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VOLUNTEERS LEAVE BEACON OF HOPE

A shelter gets a better, safer playground and a fitting monument.

There's rarely an empty bed at Gulf Coast Community Care. Women show up at the shelter, often with children in tow, usually because they've lost their home after losing their job. On most nights, the 24 beds are full and there's a short waiting list.

And on most days, there are children on the playground - a fenced yard with weathered equipment and a couple of broken swings.

"We have over 250 women and women with children who will come through each year," said shelter manager Angela Littlefield. "That's why it was essential to have a nice safe playground for the children."

The shelter didn't have the funds for a playground makeover, though, so it put out the word that it needed help. The employees at the BB&T banks in Pasco County answered the call.

On Friday, a group of volunteers from the bank installed a large climbing structure, anchored a tether-ball pole and replaced the tattered canopies on the playground forts with sturdy wooden roofs.

The crew will work through the weekend to refurbish the swing set with fresh paint and new swings, install another playground set for the smaller children and paint the outdoor basketball court. On Monday they will truck in rubber mulch.

"There is a lot of anticipation," Littlefield said Friday. "The kids want to go out and play on it right now!"

BB&T banks throughout the region are doing community service projects, explained Claudia Smith, the business services assistant for the bank's Pasco operations. Volunteers here turned to the United Way of Pasco County, which put them in touch with Gulf Coast Community Care.

The bank reps took a tour of the shelter and were touched by the need. "We walked through that shelter, and in the back building for the women and children, there was a little boy who was about 3 and a little baby, about a year," said Smith, growing teary. "In trying times like these, you don't realize how lucky you are."

The bank, which has six branches in Pasco, had a modest budget for the project. About 36 volunteers pitched in - from researching playground equipment to rolling up their sleeves this weekend.

Watching it all take shape is exciting for Smith, but the item she's most proud of is the 5-foot-6 lighthouse being installed in front of the shelter, along with a new lineup of mailboxes. The lighthouse mailbox symbolizes the beacon of hope that the shelter is for these families - and finally gives the facility at 7801 Maryland Ave. a fitting landmark.

"When they had people coming out to the shelter, they used to tell them 'Look for the Dumpster,'" because that was the main landmark, Smith said. "Now they'll be able to say, 'Look for the lighthouse.'"

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