Leading with Heart
Kassia Lyman works to make sure others live their healthiest lives
With her beaming smile and ever-present words of encouragement, Kassia Lyman is a fixture at the Billings Family YMCA. The 34-year-old says the Y is so deeply ingrained in her life because it helped her become who she is today.
Serving as the health and wellness director, she oversees every aspect of fitness at the Y. She’s credited with bringing new and innovative programs to Y, and with ushering in citywide health and wellness challenges outside the Y’s walls. She was also one of the main drivers behind the facility’s recent $200,000 weight room upgrade. On top of all that, she’s always ready to greet any one of the Y’s nearly 9,900 members with a smile. She does it with enthusiasm because she never lets herself forget that, for everyone on the road to a more active life, there is always a “day one.”
Hers came during her senior year of high school.
When Kassia was just 18, she made the difficult decision to pack up her belongings and move out on her own. A woman she waited tables with offered her a place to stay and she took it, knowing it was a way to leave her difficult family life behind.
“My relationship with my biological parents was very hard,” Kassia says. She’s now estranged from her mom. Though she didn’t want to go public with all the reasons why, she did share that her mother tried to control every aspect of her life in an unhealthy way. And while she loved her father and knew he loved her too, decades of addiction caught up with him, and he died two years ago from a fentanyl overdose.
“Being raised in the household that I was raised in,” she says, “I felt it was better to go out on my own.”
Within six months of leaving home, Kassia packed on more than 50 pounds. At 5-foot-6, she was well over 200 pounds and was, as she says, “walking through depression.” The struggle was sometimes intense. “I was still trying to graduate high school, which is a battle when you’re on your own,” she says.
One day, she looked in the mirror and made a promise to herself. It started with one small yellow sticky note.
“I got to put a sticky note up every time I finished something active,” Kassia says. “I made a deal with myself that I had to stick with it for 30 days. It didn’t mean that I had to do a 20-minute workout. It just meant that I had to move my body, one way or another.” She adds, “I remember one of the days that literally meant doing pushups during commercials.”
Once she got to day 25, she didn’t bother putting up any more sticky notes.
“I bought into the consistency of it and the belief that I could do it,” she says.
During that time, she also made the brave move to step into the YMCA. She was engaged at the time to her high school sweetheart, Donnie.
“My fiancé and I were planning our wedding and, of course, when you are doing that, you want to be your best self and look the best in your wedding dress, so I started coming to the Y,” she says. She knows now how transformative that one small act later became.
“I met people who believed in me and encouraged me,” she says. “That wasn’t something that I was used to, and I wanted to be a part of it, whatever that meant.”
Jaysun and Mistie Mims were two of those people. Mistie was the health and wellness director at the time. Jaysun was Kassia’s personal trainer for a time, but when Kassia had to back off training due to finances, he didn’t back off on the encouragement.
“He would call me and say, ‘You said you were going to be here, and you aren’t. Where are you?’” Kassia says. “I think that’s what everybody needs.”
As things started to click on her fitness journey, Kassia saw that the Y was hiring, and she felt called to apply. It was a part-time job working as a fitness floor attendant, showing people how to use the machines and keeping them clean.
“I didn’t hear back for a few weeks and I just kept calling and asking about the job,” Kassia says with a laugh. “I think eventually they gave me the job because I think they felt ‘This girl just needs to be here. She wants to be here.’”
That was 2009, and within a year she was already dreaming of her next upward move. She got certified to be a personal trainer and went through training to teach not only cycling but group exercise as well. Since she knew she had to build up a training clientele, she got creative to attract clients.
“Now it just cracks me up, but I had printed flyers with a picture of me on it and it had the Y logo on it,” Kassia says. “I remember walking through the snow in my boots, which is just funny, and I knocked door-to-door to give people my flyers as just a chance for them to see my face. I was so determined to be a personal trainer.”
“We have never — over the 14 years that we were there — seen anyone else do that in order to get clients,” Mistie says. “We just thought, ‘There she goes!’”
When Mistie left the Y to pursue Mims Fit, the training company she and her husband, Jaysun, built, she didn’t have to look far to find her replacement. Kassia had worked her way up to health and wellness coordinator working right alongside Mistie and Jaysun. She calls both her mentors and says they both hold a special place in her heart.
“I knew she was the best fit, and honestly, I think she’s done circles around me since I left the Y,” Mistie says. “She’s the one that found the Livestrong program through the YMCA. She had a passion for it right away. She’s the one who pushed to get the program at the Y.”
Livestrong is a free, 12-week program designed for cancer survivors to gain strength either during treatment or after. The Billings YMCA launched it in 2012.
“It was one of my babies that I am so proud of,” Kassia says. “It’s given me the honor of helping a lot of individuals regain their health and strength – mentally and physically after a cancer diagnosis.” She calls the program, which is still going, one of the biggest ways she’s been able to impact the community.
She’s remains friends with one of the men who took her class. Back then, he was recovering from kidney cancer. He was weak and had no stamina.
“I met Kassia about 12 years ago when I was having my first battle with cancer,” says Don D’Ambrosia. “When I came into that Livestrong class, I was basically in a wheelchair.”
“His only goal was to walk to get his certificate at the end of the session,” Kassia says. She taught him exercises he could do in his wheelchair to get stronger.
“I attribute my ability to walk to her,” Don says. “It’s her personality and determination that she passes on to you — you just feel yourself healing, let’s put it that way. She gives you hope.”
Now, at 79, Don says he has other limitations that come with age. One thing he doesn’t need, however, is his wheelchair. With a laugh, he says, “I donated my wheelchair to the Y. That’s where it is.” He says he never wanted to see it again, but because he still works out three times a week, he sees it sitting there nearly every time.
By 2015, Kassia, still on a course of personal growth, decided she wanted to go back to college. Not only was she working full time, she was married with a daughter. She remembers telling her husband, “This is on my heart. I am going to follow through with it. “
It took her five years to earn her bachelor’s degree in health and human performance with a community wellness emphasis at Montana State University Billings. She remembers many nights sitting with her nose in a book burning the midnight oil while her husband shuffled loads of laundry. During that time, the couple had their second child.
While she thought about graduate school and becoming a physician’s assistant, she remembers watching her girls playing together one day and hearing these words on her heart. “Be there for your girls the way you wish your parents always were.” The moment is burned in her memory.
“I need to make sure that I raise girls that always feel loved unconditionally and know that no matter what, they are loved and I am proud of them,” she says today.
The year 2020 was a bit of a blur for Kassia. Besides having to wade through Covid and all the challenges it created with a large-scale fitness facility, it’s the year she took in her 16-year-old sister, Madi.
“We brought her into our home and I got her through her junior and senior year,” Kassia says. “It was just history repeating itself. She needed to see that security and needed to know she was going to make it to the other side even though it felt really heavy.” She pauses before saying, “I think that’s why I feel so passionate about making sure people feel like they have a place in this world.”
Since then, she’s also become the primary caregiver for her 77-year-old-grandmother who is in the depths of dementia.
“It is so hard sometimes,” Kassia says. “But, she’s always been there for me.” That’s why when her grandmother’s memory started to deteriorate, she says, “I just had to keep showing up for her.”
She leads with her whole heart with literally everyone she interacts with — from family all the way down to someone who happens to take her Friday afternoon cycle class.
“I tell them every week that I love them, and I mean it,” Kassia says. “If people can choose hate for absolutely no reason, then I can choose to love you for absolutely no reason.”
She sees it as another way to encourage those who have had to overcome serious barriers on their road to fitness. It’s why she started the program Embarc at the Y.
“Embarc is a program for individuals who have been knocked down or are just trying to start and the thought of working out is just too consuming and too overwhelming. So, we’ll meet them where they are at,” Kassia says. The group comes in every Monday to set a new goal. “Maybe it’s to get their step count up to a couple hundred or a thousand,” she says.
Recently, she launched another program called Girls That Lift (GTL). The program was created after leadership at the Y sat down with a young woman who felt far too intimidated to walk into the weight room. The program meets three days a week. A female trainer is in the room with pre-planned workouts to give women a chance to learn how to use every piece of equipment here.
“We have seen that explode,” says Kim Kaiser, the YMCA’s CEO. “A few weeks ago, Kassia said we had 20 women in there. We had to move. It was overcrowded in our new weight room.”
Kassia is proud of that room, calling it “the prettiest weight room you’ve ever seen.” It’s personal for her. Two years ago, she went to Kim asking for major, fairly expensive, changes.
“In the fitness industry, you need to be relevant. It’s constantly evolving, constantly changing,” Kassia says. “Kim is fantastic. She was all in and said, ‘I see your vision.’”
The vision was a state-of-the-art weight room that offered not only updated equipment but space for functional fitness with battle ropes, push sleds and cardio rowers. The nearly $200,000 weight room (which is actually two rooms) opened on Aug. 20 of 2023.
Then there was Kassia’s role in offering virtual memberships. When Covid hit, Kassia says she remembers running from one fitness instructor’s home to the next with her laptop trying to go “live” with classes when the gym was forced to shut down for six weeks. So many people liked being able to log onto classes from home that the virtual program stuck. Kassia researched platforms and developed a way for the Y to now offer multiple classes a day online. The Y is already working on improvements to their app to make the program bigger and better.
“We have people who aren’t even in the state who have memberships solely for our virtual classes, which is so cool,” she says. “They’ve never even stepped foot in our Y.”
Kassia is the kind of woman who walks the talk. As much as she pushes others forward, she does the same with herself. In 2016, she did her first of 10 Spartan races alongside a workout buddy, Stacey Booth. Three years ago, the two of them entered The Rut, a 28K mountain running event that takes competitors up a 7,800-foot incline along Big Sky’s Lone Peak. It’s described as nothing short of a beast. All along the course there are specific check-ins and if you don’t make them in the allotted time, you’re disqualified.
“We were mid-mountain, which was one of the most brutal things that I have ever done. I said, ‘We only have 12 minutes to make it to the top to hit our cut-off,’” Kassia says. “We said, what are they going to do, tell us to turn around? They do. They tell you to turn around!”
She tried again in 2022. She made the first two check points. “As I was running, my foot got trapped and it stayed put but my body kept going. I heard it pop,” Kassia says.
As she was limping along in the course, she met up with her younger brother who flew in from California to do the race with her. She laughs as she shares that her brother told her to worry about her ankle at the finish line.
She ended up summiting Lone Peak and hitting the next four checkpoints.
“I missed the second to the last checkpoint by less than a minute,” Kassia says. “We are talking seconds.” After the race, she realized not only did she break her ankle but she ran eight miles up and down a mountain on it.
Then came last summer.
“I went back for year three and I did it,” she says pointing to the medal that proudly hangs on her office wall. “Three years in the making…”
It probably comes as no surprise that Kassia has jump started Spartan training groups at the Y.
If you look around, her fingerprints are all over the building. While her job calls for 40 hours a week, she’ll admit she works overtime to help make sure everything runs smoothly not only for members but for the 70 employees she oversees.
“When you have somebody who invests in you and believes in you on a regular basis, it’s a no-brainer to give back,” Kassia says, knowing she’s there because of one little yellow sticky note.
“That promise to yourself, that dream in your heart, it's all yours,” she says, knowing it wasn’t just true in her own life but in every life she is able to touch. “I’m here to encourage others and push them forward. I know with my whole heart that is my purpose.”