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Programs impress less than people

Pull into the parking lot of the Campbell Park Community Center, in the heart of St. Petersburg's Midtown _ the new euphemism for the part of town that is predominantly black _ and it's hard not to be impressed.

The area surrounding the center is pleasant, and with a fall breeze fanning the temperature into the low 60s, the shade trees scattered on the barbered lawn are invitations. In this place, cigarette butts and other litter look for pockets or purses if trash receptacles are not convenient.

The building, with a new gym added about three years ago and an eye-catching paint combination, makes you stop for a moment in appreciation.

South, across Seventh Avenue, homes _ even the once troublesome Bethel Heights, which now has a new name and look _ convey the same feeling.

This is an area not living up to its reputation. Isn't this, after all, the bad part of town? Isn't this the notorious place unofficially known as the South Side? Isn't this where all the drug dealers hang out? Maybe they were taking an early, synchronized dinner break that afternoon, leaving the corners to regular folks doing the regular, legal things that fill their lives.

There was a time when none of those questions would have popped up. There was a time when you would not have to wonder if crack was sold here; you would have had to decline several sales pitches before you had time to wonder.

I went to Campbell Park because of a letter writing campaign. Campbell Park and other community centers in St. Petersburg are likely to lose funding for a program that keeps hundreds of the city's teenagers occupied through most of the summer. The Summer Teen Camp Program has been funded for three years by the Juvenile Welfare Board. This year, JWB is working with a smaller budget, which means some programs won't get a check. The teen camp program appears to be one of those programs that won't make the cut.

A number of parents, recreation workers and advocates for children have undertaken a campaign to change that. Letters addressed to JWB board members extol the virtues of the program, which, through field trips, classes, activities and guest speakers, exposes the children, many of them from low-income households, to broadening experiences they would otherwise miss. The letter writers also point out that the age group the program caters to, 13- to 17-year-olds, is also the age group that keeps police busy looking for stolen cars and tracking down vandals and petty criminals during the summer.

They say the children and the city will suffer without the program.

Board chairwoman Myrtle Smith-Carroll agrees with them. "There's just not enough doughnuts to go around," she said. She said the budget had not been decided, but other worthwhile programs were also likely to be cut.

"It's not a rejection process; it's a prioritizing process," she said. The localized nature of the teen camp program also works against it. "We're not a city (program)," Smith-Carroll said, "we're a county program."

Also working against it is its relative newness. Smith-Carroll said programs to which funds have already been committed will get priority getting funding to continue. New and startup programs will be considered for what's left. In a meeting Thursday, board members tabled making those decisions until they get a clear idea of what that amount will be. Roughly a third of JWB's money comes from the state, and legislators are still tussling over where to spend state money this year. The likelihood is that JWB will get less from the state, possibly nothing.

Without money from JWB, many of the most needy children won't be able to participate in the camp. The board supplemented the individual fees children paid to enroll. The cost per child is $330, said Verline Moore, who runs the Campbell Park Center. Children whose family income qualified them for reduced school lunches pay $248. Those who qualify for free school lunches enroll at no cost. The JWB endowment paid the difference.

The money from JWB also footed the bill for many of the program's activities. It paid, for example, the cost of school buses used for field trips.

Moore said loss of the JWB money will severely hurt the program but won't kill it. "We would still offer it, but it would be a hardship."

I went to the center to see the face of that hardship, to see the children whose lives would be affected by the loss.

The interior of Campbell Park Community Center is more impressive than the outside. Oh, I'm not impressed by clean floors _ they were that _ or by smart decor with everything looking as if it's where nature intended it to be _ and it was that.

I was impressed by children standing quietly in line for snacks without an adult standing over them like a drill sergeant. I was impressed that several teens could be trusted in the teen council room, with televisions, computers, video games and an ice cream freezer, and not make a jumbled mess of them all.

I was impressed with Marcus Childs, a 14-year-old ninth-grader who told me about the cooking classes he had in teen camp last summer where he learned about healthy diets.

"If I don't come to teen camp," he said, "I'll probably just get a job to keep my mind occupied."

Lamica Alexander, 12, said she would help her mom and spend more time at her grandmother's if the camp was curtailed. Rickie Stephens, 13, said without camp he also would spend more time at his grandparents' home. I was also impressed when he said being at his grandparents' house was as much fun as being at camp.

I suspect there are children who won't be able to get into camp because they don't have the money. Chances are good that some of them will cause problems with all the unoccupied time they will have. For them, I hope JWB _ or some other source _ comes up with the money to sponsor the camp.

But my concern for those kids palls against my hope for them. That hope comes from this:

The evidence is undeniable that the "bad" part of town is not living down to its reputation. Evidence is undeniable that children, even those who can't afford programs, are getting the attention that means most and costs least _ from parents and grandparents and other people who care how they turn out.

For the sake of all those people who are writing letters and want JWB to put them at the top of the list for funding, I would like to be able to say the sky will fall without it.

But for them and the rest of us, I'm happier to say the evidence strongly suggests it won't.

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