MAXWELL:  A plea to help a community center

8/16/2000 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Like many other St. Petersburg newcomers, I was surprised to learn this week that the James B. Sanderlin Family Center has serious money problems. Heavy rains that caused a roof to collapse, spring leaks and ruin plaster in other areas have focused new attention on this 10-year-old community service facility.

In fact, the place has been deteriorating for a long time, forcing the city to cite it for at least a dozen code violations and threaten to shut it down if the problems are not corrected. Not counting termite damage and other structural problems, the center may need as much as $75,000 to repair the roof. Where will the money come from?

The Juvenile Welfare Board gives the center an annual grant of $203,000 for operating expenses and salaries. None of the public grant funds can be used for repairs because the facility is owned by the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, a religious organization. The diocese rents the building to the center for $1 a year, creating a classic separation of church and state dilemma. But the diocese has worked out a plan for the center to own the building in 10 years.

The center is one of the most important agencies in the black community. From October 1999 to June 2000, for example, it served 6,472 adults, 3,958 children and 674 families. If my calculation is correct, it houses 32 different programs that include legal advice, computer classes, spouse-abuse intervention, music classes, Weed & Seed, sickle-cell information and referral, a health clinic, GED classes, Salsa International.

Services are free of charge, delivered by a dedicated staff and volunteers. During a public meeting on Tuesday, several people suggested ways to raise money. President Lounell Britt listened to everyone, but her suggestion, if turned into reality, can solve the center’s problems forever: The black community, which the center serves, should become the facility’s economic backbone. I attended the meeting for two reasons, to get more information but also to hand-deliver a check for $100, an amount I will donate every six months. Another man donated $50. Our donations are small, but they symbolize what is possible.

Never before have I lived in a town where black residents do so little for themselves. The Sanderlin Center is emblematic of the Do-nothing Disease afflicting St. Petersburg’s black community.

As I sat in the crowded room on Tuesday, an older white man walked in. He turns out to be Sanford Goldman, an architect who came to donate his services. I do not want to turn this into a racial matter, but I was praying that a black person of equal stature would walk in that very moment and offer his or her services. I am sure some black professionals did telephone or drop by. I wish that more would do so for all of the Sanderlins in the area.

I do not have time to volunteer, but I can write a modest check regularly. And herein lies much of what is wrong with south St. Pete: The overwhelming majority of black people do not give to worthy causes in their communities. Sure, they give to their churches. But given the huge sums that churches take in, most fail to adequately invest in their communities. What do black restaurant owners do with their money? What about investment bankers, business executives, doctors, lawyers, journalists?

Yes, some professionals give to Jack and Jill, their sororities and fraternities and other organizations for the black elite. But who gives to places like the Sanderlin, places that serve the poor and the otherwise less fortunate? In too many cases they have to rely on the big hearts and willing pocketbooks of white people and government agencies.

The Sanderlin presents the black community with a grand opportunity to reinvent itself, to become permanently self-reliant as Britt envisions. Please do not tell me that self-reliance is a pipe dream. It is not. I have seen the will to do for self transform black neighborhoods in Chicago, Atlanta, New York City and Jacksonville. I have seen inhabitable tenements turned into showcase apartments.

Leaders in these communities do not abide excuses; they do not listen to people who refuse to reach for their checkbooks. I have seen members of other ethnic groups, some newly arrived, pool their resources and work together for the common cause of improving their lot _ not just for the present but for future generations.

Here is my simple challenge to blacks in St. Petersburg who have the ability: Every six months, donate $100 to the Sanderlin Center or another worthy local agency. No excuses. Make your checks payable to the Sanderlin Center and mail to 2335 22nd Ave. S, St. Petersburg, FL 33712. Or call (727) 321-9444.