As I began this reflection, I realized it was my 5th anniversary as a Harwood Public innovator. In 2014, I’d participated in the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation training funded by The Patterson Foundation. For three days, I attended workshops and met people from all backgrounds wanting to effect change in their communities. At the time, I’d recently relocated to my hometown to accept the position of Executive Director at the DeSoto County Chamber of Commerce and fulfill a lifelong goal to give back to my community.
Prior to the Harwood Training, I’d met with numerous community members and learned that many shared a similar aspiration — for our community to have more activities for our youth and a safe place for afterschool and summer programming. I, too, desired a resource like this, and so it became a project I wanted to be a part of. The Smith Brown Project was the answer to that community aspiration. The initiative was a bold idea to restore the Smith Brown Gym, which was located in the poorest county in the state of Florida. The gym would provide wrap-around educational programs and activities for our youth.
Over three days, we learned about creating pathways for change and authentic hope. After completing the initial Harwood Public Innovator Training, I participated in several continuing learning workshops. In one of the first workshops, the facilitator asked us to share about our aspirations for our communities. My answer to that question was that I wanted my community to have hope. I’d routinely heard the sentiments that nothing like the Smith Brown Project had ever been successful for our community. Many felt that this is how things had always been, and that’s just the way it was. We needed to overcome this challenge and fully engage the community. We wanted our community to have hope that together, we could improve the conditions for our youth.
The Harwood model is designed to help engage communities and turn its aspirations into actions. The Smith Brown Project steering committee began implementing some of the lessons that I learned through the training. Our first goal was to Turn Outward. We needed the community to know that the committee didn’t own this initiative. The Smith Brown Project belonged to the community, and we needed their input. We held Harwood based community conversations to spark more involvement and help align the initiative with the community’s aspirations. Through these community conversations, we learned that even more people wanted the same thing: educational programs and places to facilitate them. We now had some hope, big aspirations, and very little funding or resources.
I’d repeatedly heard the term smallify” throughout my Harwood training. But I initially didn’t grasp how one could smallify renovating an 8800 square foot gym. However, as we held these community conversations, we began to identify ways in which we could build hope and work towards this aspiration.
We facilitated an event called Community Day. It brought dozens of community partners together to connect with hundreds of families. Members of the community donated most of the supplies through social media. The event raised funds through a basketball tournament, local churches participated in the Bake-Off Contest, vendors signed up to sell their products, and attendees deposited nearly $1,000 (in mostly small denominations) in donation buckets placed throughout the event. Many of those who attended the event also took the time to share their aspirations for our community.
Three years into the project, we were still in the early stages of the actual renovation part of our aspirations. But we saw hope in our community, and we needed to continue to achieve small goals along the way. In summer 2017, the Smith Brown Project convened several organizations, including the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, School District of DeSoto County, Links to Success, Arcadia Housing Authority, All Faiths Food Bank, and others to pilot a free summer program.
The program, Camp Inspire, was designed to address the lack of summer programming in DeSoto. Camp Inspire provided summer learning for 30 elementary school students and more than a dozen high school youth staff. The program included experiential activities that focused on STEM, literacy, basic social skills, nutrition, martial arts, and more. Each Friday, students went on field trips, and their families joined them in the evening for a Family Fun Night. This programming provided more hope and fulfilled half of the initial aspiration to provide wrap-around programming for our youth.
After raising nearly $150,000 locally, the project was approved for a $100,000 appropriation in the State of Florida’s 2017-2018 budget. This funding was not enough to restore the gym, but it provided an opportunity to smallify once again. We phased the project and focused our efforts on renovating a 1700 square foot storage building adjacent to the gym. The renovation included installing restrooms, a HVAC system, windows, technology, furnishings, and more. The facility would provide supplement learning afterschool and during summers while we continued our efforts to renovate gym.
Aspirations to Actions
By all accounts, we were turning aspirations into actions. Those actions led to more action, engagement, and impact. Last July, the Smith Brown Project partnered with the Boys & Girls Club of Sarasota County to oversee the new Arcadia Boys & Girls Club and enrolled 75 kids for summer learning. Those 75 students also participated in the Suncoast Summer Reading Challenge for the first time. The club reached its enrollment cap in less than two hours and included a waitlist of more than 50 kids. Although the gym had yet to be renovated, the community had more hope that one day it would be, and more kids would be served.
Nearly one year after the opening of the Arcadia Boys & Girls Club, the goal of the Smith Brown Project had come to fruition. In a July 23, 2019 article, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune shared the good news for Arcadia youths. The Boys & Girls Club of Sarasota County had received a $750,000 gift from the Louis and Gloria Flanzer Philanthropic Trust to begin renovations on the Smith Brown Gym.
The newly renamed Louis and Gloria Flanzer Boys & Girls Club is a dream come true for our community. For years, we’ve strongly desired to have this type of programming available to our youth. With the help of the Harwood principles, we were able to galvanize our community and resources to make this possible. We celebrated the small victories along the way. And, ultimately, we turn our aspirations into action.