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Meet Walter Philips, CEO of San Diego Youth Services

Today we’d like to introduce you to Walter Philips.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
Because of my own personal experiences growing up in Los Angeles, I had a passion to work with troubled youth and their families. As a first-generation immigrant, growing up poor and graduating from what at the time was ranked the 2nd worse high school in the country, I saw the fine line between going to college and ending up in prison. Fortunately, I had a loving family, a supportive community and opportunities provided to me that allowed me to pursue a higher education. This brought me to San Diego where I earned my Master’s Degree in Social Work from SDSU.

Since first working on the streets of Southeast San Diego with gang kids in the 1980s, I made it my life goal to save one kid at a time by providing the type of support I was lucky enough to have received. By providing opportunities and appropriate resources, I have seen that we can lift an at-risk youth from a life of destitution and despair to a future of hope and success.

Throughout my career as a social worker, I worked in several nonprofit agencies in San Diego. In July 2000, I was fortunate enough to be selected as the CEO of San Diego Youth Services (SDYS). I love my job. The staff here are heroes who work in the trenches 365 days a year making an impact for some of the most vulnerable youth in our community.

I have been lucky to be able to combine my passion for helping youth with my passion for endurance sports. I have participated in multiple endurance events to raise funding and awareness for homeless and other at-risk youth in our community. I’ve ridden my bicycle across the country, run multiple marathons/ultramarathons, and recently ran to all 14 of our locations in San Diego (38 miles/50k) in one day to bring attention to the problems youth in San Diego face and the work SDYS is doing to make a difference. I can honestly say that I love coming to work every day and that I appreciate the opportunity to work with so many others in our community that try to make San Diego a better place for all.

Has it been a smooth road?
One of my initial and biggest challenges was making the decision to become a social worker. Many friends, family members, and colleagues didn’t really understand the profession of social work. “Don’t social workers just hand out welfare checks, or take kids away from their families?” I’ve seen that theme play out throughout my career as most people don’t grasp that being a professional social worker takes a lot of education, training, and years of skill building to do the job properly.

Social work is an honorable profession that is based on a core set of standards, ethical values and core competencies that form the foundation for social workers employed in a variety of professional settings to address societal ills and social justice causes. The average person has very little understanding of this. As social workers, we often have to overcome the negative stereotypes and prove ourselves capable. Although I am now the CEO of one of the largest nonprofit businesses in San Diego, I am by my roots a proud member of the social work profession that prepared me to take on this responsibility.

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the San Diego Youth Services story. Tell us more about the business.
In 1970, a young social worker discovered that there were kids living on the streets in San Diego. He and a group of volunteers started the first shelter for runaway and homeless youth in San Diego, which was only the third in the nation at that time. Now a nationally recognized agency working in more than 80 community locations, SDYS has stabilized the lives of more than 700,000 homeless, runaway, abused and at-risk youth in the San Diego area. SDYS provides intensive services to more than 19,000 children and their families each year. We offer emergency services, safe places to live and long-term solutions for kids “on their own” by providing shelters, group homes, foster homes, community centers and transitional housing.

We do whatever it takes to help youth get back on their feet. Through a “No Wrong Door” approach, we meet youth where they are at and help them build the skills they need to become self-sufficient and have a brighter future.

How do you personally define success? What’s your criteria, the markers you are looking for, etc.?
I define success for me in two ways, personal achievements and organizational achievements.

Personally, I look for the following:

  • Did I achieve the goal(s) that I set out to achieve?
  • Did I make a positive difference in someone else’s life?
  • Did I contribute something to my organization/the community that directly contributed to changing the lives of those less fortunate for the better?
  • As a leader, did I act with integrity, compassion, kindness, humility and wisdom when directing others making critical decisions.

As an organization, I look for the following:

  • Are we fulfilling our mission “to help at-risk youth and their families become self-sufficient and reach their highest potential?”
  • Is the community a better place, because we are in existence and providing the services we offer?
  • Did we not only serve at-risk youth and their families, but did we actually make an impact in their lives that improved their well-being, life skills, economic/educational status, and/or their ability to be successful in society.
  • Do we have a positive, healthy organizational environment where people enjoy coming to work, feel valued and appreciated, believe they are making a difference, and want to stay here for a long time?

Contact Info:

  • Address: Point Loma Campus, 3255 Wing Street, San Diego, CA 92110
  • Website:
  • Phone: (619) 221-8600
  • Email:

Getting in touch: SDVoyager is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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