LARGO — Seeking to bring more people from the surrounding neighborhood through the front doors, the Greater Ridgecrest YMCA has created a new position — community sports coordinator.
To fill that job, Stephanie Zaragoza, the branch's executive director, has tapped Robert Whiting, a 1981 Seminole High football star who grew up just a stone's throw from the facility.
"Actually, when I was a kid, the Y was still the Omni Center,'' said Whiting, 48. "I think initially, when it was changed from the Omni Center to the YMCA, people I knew in the neighborhood might have felt outsiders had come in and taken it over.
"I hope to help more people feel like the YMCA is their place.''
Along with his deep roots in the community, his work with kids — as a football coach for the Greenwood Panthers and the Largo Junior Packers, as well as track and field coach for the Clearwater-based Blazin' Ravens — was the reason he was chosen for the job.
"As I asked different people in the community for recommendations of someone to fill this job, Robert's name came up over and over, and it didn't take long until I wanted to meet him,'' Zaragoza said. "He understands our mission, and he understands the dynamics of the community.''
The dynamics of Ridgecrest can be a challenge, Whiting said. The unincorporated area just outside the Largo city limits has seen its share of violence and poverty. "A lot of the youth feel underappreciated here,'' he said.
Whiting admits that as a teenager and young adult, he didn't always stay on the right side of the law. He also knows his past could have held him back from his new job.
In 2004, after getting into a fight that involved his 13-year-old son and another man, Whiting was arrested on charges of assault with a deadly weapon. He was placed on five years of probation.
"The deadly weapon was a stick, and the situation was that it was outside on a street, and the cops came while I had taken the stick away from my son. I was considered a principal in the case and had to go to court,'' Whiting explained.
"During those five years of probation, a lot sunk in,'' he said. "I got a greater appreciation of what people go through when they are in trouble with the law, and I also learned more of a sense of allowing authority figures, like the police, to do their job.''
Zaragoza said Whiting was up front about everything. Before hiring him, the YMCA spent two months looking into his situation and got recommendations from people who have worked alongside him. "The bottom line is Robert's ties here in the community are deep, and we feel Robert is an asset to who we want to serve,'' the branch director said.
One person who spoke up for Whiting was the Rev. Edward "BeBe" Hobson, regional vice president of Pinellas County YoungLife and a minister at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church. He was familiar with Whiting from his experience coaching kids.
"As far as his trouble goes, I think it's about giving people a second chance and it's about redemption in our community,'' he said.
Whiting has quickly gotten to work.
In December, he pulled together a competitive basketball league. In January, two of the league's teams, the under-12 and the under-14 groups, both won first place in a YMCA competitive league tournament.
And this month, he's launching a new youth flag football program. On Jan. 31, about 60 youths between the ages of 4 and 14 were playing under the lights on the YMCA's football field.
James Green, 11, was one of those players.
"Coach Rob is teaching me how to run a team,'' he said. "He's always telling me that if I use good behavior, I'll make it big. He's also always telling me, 'run, run, run,' so that's what I do.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at email@example.com.