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Club for kids struggling to survive

The Boys and Girls Club in Lacoochee must close its doors unless it gets a new infusion of donations.

With a smudge of yellow chalk across her forehead and green patches on her cheek, Adriana Limas is furiously at work with bits of colored paper, a fistful of clay and an ordinary drinking straw.

The result is a blue and purple flower with heart-shaped leaves, a perfect gift for Valentine's Day.

"I'm gonna bring this one home to my mom," Adriana, 7, explains, pushing her long, dark hair back out of her eyes. Nearby, her sister, Andrea, 8, is hanging a brown paper bag with her name written on it with a purple marker.

By the end of the week, a dozen or more paper bags will be filled with handwritten Valentines, just one of the many after-

school projects that take place every day at the Boys and Girls Club east unit in Lacoochee.

In the heart of the Cypress Farms housing project, the Boys and Girls Club is a beacon of hope for more than 100 low-income children ages 6 to 18.

Many are so poor they pay their $5 membership dues in pennies or work it off by sweeping the floors and picking up trash.

In a neighborhood where drugs and crime threaten to seduce young minds, the club is a lifeline, said director Carl Miller.

But that lifeline soon may be cut.

Faced with a deficit of nearly $5,000 a month, the club's board voted in December to shut down the Lacoochee unit in March.

"If we're not here, these kids will still find something to do, but it probably won't be nearly as constructive," said Miller, 22, who drives more than an hour every day from his home in New Port Richey to run the club. "This place is just essential for these kids."

Unless the club gets an infusion of new donations, it will have no choice but to shut its doors, said Pennie Anderson, who oversees the club's operations in New Port Richey, Shady Hills and Lacoochee.

"The bottom line is we are just not getting any support from the community over there," she said. "Our west side donations have been carrying the burden, but we just can't continue losing money."

Anderson said it costs between $50,000 and $75,000 a year to operate the east Pasco unit, which moved to Lacoochee from Dade City two years ago after Pasco County offered the club a rent-free building.

Nearly all of the 116 members walk or ride their bikes to the club every day after school. A handful are dropped off at the club by parents who work the late shift at Lykes Pasco in Dade City.

Some come after working in the fields, where they help their parents pick fruit.

"That just tears my heart," Miller said. "You see their hands are shaking and bruised, but they came anyway because they want to have some fun."

At the club, kids get help with their homework, draw pictures, shoot pool or play other games, or do class work on half a dozen donated computers .

Outside, they romp on a couple of rusty swing sets, climb on old tires and scurry through a large concrete tunnel put there for that purpose.

With a push mower, Miller cut a croquet court and baseball diamond into the grass.

Using money raised from the sale of 50-cent burritos, chips and candy bars, he bought a World Wrestling Federation belt that is passed each week to the member with the most croquet points.

"I just love these kids," he said. "They get really upset when I take a day off."

Each afternoon, Miller leads club members in an early game and a late game, usually freeze tag, kickball or soccer.

Every Friday, the kids watch a new release movie on video, a donation from the Video Superstore in Dade City. Last week, they watched Austin Powers, the Spy who Shagged Me. The week before, it was Inspector Gadget.

"It's fun here," said Nick Earl, 14, one of the oldest club members who often helps out with the little ones. "Plus, my mom likes knowing where I am every day."

Edgar Valdez, 12, sits on one of a handful of plastic chairs, surrounded by his friends. He is reading, sporadically, from the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, a Christmas gift from Miller and his wife.

Miller, who moved from Colorado to run the Boys and Girls Club teen center still being built in west Pasco, refuses to believe the community will let the Lacoochee club close.

A meeting to brainstorm fundraising ideas is scheduled for this week, and the club is seeking some federal grants to help it stay afloat.

"We're not dead yet," he said. "We've got a couple things going, and I'm still hopeful."

Like its sister club in west Pasco, the Lacoochee unit relies on community donations to survive, Anderson said. She has applied for nearly $150,000 in federal grants, but that money would likely be just a one-time boost.

"I'm praying to the grant gods, but that will only be a temporary reprieve," Anderson said. "I hope we can get some support from the community. If not, it's the kids that are going to lose out."

To get involved

A meeting on the future of the Boys and Girls Club east Pasco unit is scheduled for 4 p.m. Tuesday at Adrian's Restaurant on Meridian Avenue in downtown Dade City. To make a donation or inquire about the club, call Pennie Anderson at 727-842-5673.

Andrea Limas, 8, watches, left, as Adriana Limas, 7, accidentally pulls her paper hearts off a stick Friday at the Boys and Girls Club in Lacoochee. The girls were making Valentine's Day crafts. Dozens of children flock to the center after school to play games, work on crafts and participate in other projects.