New YMCA preschool opens its doors

BY CINDY CARTER, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – Imagine the possibilities. That was the theme last Thursday morning as local officials and honored guests met up for the ribbon cutting of the new Speer YMCA Preschool Academy that opened Monday to some 120 students.

The building, located at 2100 26th Ave. S, is roughly 15,000 square feet of revamped classroom space, a teaching kitchen, community center and even boasts a new playground. Children are set to receive a quality education starting with two-three year olds in the early intervention and toddler development programs. Those aged four to five will take part in a state-accredited volunteer prekindergarten program.

“We are here today to thank you in sharing in the special day of being able to educate a child,” said Childs Park YMCA Executive Director Deborah Figgs-Sanders.

She has lived in the community for 50 years and feels privileged to have the preschool organization just a few streets down from where she calls home. “This is very important for our community.”

Monsignor Robert Gibbons from St. Paul’s Catholic Church did the invocation and spoke on the history of the property. The 64-year-old building first opened its doors after St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, which you can still see just four blocks up the road, finished construction. It eventually housed over 300 K-8 students of both Catholic and non-Catholic denominations.

In 1985 the school closed because of declining enrollment and the Immaculate Conception Early Learning Center found its home there servicing predominately African Americans of the Catholic community. In 2014, the YMCA took over and began the process of renovating the structure to the tune of three million dollars.

“We are very happy that the YMCA has picked up the torch and is carrying on this great work of education here,” said Gibbons. For seven decades the building has stood for a place of learning where children come to grow in wisdom, grace and knowledge. “We want to build a true community where all are welcome, respected and loved.”

The Speer Foundation donated a million dollars to the renovations of the building, which were facing extreme cuts just a few months ago as money had run out. But members of the Speer family stood proudly by as the moment to cut the ribbon drew nearer.

The theme of the morning reminded Lisa Speer Vickers of her father, Roy M. Speer who passed away in 2012. He was a lawyer, co-founder of the Home Shopping Network and the man whose name now rests on the preschool.

“My father believed that education was the key to success and freedom in life,” said Speer Vickers who remembers her parent’s strength and perseverance above all else. She believes the Speer YMCA Preschool Academy will help every child and their families begin to imagine the possibilities in their own lives. “It will be a place to provide peace, strength and hope for all children for many generations to come.”

YMCA President and CEO David Jezek wholeheartedly agreed. Just a few weeks ago while renovations were still underway, workers uncovered a time capsule of sorts consisting of a letter written by the original architect nearly 60 years ago. It described how families of the students gathered to celebrate the school and connect and support one another. They ate baked ham and watched a movie.

“That resonated with me,” said Jezek who purposefully vetoed the lobby being moved near the parking lot to encourage parents to come inside and see what’s happening in the everyday lives of the children attending.

He plans to get the community more involved and has already put steps in place to ensure that families feel welcome and look at the new preschool not as a place to drop their kids off to be watched as they work, but as an enriched learning environment that is integral in laying the foundation so that future generations in south St. Petersburg can see a rise in graduation rates.

From state-of-the-art classrooms to evidence based curriculum, to an interactive kitchen, Jezek foresees families getting involved. “We’re going to even show kids how to cook a healthy meal,” he said.

Jezek understands as a childcare provider, the YMCA has to evolve and change to fit the needs of the community. So they have incorporated nooks within the school furnished with benches, as well as direct access for families to various sports, swimming and camps. We’re hoping that the families take the time to celebrate with their child.”

The Speer YMCA Preschool Academy opened its doors on the first day of school and is set to become a permanent fixture in the history of St. Petersburg thanks to the hard work of hundreds of hands throughout the community, along with generous donations from major donors, such as Raymond James Financial, Hazel and William Hough and Marianne and Mark Mahaffey.

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