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St. Pete: Rec centers can get caught in the middle of violence

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” starts Devan Atkins, 8, as she rehearses saying her name, age and school, for the pageant May 9 at Frank W. Pierce Recreation Center.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” starts Devan Atkins, 8, as she rehearses saying her name, age and school, for the pageant May 9 at Frank W. Pierce Recreation Center.

When firecrackers popped across the street from Childs Park in broad daylight, two little boys riding bikes jumped with jitters.

Was it gunshots?

The police officer on duty assured them it wasn't, and they rolled away happy again. For the moment.

Just two days earlier, a teenager was shot during a fight at the park. And streets away, a community was still reeling from the killing of an 8-year-old girl who spent afternoons playing kickball and making friends at the Frank W. Pierce Center in Bartlett Park.

The parks and recreation centers of St. Petersburg, some situated in rough neighborhoods plagued with crime, are places where children go to play, learn and find security.

The recent drama is chilling for Chaneice Jenkins, 17. She takes her two little sisters to Childs Park, 4301 13th Ave. S., after school almost every day.

"It made me feel bad for our park to be on the news," she said, her little sisters toting oversized pink backpacks and snuggling each other. "I didn't think it would come to this."

Statistics from the St. Petersburg Police Department show a range of police calls to parks and recreation centers that offer teen programs — incidents including gunshots, thefts, brawls, criminal mischief, assault and suspicious behavior. Lake Vista Center, 1401 62nd Ave. S., had the most calls since 2008, with 65. Shore Acres, 4230 Shore Acres Blvd., had the fewest, with two.

In December, Devin DeLoach, 20, was shot outside the Willis S. Johns Recreation Center at 6635 M.L. King St. N. That same month, an 18-year-old pointed a gun at a crowd of more than 50 teens at the park.

Community outcry and marches over the April shooting of young Paris Whitehead-Hamilton couldn't squash the fighting that erupted in Childs Park on April 21, when Jawuan Emmanual Holloway, 16, took two bullets during a fight. Police say he was an innocent bystander.

But the people who devote long hours to making recreation centers positive places caution against making assumptions. The workers cringe when they see a headline splashed alongside their name, painting a park or rec center as dangerous.

"They work hard, they're passionate about it," said recreation director Sherry McBee. "They want to have safe places for kids and teens, places for kids to have positive role models and mentors. All of our recreation centers are in parks, but parks are large. Parks have parking lots. They're spaces for people to gather."

The centers also keep kids off the street.

"It's somewhere to go during the day," said Yolanda Hudson, whose 16-year-old son Justin has come to Frank W. Pierce at 2000 Seventh St. S. almost every day after school since he was 6.

Hudson's family lives on Preston Avenue, where Paris was killed. She has seen the worst. She knows the value of the recreation center for her son.

"It's a safe haven," she said. Without it, "You never know what they would get into."

• • •

Adrienne Douglas keeps things in check.

She has spent the last 20 years as the teen supervisor at Frank W. Pierce. She organizes events, teaches classes, reaches out to kids on the street. Every year, she shows dozens of little girls how to walk with attitude and project their names to the audience for the center's annual pageant.

The kids call her Miss Adrienne. They respect her.

"They can be out here speeding through the parking lot, and the minute I walk out here, they cease," she said. "The control here is great. It can be a fight on the street, but they don't bring it to this parking lot."

If they do?

"I just call the police."

Police have answered calls at the park 49 times since 2008. The kids here say they feel safe, especially inside. They love the sports, modeling classes, camping trips. They learn to open bank accounts, write poetry, edit music. They do community service.

"It just felt like home," said Chaelah Morris, 19, a regular at Pierce. "I was very attached to all the coaches. This was my daily routine. I just felt like in order to go somewhere better, I had to be around positive people."

When scuffles break out, coaches bring kids into the office.

"We take deep breaths and calm down," said Javon Thomas, 9. One coach told him, "The most dangerous weapon is your tongue."

It's about consistency, Douglas said. Many kids come from a one-parent house. They need role models who are there when their family is not.

She can read the kids. Once, a girl left a letter on the computer. Her best friend had died, her grandmother was sick. She felt alone.

"This girl was just so angry, but her passion was flag football," Douglas said. Douglas steered her into the sport as a way to channel anger, learn manners, deal with loss.

"You give kids choices, but sometimes you have to make some of them for them," she said. "You see bad things that happen, but when you see a lot of good, it outweighs the bad."

When the recreation center closes at 9 p.m., she walks out with the ones who cling until the last minute.

She tells them to go straight home. But …

"I'd rather have them here with me."

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

St. Pete: Rec centers can get caught in the middle of violence 05/02/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 2, 2009 4:31am]
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