Planting seeds and changing lives

Facilities and Public Relations Director, Freddie Woolfork, describes the GYAC strategy of following academic programs with recreation as the "broccoli and candy" approach.
Facilities and Public Relations Director, Freddie Woolfork, describes the GYAC strategy of following academic programs with recreation as the “broccoli and candy” approach.

STEPHANIE HERZOG

In 1969, what is now Gifford Middle School was a racially segregated high school. Back then, in its final years of segregation, Gifford High School had a graduation rate of 92% among its students, despite the school’s secondary status in the community at large.

Over time, the school became racially integrated as the Civil Rights Movement took hold and waves of people moved to Vero Beach, but the graduation rate steadily declined for several decades. One of the new additions in town included Dr. William Nigh, Pastor of the Community Church of Vero Beach, who would soon meet Mr. Dan K. Richardson, a local Businessman/Philanthropist and Dr. A. Ronald Hudson, a seasoned Educator and Administrator. The more these three strangers from different places and backgrounds explored Indian River County, the more they noticed the glaring dichotomy between Gifford and the beachside. By this time, it was1996 and the graduation rate for African Americans in Indian River County had plummeted to a shocking 23 percent, reflecting pitiably low educational standards.

Faced with these unacceptable circumstances, Richardson (who was instrumental in starting the United Fund, which is now the United Way) met with Nigh and Hudson to devise a plan which could help to improve the education and quality of life among families in the Gifford area. They reached out to the community’s nod asked what they felt would help them the most, and the overwhelming response was that Gifford residents needed a place to nurture and educate their children. With this simple but resounding mission in place, the Gifford Youth Activity Center was born.

Guest "mentor" speakers often meet with the children at the Gifford Youth Activity Center stressing the importance of getting a good education.
Guest “mentor” speakers often meet with the children at the Gifford Youth Activity Center stressing the importance of getting a good education.

The Gifford Youth Activity Center, or GYAC, opened its doors in 1998, and has been expanding ever since. At the GYAC, children in kindergarten through grade 12 are engaged in a comprehensive education and activity program which develops their character and encourages them to reach their full potential.

As a United Way agency with both an after school program and an all day summer program, the GYAC offers kids of all ages and learning abilities the opportunities they may be lacking at home, such as tutoring, mentorship, social activities, as well as interaction with both peers and adults. GYAC has each classroom separated by grade with the younger kids, then they separate the boys and the girls from sixth grade on to ensure an optimal learning environment.

The Center strives to get the kids truly engaged with the program by balancing education with lots of fun activities, or “the broccoli and the candy”, as it is explained by Director of Public Relations and Facilities Operations Freddie Woolfork. They want to share the healthful benefits of math, reading, science and computer science while treating the children to positive things they enjoy.  The children at GYAC frequently have afternoon field trips, guest motivational speakers and unique activity programs, which are made possible through numerous community partnerships.

One of the most crucial partnerships GYAC has fostered in the community is with the Indian River County School District, which provides bus transportation to the Center, as well as food and snacks for the students, provided two school buses for pickup from schools and field trips and two modular units, therefore helping the Center to be a full service agency and enabling the Center to increase their enrollment capability to accept more applicants. To that end, GYAC is also awaiting permission from the County to add even more units, since their waiting list gets longer every day- it currently has twenty plus children hoping for a place in the program.

The many local partnerships that GYAC has cultivated over the years is in fact, part of the reason why it is so special. Because of all these local helping hands, the GYAC is able to proudly offer its students such enriching activities such as cooking, sewing, golf, chess, arts and craft classes, as well as a Garden Club with a garden dubbed one of the “Best Green Spots In America” by Hillary Clinton. It also has partnerships with the Vero Beach Museum, 4HClub, the Humane Society, the Visiting Nurse Association and The Learning Alliance (an elementary level supplemental reading program), and Beyond Special K (a Senior Citizens Program) which provide various other inter-generational activities the children may not otherwise have a chance to experience.

Of course, all these activities, interactions and experiences are what steer a child away from trouble and mold him or her into a well rounded individual. One of the missions at GYAC is to fight the booming prison industry by nurturing children into successful adults.  It has been noted that under-privileged youths with poor education and little opportunity tend to gravitate toward crime, and often end up in jail. Through helping the youth of Gifford/Indian River County to achieve academic excellence and teaching them positive hobbies, the GYAC equips its students with the tools to improve their decision making skills and succeed in life.

The students at GYAC are very fortunate in that the board, counselors and staff that serve them truly want to see them succeed. By providing education, nutrition, encouragement, exercise, interaction and almost any other need a child may have, the GYAC shows its continued dedication to its original goal- to nurture the young people of Gifford/Indian River County and show them how to achieve success and happiness. At GYAC kids are exposed to different activities and age groups, which teach them to interact and learn through actually doing. By developing these skills at a young age, students are exponentially more likely to graduate high school, earn a college degree and find a career to build a life filled with high levels of success.

The concept behind GYAC is perhaps best summed up by Director of Development Nate Bruckner- “Education is the key to success and prosperity as a community, a nation and a world.”

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