For Good: Volunteers restore Tampa Heights church to benefit children

Decades ago, congregations worshipped inside the red-brick Gothic-revival style church at the intersection of Lamar and Palm avenues in Tampa Heights. Then the church doors closed and the faithful moved on.

But the church building -- now almost 100 years old -- has been renovated and thrives today as home to the Tampa Heights Youth Development and Community Center. The former Faith Temple Baptist Church building is on the National Register of Historic Places and is within the Tampa Heights Historic District.

The redo is the result of nearly seven years of persistence and sweat equity by thousands of volunteers determined to restore the abandoned church into a community asset.

Getting there required navigating sometimes thick government bureaucracy and forging a new public-private partnership.

The Florida Department of Transportation owns the property, which lies in the shadow of the interchange for Interstate 275 and Interstate 4. The state agency has uncertain plans to expand the interstate, which could potentially consume the block-long parcel of land.

Lena Young Green, Tampa Heights Junior Civic AssociationThat uncertainty left an opening for community activists to see an opportunity.

Lena Young Green, founder and chairwoman of the Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association, approached FDOT officials about allowing the nonprofit to make use of the property until the state agency needed the land for expansion.

FDOT officials agreed to lease the site to the city of Tampa, which then sublet it to the nonprofit for a nominal fee. A similar agreement later opened nearby vacant land to the Tampa Heights Community Garden.

Finding a local solution to a neighborhood problem

Vandals often targeted the vacant church over the years.

“People were constantly breaking in and destroying things,” says Young Green. “We actually made it into something productive for the neighborhood.”

Daily, children with school backpacks walk through the door, chattering with friends and greeting the center’s staff and volunteers.

On a recent afternoon, Program Manager Roddrick Davenport quickly brought order as children settled into seats for an after-school lesson on the value for the day: courage.
  
Chelsea Chacko, a 2019 USF Honors College graduate who studied sociology and aspires to become a family physician, assisted. Chacko first volunteered while a student at the University of South Florida in Tampa and still helps more than a year later. “I love kids,” she says.

They talked about national historical figures who were brave including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. And they spoke about the examples of courage in everyday life: helping friends who are being bullied or engaging in difficult conversations.

“A lot of our biggest challenges are ourselves. If you don’t try, you’ll never know,” Davenport tells them. “Never let fear stop you from trying.”

Routine, structure, and consistency are the foundation for giving children guidelines for the future, says Davenport.

That message is a core mission of the Junior Civic Association, which has operated its youth programs for nearly two decades. It is an outgrowth of the Tampa Heights Civic Association.

Howard University graduate Naya Young, with a master’s in political science, is the Junior Civic Association’s executive director. She also is the granddaughter of Young Green and a long-time volunteer for the association.

She remembers her grandmother’s steadfastness in pursuing the project.

“She has always had a vision for the community here in Tampa Heights,” says Naya Young. “She loves people and really loves children.”

A village of makers, creatives, doers

For many years, the Junior Civic Association housed its programs in tight quarters in the Make a Difference Center within the Mobley Park apartment complex. The church, with more than 9,000 square feet, gave staff and programs a chance to expand and grow.

There is a computer lab, a kitchen, and a 300-seat auditorium.

The Junior Civic Association will grow again when a new facility opens to serve children in the Robles Park area. The approximately $1.2 million for construction is from state funds originally approved in 2016 to relocate the church.
 
A year earlier, the FDOT unexpectedly began preparing to add toll lanes to the highway. The community pushed back and achieved a temporary reprieve. There is an uncertain time frame but adding new lanes is still in FDOT plans.

Elementary school kids color during the after-school program.Afterschool programs, summer camps, the nearby community garden, and a KaBOOM-donated playground are flourishing at the community center. But there is more.

The community center is a venue that rents space to weddings, parties, and special events. Yoga classes, an African drum group, and a dance troupe also keep the center busy with activity.

Rental fees fund more youth programs and the center’s upkeep.

From the start, volunteers, and a grassroots campaign brought the church back to life. 

Upon first inspection, architects Vivian Salaga and John Tennison found a structure in disrepair.

“The biggest challenge was that the building was just a shell,” says Tennison, who is vice-chair of the Junior Civic Association. “The bathrooms were the only thing that worked.”

One of the worst losses was the absence of beautiful stain glass windows. 

Muralist Angela Cannata, using a design chosen by the center’s children, painted a likeness of those windows onto an exterior wall.

The husband and wife couple own Atelier Architecture Engineering Construction, specializing in historical restoration.
 
One of their projects is the Sanctuary Lofts, located close by the community center. They converted a historical church (Tampa Heights Methodist Church, also known as Tyer Temple) into urban lofts and office suites.

Many of the volunteers who began showing up at Faith Temple came because they heard of the project by word of mouth. They included amateurs who knew little of construction and others who handled hammers, nails and paint brushes with aplomb. Area residents, students from USF and children in the association’s youth programs frequently came. And Tennison says, “I think we had nearly all of the high schools (in Hillsborough County) who had students earning credits for community service.”

Young Green remembers the dedication of volunteers who showed up weekend after weekend.

“So many people made it possible,” she says. “Tampa Heights has always been one of the most active neighborhoods.”

Public, private partners step up

Donors and partners signing up to help include the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, 100 Black Men of Tampa Bay, Hillsborough Arts Council, Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay, Ulele restaurant, Tampa Garden Club, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and PNC Bank.

Mural art by Angela Cannata and students adorn the windows of the Tampa Heights Youth Development and Community Center.The Children’s Board awarded a grant for this year’s summer camps which include STEM activities and educational field trips.

On one Saturday, the owner of CGM Services Air Conditioning and Heating donated and installed air conditioning, with an assist from about 40 employees. On the same day, employees of Sears, in town for a convention, also pitched in with more than 80 volunteers and an appearance by reality television star Ty Pennington.

Sears Home Services also awarded a grant. The morning show, “Good Morning America” devoted a segment to the project.

The spotlight sparked more attention and new volunteers.

“It was interesting to see how word of mouth was able to broadcast so far,” says Salaga.

The community center’s success has given a boost to Tampa Heights but also to surrounding neighborhoods, says Tennison.

“Bringing the building back to an attractive state has been a positive visually,” he says. But it also shows the strong neighborhood support for the community and the children who live there.

“It is a facility that is really making a big difference in a lot of kids lives,” Tennison says.

Here are links to more information about some of the organizations mentioned in this 83 Degrees story:

Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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