Layla's House Reflects Transformational Change In Sulphur Springs, Tampa

On a bright and breezy day in July 2011, Tampa community leaders and Sulphur Springs residents gathered at the intersection of 15th Street and Eskimo Avenue to celebrate transformational change coming to the long-neglected neighborhood north of downtown.

What has transpired since is a story of hope, support and community building told through the construction and subsequent outreach of Layla's House, a new community center designed to provide assistance to low-income Sulphur Springs families.

Layla's House provides a safe, nurturing environment where parents and children from birth to age 5 can access everything from development workshops to parent-child literacy courses.

A partnership between the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA and the Child Abuse Council, the center officially opened in February 2012 as the first project implemented by the YMCA's Sulphur Springs Neighborhood of Promise Initiative (NOPI).

Creating A Neighborhood Of Promise

With one of the city's highest crime rates, some of Florida's lowest birth weights and more than 40 percent of neighborhood residents living in poverty, Sulphur Springs began its transformation when several local organizations began to focus on potential solutions.

Stepping in to provide assistance as early as 2006, nonprofit organizations such as the United Way of Tampa Bay, Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA and Community Stepping Stones developed programs geared toward assisting specific areas of need.

"This is a huge undertaking that requires a lot of partners because we're trying to revitalize and redevelop the entire Sulphur Springs community,'' says YMCA Communications Director Rebecca Bray.

Specifically, the Promise Initiative focuses on eradicating generational poverty through education, providing services to at-risk children and teens from birth through college. In addition to Layla's House, local organizations have built the United Way of Tampa Bay Sulphur Springs Resource Center and the YMCA Community Learning Center to serve people in the community.

"We're working hard to ensure that as nonprofit organizations, donors and volunteers, we're continually working with the community to ask them what they need rather than telling them what we think is best for them,'' says Mike McCollum, operations executive director of the Promise Initiative.

Because of these efforts, according to the Hillsborough County Community Atlas, the number of youths living in Sulphur Springs referred to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice for crimes and delinquency dropped from 200 in 2008 to fewer than 150 in 2009. Similarly, the number of domestic violence offenses in the neighborhood decreased by 30 instances between 2008 and 2010.

"The residents of Sulphur Springs are taking notice that organizations like the YMCA have the resources it takes to make a difference and are in it for the long-term,'' McCollum says. "For a long time, there was a distrust of organizations in the area, but the community is beginning to link arms with us and other Promise Initiative partners to solve the deep-rooted problems the community faces.''

A Go-To Place For Families

Located at 1506 E. Eskimo Drive in Sulphur Springs, Layla's House celebrated its opening -- complete with a butterfly release -- on Valentine's Day 2012 in honor of Layla Chami, a neighborhood teenager who spent her life fascinated by babies, children and pregnant women before dying from leukemia at age 16.

Inspired by Layla's dream of becoming a doctor and helping moms and babies, her parents and the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA set out to create a center honoring her name.

The City of Tampa donated two vacant lots to build the 3,000-square-foot center while the Tampa Bay Rays funded a volunteer-built KaBOOM! playground. Residents planted a community garden.

Now, McCollum is confident that Layla's House will do its job in adequately serving the Sulphur Springs community for years to come.

"I truly believe that the center will become the community hub for mothers and caregivers with very young children,'' says McCollum of the $500,000 center. "Regulars will soon know the staff as their extended family. They can come to us for guidance, parenting resources, training, educational services and even a cup of coffee.''

Prenatal groups for expecting moms and boot camps for first-time dads are now offered at Layla's House, as well as classes to encourage lasting relationships between parents and children; support for healthy child development will be another main focus of the center.

"We were in desperate need of a place like this," says longtime Sulphur Springs resident Kiwani Johnson. "Just knowing there's a safe, willing place for new families to go is comforting and really adds to the fabric of Sulphur Springs."

According to the Hillsborough County Community Atlas, only 66 percent of pregnant women in Sulphur Springs were receiving adequate prenatal care in 2009 while about 14 percent of moms gave birth to underweight babies. McCollum expects these statistics to improve thanks to Layla's House and Promise Initiative efforts.

"We've had much support from residents in building the center and, as hope springs, we've seen adults in the neighborhood become empowered to become community leaders,'' Bray says. "In the end, this will strengthen the foundation of our community.''

Sustaining And Continuing The Promise

Another NOPI project is being built up the street from Layla's House between Eskimo and Okaloosa Avenues: The $3.2 million, 16,000-square-foot Spring Hill Park Community Center will be the location of the middle school component of NOPI efforts.

Providing academic support and mentoring opportunities for Sulphur Springs neighborhood children transitioning into middle school, the center will replace a rundown block previously devoted to a baseball field. Bringing new life to the neighborhood, the community center will feature a gym, kitchen, art and theater space, classrooms, offices and a multipurpose room.

According to McCollum, the only way to truly eradicate generational poverty is by implementing a complete wraparound model, working to address all of the systematic issues that plague communities like Sulphur Springs.

"Kids can't learn in school when they've been caring for a sibling all night, or when they don't have food in their stomachs, or when they're sick and in need of healthcare services,'' McCollum says. "It's a leaky pipe with four holes in it. If you plug two holes, leaks will start to gravitate to the other remaining holes. NOPI seeks to construct a complete pipeline to success, free of any leaks.''

Alexis Quinn Chamberlain, a Florida native and freelance writer, can often be found eating at The Bricks, walking around her Egypt Lake-Leto neighborhood and daydreaming with her boyfriend and Chihuahua at Curtis Hixon Park. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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