Eric Green started the south county nonprofit Everyone's Youth United with a red van and a desire to help children.
It wasn't much at first. Every so often, Green would take a small group of children to baseball games in the red van. On occasion, he would arrange for a motivational speaker to talk to the kids.
Fast forward to now. Everyone's Youth United takes up 11,000 square feet and features two computer labs and a video and recording studio. The walls are flush with photographs and news clippings about Green and the dozens of children who have participated in the program.
The past nine years have been good for Green, who has expanded his vision to include after-school care, summer programs and arts for the children in St. Petersburg's Child's Park neighborhood — all free of charge.
"The goal is to give young people an alternative, a safe haven and a place to go that will allow them to get involved with the arts and things that attract them," Green said about his vision for EYU. "I want to see us become a centerpiece for the community and possibly branch out and duplicate."
But the expansion has come to a screeching halt.
The Juvenile Welfare Board, a state agency that funds nonprofit, government and community groups with tax revenue, decided against renewing a $509,948 grant that Green used to fund literacy programs at nine faith-based programs in the Child's Park neighborhood.
The board felt Green, whose organization received $391,000 directly from the grant, wasn't keeping a close enough eye on the groups and their progress.
"Did we bite off more than we could chew? Probably," said Green, who makes a salary of about $45,000 and is also a partner in Hip Hop Soda Shop, a Tampa sports and video game bar and restaurant.
Green, 50, also points out that the board is faced with cutting $5-million from its budget, and he was likely an easy target.
Board officials don't disagree.
"The tight budget times are affecting everybody and how we look at things," said Ben Kirby, a spokesman for the state agency.
The welfare board now directly supervises the literacy programs, essentially cutting out Green.
After the cut, Green began operating on a budget of about $70,000. With it, he's had to substantially scale back staffing and programming at EYU.
This summer, the organization is operating from 3 to 7 p.m. instead of its normal all-day summer hours. Green still offers substance abuse and life skills education, computer lab access and sports. The EYU marching band is also still performing. But gone are the full-time social worker and literacy coach and production classes in the video and recording studios.
Downsizing, yes. Giving up, never, said Green.
He has gone back to what he knows best — working his Rolodex and courting community business leaders for donations.
"I'm looking to see after nine years if people would see the vitality of the agency and the importance of it and what we've been able to produce," Green said.
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Green moved to St. Petersburg about a decade ago. He had served time in the military and was out on disability for post-traumatic stress disorder. The move meant Green would live closer to his mother and Bay Pines VA hospital, where he was receiving treatments.
A mentor encouraged him to take some classes at St. Petersburg College. He chose youth development and substance abuse courses. Around the same time, he befriended Darryl Rouson, who was eager to do some nonprofit work himself.
The two helped create the Community Benefit Network, a nonprofit that raised money to buy Christmas presents for children whose parents were incarcerated.
"I was quite impressed with his aggressiveness and tenacity for getting things done, I was equally impressed with his heart," said Rouson, now a state representative for St. Petersburg.
Then, months later, Green decided to start Everyone's Youth United.
He began an annual trip to Tallahassee to teach the children about the political process. He started the area's annual Bay Idol contest. Four years ago, he received a grant to use the building on 43rd Street as his headquarters. Community groups started taking notice.
"Some of the services they (EYU) were providing were for kids who might be at home without parents during the evening," said David Hood, past president of the Northeast Exchange Club, which has given EYU more than $10,000 a year in grants. "We really felt that was really important."
Green's key event is an annual youth conference that in the past has drawn high-profile celebrities like former record label owner Russell Simmons and civil rights activist Ben Chavis.
At the core of Green's organization was the belief that children must first be engaged creatively for them to listen or learn about values and academics. "You've got to make them look at you long enough to get the message," Green said. "And you've got to be soft enough, trusting enough and excited enough to where they'll take a minute and listen."
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On average the organization functions with a $470,000 yearly budget. Now with the cutbacks, Green's staff is down to three, including himself. EYU has become more of a safe place for children to hang out than the central focus of the community that Green intended.
Green recently launched the "Save the building. Save the program. Save the kids: It's Worth a Million" campaign. His plan is to combine a cadre of radio spots asking for donations as well as a big music concert in September.
He has enlisted the likes of boxer Winky Wright and Tampa rapper Tango, from Season 1 of VH1's series I Love New York, to help.
His goal is to raise $1-million to buy the building EYU rents and re-staff the program. "I'm going to fight my way to the end," Green said.