LARGO — When Shiro Williams, a rising eighth-grader at Seminole Middle School, received a letter from the School District encouraging her to enroll in the Summer Bridge program, she was disappointed that she would have to be in class while everyone else was on vacation.
And it wasn't clear how Shiro, 13, would get from her Greater Ridgecrest neighborhood near Largo to Seminole Middle each day.
Ridgecrest leaders and four local nonprofits came to the rescue, not only figuring out a way to get Shiro and other Summer Bridge children to those middle schools, but also providing aftercare for them.
And Shiro has learned that attending school in the summer isn't so bad after all.
Four mornings each week, Shiro and about 23 other middle school students who reside in Ridgecrest get picked up by van at their homes. They're delivered to either Largo Middle or Seminole Middle to attend Summer Bridge, a program that includes science, math and reading to help boost students' skills.
What comes next is a bonus: At 12:30 p.m., they are driven to the Greater Ridgecrest YMCA to spend the afternoon at teen camp.
In February, when Bebe Hobson, a former vice president of Pinellas Young Life, heard the School District was launching Summer Bridge, he was thrilled. "This community is well aware that our children need to strengthen their academics,'' Hobson said.
However, he soon learned that because of budget constraints, the district would be providing extended afternoon care and transportation only at select schools, not at Largo Middle or Seminole Middle.
"We have many families where transportation is a problem,'' he said.
Hobson rallied some old friends, including Tasker Beal and his son Steven Beal; members of the nonprofit support group Friends of Ridgecrest; Vernon Bryant, executive director of the Ridgecrest YMCA; and James Feazell, a retired educator who runs a tutoring program, Bridging the Achievement Gap.
"We all believed that our community had this problem, and it had to be fixed. The children need this,'' Hobson said.
Hobson, through his ties at Pinellas Young Life, received permission to use one of that organization's vans, and Feazell offered Hobson use of the Bridging the Achievement Gap van.
Through the Beals' effort with Friends of Ridgecrest, the group secured a $1,600 donation to cover transportation expenses, including gas and wages for the drivers.
And finally, Bryant revamped the Y's summer program to accommodate late arrivals from Summer Bridge each day. New this summer are afternoon activities like robotics and a reading incentive program as well as a special speaker series.
Last week Shiro arrived at the YMCA for the Wednesday afternoon session just in time for the special speaker, Aveion Cason, a former NFL player who grew up in St. Petersburg and now lives in Texas. Bryant and his Ridgecrest Y staff knew Cason was in the area promoting a youth football camp. "We knew he'd inspire the kids to look beyond the obvious when it comes to life and careers,'' Bryant said.
For young Shiro, Cason did just that.
"He was inspiring,'' she said. "He talked about how he flunked in school, and he told us not to give up even when it gets real hard. He wants us to keep trying.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4163.