EAST TAMPA -
Nine children with aprons tied to their waists gathered around a table and a pair of burners to learn how to make chicken fried rice and pink salmon salad. An hour later a smaller group would receive instructions on how to turn clothing scraps into pencil bags.
All around them were more children, and a few adults, with eyes focused on computers or minds engaged in a game of dominoes. Later that night the East Tampa Action Group, a fledgling band of neighborhood activists, met to discuss the one-year anniversary of the Hope Learning Center.
An anniversary party on Jan. 26 will celebrate the center's accomplishments and the transformation of what was once a city-owned vacant lot known more for vagrancy and drug deals than neighborhood fellowship.
On a recent afternoon and evening dozens of children and residents filled the 1,500-square-foot building at the corner of East Lake Avenue and 29th Street for cooking, sewing, learning, games and friendship.
"Some days they make this place look small," said Daniel Dean, pastor of Bible Truth Ministries. The ministries operate a charter school and community center on 22nd Street across from Middleton High School, and two years ago bought the city lot at Lake and 29th. Dean, who is a contractor, built the learning center.
"I love what they're doing with the children," said Herberthia Williams who played dominoes. Williams' 6-year-old granddaughter, Carmen Fisher, is a regular.
The center was needed, Williams said, "when my children were children."
Dean lays down the rules and nothing escapes his eye. "Hey, over there, put that away," he told a young girl answering her cell phone as she sat at a computer. She quickly put the phone away because the punishment was being told to leave.
It is strictly no food, drink, or cell phone use when operating a computer. And to get to that computer there are more rules: read a book chosen from the center's library for 30 minutes and first log on to a teaching program.
Only then is free time allowed to choose a game or other activity.
Computer use sometimes has to be in shifts because so many people come to the center, Dean said.
Every day of the week there are activities, including a Wednesday "games of adventures" where children step away from computers to play "old-school" board games such as Sorry, Candyland or Twister.
Wednesday also is when barber Joshua Chandler gives free haircuts. Children get first priority. Some days up to 30 children show up.
There also are days for bingo, checkers and chess, sewing and cooking classes, Bible study and tutoring. On Saturday volunteer and master pool checkers champion Arthur "Moochie" McCarr will hold a checkers tournament.
Monday through Thursday there are GED classes. Out-of-work residents use the center's computers to build resumes and search for jobs. On the last Friday of each month the center is packed for a poetry jam.
And on Sunday Dean holds Sunday school.
"I think a lot of kids come because of the love and caring," said Xiomara Perez, known as "Miss Cee Cee". "It's much better they don't have to be caught up outside. They can be here in all these activities."
Perez attends the GED classes and hopes eventually to enroll at Hillsborough Community College.
The classes, which began in July, average about 18 students each session. Soon the learning center will be added to the Hillsborough County School District's list of GED satellite locations for the adult and community education division.
The district will help with materials and student assessments.
District resource teacher Susan MacGill recently completed assessments of the learning center's students. It helps them to set goals, she said.
"The cool thing about this is people in the community are coming here," MacGill said. "It's flourishing. It's helping the community."
From GED classes to the neighborhood action group, Dean said the emphasis is on self-reliance and finding solutions to problems from within the community.
Some of the older children, like 13-year-old Kameron Donalson, help younger children with game activities or tutoring.
"Most of these children were out getting into trouble, doing things they didn't have to be doing," said Donalson.
The cooking classes teach nutrition but also simple math which is needed to measure ingredients, said Suzette Dean, the pastor's wife as well as cooking and sewing instructor.
Perez is among the volunteers who help with the center's activities.
"I'm a good buffet chef," said Perez's 6-year-old son Izaeah as he stirred the pot of chicken.
Raekwon Walker, 12, is a fan of the television show Iron Chef on the Food Network and enjoys Dean's cooking classes.
"It makes me feel more manly," Walker said about cooking. "I like to do it."
Even the sewing class where students learned to take scrap cloth and make wrap-around skirts is empowering, Daniel Dean said. "We show them how to make something from nothing," he said.
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: One-year anniversary celebration
WHERE: Hope Learning Center, 2902 E. Lake Ave.
WHEN: 2:30 p.m. Jan. 26
INFORMATION: Call Hope Learning Center, (813) 234-3181