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Family Resource Center has new home

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HAMILTON
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By GREG HAMILTON

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 7, 2002


She is holding one pacifier-sucking toddler on her hip, while balancing two pizza boxes with her other hand. Behind her is a room full of excited young'uns frolicking at a birthday party, waiting for her to cut the cake. She's directing a foster family as they sort out boxes of clothes two rooms away, and a young mother with an infant in a stroller is waiting to talk to her.

Just another day for Ginger West, the wonder woman of the Family Resource Center.

She's in her element, being pulled in a dozen different directions by kids and families. She's also on cloud nine because, after years of wandering, the organization finally has a home.

The Family Resource Center, one of the most important social service organizations in Citrus County, last weekend moved into its new home at the Hernando Heritage School at County Road 486 and U.S. 41 N. It was the third time in 12 months that the center has moved and, Ginger hopes, the last time.

* * *

"We started out at the store (the former Badcock Furniture store in downtown Inverness), where John (her late husband) indulged us by letting us wrap Christmas presents on the sofas," Ginger said. "We then moved to the old 7-Eleven store next door, then back to the furniture store (where they used an old semitrailer for storage), then to the Kmart shopping center ..."

* * *

This latest move marked a new day for both the group and the building, which has been serving kids since it started life as a Works Progress Administration project in the 1930s. For decades, it was known as the Hernando Elementary School, later as the Lakeview School for special needs children. Since 1994, it was known as surplus School Board property and was on a collision course with a bulldozer.

Ginger has eyed the building since then as a possible home for the FRC. Local activist Ansel Briggs for years lobbied anyone who would listen to save the building and covert it to a community use. All seemed lost as the School Board moved to sell the site.

In September 1999, at the 11th hour, old-line Hernando families rallied to support the old school, pleading with the School Board and the County Commission to save it. They envisioned the buildings one day housing community groups and serving as the focal point of the Hernando community.

They became the Hernando Heritage Council and their efforts carried the day. The building was spared and, now, the vision is becoming reality.

After countless hours of volunteer work to restore the site, the tenants are starting to arrive. The Family Resource Center is in, albeit with boxes of clothes and household goods still to unpack. In the coming weeks, Early Head Start, the Friends of the Citrus County Library, the Citrus County Community Learning Center and the 4-H Club of Citrus County will all be moving in.

What once was a municipal eyesore is now becoming a community jewel.

* * *

"... then we moved to the health department (a 450-square-foot room), then to the old JC Penney store near Wal-Mart, back to the health department, back to the Wal-Mart shopping center, back to the health department, then to the building that used to be Scotty's in the Kmart shopping center ..."

* * *

As Ginger recalls the early years, her thoughts naturally return to John West, her husband of 36 years. John was the silent partner in the Family Resource Center, always there to do the millions of behind-the-scenes chores.

"He built this bookcase for us," she said, looking up at the shelves overflowing with books and papers. It's one of two pieces of wooden furniture in her tiny office, the other being a small desk that once belonged to her father and which she's toted from place to place.

John died just over a year ago, and while Ginger has largely overcome her grief, he's never far from her thoughts.

"The grand opening (of the new office) was hard," she said. "This was our dream."

"I miss him so much ..." she said, her voice trailing off.

* * *

"... then back to the health department, then to the old Chronicle building, then back to the health department. Back to Scotty's, then back to the Chronicle building, then the health department ..."

* * *

There are Bedouin tribes that haven't traveled as much as the Family Resource Center has over the years. Each time, the group's core of volunteers and helpers move truckloads of furniture and clothing, set up shop, and start serving families in need.

The center is best known for its Christmas drive, where it provides holiday cheer and gifts to upwards of 1,200 children in Citrus County. But all year, the United Way agency provides everything from parenting workshops and a resource library to help for foster family care and the "warmline," a 24-hour phone line so a parent can talk to another parent for advice in difficult times.

At the new location, one room has been outfitted for donated clothing, using racks that Ginger salvaged years ago from a boutique that was closing its doors. "I got 10 racks for $100," she said, "and we've hauled 'em around for years."

Instead of poking through cardboard boxes for clothes that fit, families now can flip through outfits on hangers, organized by size.

Which is not to say that the ubiquitous banana boxes are gone. In one small room, 150 or so of the boxes wait to be unpacked; in another, more than 200 boxes are stacked to the ceiling. Across the room, there is another mountain of boxes, these with Evenflo printed on the side.

Seems the company called one day to say it had some car seats to donate, and would Ginger be interested? Sure, she said, and made arrangements to have the 50 seats delivered. The truck arrived with 50 crates, each one carrying six car seats for toddlers.

"I was expecting 50 seats, and I have 300," Ginger said, dwarfed by the wall of cardboard.

* * *

"... Then we moved to Dr. Fagan's (the small building at Main Street and Montgomery Avenue, across from the school district offices), and then back to the health department. Then back to the Fagan building, then back to the health department. Next, we went to the Brannen building (a vacant building on Thomas Street owned by Brannen Banks). And, finally, here we are."

* * *

There is a cloud over this glorious moment, however. A wave of health problems has swept over the center's volunteer corps, most of whom are up in age, reducing the ranks from 10 active helpers to three. "We're desperate for volunteers, anyone who can give us a few four-hour blocks of time," Ginger said. She can be reached at 344-1001.

As an enticement, she noted, "We now have a clean, pretty facility. And we're going to be staying in the same place. I don't have to constantly tell people about our new location and where to find us."

There is still a lot of work to be done before the center is fully settled in. Who knows what challenges await the groups as they take up residence in a building that is more than 70 years old?

It may not be perfect, but it's home. And Ginger West is smiling.

For Ginger, who has provided holiday smiles for tens of thousands of Citrus County children over the past 19 years, it's Christmas in July.

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