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    Learning savings, grace in club

    For almost four decades, a St. Petersburg woman has gathered children into a club that stresses building character and building savings. She will take them to Washington on money she saved.

    By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2001


    Most Saturday mornings, on a street of modest homes in the Central Oak Park neighborhood, a 78-year-old woman with no children of her own spends a few hours encouraging youngsters to follow the right path.

    In 1969, Needa Spells even wrote to President Richard Nixon, telling him of her youth club and asking that he adopt an idea she thought would help to alleviate poverty in the United States. She got a polite response and the matter ended there.

    But not for Miss Spells.

    Since the early 1960s, she has continued to gather children around her dining table or in her garage, leading them in prayer, song and talk. Perennial lessons of politeness, cleanliness and piety are the foundation of her efforts. She also teaches a basic financial lesson: the importance of saving. Today's members of the club own U.S. savings bonds, bought with money stashed away in little cloth drawstring bags.

    Once a month, as a special treat, Miss Spells takes the children to breakfast at Buddyfreddy's Restaurant in Tyrone Gardens. In a few weeks, again at her expense, they will board a train for Washington, D.C.

    "I felt that it would be a good experience for the children," said the former seamstress, who now takes care of an elderly man on St. Pete Beach.

    "Really, sometimes they could be very disruptive," she said of the youngsters in her club.

    "I said if they are very good and they get good marks, then we'll take the trip. I started saving money a year or so ago. I think we have enough money for the trip," she said.

    Miss Spells started her Youth Security Outreach Club Inc. in the early 1960s. Today it has become something of a family affair. Four members are offspring of two distant cousins Miss Spells took into her home when their mother left. One child is the great-granddaughter of her high school friend Minnie Sellers.

    She yearns to help more children, Miss Spells said, but is resigned to competing with other activities.

    "I used to have quite a few children," she said. "I don't know about the children now. It's hard to get them. . . . Really, there are so many things children are doing now."

    Dolores Bedden, a teacher at Woodlawn Elementary School whose sister was one of the first members of the club, now accompanies her granddaughter, Amber McKinnon, 9, to club meetings.

    "The club itself works on a lot of character-building, and I don't think we can have enough of that nowadays," said Mrs. Bedden, who lives in Lakewood Estates.

    "They learn to be of service and also to develop savings at an early age. You don't always have to spend everything," she said.

    A week ago, she joined Miss Spells, two other adult helpers and club members for their weekly meeting. They will all make the trip to the nation's capital during spring break. But work must be done before they leave. There are 70 Easter bags to be decorated and filled with treats for nursing home patients. The children will don bunny ears when they distribute the bags of soap, towels, powder and other items.

    On this particular Saturday, everyone got to work after eating a takeout breakfast of orange juice and Burger King sausage, egg and cheese croissants. For the project, Miss Spells had received 70 paper bags with handles from Kash n' Karry on Blind Pass Road in St. Pete Beach. Armed with construction paper, tape and scissors, the children concentrated on turning the brown paper bags into colorful Easter carriers.

    Damien Jones, 11, drew a giant egg on colored construction paper.

    "That's big, but that does look like an egg, honey," Miss Spells said encouragingly.

    Pleased, he announced to all present, "I'm the man!"

    "I get cut rates on some things," Miss Spells said, explaining how she is able to give away the Easter and Christmas presents.

    Dollar Tree and Eckerd Drug Store in the Pasadena Shopping Center and Kmart on 34th Street S have all supported her cause, she said.

    Miss Spells, who demonstrated how she was able to turn a simple towel into a bib, apron, cape and wrap, said she would love to be able to market that and her other creations to benefit the club.

    Miss Spells also writes songs, such as the one she wrote for club member Jevon Williams, 11, when he was younger. He smiled as she sang Cuddle Bug recently. Also at that morning's meeting was Jevon's 7-year-old brother, Cameron Small. Damien and his sister, Enrica Frazier, 9, another club member, are their cousins.

    Amber, Mrs. Bedden's granddaughter, is the second member of her family to join Miss Spells' club. Her aunt, Diane Sellers, who lives in Los Angeles and has appeared in the movie Last Dance, starring Sharon Stone, was one of its earliest members.

    "She tried to make it very encouraging for everyone and she tried to keep everyone involved in positive things," Ms. Sellers said of Miss Spells.

    "Her influence helped me throughout my entire life. I even designed clothes because I saw her doing it."

    Sirlester Jones, Jevon and Cameron's mother, grew up in the club. She and her sister were taken in by Miss Spells when they were very young. The organization provides an important outlet for the children, she said.

    "They learn discipline and they get guidance, and we try to help them learn something from the Bible," she said. "And they learn to save money."

    Well, not every time.

    A week ago, there was silence when Miss Spells asked, "Did anybody bring any money to put in your (savings) bag?"

    To Jevon and Cameron, she added, "You boys, I gave you $2 yesterday for helping me. What did you do with it?"

    Cameron, the youngest and liveliest of the group, replied proudly, "I bought two cheese pizzas, a Slim Jim and two sodas."

    Miss Spells laughed. There's still a need for her club.

    "I feel that it's something that God wants me to do," she said.

    "I feel that if I can get somebody on the right track, then I have done something worthwhile."

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