Celebrating 20 years with the YMCA of South Collier (Marco Y) becomes really special when a colleague says you’ve basically become indispensable.

Speaking about Stephanie Pepper’s two decades with the Y, long-serving Charlene Rose said Pepper transcended her duties into something deeper.

“The Y is more than just a job for her; it is part of her family,” said Rose, who is School Age Manager for the Y. (Pepper is Youth Development Manager).

 “The love and dedication she has for the work she does is clearly evident through all the programs and events that she oversees and coordinates.

“It’s truly been an honorable experience to be able to work alongside Stephanie throughout the years, to serve our community. I could not imagine our Y without her,” Rose said.

Looking back, Pepper described her collective experiences with the Y and its mission as “incredibly rewarding if you truly believe in it.”

She said she’s grown personally just as the Y has grown, and at the same time has helped Y members and staff alike with their growth too.

She agrees that her management style combines 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."

With a background in childcare from an elective program at Barron Collier High School in Naples, Pepper originally 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 Director 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) at a 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 a respected leader in the YMCA and

Collier Communities in family and youth programming.”

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."

If an inherent love of kids was the motivation behind Pepper originally joining the Y, becoming a mom nearly four 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 that 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.

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