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Never too far From the YMCA

Before Nicole Kozikowski could identify letters in the alphabet, she was already working at the YMCA.

Well, sort of.

Technically, it was her mother that worked childcare at the Plainville YMCA in Connecticut. However, for almost every swim lesson that the YMCA offered, the aquatics staff would come and borrow her from her mother.

To say that Kozikowski was comfortable in the water was an understatement.

“Ever since I was little, my mom said I just cried all the time unless I was in the water,” she said. “I loved the water so much, and I was so calm in the water that they used to borrow me. They used me as their test baby for their little kid classes. The instructors would just come get me, and I’d get to go to two or three swim lessons every day.”

Life has taken Kozikowski many places- including leagues under the sea as a diver – but never too far from the YMCA.

In 2019, she accepted a position as the Staunton-Augusta Family YMCA’s summer camp director.

“It has been a pleasure having Nicole as part of our Y staff team,” Staunton-Augusta Family YMCA associate executive director Rhonda Shinaberry said. “She has worked so hard to make our Summer Day Camp continue to be well organized and successful.”

CHANGE OF SCENERY

As she grew, so did Kozikowski’s love for the water.

“There was never any water,” she said, “that I wouldn’t get in.”

Her mom enrolled her in the Sea Cadets, which is the ROTC program for the US Navy.

“My mom always wanted us to be really active and have some kind of interest or passion about things,” Kozikowski said. “I knew that if I wanted to work in or near the water, being in the Navy was probably a possibility. My mom found a group pretty close to our house. I joined when I was 12 and stayed all the way through my senior year in high school.”

Kozikowski needed a college with structure to obtain a degree. She was also ready to explore the world outside of the northeast, and that led her to Virginia Military Institute.

“We did family vacations, but we really didn’t venture that far out of New England,” Kozikowski said. “When I was looking at colleges, I wanted to meet new people. I wanted to try something different. It was my chance to get out there but not be completely on my own. I started researching, and I didn’t want to go any further north than I already was, so I chose VMI.”

THE SCENIC ROUTE

It’s around a 35-minute to 45-minute trip from the VMI campus to the Staunton-Augusta Family YMCA, depending on whether you take US 81 of US 11.

Kozikowski took the adventure-filled scenic route.

She stuck around Virginia for a while, but eventually returned to Connecticut.

“I got a job that was really awesome, and I loved it,” Kozikowski said. “I was working with individuals with disabilities. We had a contract with Walgreen’s. I was training my clients how to do jobs in the different departments. It was amazing to see people not only incredibly thankful to have a job, but for that job to be their whole source of socialization and joy and excitement. To our clients, it was much more than a job.”

She loved her time back in Connecticut, but Kozikowski found herself longing to return to Virginia. She took a job with Child Protective Services in Virginia Beach.

“I learned a lot about myself, and I learned a lot about people,” Kozikowski said. “My heart ached a lot, and that was really hard. It actually pushed me back to the YMCA. I knew for myself in my soul that I needed to have interaction with kids that were positive. I was like, ‘Alright, I’m going to go teach swim lessons. I was working two jobs.”

In 2013, she met the owners of Chesapeake Bay Diving when they were hosting a mermaid retreat in the Bahamas. In 2015, the owners asked Kozikowski to create the swim program at their new Virginia Beach facility.

“I left my job at CPS to become a real mermaid,” Kozikowski said.

Most recently before the YMCA, Kozikowski worked at the Discovery School of Virginia for Girls. She lived in the woods with girls working through trauma, substance abuse or sexual abuse.

“I got to work with teenagers, which was a population I hadn’t had a whole lot of work with,” Kozikowski said. “I really loved it.”

She then accepted the Summer Day Camp director position at the YMCA.

“Nicole is a huge asset to our youth development team,” said Ashley Cole, youth and family director at the Staunton-Augusta Family YMCA. “She has such a robust background in youth development that she’s able to tackle almost any problem with a general knowledge of it.

“She is extremely detail oriented and reliable. She can manage large projects with many moving pieces. If something needs to get done, Nicole will make it happen. She will do whatever she has to do to make it happen. I can’t imagine running summer camp without her.”

NEW OPPORTUNITIES

Last summer, the YMCA Summer Day Camp staff planned a field trip to the Virginia Safari Park for a group of campers.

One of Kozikowski’s favorite memories from camp is three girls at the park ambushing her out of pure excitement.

“I just remember three of the kids running up the path like ‘Mrs. Nicole, Mrs. Nicole, you have to see to see this, it’s so cool,’” she remembered. “They dragged me over to the penguins. They were just so excited. It was such a genuine happiness.”

Kozikowski lives for those moments.

Her grandmother immigrated from Poland, and neither of Kozikowski’s parents attended college. Her family has always tried to expand her boundaries through giving her opportunities, and now Kozikowski wants to make sure that she provides more opportunities for kids.

“Being able to give that to kids just makes me happy,” Kozikowski said. “No matter what may be going on in my life, being able to do that for a kid makes everything better.”

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