Gerardo Rodriguez's first leadership role wasn't in a corporate boardroom; it began on a middle school basketball court in East New York. For the young boys he coached, the alternatives were grim—drug dealing, gun violence, and unstable home situations.
“My first basketball team had kids that were selling drugs, carrying guns, even shooting at each other. Just trying to provide a safe haven, a place they could look forward to, was my sole purpose,” Gerardo, known as Gee, recalls.
Founder, Team WEPA
Coaching thrust Gee into a leadership role, and he excelled. Leading came naturally to him. He could make the young players believe in themselves and their teammates. “When we started, winning basketball games was secondary,” says Gee. But as they kept showing up, improving, and believing, they began to win. They were invited to big tournaments. They built lifelong friendships. Coaching would forever change Gee's life.
Years later, Gee remained close with his players, helping them through college and first jobs. Then, a devastating call came. One of his players, Rasheem King, was diagnosed with cancer at 24. Less than a year later, he lost his battle with cancer.
For Gee, the loss was crushing. He began to reflect on his own health, overweight at 250 pounds, with high blood pressure and asthma.
Founder, Team WEPA
A friend invited him to start running track. Gee began to lose weight, gain strength, and find mental clarity. His natural leadership skills emerged once again. He encouraged everyone he met to run. He joked, “if a tree could talk back to me, I would convince a tree to come running with me.”
Though there were many running groups in Manhattan and Brooklyn, Queens was limited. When Gee contemplated starting his own group in Queens, he was met with naysayers. One colleague said, “you're not gonna last two weeks.” Another quipped, “You don't know what you're doing. You’re not a track star. You’re not an accredited coach. Why would people follow you?”
But those who knew Gee knew different. “You have been able to lead 15 young men to play basketball for you. They would run through a wall for you. If you can do that in East New York, where these kids come from poverty, you can do anything, right?”
Gee founded Team WEPA with just three runners. But his infectious energy soon attracted more. The group grew to 12, 25, 50, and beyond. Now, Team WEPA boasts 60 runners participating in the New York City Marathon, many for the first time. Not in a million years could they see themselves racing 26 miles on the world’s biggest stage. But with Team WEPA behind them, it's easy to believe and achieve far beyond their dreams.