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Leader at New Port Richey nonprofit helps at-risk kids

Heather Numbers, the new residential director at the RAP (Runaway Alternatives Project) House, and James Simms, director of development at Youth and Family Alternatives, read a note from a teen who stayed at the facility.

KERI WIGINTON | Times

Heather Numbers, the new residential director at the RAP (Runaway Alternatives Project) House, and James Simms, director of development at Youth and Family Alternatives, read a note from a teen who stayed at the facility.

James Simms was just a teenager when his father showed him what it meant to live his faith.

It was just before the holidays. Simms remembers waiting outside while his dad, a St. Vincent de Paul Society volunteer, went into a rundown apartment to give a man some money to buy a turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas presents for his children.

"It's kind of living your values — not necessarily trying to convert someone else," said Simms.

The 63-year-old grew up in Queens and volunteered for 17 years as an emergency medical technician in New York City. He now lives in Carrollwood and works as director of development for Youth and Family Alternatives in New Port Richey, a nonprofit that helps runaways and other troubled youths.

He said his approach to others is "just kind of born out of the idea that each of us in life needs a helping hand. Sometimes we're in the receiving end and sometimes we can help someone else."

Simms is Catholic and active at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Tampa, where he serves as a reader, or lector. As a child he seriously considered becoming a priest but decided to serve others in a different way. He has connections with many nonprofits in Pasco County and the Tampa area.

"Every time I'm in his presence, it seems his sole purpose is to serve others, and to help others," said west Pasco real estate agent Victoria Barley, who has worked with Simms on various projects including the RAP River Run, a race that has raised more than $100,000 in three years for the RAP House for runaways.

"It's not necessarily what comes out of his mouth but it's more in his actions," she said.

Simms became more open-minded about other religious paths after a conversion happened close to home. His wife, Tina, who was also raised Catholic, converted to Judaism about 13 years ago. She had a lot of Jewish friends in their Queens neighborhood, and said she felt a deep spiritual and cultural connection with them and the religion.

"I always felt like I was wearing someone else's clothes, and now I'm wearing my own," she said. "I never regretted it. I always felt like half a person."

At first it was difficult for her husband to understand why she converted.

"It's interesting how we age and evolve into spirituality, to be who we are," said Tina, who attends Temple Beth Am and Congregation Schaarai Zedek.

"Every person finds their own belief," said Simms, who acknowledged the decision caused some friction in their marriage. "I don't fully understand why. But the fact is that's her free choice."

They've since grown closer in their marriage, and the experience gave Simms a new perspective on others' religious beliefs.

"I think I used to be a lot more judgmental of people — you hear about Easter Catholics who only go a couple times a year. But who are we to judge unless you walk in someone else's shoes?"

He believes that religion and spirituality can be very internal, as it has become for him.

"You don't necessarily have to go to services to believe in God," he said.

The couple, who have been married 40 years, have a son, Brian, who is 36.

"We always worked really hard at being parents. Most of the time we're on the same page," Simms said. "There are two things you can give your children: one of them is roots and the other one is wings."

But the children he sees through Youth and Family Alternatives have a different story and typically come from much different backgrounds.

He sees troubled kids in foster care or runaway shelters, kids who haven't had the same kind of care as his own son. Being a father helps him empathize with them, and sometimes, he taps into something deeper.

"You do some of those things out of the belief in the power of man," he said. "But sometimes you have to have a belief in God."

Simms is promoting the upcoming RAP River Run, a 5K race and 1-mile fun run slated for June 12. He's very involved with Toastmasters, an organization the helps people strengthen their public speaking skills. He believes that using words effectively is an important asset in life, and he's constantly honing that skill.

He speaks frequently for groups such as the Trinity Business Association, and other local organizations.

Tina Shelton, who works for the West Pasco Chamber, said "he is just an unbelievable marketer for the RAP House and Youth and Family Alternatives."

"I can't say enough about what a great job he does for that organization and the community."

Added Barley: "He's got God on his side … Not often are we blessed with such wonderful people."

Faith In Motion is a series of features about an individual or group doing something inspiring in the course of a spiritual journey. Ideas are welcome via e-mail. Send them to mindy.rubenstein@yahoo.com.

If you go

River Run fundraiser

RAP River Run, a race to benefit the RAP House for Pasco's runaway, abused, neglected and at-risk youths, will be held June 12 at Sims Park. The 1-mile fun run starts at 7:30 a.m., followed by a 5K race at 8 a.m. For information or to sign up, visit www.rapriverrun.com.

Leader at New Port Richey nonprofit helps at-risk kids 04/23/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 23, 2010 9:02pm]
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