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THE SUNDAY PROFILE

Yes He Can

With a minister's zeal, YMCA Executive Director Robert Wilkins has succeeded among both the glitzy towers and gang-controlled streets of downtown L.A. with a simple belief . . .

August 18, 1996|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The problem with Robert Wilkins is that there is only one of him.

And that the work he does cannot easily be described or duplicated.

At a loss to understand exactly who Wilkins is, and what he does as executive director of the Stuart M. Ketchum-Downtown YMCA, even his colleagues tend to sputter: "a visionary," "an actualizer," "the most ethical" or "most spiritual" or "most profoundly moral" leader this city has ever seen.

Inevitably, a part of the Wilkins myth follows. As in: "Did you hear how he built a field of dreams?"

Or how he "beat the gang by playing basketball?"

Or how he "saved the police stations in the L.A. riots?"

In each tale, Wilkins overcomes insurmountable odds not just to foil evil, but to transform it into something good.

But Wilkins, it turns out, has not heard that he is epic. He is not even convinced he is worth writing about. He does not show up for the first scheduled interview. At the second, he allots just enough time to give a brief verbal resume and a tour of the shimmering, glass-faced YMCA over which he presides.

Perched like a jewel atop a four-story parking structure at 4th and Hope, and surrounded by Bunker Hill's astounding skyscrapers, it looks essentially like a fancy health club: Squash, racket ball, basketball, six tennis courts, a huge lap pool, an indoor running track, 120 ultra-modern exercise machines, a health-food cafe--all look out on a sculpture-dotted plaza and the city beyond.

At the start of lunch hour, dozens of buff types stream in for their midday workouts. This is one part of Wilkins' constituency--those who motor in from the suburbs each day to jobs that provide some of the city's highest salaries. Bankers, lawyers, stock brokers and all their support personnel. These people (or their employers) pay to use the swank facility from 5:30 in the morning to 11 at night.

"But I am not in the gym business," Wilkins protests in his basso profundo, a huffy response to praise for the upscale facility and its svelte clientele. Then he dashes to lunch with a corporate titan, whom he hopes to entice into offering subsidized Y memberships for employees.

The Ketchum raises more money than any other YMCA in the country. Since Wilkins took over as executive director two years ago, he spends about 35% of his time rustling up funds with the zeal of an ordained Baptist minister, which he is.

But his fund-raising success is even more the result of a unique vision, which he communicates with actions rather than words. He does not have to tell potential contributors what is possible in downtown Los Angeles; he can show them what has already been achieved.

Then, perhaps, they will share his dream of a city where rich and poor interact peacefully; where people have the tools to reach their potential; where even the most disadvantaged want to give to the community more than they want to take from it. A city in which love has as much currency as money, he says.

If you think this is too corny--and too costly--a project to contemplate, think again. Corn is good, Wilkins says. And money is not the issue. Despite his $4.3-million annual budget, Wilkins works on a relative shoestring, considering the size and number of programs he has managed to create.

"Everyone says our society can't do good things because we need more money, more staff, more buildings. They're wrong. We have plenty of that right now." All we need to do is use it properly, he says.

Wilkins, 45, has worked intermittently for the Ketchum Y for seven years, during which he has built a spider web of interconnecting activities linking old and young, rich and poor, Latinos, whites, African Americans and Asians in a network of opportunity "to build a healthy mind, body and spirit," the YMCA's stated mission.

*

It is the third attempt at interviewing Wilkins, who has finally cleared his schedule and shown his guest the five-mile radius in which his YMCA is mandated to operate.

It is a shock, even to one familiar with downtown, to see the extent of the human hardship within the shadows of the glitzy towers. Two minutes out of the well-lit Bunker Hill garage, we are in an area of what looks like bombed-out rubble--a vast cardboard tent city built on what seems like miles of uneven ground, all covered with demolition debris. Atop these hills, hordes of homeless people are encamped, their children playing in what is surely toxic waste and all the other unimaginable refuse that is illegally disposed of in this city.

A few blocks in another direction we are in the heart of skid row, at a single-room-occupancy hotel. While it is no Ritz-Carlton, the fact that residents have a roof over their heads makes it look incredibly comfortable.

Turning slightly west, and only two minutes later, we arrive in the land of Mara Salvatrucha, the notorious Salvadoran gang that has staked out its turf so clearly in graffiti that you almost expect to be asked for a passport.

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