Peter Bookhammer moved to Flagler County from Spain two years ago, when he was in seventh grade. Shy and struggling with English, he had some trouble fitting in at first. Then he heard about the Flagler County Youth Center, on the campus of Flagler Palm Coast High School.
He wandered in there one day and was pretty amazed by what he saw: Students of all backgrounds and ages mingling together. Playing video games, or pool, or ping-pong. Working on their homework under the guidance of adults, some of them in a computer lab worthy of an Apple marketing video.
It was exactly the kind of place he needed.
“It’s really made a huge difference in teaching me and helping me interact socially,” Bookhammer, now a freshman at FPC, said in a phone interview from the Youth Center on Wednesday. “It’s a really fun place in an easy, relaxed environment. I love it.”
Helping a child like Peter was one of the goals Flagler County government and the school board had when, 10 years ago today, they opened up the 5,000-square-foot, $1 million Flagler County Youth Center. The county paid for the building. It had to: when voters approved a sales surtax referendum in 2002–the one that built the palatial Government Services Building and added a structure at the county fairgrounds–made the addition of a youth center part of the deal.
A decade into its life, the center may not be drawing the 300 to 500 students a day that former School Board member Jim Guines had imagined when it first opened its doors (it’s more along the lines of a tenth of that), it has been quite a success nevertheless, by all accounts. Parents love that there’s a safe place for their children to hang out between 2:30 and 7 p.m. Students love it because they have somewhere to go besides the streets, such as streets are in a city without a center, and they can learn, socialize, play and decompress in a safe, nurturing environment.
And Cheryl Massaro, the center’s first and only director so far, loves it because she sees the enormous difference it has made in thousands of lives.
“I didn’t think we’d make it 10 years, but I’m thrilled that we have,” Massaro said with a laugh. “We’re trying to build young leaders here, and when I look around and see so many kids who have come through here in past years, who are now teachers, or in local government, or in business, I’m just so proud at what they’ve become.”
“We’re trying to build young leaders here,” says Cheryl Massaro, who has defined the Youth Center with her own leadership over the last 10 years.
Massaro and her team of one full-time assistant and two part-timers have expanded the center over the years thanks to the $110,000 annual financing county government provides. The rest of the Center’s operating expenses, including custodial, power and maintenance, are covered under the Flagler Palm Coast High School budget and is lumped in with the rest of the costs each year). In addition to pool and ping-pong tables, there are PlayStations and Xboxes, along with a computer lab filled with a couple of dozen Apple computers equipped with enviable screens. The lab used to be a busy place, but fewer students use it now that every student has his and her own laptop, through the district one-to-one technology initiative.
Anywhere from 60 to 100 students from grades 7 through 12 use the Center every day, and Massaro said the facility gets 20,000 “uses” per year. Students also get to be the face of the Youth Center, handling the front desk, answering phones and visitors’ questions.
School board chair Colleen Conklin called the Center “a wonderful and unique collaboration between Flagler County and our school board.” County commissioner Barbara Revels said the Center’s “fabulous success” stems from its ability to fill a void. “To have a place like this to come to and learn leadership skills, and get positive reinforcement and feedback, is just so necessary,” Revels said. “And Cheryl deserves a huge amount of praise for the success, she does a wonderful job.”
Talking to some of the students who use the Center, Massaro is like a mother hen to them.
“She’s really inspirational to me,” said Justice Butler, a senior at FPC who’s been coming to the Center for five years. “She makes sure we’re on the ball with schoolwork and everything else in our life. She’s just awesome.”
Massaro said that the diverse population of the center includes straight-A students, athletes waiting for a ride home after practice, and struggling students looking for an academic boost and help with computers. Butler, the FPC senior, said disagreements and fights among kids happen “every other blue moon,” and that when there is trouble, it’s quickly squashed by the adults.
Brandon Seminara, the assistant director of the Center and a former frequent visitor as a student, said kids understand that the Center is a safe place. “You just see a lot of people in here talking to each other from different backgrounds and areas,” Seminara said. “Things are just very calm and relaxed.”
Four years ago the Youth Center expanded into the George Washington Carver Center and the Carver Gym in South Bunnell, and that facility, too has had a big impact on the community (Massaro is also the director there). Carver Gym has always been there, and was once generously supported by the county. But Five years ago the county tried to shut it down to save money. South Bunnell protested. The community and the county came to an arrangement that split government support with private donations through the newly created Carver Foundation, with Massaro expanding her reach to take over the administration of the center as well.
In addition to serving Bunnell’s youth, the Carver Center has adult educational opportunities and a Community Cafe where adults can drop in and receive help.
Reverend Eli Emanuel, the facilities director at the Carver Center, said he sees about 40-60 kids per day come through and said it’s a “much-needed” addition to the community. “We’ve got kids here who are safe, and making something positive out of their time after school,” Emanuel said. “You can see in their faces how much they appreciate it.
Emanuel said he got a laugh when older residents came back to Carver recently and “they were shaking their heads in disbelief at all the computers and other new stuff we had. They remember what it used to look like and were amazed.”
As well as the Centers are doing, there is still room for expansion. Revels said she’d like to expand the Carver Center’s offerings and allow for more educational opportunities there, and would like to see a further financial commitment from all involved.
“This has been fabulous and it makes you want to do more,” Revels said. “There have been so many people whose lives have been helped by the Center. It’s something we’re all very proud of.”
“Massaro and her team of one full-time assistant and two part-timers have expanded the center over the years thanks to the $110,000 annual financing county government provides. The rest of the Center’s operating expenses, including custodial, power and maintenance, are covered under the Flagler Palm Coast High School budget and is lumped in with the rest of the costs each year)”
Yet the Belle Terre Pool is left to rot on the vine!
More Proof positive the County and the School Board would like to extend an upright middle finger to the Citizens of Palm Coast.
Jim WjamjAmes weames whim w says
uour going overboard complain about over spending in another area. Like salaries or useless road projects. How about the amount of money they spend on equipment each year. This is a good program. Don’t put it down.
ShaWuana Brown says
I absolutely LOVE this center. I moved to Palm coast in 2012 from Michigan and my daughter has benefited from the Youth center. She is now a Freshman at FPC and it is a still one of her favorite places!! Thank you!