It’s been four years since I participated in The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation training funded by The Patterson Foundation. Still, to this day, there’s one experience that sticks out in my memory. After the initial 3-day training, I had been invited to participate in a roundtable discussion. The facilitator asked everyone in the room to share their aspirations for their communities. I immediately knew my answer to this question. However, when I heard everyone else’s, I truly begin to realize just how much work needed to be done in my community. My answer was “hope.” I wanted my community to have hope that something good and life changing, like the Smith Brown Project, could become a reality.
Prior to participating in the Harwood training, I had recently volunteered to spearhead efforts to restore a historical gymnasium and adjacent building in our community to provide kids in DeSoto County a facility with wrap-around educational programming. The initiative would come to be known as the Smith Brown Project. It was a HUGE undertaking, and we had no idea how much it would cost or if it was even possible. However, when we held the first fundraisers and witnessed members of our community who had very little, giving what they could; we knew that there was some hope that this could come to fruition from the people who needed it the most. However, the skepticism was still very apparent and rightfully so. We were promising a facility of hope and healing that could help families out of poverty and onto a better path in life.
We’d heavily marketed the project as one to restore the historic Smith Brown Gymnasium. Our slogan was, “We need this gym.” Lost in the message was what the community truly wanted. In retrospect, I see that we were “turned inward.” Was it a gym or was it more? We would ultimately hold Harwood based community conversations to “turn outward” and learn what the community aspirations truly were.
We held those community conversations any and everywhere. We learned that although people wanted the gym to be resurrected, the community had much bigger aspirations. They wanted their kids to be able to learn, read, and progress in and out of school.
We revamped our intentions and messages using the community’s input. We brought in more community stakeholders, and we began to make intentional choices together to realize the community’s aspirations. Thanks to these community conversations, our mission transformed into providing supplemental programming to students in SW Arcadia, a high poverty area of DeSoto County. We didn’t have a building or the funds to renovate the Smith Brown facilities, but we had community input and willing partners to help.
In 2017, we partnered with the Arcadia Housing Authority, the School District of DeSoto County, All Faiths Food Bank, the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, and other organizations to provide a much needed summer learning program in the small community room of the Housing Authority. Parents were elated, and it showed as they arrived to participate in two-generational type programming with their kids at the end of every week. We were able to provide programming for thirty DeSoto kids. Although the ultimate goal of the Smith Brown Project was to provide programming for many more kids, we recognized the value of smallifying. There were now thirty kids receiving summer learning programming for the very first time.
We now had successful programming to accompany the local fundraising success for our application for state funding. After three years of applying, we were awarded a $100,000 state appropriation to restore phase 1 of the project. Phase 1 was a 1700 square foot building adjacent to the 8800 square foot gymnasium.
The actions we took inspired more action, engagement, and impact. This spring we partnered with the Boys & Girls Club of Sarasota County to oversee the new Arcadia Boys & Girls Club and enrolled 75 kids for summer learning in the newly restored facility. These are 75 students who have never participated in summer learning. These are 75 students who will participate in the Suncoast Summer Reading Book Challenge for the first time, as well. There’s still much work to be done. We maxed out our enrollment numbers in less than two hours. We’ve already outgrown our space, the need is there, and it is great. We have given hope to many families for their futures, and they have faith that the Smith Brown Gym will one day be open to serve even more kids.
I can say with certainty that the skills and lessons I obtained through the Harwood training were directly impactful in moving this initiative forward. Thanks to turning outward, our message is clear and community driven. We want a better life for DeSoto students. We want to improve the 31% passage rate for third-grade reading scores. We want to work collaboratively with the people in our community and with key stakeholders to help our schools and county progress. Those are lofty goals that can’t be contained in the walls of one building or one organization.