July 17, 2007
UNIVERSITY AREA – Without leaving the air-conditioned apartment building, Erika Perez recently took nine children on a camping trip.
Perez, a volunteer with It’s All About Kids, did so through the world of books, creative decorating and imagination.
Along the way, she sought to instill some life lessons in the children at Carlisle Lakes Apartments, where the nonprofit organization offers the free Thursday afternoon Story Time Literacy Program for children in kindergarten through sixth grade.
While Perez read “Diggity Dog: Let’s Go Camping” on July 5, the children sat in a tent, gazed at a mock campfire made from tissue paper and guessed what she had packed in her backpack.
In addition to reading, Perez and other volunteers talked about preparing for camping and working in teams as a parallel to life, in which students should learn to read, get a good education and work with other people. She focused on campers’ need to avoid dangerous animals and hazards in the outdoors, as in life one should avoid unhealthy or illegal habits.
It’s All About Kids Executive Director Wanda DeLaRosa said that each month the literacy program has a different book and different theme. Through each, the volunteers try to connect the book to life.
They also offer a craft project that matches the theme. With camping, they made backpacks the first week.
“We focus on things like friendship, respecting the environment and being team players,” DeLaRosa said.
It’s All About Kids was founded seven years ago by DeLaRosa and her husband, Larry. Both are pastors with Breakthrough Worship Church, which also holds services for children at Carlisle Lakes Apartments. The complex provides two apartments and the electricity at no charge for the children’s programs.
It’s All About Kids, an all-volunteer organization, previously operated in several low-income locations, including east Tampa, Sulphur Springs and the University Area in the Asbury Apartments, which is now Arlington Chase. (The agency lost its place when Asbury was sold.)
“We have stayed in this community because this is where God brought us to,” DeLaRosa said. “We are passionate about children. We need to teach our children, reach out to them, so they can be better citizens.”
That’s why Perez, a 30-year-old University of South Florida graduate who will start the master’s program in library science in the fall semester, said she donates her time to the program.
“What saddens me is in this community, they underestimate how smart they [the children] are,” said Perez, who grew up in the University Area. “I want to challenge them. They really want to learn.”
Janet Orr, 10, said she liked reading books already. Her favorites are those about animals and traveling. She comes to the weekly programs because “They are really nice people, and we get to make stuff.”
Daphne Cadet, 7, agreed. She said, “We get to come and do fun stuff.”
DeLaRosa said the agency operates mainly on donations, partnerships and small grants, often from businesses. This year, the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County awarded it a technical assistance grant for equipment. The agency also held its first fundraising banquet in the spring. She has a goal to hire staff and replicate the Carlisle Lakes program in other communities.
The agency also sponsors an Etiquette and Manners class Tuesday evenings in which students in kindergarten through 12th grade learn grooming, dressing in proper attire, table manners, phone manners and other social skills.
At the end of the course, DeLaRosa plans to take them to dinner at a restaurant.
“There they will practice the etiquette they have learned: pulling the chair out, putting the napkin in their laps, cutting the food and the proper conversation,” she said.
“A lot of the children don’t realize there are topics for the table and topics for the playground.”
As for the “campers” in the literacy program, they will celebrate the end of their course with s’mores – made with a 5-pound Hershey bar donated to the program.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: It’s All About Kids
WHERE: Carlisle Lakes Apartments, 12520 Tinsley Circle
WHEN: Etiquette and Manners from 6 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Story Time Literacy Program from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Thursdays
HOW MUCH: Free
INFORMATION: Call (813) 269-4402 or visit www.itsallaboutkids.org.
Correspondent Lenora Lake can be reached at (813) 865-4851 or firstname.lastname@example.org.