Stephanie Pepper: In it to help Marco's youth
Nearly two decades into a job she loves with the YMCA of South Collier (Marco Y), Stephanie Pepper says she wouldn't have it any other way.
Her straight-talking management style, blended with absolute dedication and compassion defines the popular youth development manager, who says she blossomed even more by fairly recently becoming a mom herself.
Pepper likes the blend of discipline and empathy.
"You work with kids, so there are rules to follow," she said. "Their safety is a priority, but I've also learned that compassion is so important.
"I can't imagine not being here or helping. If a child or a parent needs a shoulder, and even if a staff member needs to talk, I'll make that a priority," Pepper said.
Arriving at the Y in 2001 just three years out of high school, and with a background in childcare from an elective program at Barron Collier High School, Pepper came in as a pre-K teacher and willingly assumed other responsibilities such as Childcare Director, Family Services Director and at one stage even helped with tennis membership.
Those, and other responsibilities such as pre-school (early learning) supervision, youth summer camps, after school learning and activities, and vital outreach programs for kids all fall under her Youth Development Manager title today.
The originator of the popular Halloween "Bootacular" party, Daddy Daughter Dance and Reindeer Run, Pepper is particularly proud of having been part of the Y initiative to embrace children and families living in lesser privileged areas of East Naples.
"It started part-time with about 30 kids, and now we serve (hundreds) the entire time," she said. "We have grown tremendously through networking and task forces."
In this regard, she says the driving force behind the remarkably successful outreach programs was unquestionably Cindy Love-Abounader, the Y's CEO.
Love-Abounader in turn described Pepper's contribution to the Y as follows: “You can always count on Stephanie to make logical decisions that are best for the families and the Y organization. She has been my go-to-person for years and our expert in Youth Development programming.
"She is dedicated and cares about our community. She is reliable and respected leader in the YMCA and Collier Communities in family and youth programming."
Pepper also paid tribute to the efforts and contributions of Charlene Rose, the Y's School Age Manager whose profile will also be featured in this series.
Why embrace East Naples?
Quite simply, Pepper said: "No other organizations had reached out to them. The families know us personally ... they are our extended families. We networked with organizations like Habitat (for Humanity), the Naples Children and Education Foundation (NCEF), and various churches."
Also significant is the educational "Youth in Government" program.
Marco Island Charter Middle School and Lely High School students familiarize themselves with the process, organization and roles involved with Florida's governmental process. Local chapters work together on debate practices, service-learning projects, fundraising efforts, and State Assembly preparation.
If an inherent love of kids was the motivation behind Pepper originally joining the Y, becoming a mom three years ago reinforced that emotion exponentially.
"It gives me the parent perspective," she said. "I can dig in a little deeper with different eyes and perception. I can relate more to parents' needs, wishes and wants.
"I've understood especially better during this Covid-19 time," she says. "The experience has made the job more challenging, but it's been easier to communicate with parents on their level."
Pepper is quick to respond to a question about one of the greatest pleasures arising from her job.
"You get a phone call saying you've received a grant, and you know you can serve kids for another summer, you're on top of the world," she says.
"Or, you see a child write their name at pre-school, or read a book, or you notice than an afterschool kid can sit and complete their homework."
Pepper, who still enjoys helping out Sundays at her father and brother's long-serving Naples butchery, Jimmy P's, says so far she'd like to be seen as someone who does everything to help families.
"I want kids to keep seeing me as fun-loving and always caring, and by the community as someone who is willing to go the extra mile."
For more on the Y's wide variety of programs and activities for adults and children, visit marcoymca.org or call 394-YMCA (9622). Follow on Twitter at ymcamarco; on Facebook @marcoymca, and Instagram at ymcamarco.