JJ Balderas, chief of staff at the YMCA, poses for a portrait at the William M. McDonald YMCA Aug. 7, 2023. (Sandra Sadek | Fort Worth Report)

When JJ Balderas was younger, he felt like all the odds were against him. 

“I wasn’t the smartest, I wasn’t the fastest. I wasn’t the strongest,” Balderas said. “I was actually a chubby kid. I got bullied.”

Even in his teenage and young adult years, he found himself facing challenges. He finished college in eight years. To make ends meet, he slept in the private gym where he worked. He couch surfed. He slept in his car. 

While it felt like life was always throwing him obstacles to overcome, Balderas turned to larger-than-life figures, such as superheroes or Rocky, as motivation. He imagined himself as a blank canvas filled with potential and aspired to be a positive force in his community. 

For him, resilience was the hardest lesson to learn.

“I always told myself as a kid, ‘You got to push through it. It’s not the end game…,’ ” Balderas said. “Every day it was a challenge. Like, ‘I’m a loser, I’m stupid. I’m fat,’ all those things, and I had to wake up every day and tell myself ‘No, you’re not that. You are so much more. Don’t let people have power over you.’”

Balderas carried that mentality throughout his life and into adulthood. In both his personal and professional life, that resilience translated into his seeking to constantly challenge himself and give back to the Fort Worth community. 

Balderas volunteers his time at the William M. McDonald YMCA’s Teen Nights on Saturdays. For him, it’s more than just teaching teenagers how to draw or encouraging them to pursue their passion. 

It’s about propping up others who might need the inspiration — much like he wished he’d had as a kid. 

“The reason it motivates me is because I didn’t have someone teaching me things like that. So, I wanted to be something I wish I had as a kid,” Balderas said. “It’s very fulfilling for me to see a kid start believing in themselves.”

Balderas’ leadership in the community precedes his current role as chief of staff for the organization. At the age of 18, he started working in the after school gym program at the YMCA, one of three jobs to help pay for college.

He recalls one of the instructors there pulling him aside, asking him to mentor kids in that program. They saw Balderas as a positive Hispanic male figure. 

“I just got to connect with the kids and tell them my thoughts, what I’m going through — my struggles going to college, my struggles not being the perfect student and making myself study — to persevere,” Balderas said. 

Not only did Balderas motivate the kids to be a better version of themselves, but he walked away encouraged by those same kids. 

“That’s the beauty of connection, helping each other, motivating each other. We all come together eventually over the finish line,” Balderas said.  

That connection with peers has translated into his most recent position as chief of staff for the YMCA organization. Working consistently with CEO Mike Brown, Balderas said he learned how to work on a team and in turn, emphasized to Brown the importance of meeting people where they are. 

Monique Pierce, association membership business director for the YMCA, met Balderas when he worked the front desk at the Northwest YMCA three years ago. She described him as a go-to person who gives his all to everything he does, both in his role as a member of the leadership team and while volunteering after hours. 

“He is there to make a difference, and I think he really wants to see these kids do better. Because he grew up in a very similar situation, and it’s like, ‘Hey if I can overcome this, how can I help you do the same thing?’” Pierce said. 

Pierce immediately saw Balderas’ leadership potential while supervising him at the Northwest YMCA and encouraged him to apply for the chief of staff position. 

“It’s nice to see just a young Latino male making such a huge impact, and getting to know the people in the community and trying to build better relationships, not just for the YMCA, but also for the community,” Pierce said. 

AJ McCleod, executive director of community impact with the YMCA, said Balderas is someone who is always willing to step in and help out those in need.

“He just kind of steps into any role that we need. He’s a person who’s a go-getter. But he also is a person who cares about the success of the YMCA. Being a kid from the Northside neighborhood, he knows how important the work that we actually do is,” McCleod said. 

McCleod volunteers with Balderas at the Saturday Teen Nights at the William M. McDonald YMCA and sees him as a leader who is always advocating for the community’s needs and making sure they are connected to resources. 

“He connects people to the right resources to get things done. JJ is a great leader. A person that I would always recommend and speak highly of,” McCleod said.  

Balderas knows the journey of getting to where he is today was not an easy one, but says that it’s part of the path to realizing his version of success. That is the lesson he hopes to pass on to the kids he continues to mentor. And while he is seen as a leader by some, he knows there are a lot of things for him to experience. 

“There’s always going to be a barrier in your way to stop you from (accomplishing your goals). But you always got to look two steps ahead,” Balderas said. “Your next move is always going to be your best move.”

Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at sandra.sadek@fortworthreport.org or on Twitter at @ssadek19.

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

JJ Baldera’s Bio:

Birthplace: Fort Worth

Moved to Fort Worth: N/A

Family: Mother and Father: Jose and Maria Balderas. 6 siblings

Education: Bachelor’s received at Texas Woman’s University

Work experience: Restaurant and retail services, Youth Program Services, Tutoring, Recruitment and Development, Personal Training, and Entrepreneurship.  

Volunteer experience: YMCA of Metropolitan Fort Worth, FWISD, Tarrant Area Food Bank Garden, Center Church

First job: Bus Boy at Pancho’s Mexican Buffet

Advice for someone learning to be a leader: Always stay humble. Anyone can teach you or help you become a better person. 

Best advice ever received: My 9th-grade teacher said “You can party now and work hard for the rest of your life. Or you can work hard now and party for the rest of your life. The choice is yours.” 

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Sandra Sadek is the growth reporter for the Fort Worth Report and a Report for America corps member. She writes about Fort Worth's affordable housing crisis, infrastructure and development. Originally...