TOWN ’N COUNTRY — Hassan Lewis was 11 years old when his family moved from Jersey City, N.J., to Tampa.
"I heard that the area we moved to had too much violence and too many distractions that would keep me from achieving my goals,’’ Lewis said. "I found a place to go. I went there with an open mind and an open heart. It was where I grew up. It was home.’’
It was the Town ’N Country Boys and Girls Club.
For Lewis, 21, it’s still home.
Monday, Lewis was part of the dedication and ribbon cutting of the Sam and Laurice Hachem Foundation Boys and Girls Club at Town ’N Country Park, a sparkling new 9,000-square-foot facility made possible through a gift of $2.5-million from the Hachem family.
The old club has been transformed into a Teen Center.
"I can’t believe this has happened,’’ said Lewis, a University of South Florida student who is a senior program specialist at the club. "I couldn’t imagine having all of this as a kid. It’s an emotional experience for me because I know what a benefit this will be for our kids.’’
That was the vision of Sam and Laurice Hachem, who sought to capitalize on their successful career in real-estate investments by creating a foundation to help children. Sam died on March 31, 2016, but Laurice was determined to continue the dream.
Together with her daughter, Mechelle Meredith-Ehardt, she discovered a need with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay.
The Town ’N Country facility, particularly, wasn’t able to properly serve all of its students.
Now it’s a whole new world — complete with spacious rooms for music, art, technology and recreation, along with a servery (for nutritious snacks and healthy meals), a think tank (for creative and innovative projects) and a sheriff’s substation (continuing the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office’s partnership with area clubs).
"We learned that many children may have never graduated high school had it not been for the club,’’ Laurice Hachem said. "In certain areas of Tampa, students are distracted by dangerous influences, maybe when there parents are working two or three jobs just to make ends meet or they simply don’t have the ability to help their children succeed.
"The club provides a safe and nurturing environment. Students are required to focus on homework and school projects before being allowed to enter other activities. They learn time management and the right priorities. We were just so impressed by the impact. So it was a natural to make this our focus and help to get a new club for Town ’N Country.’’
The Hachem family’s contribution led to praise from all corners of the Town ’N Country community.
Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Col. Chad Chronister said the strategic on-site presence by officers at area clubs has made a huge difference. He said 99 percent of the students involved in crime-prevention programs had no involvement in the juvenile justice system.
"When you see this new club, you look around and witness what ambition and dedication can produce,’’ Chronister said. "When you open these doors, it’s so much more than just walking inside. We’re opening the doors to the futures of these kids. Too many times, our youth encounter closed doors either with family or society.
"These clubs help us build trust with youth. They change lives and change minds. It used to be cool to run away from the police. Now through the club’s mentoring programs, the youth are running to us these days. How cool is that? I think this new club is doing to be the shining light on the hill.’’
Lewis said he realizes that more than anyone.
"You can’t put a price tag on the influence this club will have,’’ Lewis said. "When I started coming here, we were a family. I learned about community and volunteering. It showed me what my future could become.
"Now that’s going to continue in greater numbers for this generation of kids. It’s all so positive and so valuable. I thank the Hachem family — and everyone — for believing in our community.’’
Contact Joey Johnston at [email protected]