MAXWELL:  Goodness has come to Sanderlin Center

12/12/2001 – Printed in the EDITORIAL Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


What a difference a year makes. Last year, I wrote a column about the money troubles of the James B. Sanderlin Family Center in south St. Petersburg. Heavy rains had caused part of the roof to collapse. Other parts of the roof sprang leaks, and plaster was damaged in other areas.

The place had been deteriorating for a long time. Its code violations were so serious, the city had threatened to shut it down.

Since then, the center’s fortunes have changed dramatically. After the column appeared, Bonded Roofers of Tampa, along with Home Depot, replaced the roof free of charge. The work was officially valued at $75,000. Other companies, organizations and individuals stepped in and repaired other parts of the facility. Many private citizens donated money and volunteered.

Best of all, the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, which owned the building, donated the entire campus to the center. The property is valued at $1-million.

I visited the center a few days ago and came away impressed with the progress it has made. The 11-year-old center is one of the most important agencies in the black community. From October 1999 to June 2000, it served nearly 6,500 adults, nearly 4,000 children and 674 families.

It houses more than 40 different programs that include legal advice, computer classes, spouse-abuse intervention, music classes, sickle-cell information and referral, a health clinic and GED classes. All services are free and are delivered by dedicated staff members and volunteers.

I am most impressed with the center’s new focus on helping children between the ages of 7 through 17. Some of the programs may not seem important to people who do not live on the south side, said the center’s president Lounell Britt, but for the children here, the new efforts often mean the difference between getting into trouble and having wholesome fun and learning.

The center reaches such a big number of clients because it fosters partnerships with established organizations and individuals. One of the newest and most popular programs is St. Petersburg College’s information technology course, which is taught at the center. With help from the Coalition for a Safe and Drug-free St. Petersburg Inc., the center has additional computer classes and sewing instruction. In partnership with the Dundu Dole Dancers, the center provides space for classes that focus on African-American customs.

I attended an event last week and met the members of the center’s first Brownie Troop. Again, many people take a Brownie Troop for granted, but Midtown residents do not. Troop 244 is making all the difference for many girls.

With grants from the Florida Task Force, Xerox and the St. Petersburg Rotary Club, the Sanderlin Center operated a successful summer program for 40 children, ages 6 through 12. The activities included swimming lessons, reading instruction, diary-keeping, arts and crafts, library-use and diversity awareness. The kids also visited Lowry Park Zoo, Devil Rays games and the Mote Marine Laboratory. A special treat were movies at BayWalk.

“I’ve never seen my two kids so happy,” a mother said. “My son even started reading on his own. He loves reading Harry Potter.”

In one column about the center, I took St. Petersburg’s black community to task for not helping. I wrote: “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.”

Darryl Rouson, now president of the local NAACP chapter, wrote an angry letter telling me that blacks do take care of their own. Since then, Rouson has led an effort to help the center. Other black individuals have written checks. And black Greek organizations, such as Delta Sigma Theta and Alpha Kappa Alpha, have contributed. Because of their donations, the center has installed air conditioning and heating in select meeting rooms.

For me, black participation is the most significant change related to the Sanderlin Center. And as the city looks for new ways to invigorate Midtown, lessons can be learned from the Sanderlin’s turnaround. Britt established a team of serious planners, acknowledged what was at stake and found solutions. They took control, proving that self-reliance _ black participation _ is transforming.

I do not want to leave the impression that the center if problem-free. It is not. It still needs money, in-kind service and volunteers. At 2335 22nd Ave. S, the center’s telephone number is (727) 321-9444.