LARGO — Robert Whiting and about 20 other men gathered in a corner of the Greater Ridgecrest YMCA gym Wednesday night. Over the din of bouncing basketballs and a Zumba class, they spoke in solemn tones about what they feel has happened to their communities — the Ridgecrest area near Largo and the North Greenwood neighborhood of Clearwater.
Whiting had called them together — coaches, ministers, residents of Ridgecrest — to brainstorm. What can we do, he asked, to make this stop?
Whiting, a youth sports coach, has lost nine boys since 2008 — six to prison, three to deadly shootings.
In January 2008, Brennon "Skeet" Days, 18, whom Whiting had known since Days was a young boy, was lured into a car for a supposed drug deal, then killed in a robbery.
In April 2011, Anson Felton, 19, whom Whiting coached on the Greenwood Panthers youth football team, was killed as authorities said he tried to rob a Clearwater home.
A week ago, Gregory Williams, 19, whom Whiting knew from Greenwood, was killed in an apparent drive-by shooting at a Largo party. No one has been arrested, and it's unclear if Williams was a target or a bystander.
For Whiting, the last death was a call to action. A 48-year-old Largo native who lives in Clearwater, Whiting no longer coaches the Greenwood Panthers, but he still works with young men as sports coordinator at the Greater Ridgecrest YMCA.
Drug sales and violent crime have long plagued Ridgecrest and North Greenwood, but the men gathered Wednesday felt something had changed.
Disputes that were settled in their teenage years on the football fields or basketball courts now prompt shootings, they said. Boys with promising futures end up in prison on drug and gun-related convictions. They feel their two neighborhoods, both predominantly African-American, are more fragmented than ever. There's no sense of unity, no sense of brotherhood among the young men, no respect for the community, they said.
The men grappled for solutions. One suggested raising money for a retreat, so they could take boys somewhere with fewer distractions. Another suggested bringing in ex-prisoners to talk. Whiting suggested a mentoring program to connect boys with men who can tell them how to apply for jobs, how to manage a bank account, and just be there.
"These kids need men in their lives who they can talk to about everything," Whiting said.
Some men said the Ridgecrest neighborhood needs to admit it has problems before solutions can come. In August, the same gym was filled with people upset about the use of gang affiliation lists by local law enforcement. While law enforcement officials eventually agreed to consider changing how they compile the lists, which included people who were not gang members, that first meeting devolved into a debate over whether Ridgecrest had any gang-related activity.
Fred Marshall, 46, a Pinellas County Utilities worker from Largo, said the people who denied Ridgecrest's crime problems should call law enforcement and apologize.
"They sat right here and told us what was going on, and we didn't want to listen," he said.
Whiting criticized the "Stop Snitchin' " mentality of some residents who threaten violence against anyone who talks to police. In a lighter moment, he compared "Stop Snitchin' " to conservative lobbyist Grover Norquist's firm antitax pledge.
Some of the men at the meeting had doubts about what they can accomplish. Whatever they do, they agreed, it needs to last. These problems can't be solved with a few community cookouts. What they were talking about, essentially, was providing father figures for at-risk boys in their communities.
Vernon Bryant, executive director of the YMCA, said they shouldn't get too discouraged.
"If we save just one boy by what we're doing, it's worth it," he said.
The men eventually set a schedule. On Wednesday, they'll meet again and hone the message they want to send to area youth. The following Wednesday, Dec. 12, they will fill the gym with every male 8 years or older they can find, and the men will talk. That won't be the end of it, they said, but it will be a start.
The meeting ended as it began, with a prayer. The men stood, held hands, and Bryant asked God for help. He prayed he would find the right words in two weeks, when he hopes his gym will be filled. He prayed for impact.
"Help us put this together," Bryant prayed. "Because we know we can do this."
Staff writer Peter Jamison contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4167.