TAMPA — When Daniel Dean first met Franck Charles, the teenager was trying to run track at Middleton High School but wasn’t doing well.
“He was running the mile, but he didn’t know what he was doing,” Dean remembered. “He went out running fast, and then, of course, everybody else ran him down.”
Charles wasn’t just struggling on the track.
“Of course, he was one of those individuals, being from Haiti, he felt the need to emulate the street culture because he figured that’s where he will easier fit in,” Dean said. “He was behind in his school grades and different things like that.”
“I used to come around on the basketball court, my pants all down, try to fight with everybody,” Charles said.
Dean, whose HOPE Community Center and Bible Truth Ministries church is across the street from the school, began working with Charles.
“I had to change the culture of how we thought,” Dean said. “So I got him to really value the fact, be who you were born. Don’t try to be another individual. When you’re around me, you have to have to have your pants up, you have to make sure you carry yourself a certain way. In the first year, he saw the improvement. By the time, he got to the 11th grade, he realized there were possibilities in his running.”
Charles went on to be a local champion on the track, setting school records and competing statewide. “In his senior year, he went undefeated, except he placed fifth in the state,” Dean said of the young man he said he now considers almost a son. “He won district. He won county championship in the mile and he won regional.”
Now, he’s excelling in college as a student and runner at Virginia Union University, where he’s studying mass communications.
Without Dean, Charles said, “I would not be in college right now, tell you the truth. He taught me everything.”
It’s a story Dean is repeating in ways small and large with people across East Tampa.
“Our goal is always that they will leave better than they came,” said Dean, 47, an energetic, determined force in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
“He has been a champion in East Tampa,” said City Councilman Frank Reddick, who called Dean “very wise, very intelligent and very personable. He’s a great leader, a quiet leader that a lot of people have to thank for his dedication to the community.”
Dean, who used to build houses, now uses his skills and knowledge to erect buildings for learning and transformation. His construction background, he said, taught him to keep costs low.
In addition to the school and community center on 22nd Street, Dean three years ago opened the HOPE Learning Center on the corner of East Lake Avenue and 29th street. At the learning center, residents can use computers and study for their equivalency diplomas.
The community center on 22nd Street has a neighborhood garden with traditional and hydroponically grown vegetables that are distributed in the community as part of a food pantry. Dean said they’re working on growing crotons with the idea that some of the children can learn entrepreneurship by selling them.
They also have a chess program.
“No. 1, it helps you with your memory,” Dean said. “It also helps with your critical thinking skills. You have to be honest in thought because if you are not honest, your opponent is going to expose the fact that you are not honest. Like we tell them all the time, lies and hypocrisy do not survive on the chess board. We teach the kids also to always think before you move.”
The school is big on teaching math, Dean said, “because math cannot be manipulated. Math teaches you a sense of consistency in thought.”
The theme, Dean said, is an emphasis on critical thinking skills and a sense of accountability. “Too many people try to blame other people” for their problems, Dean said. “I believe everyone, if you take responsibility for their life, can make something of yourself. If you allow something to be an obstacle, it can become an obstacle.”
Dean said his next project will focus on economic development. He’s in talks with the city about a property at 34th and Chelsea streets and hopes to build a place where businesses will move. He said people looking for office space will often avoid East Tampa because many of the buildings are broken down.
Dean doesn’t know exactly what will occupy the new building. “It could be a law office, could be a dentist office,” he said. It could be as much as 5,000 square feet. Who knows?”
When he built on 29th Street, he said. “I didn’t have all the details. I just knew we were going to build a building.”
Now that place is well used, he said. In addition to the computers and GED classes, there are Narcotics Anonymous meetings and dance classes. The county Health Department holds exercise and health classes. Another group mentors young women there.
“It’s used seven days a week,” Dean said. “I don’t really put a ceiling on the next step because one thing I’ve found when you set ceilings, then you set limitations.”
So Dean isn’t worried about whether the next building will be used. “We really have become, if you build it, they will come,” he said. “There’s always a need. Especially when it comes down to development.”