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Scattering hope in St. Petersburg

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 18, 2003


If you've never known hunger, not just the rumble of not having eaten yet but the persistent pain of not knowing when you will;

If you've never needed time to yourself and couldn't just go to your room because it's also the room of all your brothers and sisters and you couldn't just take a walk down the street because that's where all the bad things are;

If you've never needed help with homework and couldn't ask your parents because they hadn't covered that material before they quit school in second grade;

If you've never come out of disadvantage and attained a level of achievement generally regarded as success, then you may not understand what a tightrope those who have had to walk. You may not understand how easily they could have slipped and how tattered are the safety nets set out to catch them.

If you were not born to disadvantage -- poverty, illiteracy, substance abuse -- surrounded by an environment of more of the same, then you may not understand how hard it is to scrounge up little pieces of hope or even how necessary those scraps are.

"When I was growing up, a lot of people and organizations took an interest in my life," said Watson Haynes, who grew up in St. Petersburg. "I wouldn't be where I am today if they had not gotten involved."

Haynes is the president and chief executive officer of the Coalition for a Safe and Drug-free St. Petersburg, an organization with arms embracing many corners of life in Midtown, the city's economically depressed southern region. The coalition provides Haynes with a vehicle to repay the community for the role it played in his life.

Formed about four years ago, the coalition of leaders from the community and service-oriented agencies came together to build Bridges of Pinellas, a drug treatment program housed in the heart of Midtown. The program, which in its early stages provided judges with an alternative to jail sentences for drug-addicted, nonviolent offenders -- a use that didn't gain universal support -- is expanding to offer its treatment and rehabilitation services to nonoffenders.

Haynes contends that those who criticized the program for accepting only offenders didn't understand drug abuse. Sometimes it takes the trauma of an arrest to make the addict realize he or she needs help. Until something brings reality crashing in on him, an addict may see his drug "problem" as getting the next hit.

Walk-ins can also walk out, Haynes said. Without the threat of jail time hanging over them if they fail to complete treatment, a client who doesn't come through the court system is more likely to leave the program before he is helped.

Still, the center is set to begin incrementally accepting nonoffending walk-ins. "It doesn't happen overnight," Haynes says to those impatient to see noncriminals treated. "It took us 30 years to get a treatment facility on the south side. It's not going to fill up overnight."

The coalition, meanwhile, became an independent corporation last July and is loosening its ties to Bridges of Pinellas, although Haynes said the connections are too intimate ever to be completely broken. His organization is stretching its arms into other areas of the community, trying to fill in for some of the people and organizations that influenced his life and others' but are no longer around.

"We are targeting some of those kids who are borderline, who need to be somewhere," Haynes said. Being somewhere that's safe and healthy is not always easy in many of Midtown's neighborhoods.

When Haynes was growing up near the Gas Plant District, where the Devil Rays now play baseball, that place was on Third Avenue S. "Down the street was a hole-in-the-wall place where we kids could go. It didn't have a name, but if I said we were going there, my mother knew we were going to be okay."

Haynes said he thinks that nondescript safe place was a sanctified church that they used as a gathering place when it was not being used for services.

"My mother had a third-grade education. She knew that if I was going to get help learning, that help had to come from other people."

Now Haynes is working with churches to re-create that safe place from his youth by establishing areas where children can go to get help with schoolwork, play games or just hang out free from the magnetic pull of drugs and crime. A youth group meets nightly at one church.

"There are not too many places that open their doors and say, 'Come on in,' " he said.

After-school programs are virtually out of the question for children who get to school by bus.

Though the coalition has organizationally moved away from the Bridges of Pinellas and the treatment of drug addiction, Haynes said it's attacking the same problem from a different end: prevention. Some people may not understand how giving a child a safe place to play Nintendo for 30 minutes is drug prevention. Some may not understand how helping a child with a writing assignment helps him fight the temptation to sell drugs. Some people may not understand how important it is to scatter a few pieces of hope in Midtown.

A child's success or failure often hinges on whether he's lucky enough to stumble across a couple of them.

Fortunately there are a few people like Watson Haynes who understand that.

-- To reach Elijah Gosier, call (727) 893-8650 or e-mail gosier@sptimes.com.

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