Sulphur Springs: Nonprofits Lead Neighborhood Transformation

Imagine growing up in a community where resources are limited and poverty is the norm. What could you do to stay ahead intellectually, socially and emotionally? How would you succeed? Would it even be possible for you to succeed?

In Tampa's Sulphur Springs neighborhood, these are questions residents face on a daily basis as the reality of generational poverty hits close to home.

Challenging the fabric of the community, studies show (See: Generational Poverty by Donna A. Valentine of Providence, Rhode Island's Johnson & Wales University) generational poverty can cause more teen parents, criminal activity, mental health issues and unemployment, among other things. After years of being behind as a result, the youth affected by generational poverty are unprepared to succeed as they approach adulthood.

But poverty-prone neighborhoods like Sulphur Springs are in luck as a handful of local Tampa Bay nonprofit organizations such as Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA, United Way of Tampa Bay and Community Stepping Stones have begun focusing on local communities currently experiencing the effects of generational poverty.

With help from partners such as JPMorgan Chase -- which has budgeted more than $400,000 toward efforts in the area for 2011-2012 -- these organizations are able to put time and effort into the Sulphur Springs community, making a difference in the services provided to low-income families and children while creating transformational change in the neighborhood and beyond. Here's how:

United Way Of Tampa Bay

In 2006, the United Way of Tampa Bay began to notice Sulphur Springs. Working closely with organizations such as Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA, the organization targeted the neighborhood, researching and assessing the needs of the families and children: What could be done to assist more kids in graduating from high school? How could families achieve financial stability?

"We saw Sulphur Springs as a neighborhood that had strong community leadership with lot of strength and assets,'' says United Way Senior VP Emery Ivery. "Residents were concerned about the community and wanted to turn it around -- they wanted the community and schools to be successful.''

Taking note that community members didn't necessarily feel that there was a place for children and adults to get basic services such as job information, resume help and crisis needs assistance, the United Way realized it was time to step in.

Creating the Sulphur Springs Resource Center in 2009, the United Way of Tampa Bay moved into a portion of land on Sulphur Springs Elementary School property where they could continually monitor resident and parent needs, as well as what could be done to fulfill those needs.

"We wanted to make sure the community saw the Resource Center as their own. It needed to be welcoming, treating people with dignity and respect, and we did this by focusing on each customer individually,'' Ivery says. "Our goal is to work in partnership with the leadership and residents of the Sulphur Springs community to turn the neighborhood around.''

Ultimately, the United Way teamed up with the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA, Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, Hillsborough Community College (HCC), Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance and Bay Area Legal Services to provide a variety of services and support to the community. Thanks to the United Way, job training, resume assistance and legal support, among other detrimental services, are now offered to the low-income families of Sulphur Springs.

"Our main goal is to get residents back into the community so they can lead change in the area,'' Ivery says. "Sulphur Springs isn't fully where we want it to be, but because of our efforts, we've seen a new library built, strong partnerships formed and improvements in test scores at the elementary school.''

In addition to the United Way's partnerships at the Resource Center, a summer reading program has been implemented, along with a food program to ensure kids are attending school with full stomachs and nourished brains, ready to learn.

"Kids can't learn if they're hungry,'' Ivery says. "It's important to have the basic needs to succeed so we're working to make sure the children and parents of the area aren't hungry.''

Teaming up with the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay and Feeding America, the United Way is making this possible with high hopes for the Sulphur Springs neighborhood and beyond.

Once the area shows it's on its feet, the United Way of Tampa Bay intends to move into various neighborhoods throughout the Tampa Bay region, working with local funders and community partners to develop similar strategies to those implemented in Sulphur Springs.

"It's important to maintain focus on the purpose of why we're here in the first place: To build a partnership with residents and leaders to help make a more liveable, successful community,'' Ivery says.

Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA

Nearly four years ago, Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA too began its efforts in Sulphur Springs. Implementing a safe and secure environment for an after-school and summer camp program at Sulphur Springs Elementary, the YMCA now aims to provide a seamless transition from classroom to after-school programs.

As a result, the YMCA initiated its Community Learning Center (CLC). CLC encourages kids to participate in intensive academic assistance programs by engaging in both hands-on learning and skill-building activities, as well as fun and exciting extracurricular programs like step, ballet, drama and running.

Although much success has been seen since the start of CLC, another issue was brought to the YMCA's attention.

"As our work at CLC showed results, we began to realize that kids who were entering kindergarten were already significantly behind,'' says YMCA Communications Director Rebecca Bray. "This meant we had to start earlier and focus on families as a whole. The neighborhood kids need to focus on learning and bettering themselves, rather than worrying about many of the issues they faced in Sulphur Springs.''

Realizing that mothers, fathers and children alike needed assistance, the YMCA researched programs throughout the country, ultimately making the decision to organize and implement a program similar to the Harlem Children's Zone. Combining social services with education would strengthen families.

Because of this model, the organization introduced two new efforts: the Sulphur Springs Neighborhood of Promise Initiative (NOPI), which focuses on creating a road to success for children from the moment they're born to the time they graduate from high school and Layla's House, an early childhood community learning center to provide parents and children from birth to age 5 with development workshops, support groups and literacy programs.

"We've seen some wonderful changes in the area,'' Bray says. "Parent involvement at Sulphur Springs Elementary school has grown tremendously because of the NOPI efforts. School events now average about 125 parents per event, which is huge.''

In addition, reading levels are on the rise thanks to the intensive support children are getting through programs like YMCA READS! while more and more children are showing up for school each day thanks to CLC's "walking school bus program.'' In this program, a staff member picks up neighborhood kids along the school route to ensure they make it to class safely and on time.

"We're revitalizing and redeveloping the Sulphur Springs community, but there's still much work to be done,'' Bray says. "The YMCA is committed to reducing generational poverty through education and programs in Sulphur Springs.''

Community Stepping Stones

Founded in 2004, Community Stepping Stones (CSS) began thinking outside of the box in terms of assisting the Sulphur Springs community: How can arts-infused programs make transformational change in the lives of the youth of the area?

When CSS Executive Director Sigrid Tidmore began working with the organization in the summer of 2011, she kept this question in mind, ultimately coming up with a solution:  To focus on the "at-risk teens'' of the Sulphur Springs community, ages 13 to 20, using photography, painting, ceramics and drawing to teach basic skills.

"Poverty is so rampant in this area that kids in Sulphur Springs have virtually nothing,'' Tidmore says. "Their training is the streets and we've taken to teaching them basic skills that most people would take for granted.''

After examining what happens in the lives of children and teens when a solid family unit isn't available, Tidmore and CSS Founder Ed Ross, artistic director and a USF professor, found that the at-risk youth's neuropathways can literally shut down, making it difficult to process basic information.

"But if you work with them in the arts, instead of using the linear side of the brain, you start to exercise the right side of the brain, encouraging imagination and critical thinking,'' Tidmore says. "This can literally retrain the brain, reopening the neuropathways and making it possible for them to learn. In turn, they begin to look at the positive viewpoints of possibilities that can happen in their lives with a little bit of time and effort.''

Modeling curriculum after the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild in Pittsburgh, Pa., CSS found ways to stimulate those neuropathways through dedicated programs such as Artistic Mural Messaging, Adult Arts Education and a 16-week program called THINK SMart.

Ultimately, Tidmore developed a new curriculum for the organization with a mission of wanting to teach Sulphur Springs' at-risk teens positive behavior, critical thinking and forward planning. In taking art and applying it to real life, the THINK SMart program focuses on teaching the basic skills necessary to become a productive member of society.

"Our idea isn't necessarily to get them a Ph.D, but we support the good thing for each specific student,'' Tidmore says. "We want to give them exposure to things they would not do otherwise and you have to start with the most basic things to get them there.''

Tidmore's main goal is to encourage creative excellence in the Sulphur Springs area, helping residents to create healthy, prosperous lives for themselves.

Currently, a master plan for CCS is underway as the organization looks for donors to partake in the revitalization of Sulphur Springs. With future plans to expand the 5-acre campus along the Hillsborough River, CSS' immediate goal is to make itself self-sustaining by 2014 through a combination of social enterprise and long-term community investment.

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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