By Albert Isaac
The playground equipment is old and rusting. The building could use a fresh coat of paint, and the kitchen failed the state health inspection. But one thing not lacking at the High Springs Day Care Center is compassion.
“I try to instill in the children that this is our big family,” said Director Tammy Fleming. “If you don’t have brothers and sisters at home, you have them here.”
Fleming has been a part of the High Springs Daycare Center for 28 years. She has seen two generations of children pass through the doors of this facility, including her own. She has been the director since 1996.
“I had a child enrolled here in the center,” Fleming said, as she worked, signing out the child of a mother who was once a student at the daycare. “I came to a parent-teacher meeting and decided to volunteer.”
The staff liked what she was doing and hired her. “I was at the right place at the right time,” Fleming said.
Fleming has seen few changes during her years at the center, which is the daytime home to children of low-income families. She said the building was painted once in the 28 years she has been there. It was once the cafeteria for the old high school, and is now all that remains of the institution. People who used to work in the cafeteria said that the place still looks the same as it did back then.
But not for very much longer.
Recently, the Santa Fe Kiwanis Club took an interest in the children who attend the center. Kiwanis is a worldwide organization dedicated to improving their communities. Their mission is to “change the world one child and one community at a time.”
To that end, the Santa Fe Kiwanis started throwing holiday parties for the children at the daycare.
“We started with a Christmas party,” said Marilyn Bennett, current president of the club. “We went several months in a row and then it occurred to us that we needed to do more than just party.”“They brought Santa out for Christmas and toys for the kids,” Fleming said. “They threw a Valentine’s Day party in February and got the kids blankets because it was cold. It was just a joy to have somebody come and do that.”
Club members spent Easter holiday at the daycare, painting and doing the prep work in the kitchen area.
When the Kiwanis Club met for their board meeting, they decided the High Springs Day Care Center should be their next project. The facilities were in dire need of repair, from top to bottom.
That same week, the State of Florida inspected the facility. The kitchen failed. Suddenly there was a real possibility the doors would close on these children and their families who depend so much upon it.
“We knew then it was meant to be,” Bennett said. “The daycare was looking for us and we were looking for them.”
Closing the daycare would mean many low-income families would become no-income families, Bennett said. There is nowhere else for the children to go.
“We as Kiwanians can fill the gap, help meet the needs that are not met at home,” Bennett said. “I was there once, making a living, working as hard as I can, and that’s where their parents are today.”
Chuck Landry is a member of the Santa Fe Kiwanis Club. He and other members have come together to save the daycare from being shut down.
“He’s just a livewire and has a passion for projects such as these,” Bennett said. “He’s been a blessing for the club. And we have lots of members like this, and also many in the community that are moved by the need there, and are excited about helping to meet those needs.”
Landry, Bennett, Brian Rigney and Tom Weller — the district lieutenant governor and club secretary — recently met at the facility to formulate their plans.
Rigney is a member of the Circle K, the college division of Kiwanis. He and some of the 85 members of his organization plan to be on hand when the city of Gainesville donates mulch for the playground.Landry rattled off a laundry list of individuals and businesses that have donated to the cause without hesitation. Cabinetry, flooring, paint, new cubbyholes — the list is long.
“We are the little club that can,” Landry said. “Marilyn provided a new Holland grill from Bennett’s True Value. Someone is sewing and donating new cushions for the little chairs. The old worn-out sofa is being replaced with a new loveseat and two rockers.”
A group of young children sat on the sofa with Fleming. Some watched TV. They seemed happy and were well behaved.
Outside, two boys shot baskets. The unconventional basketball hoop stood upon three metal legs, and the backboard was a piece of plywood nailed to some posts. But the boys were enjoying it. Outside the fence that surrounds the daycare stood authentic basketball equipment.
“I would like to see them have a basketball court like that,” Landry said.
Inside the building, the changes are already apparent. The group started with the kitchen remodel in order to pass the state inspection.
“We are working from the kitchen on out,” Landry said.
New fans, ceiling tiles, sinks and refrigerators are needed, and fundraising efforts will continue for some time. So far, Landry said, everybody he has approached has contributed to the cause. McCallum Cabinets is donating cabinetry for the kitchen. CoverAll Painting and Repairs has agreed to paint the exterior and supply paint for the entire facility.
And recently the owner of a local furniture company looked at their wish list and agreed to make those wishes come true.
“He took some notes, and said, ‘I think we can pretty much replace everything in that room.’ I had to pick myself up off the floor,” Landry said. “He’s agreed to supply chairs, furniture, mats and a new teacher’s desk and chair.”
Basti Gonzalez of High Springs Land Development contacted her sister in Coral Gables who is a member of a group of prominent women. Gonzalez said the group has agreed to buy shoes, clothes and backpacks for the children.
Landry said they took measurements and photographs of the children to send to Coral Gables for the clothes. But one little boy did not want his picture taken.
“Because his shirt was dirty,” Landry said, eyes welling with tears. “So he took off his shirt and turned it inside out. Then he smiled happily.”
Not long after restoration efforts began, an immense oak tree fell in the playground. Play equipment was destroyed. Now there is no shade, and the metal playground equipment gets too hot to use.
“We’d like to plant trees,” Bennett said. “The tree that shades the whole playground split just recently, and they have to have a shaded play area.”
Much work has been accomplished; the large trash bin next to the daycare is filled to capacity, and there is much more to be done. The City of High Springs recently donated a second bin, Landry said.
Once the club is finished with the building repairs, Bennett said there are plans to continue helping. Last winter, while talking with the children, Bennett learned only two out of 27 children had ever seen the ocean.
“They can’t leave to take field trips, so our club is going to bring field trips to them.”
In coming months the club plans to bring the High Springs police chief and the fire chief — with a fire engine —to the center to talk to the kids.
“I have a friend that is a rodeo clown,” Bennett said. “He has trained monkeys riding Border Collies.”
She would also like to bring by a pair of Clydesdale horses and wagons, and farmers with tractors.
“Those are just some examples,” Bennett said. “Their experiences are limited at this age.”
The club also has plans to plant a garden as a learning opportunity for the children. But for now, the daycare needs books and learning toys. Monetary donations in any amount are needed and, since the center is a nonprofit organization, donations are tax deductible.
“The children get plenty of love there,” Bennett said. “They get lots of attention. Tammy has dedicated a lot of her life to that facility.”
And what do the children think of all these changes?
“They are excited,” Fleming said.“ Even with the room arrangement, we changed it around and they say, ‘It’s cool, it’s cool!’ A small change in their life makes a big difference.”