Children happily flocked to the Riverview Boys & Girls club when it opened in January 2012.
And they're still there, getting homework help, enjoying crafts and sports and learning life skills, such as how to set a dinner table. The club is embarking on a fundraising campaign to enclose its basketball court and working through a busy summer program jammed with fun field trips.
Tampa Bay Times correspondent Monica Bennett interviewed club director Debbie St. Surin, 37, about the club's short history and its bright future.
How did you get your start with the Boys & Girls Club?
My daughter (Imani) became a member. Over the course of six month,s I saw such a change in her, her behavior, her attention. And I started to kind of go into the club to see what was going on and then one day she came home and she was like, "Mom, the lady at the front desk is not there anymore you should apply for that job because the kids like you." I was like, you know, I don't know about that. But, I did decide to apply for the position and as I started working and started getting involved in the movement and seeing what we were doing for the youth, I just really became very passionate about it and I've been with the organization for three years. I was at Brandon for the first three years and have moved my way up to now being the club director over here.
There are many afterschool and summer programs for youth in the area. Why was the Boys & Girls Club built in Riverview?
They saw a need in the community. A place for our youth to go. We're very program-driven so they wanted to make sure that the youth were somewhere where they would gain from the experience instead of just going to a daycare facility and not really doing anything productive there. A lot of the local community members came together and saw the need and they worked really hard to raise the funds to put us here.
Do the kids have fun here? What do the youth do afterschool and during the summer?
It's absolutely fun here. Some days, we decorate cookies. We have pool tournaments. We have math tournaments. We do Spanish challenges every other day or so. We'll put facts up throughout the club and then we'll randomly ask, and the youth can earn what we call power hour points so they can buy stuff in the store. We have dance contests. We have movie days. We have family nights. We do a lot here.
You fees are often less than the typical afterschool and summer program. How do you keep your rates very affordable while still providing a quality program?
Donations, grants, scholarships. We are a private organization so a lot of the dollars are secured through some of the programming that we offer. We are very creative in the way we use our resources to make sure that we get the maximum out of everything that we use for the youth.
(Youth pay a maximum of $400 per semester during the school year and $300 for the 10-week summer program.)
How is the Riverview Boys & Girls Club different from other programs in the area?
We're a very program-focused facility. We like to make sure that while they are here they are engaging in something that's going to be productive for them when they become adults. So, whether it's making them share a pool stick, just so that they learn that teamwork is necessary or an actual focus program where we talk about becoming a man or becoming a lady, how do you set a table, what's the difference between formal and informal dining. Those are the kind of tools that we try to equip our youth with. We also try to instill in them a sense of pride that people worked hard to put this facility here for them and that they need to give back to the community. So we do things like the shoe drive or we participate in fund-raisers … so that way they understand it's a give and take. They need to be productive in society and in turn they need to take care of their society and their local environment.
Why is it so important to raise money to enclose the gym?
The original funds that we raised were enough for us to build the building and put up an airnasium. So we were able to build the structure but not actually enclose the walls. They set a goal of three years to be able to raise the remaining $500,000 that it would cost us to enclose the gym. So far we are $400,000 towards that goal or approximately in that area. The (George and Sandy) Simmons family has put out there that they would do a matching donation of $50,000 if we can raise the other $50,000. The big thing is we want to enclose the walls so that way we can increase the number of youth that we serve. So, it's really important to us to get the gym put up so we can continue to serve more and more children in the community.
The youth here receive a vast array of experiences, such as camping trips, field trips, access to computers, opportunities for exercise and college tours, etc. You really try to broaden their experiences. What are your goals for the kids?
I want to see them all graduate from high school and go on. I want to see them all become productive members of society.