Joining the club!

Debbie Wagner,
CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tucson.
Photo by Darin Wallentine.

At the headquarters of Boys & Girls Clubs of Tucson, you might see several girls shooting baskets while another group of kids plays volleyball on the facility’s outdoor courts.

An idyllic scene, but not one every kid can take for granted.

Debbie Wagner, who took over the reins as CEO of the organization in January 2016, enjoys looking out from her office window and seeing the kids playing outside. Every morning, there’s a line of kids waiting to get into the Frank and Edith Morton Clubhouse, which is located below the organization’s administrative offices.

“This is a safe place for kids to go, and a place where they belong,” she says.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Tucson serves more than 5,000 at-risk youths ages 7-17 at its six local clubhouses. For a very low cost to consumers, the clubs offer a range of programs in five areas: character and leadership development; education and career development; health and life skills; the arts; and sports, fitness and recreation.

Wagner’s warmth and fun-loving spirit might make her seem an unlikely CEO, but because her organization provides such fun to area youth, it makes sense.
Lisa Bayless, board president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tucson, has known Wagner for almost 20 years.

“Debbie really understands the organization from the inside,” says Bayless, who is an agent with Long Realty. “I think she has done a beautiful job merging her business approach background with her inside knowledge of the Boys & Girls Clubs. She’s doing a great job with operations and the staff.”

Wagner says she’s most inspired when the kids are transformed by one of the clubs’ programs. Thanks to a generous donor, New York opera singer Carla Dirlikov Canales has visited Tucson three times as part of a new program called “Finding Your Voice.” “It’s amazing to watch the transformation in the kids,” she says. “Everyone has a story and all of them are touched by the program.”

Though Wagner regularly puts in 50-hour workweeks, which include many nighttime events, she finds time to enjoy her passions, which include movies and traveling.
She tries to start her days with 15 minutes of yoga and 20 minutes of meditation.

“It really helps to be connected with life and remain calm in the midst of many situations,” she says of meditation, which she discovered about nine years ago.

She regularly sees her two adult children — Avey Wagner, a 33-year-old massage therapist, and Eric Wagner, a 28-year-old who works for an environmental company and plays guitar in a death metal band called Gatecreeper. She especially loves spending time with her six-year-old grandson, Cielo.

“Having a grandson and working with these kids just opens you up,” she says.

Wagner, an ebullient force of nature, had quite a 2017. First, she celebrated turning 60, a landmark birthday. Then, in October, she married David Shropshire, who works for Our Family Services and is retired from the University of Arizona. The two wed in San Diego, where Wagner lived for several years while working for iHeart Media and Entertainment. Her meditation teacher conducted the ceremony on the beach.

At iHeart Media, formerly Clear Channel Communications, Wagner served as market president and was in the radio business for 33 years, mostly for the company’s seven radio stations in Tucson.

Early on in her career, she made it a point to involve herself with youth organizations. She carefully chose to serve on boards that help youth, such as Junior Achievement, YMCA and Big Brothers Big Sisters. In fact, she was a longtime member of the now 58-person strong Boys & Girls Clubs board before being named CEO. “I served as a good link from the past to the future,” she says.

When she took the position, she had a big job ahead of her. The club’s budget had reached about $4 million before 2008, but the economy caused it to drop to $2.2 million.

Now the budget has climbed to $2.7 million, and they’re working on getting it back to pre-recession levels.

She says moving from radio to the nonprofit world wasn’t as huge a jump as one might think.

“It really mirrors what I’m doing now,” she says. “We’re connectors. We want to make a difference in kids’ lives.
“It’s exciting to be able to lead more with my heart.”  

— Valerie Vinyard