St. Pete Youth Timebank encourages community stewardship, volunteerism

Youth Timebank Coordinator Sheena Qualles-DeFreece seen here giving instruction to her charges.

By J.A. Jones, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – St. Pete Youth Timebank (YTB), an offshoot of the St. Pete Timebank (SPTB), is in full swing with its first cohort of Youth Timebankers graduating this winter and its second youth group that started earlier this month.

“The St. Pete Youth TimeBank is an initiative whereby we are teaching our children the overarching goal of contributing to community, starting with their home,” shared YTB Coordinator Sheena Qualles-DeFreece. “What they can do at home, at first, to help out without being asked. And then sharing with the community or their neighborhood. “

Adhering to COVID-19 restrictions, the youth help out in homes, churches, and various agricultural centers. Youth Timebankers also participate in Zoom sessions with adult mentors.

Qualles-DeFreece said everything from picking up leaves in the neighborhood, helping the elderly shop, and reading to younger siblings — without being asked — are all activities that count towards the participating youths gaining “time credits.”

“This is about social networking, helping each other. It can be as simple as listening to somebody share their problems or issues; you don’t have to give advice — just listen,” said Qualles-DeFreece, who acknowledged that sometimes people just need a friendly ear.

At YTB’s recent “graduation” ceremony honoring the first 18 participants, SPTB founder BJ Andryusky gave credit to the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg for providing a capacity grant that is helping the organization begin initiatives such as YTB.

Andryusky founded SPTB in 2016 and has recently gained nonprofit status, working with the Pinellas County Urban League as a fiscal sponsor. YTB offered its first cohort youth $50 gift certificates in exchange for their time credits, thanks to a grant from the Woodson Center in Washington, D.C.

The graduation was held at the YAP Center, a YTB partner, which is the site of YTB’s first “Little Library,” which supports YTB in providing books to neighborhood children. YTB will have a second Little Library site at the South Side Fresh Market on 22nd Street soon.

Qualles-DeFreece said each of YTB’s three-month sessions would enable youth to understand the process of engaging in and building “social capital” – which is defined as “the network of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.”

AARP also donated gifts for the initial graduation celebration, including tote bags and electric candles. Other community partners include St. Mary of Our Lady of Grace and Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services.

Several Youth Timebankers were on hand to share their experiences. Jayda, who took part in YTB through her connection to Denise Ford’s Camp Summer Quest and Qualles-DeFreece’s Kidzonomics project, shared that her love of sewing led to her making COVID-19 masks for community members.

“I learned how to sew different masks by going on YouTube and just searching up patterns,” said Jayda, 12, who also volunteered in a drive-through Halloween event where she helped give candy away to children in a costume parade.

She also babysat, helped her grandmother put up Christmas lights, prepared meals for the homeless, and helped several younger children with schoolwork, gaining time credits for all of it.

Another YTB member, Dieme, 19, shared about his work with the homeless community. “I went to buy meals at McDonald’s and gave them out at Freedom Park and food pantries,” he said of the volunteerism that gave him his time credits. Dieme said his dream is to continue supporting the homeless by providing them with blankets and sleeping bags.

Qualles-DeFreece said that youth from all over could participate in the YTB program, regardless of their zip code. Some of their youth timebank members have come from refugee populations and different St. Pete neighborhoods and communities.

She stressed that the idea of networking is what’s important. “Building community is not always about money,” she said, adding that offering service to the community brings rewards from the community – including learning new skills.

Their parents sign up youth Timebankers, and all communication with SPTB mentoring members who might have services or education to offer the children are strictly monitored by parents and Qualles-DeFreece herself – who calls the process “guardian angel-ship.”

She has a Level II clearance and said SPTB would sponsor a program for other members who want to mentor to gain their Level II clearances.

In the future, Qualles-DeFreece said she hopes to have YTB youth assist at the Sunshine Senior Center teaching seniors technology.

For information on how to enroll youth in YTB, contact Sheena Qualles-DeFreece at sheena.sptb@gmail.com.

To reach J.A. Jones, email jjones@theweeklychallenger.com

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