Where the boys and girls are
By TIM GRANT and LOGAN D. MABE
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001
CARROLLWOOD -- Within 10 minutes after school is dismissed, Jesenia Tirado boards the Kruzin Kids bus with about 30 children. By 2:30 p.m., they all get off on a side street in Plantation.
There, the 10-year-old joins dozens of other students from Cannella Elementary School who walk or ride their bicycles about a half mile down a winding black asphalt trail that leads to the Boys & Girls Club.
Until her mother arrives about 6 p.m., Jesenia will follow a schedule of homework, a snack, free play, and dance drill practice with eight teammates who call themselves the Watermelon Girls.
"As working parents a big thing about the Boys & Girls Club is doing homework," said Janet Tirado, her mother. "She gets help with her homework from the staff, and that's good for us. When we get home about 6:30 p.m., we do nightly duties like cooking, and as long as her homework is done, that saves me time."
Tirado, 31, works in the mortgage industry. Her husband Carlos, 35, is a manager at Equifax. As Plantation residents they pay $45 a month for Jesenia to be a member. It costs another $105 every three months for her to ride the bus, "for my own edification and knowing she's safe," Tirado said.
Jesenia is one of 95 children who attend the after-school program. Another 25 teens participate in an evening program, giving the nonprofit Boys & Girls Club growing prominence in this moderate-income community.
Parents depend on the after-school program, which is very affordable by Carrollwood standards, as they juggle job and parenting responsibilities on tight budgets.
Most club members live in Plantation. So while they pay little for the program, they are using recreational facilities funded by their homeowner dues.
But while community leaders praise the program for providing supervision where it is badly needed, it also has drawn complaints from a group of homeowners. Critics say the Boys & Girls Club children dominate the common area, swimming pool and athletic courts. They complain about the level of supervision, including at the pool. They fear a child could be injured, leaving all the homeowners liable.
The Boys & Girls Club, now housed in five mobile homes, wants a permanent building in Plantation's common area. The organization would fund construction but give the title to the homeowners association, which in turn would lease it back to the Boys & Girls Club for a nominal fee. The club has a similar arrangement with a Methodist church in Brandon.
Supporters and opponents clashed in November when Plantation voted on the issue. The measure passed by a wide margin, but the election was declared invalid by the association's attorney.
A new vote is planned this spring.
The club now relies on a $20,000 annual grant from the Childrens Board of Hillsborough County to pay operating costs and a lease on the mobile homes. That grant will expire in two years, meaning the upcoming vote could decide the future of the after-school program.
As the afternoon sun bore down on an open field, children leaned against a tennis court fence and squatted in the grass while club director Gary Moses made announcements through a megaphone.
About 80 had checked in with program director Teri Schang this day. By 3 p.m. they all sat amazingly quiet as Moses talked. Six counselors were there to supervise the children. On a typical day there are five counselors and about 95 kids.
Moses instructed those with homework to go inside the trailer for Power Hour. The others could line up to participate in an outdoor activity such as football, kickball or soccer. About half went inside.
Tackling his homework was Nathan, 9, a Cannella third-grader. He said he used to attend another after-school program where there were fewer activities, more fights and no encouragement to do homework.
"I come here every day," Nathan said. "It's very fun. It's better than my old day care. Football and basketball were the only activities at the old place."
Julian Jordan, 11, was elected Mayor of the Plantation Boys & Girls Club. Winning that title earned him a trip to Busch Gardens and a steak dinner with executives at Nabisco. It's good to be Mayor, but Julian said there's a lot more to like about the Boys & Girls Club.
"I like how we're all here with our friends and we can get our homework done without getting in trouble," Julian said. "The best thing about this is the staff is super nice. They treat you with the respect you need and we learn a lot from them."
Usually, Julian said everyone behaves and follows the rules. When there is a problem, he said the punishment includes sitting outside in a chair or picking up trash. More severe punishment includes suspension or dismissal from the program.
Boys & Girls Club records show that, six children received written disciplinary action in 1999, with six more in 2000. Two were suspended from the program in the last two years, said Roy Opfer, president of the Boys & Girls Club in Hillsborough County.
"It's usually for what one might consider rude behavior to other club members or staff," Opfer said. "Using profanity, disrespect, throwing a football at another child. And if they don't respond (to lesser disciplines), they're suspended."
Overall, Moses said, "the kids here are great. We don't have many problems."
Children inside the club trailer had book bags and homework assignments spread out on the tables. Some were hard at work while some laughed and played with their friends. It was anything but quiet as Moses and Schang walked around the room helping those who had questions.
Outside, area supervisor Todd Cole tossed a football around with a group of boys. The other kids were swinging, sliding, climbing and jumping off the jungle gym. At 4 p.m., they all lined up for a state-provided snack of yogurt, peanut butter crackers or string cheese.
After the snack, they were free to play board games, work the computers or use the outdoor facilities until their parents arrived, most between 6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Counselors were on hand until about 8 p.m. to oversee the teens.
Another set of problems
Before the Boys & Girls Club came along four years ago, Plantation residents had a different set of problems with kids in the common area. They had graffiti, drug use and loud and obnoxious music. There was vandalism and seeds of gang activity.
"It was getting to a point where parents were reluctant to have their kids go to the park in the evenings," said Tom Jones, Plantation property manager. "The community was abandoning the park to that element."
In some ways, the park was a reflection of a downward spiral of the early 1990s. Deed restrictions were ignored, property values were down and Plantation had a bad reputation.
"I was even told by some Realtors they wouldn't show Plantation to their clients," Jones said.
In 1996, a group of parents asked Jones to help organize an after-school and summer program. Their first attempt was with a group called the "R" Club, a national child care provider that was trying to make inroads in the county.
But the "R" Club was a licensed child care facility whose license would not allow it to enroll enough children to make a profit. By 1997, the struggling "R" Club had moved out and Boys & Girls Club was in.
The Boys & Girls Club came in with the intention of running an unlicensed after-school program. Plantation would pay the operating expenses while the club staff managed and ran the program.
Opfer said that most of the organization's 3,000 clubs nationwide are unlicensed, as the Plantation club is. Technically, the county considers them unsupervised recreational programs, such as those offered by the county parks department. If the Plantation program were licensed, as commercial day cares are, it would need more restroom facilities. Twelve of the 21 Boys & Girls clubs in Hillsborough are licensed because they transport kids from school to the club and then home.
The Plantation program, Opfer said, adheres to many standards required of a licensed facility, such as counselor ratios and employee background checks. Counselors have gone through drug tests and fingerprinting. The starting pay ranges from $7 to $10 an hour.
Moses is a former Marine who left the service after Desert Storm. He was headed to the police academy on a scholarship arranged by Sheriff Cal Henderson when the Boys & Girls Club offered him a job. Schang, the club's program director, has a bachelor's degree in health education from Florida State University.
"We look for people who care about kids, who would be good role models," Opfer said. "We prefer to hire college students with a lot of energy."
While most parents seem pleased with the program, some, like Bridget Smith, have withdrawn their children.
"I would not bring my children there and parents who do take theirs should know they are paying a cheap price for a cheap product," Smith said. "I don't think it's a safe environment. There's not enough supervision and some parents are better off having them stay unsupervised at home."
Smith and others are mounting a vigorous campaign against the plan for a permanent club building in Plantation.
"I don't think 1,800 homes should be responsible for this for 40 years," said Mary Jo Kail, a real estate broker and a leader in the opposition. "And putting a program like this in the middle of our common area would be an eyesore. I'd love to see this program located on a piece of property outside of Plantation."
Kail has accused the program of monopolizing Plantation's recreational facilities, especially its swimming pool. "All the other residents pay $39.90 monthly association fees to use the pool and if it's occupied by all the Boys & Girls kids, it's not fair to the people who pay dues," she said.
Jones, however, said the children use the pool primarily during summer camp, and there have not been conflicts.
"They limit the amount of children they take in there at one time and restrict them to a certain part of the pool," Jones said. "They're pretty considerate to the residents who also use the pool, so we've been able to satisfy everybody."
Addressing questions about supervision, Opfer said the program maintains a ratio of at least one counselor for every 25 kids. Comparable ratios exist when they use the pool, he said. Not all counselors are certified life guards. But Opfer said that those who oversee the swimming pool do have their certification.
He added that any Plantation resident, 12 or older, can go to the pool unsupervised.
"We obviously have supervision by trained people, and we have an umbrella liability policy," Opfer said.
"We've been there going on four years now and we've had one accident in 1999 where a child fell off some playground equipment and bruised himself. In 2000 a young person was playing and fell and chipped a tooth. That's it."
Opfer said he has offered to meet with the residents to discuss their concerns in greater detail. He said he sent Kail a letter in November, but never heard from her.
He is confident the vote for a permanent building will pass. But if it doesn't, he said the club "will not turn its back on the children. We will find another way of providing this program."
Rhonda Hodgdon, a 30-year-old single mother, said she will do all she can to support the program. It gives her peace of mind to know her 10-year-old son Joshua Mitchell is at the club while she is working as an executive assistant for the Ajax Corp.
"It has certainly been a great benefit to me knowing he's not home watching television," she said. "Instead he's out being active and doing things. The main benefit of the Boys & Girls Club is he is interacting with other kids, as well as the structured activities and the supervision."
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