day, but I know they love doing this or that so let’s do that for like 10 minutes. Then maybe they’ll come out of whatever they are going through and come out and have a good time with your peers.”
Headen’s days begin with checking his email box and making sure all the equipment is ready to go. He may have some meetings to attend and credited his assistant Derek Williams for his excellent work taking some of the load off of his plate. But come to 2:20 p.m., Headen says, it is game on.
“2:20 comes around and it is game time. The frenzy begins,” Headen said. “Everyone is coming in hot. They are ready to unwind because they have been in school all day. This is their place and for the most part, we try to accommodate that as much as possible in a safe manner.”
The biggest change in Headen’s job has been adjusting to the renovated and expanded Club facility, which provides much more space and accommodates more kids than the original Club. He said this has forced him to improve his time management skills but Headen, with a big thanks to Williams and the rest of the club staff, says that transition has gone well. In fact, he hopes moving forward more parents will utilize the club and its expanded resources on Saturdays.
“That is my goal is to get numbers up on Saturdays. One thing that I don’t think a lot of people realize is on Saturdays we have lower numbers so on Saturday we as a whole get to do more one-on-one interaction,” Headen said. “Like Mykolas, he would come on Saturdays. He would come in and say ‘let’s play chess’ and I would just say ‘okay buddy I have 45 minutes to an hour to play chess with you buddy. I know you want to talk about your strategies if you become president or becoming an architect and building this big infrastructure. We can talk about that for a while because our numbers are low.”
“I do get it that from Monday through Friday you aren’t seeing your kid from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m., so you want to spend that time with them on the weekend. Just realize that you still have the opportunity for your child to come here and if people would like to volunteer, we can use people on Saturdays as well. One-on-one interaction with kids one way or another is important.”
Headen said his advice for the younger kids he is working with now and will continue to work with in the future is to not get down on themselves. He said no one should be afraid if they aren’t the best early on and that he and the rest of the club staff will work as hard as they can to help them improve at whatever game, skill or subject they would like to master.
“One thing I see all the time and we try to help these kids with is when they aren’t the best, they just say ‘oh I am going to try something else.’ My message is that you got to keep chipping away at it and you’ll get there," Headen said. "You can’t live up to everyone else’s expectations. You need to live up to and create your own expectations.”
As for the kids who have moved on, Headen suggests they all consider coming back in some capacity to give back to the Club.
“For those who already came through the programs, come back,” Headen said. “I’ll just use Justin Bloise, Makai Bodden, and Maclaine Willett as examples because they are fresh in my mind, but when they come back, the kids go a little harder at whatever they are doing. They get that little bit of extra. That little boost of energy. It means a lot to the younger kids.”