POC: 50 years and standing strong

Gwendolyn Reese, middle, was the President’s Award for Community Leadership 2018 recipient at the 50th-anniversary celebration of the Pinellas County Opportunity Council. She’s seen here with Senator Darryl Rouson and POC Executive Director Carolyn King.

BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL, Staff Writer

PETERSBURG – The Pinellas Opportunity Council, Inc. (POC) celebrated 50 years of serving the community at their fifth annual Community Awareness event Oct. 26. The Hilton Carillon ballroom was packed with partners, friends and volunteers who have supported the continued funding and execution of POC services.

January 8, 2014, marked the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s State of the Union address calling on the nation to launch an “unconditional war on poverty.” This war put in place an essential social safety net that has helped keep millions of people out of poverty.

The safety net included many vital programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, Pell Grants and nutrition assistance.  While millions of people have been kept out of poverty, there is much more to do to move into the middle class.

POC Executive Director Carolyn King gave a brief history of the organization, stating that in1964 when the Economic Opportunity Act passed, it brought Community Action Agencies (CAA) into existence. Suncoast Progress, Inc. serviced several counties in the Bay area. However, in 1968, Pinellas County decided they wanted a CAA for themselves and POC was born.

POC was incorporated on Sept. 12, 1968, and their mission is to help alleviate conditions of poverty, revitalize local communities and promote self-sufficiency by mobilizing resources to develop and implement programs that deliver an array of services to address various individual, family and community needs.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman was on hand to help celebrate POC’s golden anniversary.

“It’s a privilege to get to celebrate with colleagues like the POC who help us do such important work for our constituents working with us on the front lines in our fight to end poverty throughout Pinellas County,” he said.

Over the years, POC established several other organization and programs that helped address the needs of low-income and elderly residents in Pinellas including Pinellas County Urban League (PCUL), the Mobile Geriatric Dental Unit, POC Dental Clinic, Jamestown and Tarpon Springs Day Care Centers, St. Petersburg Economic Development Corporation and Legal Services for the Elderly, now Gulfcoast Legal Services, Inc.

Commissioner Kenneth Welch, chairman, Pinellas Board of County Commissioners is a huge supporter of the agency.  He believes that unless there is an opportunity for everyone, the community cannot move forward.

“And that’s what the Pinellas Opportunity Council is about,” he said. “If we want to move forward as a city, as a county and as a community, that opportunity and that hope have to exist for everyone.”

Current programs in place include Emergency Financial Assistance, Family Self-Sufficiency, Survival Skills for Women, Rent/Mortgage Assistance, Individual Development Accounts, Small Business Startup, Getting Ahead and Staying Ahead and the ever popular Youth Development program.

There to give a testimonial on the 39-year-old Youth Development Program was Te’re Cummings, who is a 10th grader at St. Pete High School. She enrolled in the six-week program over the summer and was able to receive pre-employment job skills training and on-the-job work experience.

Te’re worked for St. Petersburg College as a student assistant in the advisory office. She thanked POC for “an opportunity of a lifetime.”

The program is available to 14-17-year-olds with at grade point average of 2.5 or higher.

Thirty-one-year-old single mother of two daughters Farren Davis’ life turned upside when the POC was able to help her out of a life-altering situation.

An employee at Bayfront Hospital and a full-time student in the LPN course at Pinellas Technical College, Davis didn’t pay much attention to her instructor when she informed the class that a representative from POC would be stopping by to give them information on how to get their state board exams paid for.

She figured she could pay the fee herself; however, within a couple of days, she lost her job. With help from the POC, she was able to pay for her exam, which she passed on the first try, and she is now a substance abuse nurse making more than $3,000 a month.

“There is help out there for single mothers like me who just want to do better in life,” Davis said, adding that she planning on going back to school to become a registered nurse and eventually an anesthesiologist.

There have been thousands of stories just like Te’re’s and Davis’ over the last 50 years.

Every year the POC honors an organization that has been instrumental in helping a program address a service need in Pinellas. This year the Community Action Partnership Award went to United Way Suncoast.

Moved by Te’re’s and Davis’ stories, Emery Ivory, Tampa Bay president of the United Way Suncoast said hearing testimonies such as theirs motivates the organization and reinforces their commitment to POC.

The President’s Award for Community Leadership goes every year to a person or group who is visible in the community and has made a significant impact on the lives of others through direct work, advocacy, philanthropy or by others means in areas that are of particular interest to the POC.

Senator Darryl Rouson was there to present his good friend Gwendolyn Reese with this coveted award.

“It’s the level of commitment, the level of love, the level of dedication and desire that she has to make her community stronger and for change,” Rouson said, adding that she was being honored for her bold leadership and her love for the community.

Reese’s biography is the size of a small novel. To name a few of her highlights, she serves as a consultant with Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital’s Healthy Start Federal Program and up until July, she served as the social justice coordinator for the Alabama Institute of Social Justice in Montgomery, Ala.

She’s on the Community Preservation & Planning Commission and the PCUL’s Education Council; she is the president of the African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg and a columnist for The Weekly Challenger.

“Do you know how challenging it is for organizations who primarily serve our communities to exists, to continue for 50 years? Do you know how difficult it is to get the funding needed to provide the much- needed services, and POC has been doing this for 50 years,” Reese, who is the president and CEO of Peaten Reese Peaten Consulting, Inc., said.

She went on to talk about former Executive Director, the late John Hopkins, Sr.

“He stood at the helm of this organization for almost 20 years after spending more than 40 years as an educator in Pinellas County,” she said.  “As much as he was an educator and an outstanding leader, he was also a visionary and a pioneer.”

During his career as an educator, Reese said, he worked with educator, stateswoman, philanthropist, humanitarian and civil rights activist Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune and educator and local legend Olive B. McLin in organizing the Florida State Teacher’s Association.

During his time as executive director of POC, he helped to establish what is now the Pinellas County Urban League, the St. Petersburg Economic Development Corporation and POC’s Federal Credit Union.

“It is in the visionary and pioneering spirit of John Hopkins, Sr. and the POC that I so humbly accept this award,” said Reese.

Hopkins, Sr. served as the executive director until he died in1992 and was replaced by Fred Zecker, who served as deputy director under Hopkins.

“I always referred to them as ‘Frick and Frack’ because they were a team,” said King, who took over from Zecker in 2012.

During the 2017 fiscal year, POC provided services to more than 6,800 clients in need throughout Pinellas County.

“Thank you Pinellas Opportunity Council for standing strong for 50 years, and may you continue for 50 more,” concluded Reese.

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