Expansion of Wimauma Boys and Girls Club is designed to provide after-school care, help families

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Early in 2015, under the leadership of Chairman Rick Rios, the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay’s South Shore Council began assessing their efforts versus the outcomes for the area they serve. 

Wimauma, a rural community in south Hillsborough County whose population increased 50 percent between the 2000 and 2010 census to its current estimate of over 6,500 residents, was of particular concern. Comprised primarily of people who labor on nearby farms, and whose average per capita income in 2015 was $12,647, well below the Hillsborough County average of $27,764, the Community Foundation board members believed Wimauma was a place where properly targeted programs could make a difference. 

How could the South Shore Council support Wimauma and impact its future?
The Community Foundation began a conversation with members of the Hillsborough County School District, who told them the children of Wimauma were coming to kindergarten unprepared to learn. Based on those conversations, it was clear the Foundation’s goal of having children “on grade level by grade 3” was not being realized. Related issues that needed to be met were identified as food insufficiency, language barriers, as well as medical and dental care. 

After conducting community assessments, and with enough information to move forward, the Community Foundation concluded that the creation of a community school could be the solution to the many needs of the residents of Wimauma. It would be a large undertaking involving months, perhaps years in the planning. 

A community school is a concept with as many variations as there are communities. The primary goal is to supplement educational needs that exceed those that can be addressed in a traditional school setting. 

“Just because a child is failing in math, the answer is not necessarily a math tutor,'' explains Rick Rios. "The child may be hungry or sick.”

The Boys and Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay, which already runs successful community school programs elsewhere in the region, was brought on board. As planning progressed through early 2015, the school district expressed concern for the high amount of “learning loss” that occurred with Wimauma students each summer. Unlike children from more affluent families, Wimauma’s children had few opportunities for educational or learning experiences at home.
The Boys and Girls Club proposed setting up a summer learning program. It would be a first step toward the community school, and could be organized more quickly. The estimated cost was $50,000. A grant proposal was submitted to the Community Foundation and approved. 

Finding a location was the next challenge. Bethune Park, located in the heart of Wimauma, would turn out to be the answer.

Long closed and its buildings run down, the park was an eyesore and trouble-spot. Through the coordinated efforts of Hillsborough County Department of Parks and Recreation, who agreed to reopen the park, No Trespassing signs came down and new coats of paint went up.

The initiative of Parks and Recreation was soon followed by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department, who, after years of dealing with issues at the abandoned park, were more than happy to see it put to good use. Once the summer program was operating, the Sheriff’s Department made arrangements to provide support by becoming the lease-holder of the park’s buildings.
Making a commitment, creating an impact over time

The Boys and Girls Club Wimauma Summer Program, launched in June, 2015, was an instant success. Within two weeks of being announced, it was fully subscribed with 92 children.
The summer program was so successful and the need in the community so obvious that the Boys and Girls Club made the commitment to create a full time club. Success begets success and when the story of Wimauma was told, the $50,000 Community Foundation grant grew to $500,000. 

Chris Letsos, President and CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Tampa Bay, says, “I’ve never seen a community mobilize the way South County has. We are blessed with our partnerships.''
“We are Wimauma,” is now a rallying cry for the future; a “Beacon Center,” where the motto is “Promise, Purpose, Progress.” Some of that progress includes extension programs at Wimauma Elementary School and Shields Middle School. Before school and after school programs are provided. 

“We get them ready to go in the morning, and give them someone to talk to in the afternoon,” offers Letsos. Citing success in similar BGC Tampa Bay programs, Letsos says, “Ninety-eight percent of our kids graduate from high school, 99 percent never get involved with the justice system. We expect the same rates from Wimauma.”
The Wimauma Community School is taking shape, one program, one success story at a time. To realize its full potential will take time and treasure. BGC Tampa Bay has set a $3 million fundraising goal for its expansion at Bethune Park; a goal that might sound daunting in any other place.
Investing in the future of a community is an act of optimism; a belief that, when given the opportunity for an education and a better quality of life, people will take it. As plans to create Wimauma’s Community School come together, several prominent Hillsborough County families have demonstrated their optimism -- and philanthropy.

Giving back starts early, lasts long

When Richard (Dick) Stowers was a teenager, he used to ride the bus from Tampa to Brandon to attend school. Hillsborough High School was too big and crowded. He felt more comfortable in a smaller school in the woods. There were 94 people in Stowers’ Brandon graduating class of 1947. Timing is everything and the American post-war economy was about to take off. By 1960, Stowers was able to purchase the homestead that was once his Brandon bus stop. The beautiful antebellum home, long a Brandon landmark, became Stowers Funeral Home, and Dick Stowers became a successful businessman. 

Knowing his love of South County, friends and long-time Community Fund supporters, Cy and Joanne Spurlino, who themselves, according to Chris Letsos, made a “transformational investment” toward the $3 million community school goal, introduced Dick and Raymetta Stowers to the Wimauma project. The result was an immediate donation by the Stowers’ of $200,000, toward a promised endowment of $1 million, including a gift for the endowment from friends Joe and Ann Garcia. 

The generosity of these three long-time friends has allowed BGC to reach nearly half the $3 million goal. More information regarding the commitment of Sy and Joanna Spurlino will be announced on March 30 in Wimauma.
What success looks like

On a beautiful Florida afternoon at Bethune Park, a piece of brightly colored parachute cloth floats through the air; lifted skyward like the dreams of the children running beneath it. Watching from nearby, De’Anna Irizarry, BGC Area Director, and Ronnie Peacock, Wimauma Club Director, smile as the children laugh and tumble to the ground.
The Wimauma Boys and Girls Club, with its freshly painted walls and handmade artwork is a place of fun, safety and learning, where positive messages abound for their members who range from kindergarten to fifth-grade. 

“We want our children to have a sense of ownership and belonging”, says Irizarry.
“We use the entire park,” adds Ronnie Peacock, “it’s no longer a 'hot spot' for gangs or the homeless.” 

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department maintains an ongoing presence at the facility. South County Community Resource Deputy Jim Merry visits frequently, often mentoring, offering advice and bringing gifts. Last fall, every child at the club received a new backpack courtesy of the Sheriff’s Department.

“When Deputy Merry first came you could tell they were wary of him, but now he’s a friend,'' Irizarry says. "We want them to be comfortable with someone in uniform.”
Numerous partners have stepped forward since the club opened: Tutors come from the local 4H club and from Shields Middle School offering help in STEM subjects. The Wimauma Senior Center has established a joint garden project helping the children grow their own vegetables. A recent harvest was turned in to vegetarian sushi.
Expanding horizons are an outcome of new experiences. Computers line an entire wall of the club’s game room, which includes a pool table and foosball game. 

“We take internet safety very seriously'', says Ronnie Peacock. “We constantly monitor the traffic for any signs of cyber bullying. We keep the focus on academics, healthy lifestyles, leadership and family.”

As the partnership between all the players in Wimauma Community School story continues to evolve, family will play a central role. Irizarry describes it as becoming a resource center for the entire community. Two of those resource programs will be voluntary pre-kindergarten (VPK) to address the Community Foundations “on grade level by grade three” goal, and classes for parents to guide them in how to help their students.
She calls the new building that will rise once the $3 million fundraising goal is met, as a “beacon of hope” where everyone regardless of ethnicity or education is welcome. We are building a family here.

How readers can help

Support for the expansion of the Wimauma Boys and Girls Club may be made online with a credit card by following this link.
Under the category of "Additional Information," please write Wimauma Campaign in the space for a Dedication Message. 

Checks may be made payable and mailed to Boys and Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay, ATTN: Wimauma Campaign, 1307 N. MacDill Avenue, Tampa, FL 33607.

To read more stories from the 83 Degrees Media On The Ground storytelling project, follow these links for English and for Spanish.

The 83 Degrees Media On The Ground storytelling project is supported by Allegany Franciscan Ministries.

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Read more articles by Pamela Varkony.

Pamela Varkony’s non-fiction topics range from politics to economic development to women's empowerment. A feature writer and former columnist for Tribune Publishing, Pamela's work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, and in PBS and NPR on-air commentaries. Her poetry has been published in the New York Times. Recognized by the Pennsylvania Women's Press Association with an "Excellence in Journalism" award, Pamela often uses her writing to advocate for women's rights and empowerment both at home and abroad. She has twice traveled to Afghanistan on fact-finding missions. Pamela was named the 2017 Pearl S. Buck International Woman of Influence for her humanitarian work. Born and raised in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Pamela often weaves the lessons learned on those backcountry roads throughout her stories.