Teachers around the county prepared for the return of school by sprucing up their classrooms and splashing bulletin boards with decorative designs.
None of their bulletin boards, however, holds more beauty than the bulletin board at the Sulphur Springs Resource Center.
Oh, they may be more eye-catching, festooned with construction paper, glittery letters and happy characters. With bold action words, they probably do a better job at sparking a student's imagination.
The beauty of the Sulphur Springs Resource Center bulletin board comes not from an artful design, however.
It comes from hope.
Adults who received GED lessons at the center returned after passing the high school equivalency exam and pinned copies of their newly minted diplomas on the bulletin board. Every inch is covered with a pride some may not fully comprehend.
Those diplomas, so much more than just paper, represent a step in the right direction, a foot in the door, the start of a better life. Simple black letters on a white piece of paper showcase a vibrancy that says lives can be revived.
Manager James Jackson, a Durant High and Florida A&M graduate, spoke of the tremendous strides the center has achieved. In his five years at the center, it has gone from serving 50 residents a month to more than 700. It not only preps residents for the GED, but provides a business center, financial literacy programs, legal assistance and employability training and career readiness services.
The center, funded by the United Way Suncoast, comprises just part of an effort to reshape the community. Other partners include the Tampa Metro YMCA, the Hillsborough County School District, Bay Area Legal Services, the Sulphur Springs Alliance, the Devereux Foundation, Community Stepping Stones, Layla's House and others.
Of course, Sulphur Springs residents are the most important partner. With them on board, everybody is pulling in the same direction.
"We want to make Sulphur Springs a neighborhood of choice," said Jackson, whom residents call "Mr. James."
Now Jackson and the United Way want to bring more professionals, particularly minority professionals, to the center.
Many of the young adults who seek careers — not just jobs — need professional mentoring. They need to know that an odd email address can turn off prospective employers. They need tips on how to dress, how to interview and how to highlight skills on a resume.
"They see Oprah and Beyoncé on television, but . . . they want to see real people, people they can touch," said Paula Kay, United Way community manager.
Much has been written and said about the challenges facing the black community. I'm convinced many successful minorities want to help but don't know how to connect with areas like Sulphur Springs.
The solution is to build a bridge between the professionals and the community.
Bridges is a year-old effort by United Way to connect more minority professionals with its social efforts. It has 90 members who have made a financial commitment, but program manager Cassandra Montes will tell you it is about time, talent and treasure.
"The response to Bridges has been overwhelming," Montes said. "For so many professionals to join us in such a short time shows me there's a pent-up desire to help in the minority community.
"Because Bridges covers four counties and the need is great, we always need more professionals."
To learn more about Bridges, call Montes at (813) 274-0944 or email [email protected]
We can talk about helping. We can make donations, but perhaps the best way to help is by personally engaging with people who long for someone to show them the path to a better life — actually, a more beautiful life.
That's all I'm saying.