Eileen Copple unlocked a supply room and from floor to ceiling you could see evidence of this community's generosity. Clothing, blankets and toiletries filled plastic containers and eased some of the sadness of knowing why they are so necessary.
Same thing with the kitchen down the hall in the building tucked back in some New Port Richey woods. Volunteers show up to cook for children who might rather be somewhere else but seldom run away because in most instances, it's better here.
"We don't have lockdown,'' said Copple, a former elementary school principal who runs the RAP House for Youth and Family Alternatives Inc.
Short for Runaway Alternatives Project, the shelter is one of 28 in Florida that the independent Justice Research Center estimated saves the state more than $160 million a year by keeping troubled youth out of the juvenile justice system. Without intervention, some of these kids would end up in so-called street survival crimes — drug dealing and prostitution.
Even so, social service providers can't depend on the state to provide sufficient funds every year (see Metropolitan Ministries and Gov. Rick Scott's veto). Rich Bekesh, who owns Spring Engineering, understood that, and as chairman of YFA's governing board pushed for more consistent private fundraising.
This gave birth to the RAP River Run, which has become one of the premier footraces in Tampa Bay. The first 5K event in 2007 attracted 480 runners. Last year: 1,200. In six years, the well-sponsored event has provided $400,000 for the shelter, which boasts a 90 percent success rate in returning youths to their families or other safe living situations.
This year the organizers have added a few extras, including a 5-mile race, a 5K walk, a "stroller strut'' and a fun-run obstacle course for children. Jim Simms, YFA's director of community relations, encourages everybody to arrive at Sims Park in downtown New Port Richey between 6 and 6:45 a.m. Saturday, especially if they haven't preregistered. Participants can also preregister at the park between 4 and 7 p.m. Friday.
Simms expects a spike in the number of serious runners since this year, for the first time, there's prize money. Winners of the 5K and 5-mile races will receive $500.
This race will be bittersweet for Simms, 66, who will retire in July after 10 years with the agency.
"It's an inspiring day,'' he said as we toured the RAP House. "The volunteers do all the heavy lifting. It always makes me proud to work here.'' He estimated about 75 volunteers show up to provide everything from bottled water to safety checks at intersections.
The RAP River Run brings thousands of folks to a unique downtown that they might otherwise miss. The city has wallowed for some time through a rough economy, but it remains full of potential with its beautiful parks, old Florida architecture and a river that flows through its heart. You fully appreciate that potential when you see more than 1,000 healthy, happy folks in multicolored shorts and sneakers, laughing as they run (or walk) beneath the giant oaks.
And only a few miles away, you can witness the impact of their efforts in a shelter that reminds you of a college dorm. A colorful mural greets you in the lobby with words that have defined a mission for three decades: "Help for today, hope for tomorrow.''