Arcadia, a small city in the poorest county in Florida, has no YMCA, no public swimming pools, and limited after school programs. Last year, a Boys and Girls Club was started, and on Wednesday the city council approved considerable renovations to the small building.
After Hurricane Charley hit Florida in 2004, the only community center in Arcadia shut down. Then crime went up, according to Marshal Matt Anderson, who's worked in the Arcadia Police Department for 30 years.
For the 14 years after the public gymnasium closed, there wasn't much to do for kids in Arcadia. There are no YMCA centers or public swimming pools, and only limited after-school programs — until last year.
In July 2018, a Boys & Girls Club opened in Arcadia.
"I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt, since this club opened, we have seen a decrease in juvenile style crimes — vandalism, petty thefts, random stealing of bicycles," Anderson said. "When kids are educated and have something to do, they don't want to do bad things."
The club, managed by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County, is operated in a renovated equipment shed and only can serve up to 75 kids at a time — which is crowded. There's a waiting list of over 50 children.
"What they're doing now is good, but they just don't have the capacity or space," Anderson said.
The club is surrounded by public housing, which is adjacent to Arcadia's small downtown. Beyond that, it's mostly orange groves and cattle ranches for miles in every direction in DeSoto—Florida's poorest county.
Bigger and better to come
The small Boys & Girls Club, recently named the Louis and Gloria Flanzer Boys & Girls Club after a $750,000 donation from the Louis and Gloria Flanzer Philanthropic Trust, will soon get a huge renovation.
The renovation plan, unanimously approved at a City Council meeting Wednesday, includes a 7,300-square-foot addition.
The Smith Brown Campus, an 8,800-square-foot gymnasium next to the club, will be transformed into a full-service Boys & Girls Club. The plan includes air conditioning, new windows, technology, activity rooms, bathrooms, a computer room, an art room, and four classrooms. Outside, there will be a basketball pavilion, covered playground, and a fence around the perimeter for safety and security.
The city owns the gymnasium, but the city and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County entered a long-term partnership that includes the use of the space at no cost.
The renovation will also include a commercial kitchen to feed the children. In DeSoto County, 98% of students rely on free and reduced-price lunches during the school year. The Louis and Gloria Flanzer Boys & Girls Club provides free lunch and snacks for the kids in the club. Club membership costs $10 a year per child.
Impact on grades
Idle summer hours and lack of educational activities can erode key literacy skills, especially among younger children. Nationwide, low-income children lose an average of 2 to 2.5 months of reading skills each summer.
"There's nothing for these kids to do here — nothing," said Tom Shapiro, vice-chair of special projects at the Boys and Girls Club of Sarasota County.
In DeSoto County, only 34% of third-graders tested as reading on grade level in 2019 — which despite the bleak score, is slightly better than previous years. The percentage of kids reading on grade level decreased every year from 2016 to 2018, with only 29% of third-graders reading on grade level in 2018.
Reading proficiency by the end of third grade is a crucial metric because in fourth grade, the curriculum shifts from learning to read to reading to learn.
Kids at the club participate in the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading's Summer Reading Challenge, which encourages children to read at least six books during the summer. At the start of each day during the summer, kids have an hour of educational time, practicing reading, math, and science.
The club accommodates kids in the summer from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and after school until 7 p.m. during the school year. Club employees walk the kids from their bus stop to the club, which is about five minutes away.
Katrina Humphrey, whose son attends the Louis and Gloria Flanzer Boys and Girls Club, said at the council meeting Wednesday that she saw her son's grades improve, and she feels relieved knowing that he's in a safe environment while she's at work.
"My favorite part about coming here is learning new words I haven't learned before," said 8-year-old club member Jaliyah J. "I used to just stay at home sitting around. I don't learn too much at home."
Years of work
The driving force behind the club since its inception has been Ashley Coone, a Boys and Girls Club consultant. She had a vision five years ago to restore the Smith Brown Recreation Center, which was once a gathering spot for nightly basketball games, Christmas pageants, and parties.
In four years, she raised $200,000 locally through cake sales, barbecues, and an annual fundraiser, with the goal of restoring the gym. She created the Smith Brown Project Initiative, a nonprofit to run the project, which put the $200,000 toward converting the former equipment building into a classroom to use for summer camps and after-school programs.
"I wanted to help start something to change the direction that our youth was going through education and after school programs," Coone said.
Coone's plans for the storage space got the attention of Boys & Girls Club of Sarasota County, which then took over management of the Smith Brown Initiative and is running the Arcadia site as one of its branches. the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, the William G. and Marie Selby Foundation, and the Barancik Foundation all contributed to the club.
"The Louis and Gloria Flanzer Boys & Girls Club is a dream come true for our community which has strongly desired to have this type of programming available to our youth," Coone said. "With the support of our local community, legislative delegation, and many donors, we have been able to turn this aspiration into a reality. We are excited about the renovation of the historic Smith Brown gym and how it will once again serve kids. This is just the beginning of something great and very much needed to change the outcomes for DeSoto kids and generational poverty."
The construction is estimated to cost $2.3 million. The renovation project has received $1.3 million in donations from five private donors, as of Wednesday. The club requested $500,000 from the state to support construction but was denied.
"While disappointed, we are not discouraged," said Michael Doyle, senior vice president of strategic initiatives at the Boys and Girls Club of Sarasota County. "It slowed our progress, but not our resolve to fund this construction."
The Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation, based in Sarasota County, committed to a grant that would match donations 1:1, up to $400,000, and directly support educational, developmental, and recreational programs for youth.
"Arcadia is a wonderful place, but it needed something to happen," said John Annis, senior vice president of community impact at the Barancik Foundation. "We knew there was a big community need — they had a waiting list on the first day it opened. It's exciting to hear about what's happening and more exciting for what will be happening."
This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community to take action on issues related to Age-Friendly Sarasota, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, National Council on Aging and the Suncoast Nursing Action Coalition.