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Tipper Gore stops by a youth center in Tampa Heights

The first lady hopeful chatted with parents and students about the facility's benefits.

By LINDA GIBSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 16, 2000


TAMPA -- Tipper Gore toured a youth center in Tampa Heights on Thursday as part of a campaign swing through Central Florida for her husband, Vice President Al Gore.

Mrs. Gore shook hands with the Salesian Youth Center's staff, said hello to the students and quizzed parents about how the center made a difference in their children's lives.

The youth center, housed in a restored gymnasium on Ola Avenue, is a joint project between the Salesian sisters, who run Villa Madonna School, and the Boys and Girls Club. About 250 children go to the center every day during the summer for a full day of fun and lessons. They play basketball, practice reading, learn computer skills and work in the vegetable garden, among other activities.

But Thursday afternoon, they got a lesson in campaign appearances.

The center learned June 8 that Mrs. Gore was thinking of stopping by as part of her husband's presidential campaigning, and was looking for an "education venue," said campaign consultant Karl Koch.

Thursday, bunches of red, white and blue balloons were tied to the hibiscus bushes out front. Inside, two-dozen 7- and 8-year-old girls waited in their upstairs reading room for their special visitor.

"Pretend nobody else is here," instructed their teacher, Cynthia Blake, while seven photographers, six reporters, Secret Service agents and the governor of Puerto Rico crowded into the corners of the room. Cell phones kept ringing while the girls tried to read.

Half an hour later, Mrs. Gore appeared. "Hi everybody," she said to the girls, waving at them with both hands. "Thank you for waiting."

The girls were invited to tell her about the books they were reading. Samantha Teeling, 8, jumped up and hurried to the front of the room for a brief conversation about a book called The Magic Locket. Shutters clicked as Mrs. Gore shook hands with Samantha and brushed the girl's hair back out of her face.

Megan Diaz, 8, also talked to Mrs. Gore. "You don't need to be nervous," she told Megan. "It's just us."

Both girls said the same thing about her afterward: "She was nice."

Mrs. Gore stopped by the art room, a former shed now crowded with 40 people.

A handful of parents and students described how grateful they were to have the center available.

When it was over, Mrs. Gore climbed into the dark blue Cadillac and left for her next stop.

Upstairs, Blake reminded her students to tell their parents to watch the TV news and check the newspapers. That a couple of their classmates had been photographed and interviewed seemed far more exciting to the girls than Mrs. Gore's visit.

"We're gonna be on the news!" one of them hollered.

-- Linda Gibson can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or at gibson@sptimes.com.

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