Brenda Days stood at the entrance of the YMCA's Greater Ridgecrest branch and hugged the boys and girls who came through the door.
As they wriggled and laughed, she squeezed them tightly with a determined grin on her face.
That's what Days does now. She gives out hugs. That's how she deals with the loss of her only child.
In January, Brennon "Skeet" Days was found shot to death in his car in an unincorporated area near Largo. The 18-year-old was due to graduate from Largo High School this month.
After his death, Brennon Days' friends and area teenagers started meeting every Monday evening at the Ridgecrest YMCA. The group is called Brenda's Kids.
"It motivates me when I get there," Brenda Days said. "I walk in that door and I know my son is in there. They holler, 'Mrs. Brenda, give me a hug'. It just lifts my spirits.
"Brennon was my pride and joy. He was my everything. He was my life. If he was alive, and it was one of his friends (who was killed), he'd be right there on Mondays, too."
The Rev. Edward "Bebe" Hobson said several young people approached him after he officiated Brennon's funeral.
"The kids came up to me talking about how they wanted to change their lives and do things differently," Hobson said.
Seizing on the opportunity, Hobson, a Ridgecrest resident and vice president of YoungLife, reached out to the YMCA and local churches to help form Brenda's Kids.
The group began meeting in February at the Greater Ridgecrest branch of the YMCA. The Monday evening meetings draw an average of 120 middle and high schoolers.
Elder Tish Bryant, the youth pastor at Largo's Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, said Brenda's Kids is an attempt to "reach the whole person."
"Mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually, we want to touch them," Bryant said. "Brenda's Kids is not a church but an introduction to that spiritual component of their lives."
There are speakers at each meeting. Members of the St. Petersburg Police Department gave a presentation. A financial planner discussed budget keeping. A manager from Publix talked about the students they hire.
"Coming here keeps us out of trouble because there's not really much to do," said Dezmond Whiting, 18, who said that he and Brennon were close friends. "We are doing this for Mrs. Brenda. He was her only child, but now we are her kids."
The 90-minute meeting includes lots of down time to play basketball, practice line dancing or just socialize in a monitored environment. The night ends with a meal donated by a local church.
"We want to give them a safe place to hang out and for them to feel and know that there are caring adults loving them unconditionally," Hobson said.
On Monday, 15 high school graduates were honored. The students were applauded loudly as they walked through the gym wearing their caps and gowns.
"A lot of times we take for granted the importances of high school graduation," Hobson told the nearly 100 participants. "A lot of students never make it to this point."
For Brenda Days, Mondays at the YMCA are about the motto printed on the T-shirts worn by members of the staff: "Brenda's Kids, Proving that good can come out of tragedy when we come together to care."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or email@example.com.