Ybor center gives children, parents place to play
V.M. YBOR - Basketballs slapped against backboards, swishing through the nets or glancing off the rims before bouncing onto the gym floor. One by one each young athlete lined up and took instruction from the volunteer coaches. Alexis Young, 11, threw up a ball and raced to the back of the line. The gymnasium inside the Dream Center was packed with children and volunteer coaches from semiprofessional teams – Tampa Bay Saints and Tampa Bay XFactor – and former Los Angeles Laker Jim Price. Parents watched from the bleachers. Elsewhere inside the youth center children played video games, hip-hopped in a dance contest or headed outside to Cuscaden Park for a festival of moon-walking, pie throwing and football tossing."I think it's good for all these kids to come here and play," said Young. "It gives kids some place to go." The neighborhood has lacked a youth activities center in recent years. The Boys & Girls Club closed its facility next to Cuscaden a few years ago. City officials, mindful of budget shortfalls, stopped after-school programs at the park. With the recent opening of the Dream Center children again have a place to go. In March 2011 the Lutz-based Grace Family Church congregation signed a lease for the former Boys & Girls Club building at 2806 N. 15th St. Church, business and neighborhood volunteers undertook a major remodeling. Among the financial assistance was a $45,000 façade grant provided through property tax revenues collected within East Tampa's special tax district. Cornerstone Solutions, a Dade City construction company, donated labor. State Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, provided surplus campaign money. And recently KBP Inc., franchise owner of 28 Tampa area Kentucky Fried Chicken/Taco Bell restaurants, pledged money from the sale of coupon booklets. A pay-as-you-go philosophy has guided the church's venture. Taking a steady, long-range approach is what will work, said Pastor Craig Altman. Initially, the center will be open on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays for basketball clinics and games. As more children show up and more volunteers step forward, additional activities will be added including tutoring, mentoring, after-school programs, health screenings and job training. At the center's grand opening, members of the church's high school ministry – THE MOVE 4 – held its spring festival with children's activities. The Grace Family Ministry, Open Arms Church and the V.M. Ybor Neighborhood Association hosted more than 150 children for the annual Easter egg hunt. "We really want to be very practical," said Altman. "We're going to do a few things very well. Our heart is to go slow." No fees are charged. But in September families will be asked to pay $20 annually to enroll their children. They also will be asked to serve as volunteers at the center or other community events, said Thad Smith, the center's executive director. Smith will be the only full-time staff member, in addition to a part-time athletic director. The center quietly opened its doors about five weeks ago. Smith said about 30 children showed, up but in recent weeks the number of children has swelled to more than 70. Louise Anderson brought her 12-year-old son, Demond Brown, to the basketball clinic. She was happy to see the building reopen. "They are responsive to the children," she said of the church. "This keeps kids out of the street and gives them something more positive to think about." Kamilihia Williams echoed those thoughts. She came with her 11-year-old daughter, Jazzmund Carter, and her 13-year-old son, Taronto Williams. "I hope it's a place where kids can hang out," she said.
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