Most of us think of Central Florida as an escape from the real world: a destination for carefree vacations, theme parks, resorts and beaches. But residents face the same everyday problems as any place – sometimes more so. The latest Kids Count Data Book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, for example, tells us one 1 of 4 Florida children is living in poverty.
In early August, I visited several Clubs in the region. My first call was on the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida in Orlando. Gary Cain, the organization’s longtime president and chief professional officer, arranged a meeting with a dozen or so board volunteers and staff members. We had a good dialogue about where Clubs are headed, both locally and as a Movement.
Later, we visited the Club’s Joe R. Lee Branch in Eatonville. Just north of the city, Eatonville was the first all-black incorporated town in the U.S. and hometown of Zora Neale Hurston, who made Eatonville the setting of various essays and stories. Being summertime, the 9,000 square foot Clubhouse was packed. There were probably 150 kids there having a good old time, including some who gave a riveting step dance performance in the gym. I felt very much at home. There are just a great bunch of people in Eatonville.
Some 90 minutes west on I-4, I arrived at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Tampa Bay. After an excellent get-to-know-you meeting with President Brad Baumgardner and his board, we visited the Wilbert Davis Belmont Heights Club in east Tampa.
Two Club members gave us on a tour of the facility. It’s part of Belmont Heights Estates, a relatively new community redeveloped between 1997 and 2006 with 825 apartments and four community centers. Director Jason Jenkins described the Club as a second home for most members, especially older ones. “They come here to socialize, to learn, to work, and to receive guidance from positive role models.”
Suncoast Steps Up
My two-day whistle-stop tour concluded across the bay in the city of Largo, where I attended the dedication of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Suncoast’s newly charted Ridgecrest Club. It’s located in a public housing community called Rainbow Village. The site became available after a local police athletic league program vacated it. The Club partnered with the county housing authority to ensure local kids continued to have a place to play, to learn and to grow. Kudos to the Club, the county and everyone who helped make this happen.
The Club provides separate meeting times for elementary and middle school students. Elementary school kids begin each day with the Power Hour homework help program, followed by activities and snack time. The middle school program includes sports and career building, such as learning how to write a resume. Thanks to Club Director Andrea Nix for an awesome visit.
Just the other day, I returned to Tampa for a meeting of the Florida Area Council, which plays play an important role in our Movement. State area councils bring together board volunteers to review and discuss Club trends, challenges and best practices. This get-together offered a robust discussion on concerns such as board engagement, fundraising trends and professional development for staff and volunteers. Great stuff.
My experience in Central Florida represents a daily routine across America. When the school bell rings at day’s end, millions of children flock to their local Club – the fun, safe place they and their family rely on to help them mature into caring, responsible adults.