When Karen Royster, formerly an executive with a Milwaukee housing agency, met George Garcia, she knew he was a troubled youth.
"But early on, I knew that George wanted a better life,'' she said.
That was about 25 years ago, when a gang called the East Side Mafioso in inner Milwaukee had been wreaking havoc on neighborhoods.
"We knew they were committing mostly petty crimes. Our group decided to ask the senior leaders of the gang to meet with us to talk about the problems,'' Royster said.
One of the gang leaders was Garcia.
"I remember during the meeting George immediately spoke up about how there was nothing for kids to do and how nobody — none of the members of the gang — wanted (their siblings) to get into gangs like he had,'' Royster said. "We asked the gang members to help us talk to people, share their stories and help us raise the money for a youth center."
The Holton Youth Center, now operated by the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee, grew out of that meeting.
Garcia's early volunteer work with Royster led to a full-time job with the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee. And that job eventually brought him to Pinellas County, where 13 years ago he was named director of the YMCA of the Suncoast's High Point branch.
The community, located near St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, has lots of challenges.
"My work is not really a job, it's a calling,'' Garcia, 44, said last week. "I remember when I toured High Point. I found this YMCA to be in a low-income neighborhood with so many Latino kids at risk, I thought that it was a perfect place for me. I had been one of these kids, and I could relate.''
Garcia's work has now brought him a national award. At a luncheon Monday at Clearwater's Island Way Grill, Garcia will receive a 2013 Characters Unite Award from the USA cable network and Bright House Networks. The award recognizes individuals who work to combat hate and discrimination and promote greater tolerance and acceptance in communities across the country. Garcia is one of 10 national winners this year.
Garcia, who is also a member of the Hispanic Leadership Council of Clearwater, calls his workplace "an oasis for the community.'' Programs offered at the High Point YMCA include sports, fitness and aquatics classes for all ages, GED and computer workshops, summer camp and after-school care.
Many of the participants in those programs are students at High Point Elementary, Pinellas Park Middle School, and Pinellas Park and Largo high schools.
Garcia has also been responsible for implementing several YMCA national initiatives, like Early Learning Readiness, designed to help children prepare for kindergarten, and Salsa, Sabor y Salud, a nutrition and fitness program.
"The biggest challenge in my job is money. We are operating in the red with a $180,000 deficit, and if we were a business, we'd be closed,'' Garcia said. "But, we are not about money. YMCA history shows that it is a place to help communities and help people succeed in life.''
High Point Elementary fifth-grader Jose Gaton participates in the High Point YMCA after-school program. He has known Garcia for five years.
"Mr. George makes sure things are fair for everybody,'' said Jose, 10. "He makes sure nobody is — well, nobody is rude, so everything is fun.''
When Garcia hears this description, he smiles.
"Being a role model is what it's all about,'' he said. "I think of the people that supported me, my coaches and people like Karen Royster, and they made a difference in my life. But I also remember that when I was Jose's age, some of the men I looked up to (were gang members) who taught me how to be a better bully and taught me about aggression. That's not what we want for any child.''
As part of the award, Garcia will receive a $5,000 check that he can donate to the nonprofit organization of his choice. He plans to spend it on Salsa, Sabor y Salud at his YMCA.
"We are so concerned about obesity in the community, and this will help provide more education,'' said Garcia, who also lives in High Point. "Take it from me as a Puerto Rican, I know that Latinos love to eat, but we don't know how to eat healthy. It's all about educating the community.''
More than 50 people are expected to attend the luncheon, including Clearwater police Chief Anthony Holloway, Pinellas schools superintendent Mike Grego, and Elizabeth Dubuque, chief operating officer of the YMCA of the Suncoast.
Dubuque said Garcia has made invaluable contributions to the various communities the YMCA serves. A few years ago, the High Point YMCA was selected as one of 10 YMCAs in the nation to participate in the African American Hispanic Latino Cooperative, she said.
"The purpose was to help open our eyes in serving both populations better. It has resulted in us having a bilingual staff, the ability to distribute more literature in both Spanish and English, as well as us reaching out to the communities in a better way.
"George led that effort,'' she said.
Piper Castillo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4163.