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Layla's House will be Sulphur Springs' place to nurture and train families

SULPHUR SPRINGS

In a building on the corner of Eskimo Avenue and 15th Street, a child's education will start early, even before birth.

Experts say that's the best bet to revive a neighborhood.

It's working in New York, where the Harlem Children's Zone shepherds expectant parents through seeing their children off to college.

Why not in Sulphur Springs?

In Layla's House, neighborhood parents will choose programs, such as prenatal care groups for moms and baby boot camps for dads. Courses may include baby massage and baby sign language, music, story time and play groups.

The goal is to guide parents to become their child's first teachers and to prepare the children for kindergarten.

Fundraisers for the project are ongoing and the facility is expected to open in late 2011. Community activists and social service agencies across Tampa have been pouring energy into the Sulphur Springs community — a square mile pocked with crime, drugs and more than its share of impoverished children.

In June, they applied for the Obama administration's Promise Neighborhood grant — modeled after the Harlem Children's Zone project, which starts with "baby college" and ushers children until they go off to the real deal. The Sulphur Springs project just barely missed out on one of 18 grants of $500,000.

Organizers say coming that close means their plan has promise. They will continue building the net of social services starting with Layla's House, which will be Sulphur Springs' "baby college."

Other programs being established in the community target elementary-age children, and plans are under way for older youth, as well.

Many children in Sulphur Springs start school two or three years behind, said Cheryl Pollock, YMCA executive director for community initiatives. That makes closing the achievement gap all the more challenging.

"We need to back the pipeline up a bit," she said. "Early learning is a critical component."

Pollock talked to more than 150 people about the concept of Layla's House, she said. Organizers decided to model it after South Tampa's Baby Bungalow, operated by the Child Abuse Council.

The building and the program will be funded by donations and grants. The YMCA, the lead agency coordinating efforts, got a federally funded $200,000 community development grant. The city of Tampa donated land for the site.

The building will be a safe place for pregnant women and mothers with children from birth to kindergarten. Parents will serve on an advisory council and make program recommendations. Support groups, early literacy programs, child development workshops and child safety training will also be offered.

Programs at Layla's House, Sulphur Springs Elementary and the Sulphur Springs Community Learning Center will be linked, so children will have access to extra resources as they grow older. Eventually, neighborhood programs will carry them through to college.

As it happened, the neighborhood initiative was a perfect match for Maria and Tawfik Chami, who were looking for a way to memorialize their daughter. They are helping raise money for the project in her name.

Layla Chami was a social butterfly. She hugged her teachers and greeted new students at Berkeley Preparatory School, making them feel a part of things. And when chemotherapy kept her at home in Tampa Palms, she baked cookies for her brothers, Naji and Peter, and texted them at school to tell them.

"Layla was very sweet and compassionate," her mother said. "She was gracious."

Layla was 15 when she was diagnosed with leukemia and died at 16, in July 2008.

"When somebody dies that young, their future is left unfulfilled," said Tricia Eisner, a close family friend. "It falls to the rest of us to make sure that her memory and her spirit are fulfilled."

So the Chamis put their energy where Layla would have. She had planned to be an obstetrician because she loved pregnant women and babies.

Layla's mother plans to spend a lot of time at Layla's House. She hopes to teach French to the children and to bake cookies, leaving the same inviting smell that met Layla's brothers when they came home.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3431.

Layla's House will be Sulphur Springs' place to nurture and train families 11/18/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 18, 2010 3:30am]

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