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Lutz church pumps money, life into youth center in V.M. Ybor

V.M. YBOR — Grace Family Church, a complex of modern buildings with a tree-lined entrance, offers Starbucks coffee and four Sunday services to its 5,000 congregants from middle-class suburbs across north Tampa.

Sixteen and a half miles southeast, a bleaker world persists.

Charred homes dot city blocks like missing teeth, the work of arsonists who torched more than two dozen houses in the V.M. Ybor neighborhood over the past two years. The Cuscaden Park Pool, an elegant city facility with a brick pool house built in 1937, remains shuttered because of expensive leaks. Next door sits a 1943 Boys & Girls Club building where, not long ago, someone broke into the gym and made a campfire at midcourt in a trash barrel.

But these different settings are being buoyed by public service.

The Lutz church has been renovating the Boys & Girls Club building at 2806 N 15th St. since November. The after-school center called the Dream Center of Tampa Bay will serve the neighborhood, where the per capita income is less than half of the city average.

"We just believe God wants us to give to the people and stand up for those who can't stand for themselves and speak up for those who can't speak for themselves," said Alex Passarello, 45, a church member who works for Door and Hardware Openings of Tampa, which is donating services to the renovation.

Senior pastor Craig Altman and other church leaders explored different parts of Tampa until they noticed a void in V.M. Ybor.

Kids kept breaking into the building, closed for the past two years, just to play basketball. The church studied the area, talked to neighborhood, government and school leaders, and reviewed demographics before leasing the building from the Boys & Girls Club organization under a rent-free agreement through July of next year. After that, the Dream Center could begin paying rent to the nonprofit.

Pastor Altman "wanted to find an economically depressed area or a neglected neighborhood with all the budget cuts and economic problems and instill some hope," said Thad Smith, a church member and executive director of the coming Dream Center.

The center, which could open in August, will offer a basketball league and have an indoor recreation room with table tennis, foosball and pool tables. Adam Hayward, a Tampa Bay Buccaneer linebacker and Grace church member, is donating flat-screen TVs and consoles toward a video game room.

The Dream Center also will offer mentoring to neighborhood kids through the Hillsborough County School District, where church members plan to serve as tutors. District spokesman Stephen Hegarty said discussions remain ongoing for the after-school program, which will serve teens.

"I think we'd be happy to do that because there's probably a need, especially for the age group we're talking about," he said.

KB Partner Foods, owner of 28 local KFC and Taco Bell restaurants, has pledged job-training opportunities.

All of the center's services will be free, funded by the church.

Contributions for the renovations have come from everywhere. The church has put in $250,000. A city of Tampa Facade Grant added about $45,000. Several in-kind donations from businesses have helped meet the $350,000 budget.

Once the church raises more money — $150,000 to $200,000 — it plans to restore part of the second story, which includes classrooms and a meeting room for computer training and classes.

Nearly 270 volunteers from Grace, another church, nonprofits, neighborhood residents, businesses and other groups contributed more than $50,000 of needed demolition and thousands of dollars more in work, painting and equipment.

The vision began to emerge last week as workers led by the general contractor, Cornerstone Solutions Group, raced to open the center in a little more than a month. In the lime green game room, four dusty pool tables are covered with construction supplies. The gym's new floor boasts freshly painted stripes, but doors need to be added throughout the center and restrooms are far from finished.

The V.M. Ybor residents already are treating the center as a community cornerstone that could lead to neighborhood revitalization after the string of arsons and widespread foreclosures. Residents often pop in to ask Smith about the opening date, thanking the church for investing in the neighborhood.

"This is a huge step in the right direction," said Kim Headland, president of the V.M. Ybor Neighborhood Association. "It's hopefully going to fill a really big void for our community."

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Lutz church pumps money, life into youth center in V.M. Ybor 07/07/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 7, 2011 5:31am]
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