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An oasis of learning and friends, lost to Largo budget cuts

In the collective memory of the kids who grew up in the Lake Palms neighborhood, the city's Outreach Program has been the source of childhood experiences that have spanned many young residents' lifetimes.

It has been a saving grace for families just getting by, providing the little things for their children they normally couldn't afford.

Field trips to the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, one-on-one tutoring, haircuts that cost just a dollar.

The center, housed in the rec room of the Clearwater-Largo Free Methodist Church on Fulton Drive, a struggling church in a struggling neighborhood, has been home to thousands of hours of flag football and a museum's worth of children's art.

It's been a refuge, students and supervisors say, from the boredom of after-school and summertime, a safe place from drugs and gangs, and restless hours that might otherwise be spent lingering on street corners.

But after years of dodging budget cuts, surviving the closure of two similar centers in Largo in recent years, "the rec," as the center is affectionately called, is about to be shuttered.

The city can no longer afford to run the center, which opened in 1996, and grants and community donations have run dry.

Barring some additional source of funding, the center will host its last afternoon of laughter and learning in June.

"We can find the funds to keep it going through the end of the school year. It's DOA after that," said Joan Byrne, the city's director of parks and recreation. "It's just one of those Sophie's Choice kind of decisions you have to make when things aren't good."

For Andre Jones, who has been a counselor with the center for 10 years, the impending closure means an end to a community of students he has seen grow up.

"A lot of lives have been touched. A lot of kids have grown up here," Jones said. "They were high risk and all that, but we were able to implant something in them that changed their lives."

Jones said most of the students who attend the program are from families that couldn't otherwise afford after-school care. The neighborhood the program serves is one of the city's least affluent.

Jones and his fellow counselor, JoAnn Ruble, said program offerings like visiting the Florida Aquarium or listening to a regular stream of guest speakers can inspire them. Other activities, like trips to the beach or a bowling alley, add substance.

"It's about adding experiences to young minds, morals, direction, with supervision," Jones said.

Ruble said without the program, some students may drift and get into trouble.

"How much does it cost to put a kid in jail?" she asked.

Students also lament the center's closing, many having spent much of their childhood there.

"Here, there's always something to do. It's a safe place to hang. All the parents love this place. We'd be lost without it," said Jason Duhamel, 17, a senior at Pinellas Park High School.

Wednesday, Jackie Croxall, 12, sat drawing at the center after school. She has been spending her afternoons with counselors Jones and Ruble since she was 9.

"There's no other place to go. Most of my friends don't live around here," she said.

She added that even at her middle school, Osceola, the pull toward vices is clear and present. The center provides a relief.

What sort of trouble could a middle school student get into?

"Gangs, drugs, a lot," said Croxall, a seventh-grader.

Is that really what her classmates face?

She disapprovingly smirks, and nods.

"Yes," she said.

She continued drawing a portrait of a teddy bears, the caption: "Where there is love there is life — Gandhi."

City commissioners have been sympathetic toward the program, which provides services for about 30 students daily, and more during the summer. Several students sent e-mails to the city this month, trying to lobby for the program to stay alive.

"I feel bad for the parents. Having been a single parent, everyone knows in the summertime we need to do something with our kids," said Commissioner Harriet K. Crozier at a Jan. 19 meeting.

Commissioner Gigi Arntzen also recognized how useful the program was to parents, saying at the meeting, "I think it's a very valuable service. I think the parents appreciate us being there."

Mayor Patricia Gerard said she wished there were an easier way.

But with a high price tag — $141,300 last year — it is a service the cash-strapped city decided to part with.

Byrne's department tried reaching out to the community for help, but like the city, other organizations were similarly facing budget woes of their own.

The YMCA sent a letter saying it would be unable to help. Pinellas County representatives expressed interest, but county funding for outreach projects was already maxed out.

Jones, the counselor, said he fears the students will become sticks in the wind without the extra help the program provides.

Brandon Bostick, 18, a graduate of Seminole High School who attended the program since he was 9, said from his experience growing up in the area, the effects of the center's demise could be felt by this summer.

"If this rec closed down, this neighborhood is in a lot of trouble," he said.

An oasis of learning and friends, lost to Largo budget cuts 01/30/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 29, 2010 6:41pm]
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