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Layla's House adds warmth to a cold world

Alaska-themed streets dot the landscape in Sulphur Springs.

A ride around the Tampa neighborhood will take you past Arctic, Brooks, Fairbanks, Juneau, Klondike, Nome, Seward, Sitka and Yukon streets.

And, truth be told, sometimes life can be pretty cold in the impoverished neighborhood that once served as a Tampa tourist destination in the early 20th century.

Yet nothing but warmth radiates at the corner of 15th Street and Eskimo Avenue. Fathers and grandfathers, mamas and nanas, new moms and expectant mothers flock to Layla's House to lay the foundation for a better life.

On one recent morning, toddlers began a two-hour play date with their moms or caregivers by "signing in." The kids take photos of themselves and place them on an easel in the brightly lit room. They begin to sing Brother John while shaking small plastic tambourines.

The group then parades in a circle singing an alphabet song.

Simple and innocent, yet vitally important in the development of a child. Layla's House ( represents the portal to a path that will hopefully lead these tiny tykes to college. It's part of the Neighborhood of Promise program that fuels much of the neighborhood's renaissance.

"From preschool and really prenatally, we want to build a pipeline," said Liz Kennedy, one of the founders of Layla's House who continues to serve as a community liaison. "We want to break the cycle of poverty through education."

Caring and Learning With Me, the program with the kids singing and parading, uses music, story time, art, outdoor play and sitting for snacks to teach kids school readiness. It also teaches parents the importance of connecting with their children in a meaningful way.

The instructional components — teaching letters, numbers and other building blocks — make up an important piece, but program manager Latoya Randolph said it's equally important to help acclimate the young children to the social and emotional requirements of a school setting.

But that's just one program. Layla's House, named after Berkeley Prep student Layla Maria Chami, who lost her battle with leukemia in 2008, offers so much more.

It has opportunities for expectant mothers and fathers, new mom support groups, family and teen discussion groups, and other counseling needs. It's patterned after Champions for Children's popular Baby Bungalow program in South Tampa.

Every time a mom and child walks through the door or a family comes seeking its services, Randolph says she knows Layla's House staffers are making a difference in the neighborhood.

Sometimes, it's a challenge to get the parents to focus when they're fretting over losing their home or having their power turned off. But staffers strive to help even when it's beyond their basic delivery of service.

The biggest challenge comes from the transience of Sulphur Springs residents. Some move in and out of the neighborhood and fail to complete the courses, but Randolph notes that they always return when given the opportunity.

In one of the rooms at Layla's House, a quote from Frederick Douglass is scrolled across a wall: "It is easier to build strong children than repair men."

In a world full of cold realities, it's an outlook that melts narrow-minded perspectives and cuts to the core of the cure.

That's all I'm saying.

Layla's House adds warmth to a cold world 04/16/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 16, 2014 5:12pm]
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