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Summer program perks up old park

Corona Park, once neglected and underused, now has a recreation program for children on weekdays.

By RON MATUS
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 28, 2002


"It's coming out! It's coming out!" shouts 7-year-old Sam Hazleton, pointing to a crack in a picnic table at Corona Park.

An adult hears his excitement.

"What's coming out, Sam?" asks park recreation leader Tim Mellon.

"A wasp! A wasp!"

Mellon sees a teaching moment as Sam, wearing a T-shirt with the grinning visage of a Tasmanian devil, slaps a box over the crack.

Mellon moves the box. The wasp escapes. "We don't need to be mean to it," Mellon says gently.

And so it goes these days at Corona Park. For the first time in 20 years, Tampa is offering a summer recreation program, as it does at more than 50 other playgrounds and community centers.

That means a safe place for children between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays, along with plenty of games, other kids and adult supervision. And it's free.

For a handful of parents, it's a blessing.

"This is the place to come," says Terry Sbriss, while dropping off daughters Rachel, 10, and Bekah, 8, and their friend, Brittany Agan, 11.

Sbriss learned of the program at church. So far, so good, she says.

"I'm satisfied with who's watching them," she says. "And I'm picky about that."

The change came after Virginia Park residents reminded city officials about the area's changing demographics: more young families; more young kids.

More than 500 children age 14 or younger share a census tract with Corona Park, and hundreds more live west of Dale Mabry, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

Parks officials say they need 25 to 30 children to participate in the program to make it permanent. Since it began three weeks ago, seven to 10 children have attended regularly.

By the time the city announced the program, it was too late for many parents, says John Weiss, president of Virginia Park's neighborhood association. Many had enrolled their kids in summer programs by early spring.

He says he's sure there are enough interested families to support not only the summer program, but also an after-school program proposed for this fall.

"I'm confident it's going to happen," he says.

Corona Park, a block east of Dale Mabry Highway at Sterling Avenue and Corona Street, has been neglected and underused for years, nearby residents say.

When Lindsay Fleming and his family moved to Virginia Park 10 years ago, graffiti and broken bottles were part of the landscape.

"We had to sweep the glass off the basketball court so we wouldn't pop the ball," says Fleming's 14-year-old son, Kyle.

But the park has undergone a revival.

In January, Kyle led a team of volunteers in planting trees while other residents pulled weeds and picked up trash. The facelift was part of Kyle's service project to become an Eagle Scout, a rank he obtained Saturday.

"It's much easier to play there now," Kyle says. "I'm glad the city decided it's safe enough to have people there again."

Back at the park, Mellon, wearing a floppy straw hat, stands in the eye of a storm.

Kids swirl around him, a flurry of movement.

They run. They shriek. They throw tennis balls and Frisbees.

On a table, board games, a deck of cards and a bucket of crayons wait to be used. Strawberry cookies await a hungry horde.

At some point, Mellon says he will teach his charges chess.

"Maybe we can get a small tournament going," he says.

Of course, they have to wear themselves out first.

-- Staff writer Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com.

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