Mattie Williams Neighborhood Family Center…

Caring About the Community

The Mattie Williams Neighborhood Family Center is busier than ever these days. With the downturn in the economy, more and more people are turning to the Center for help and support. That’s why the Center’s Executive Director Janet Hooper is so excited about her job.

Janet Hooper came to the Family Center a little over a year and a half ago, in September, 2008. Originally from Michigan, Janet had been working for the Boys and Girls Club of Tampa Bay after spending several years with the Foundation of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa, even serving as its interim president.

While she has accreditation as a CFRE (Certified Fund Raising Executive) and nearly 25 years of experience, she finds her new position to be much more challenging (and satisfying) even than helping raise millions for a cancer center. Maybe they should change that CFRE to something like “Caring Friend and Resource for Everyone!”

The Neighborhood Family Center serves children and adults from more than just Safety Harbor. It also helps people from Oldsmar and from Eastern Clearwater (those who live in the 33759 and 33761 zip code section). With funding from the Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board and from the cities of Safety Harbor and Oldsmar and lots of individual, church and community support, the Center is there to help people when they need help.

One of the ways the Center has raised funds for its operation has been through setting up a games booth during Third Friday as a fun family event to raise funds. In May the Center will present a new variety of games, called “Wii Play for Food!” A variety of video games will be offered with the proceeds going to the Center.

“I think May is the perfect time to use this new game fund-raiser,” says Janet. “The May Third Friday event has the theme of ‘Get Your Game,’ and ‘Wii’ think a lot of people will enjoy playing.”

In recent years, the Center has held an Annual Block Party in May as a fun family event to raise funds, but Janet has decided to forego the event this year and to turn her efforts toward raising money and supplies for the “Back to School” program in August. Last year the Center provided 950 well-equipped backpacks for local students, and this year Janet is expecting more than a thousand requests.

“The need is so great,” she says. “And we don’t want to ask our loyal contributors for too much in such difficult times.”

In addition to a Food Pantry in partnership with Church and Community Outreach that helps provide food for more than 200 families, the Center sometimes is also called on to provide emergency help with electric and water bills. If these utilities are turned off, children may be removed from the home by the Department of Children and Family Services.

“We do the best we can with the resources we have, and when we can help them with those bills, we can keep a family together,” she says. “It’s just a band-aid, but it’s enough to make a real difference. There’s nothing more rewarding than that.”

One of the first things that she did after coming to the Center was to approach the City of Safety Harbor for permission to change the usage of the DeVito Building right next door. So the building that had been renovated with Angela DeVito as a major donor was given to the Neighborhood Family Center, and now it is kept busy most of the time, mainly with the Bright Ideas after school program and computer training classes.

The main Mattie Williams Neighborhood Family Center building now houses the administrative offices for the operation, the Food Pantry, a WIC program (Women, Infants and Children), and a Clothing Closet. The Center’s Executive Director is looking forward to the beginning of a new series of Parenting Classes, starting in May.

Among other programs offered at the Center, WIC meets with parents twice a week, and “Kinship Care” is offered for grandparents who have been called upon to raise their grandchildren or aunts called on to raise nieces and nephews. The Center also provides space for probation officers to meet with non-violent juvenile offenders in a non-threatening environment.

One major change that Janet Hooper implemented was expanding the Center’s after-school program from two days a week to a regular five-day-a-week program. The Center is now open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (sometimes until 6), with the Food Pantry operating on Monday and Friday afternoons from 12:30 to 3:30 and at other times in emergency situations. In addition, the Center is involved with helping students at Oldsmar Elementary School two days a week after school to improve their skills in math and science.

Through the generosity of individuals, churches and a community outreach, the Center was able to provide Christmas gifts for 600 children last December, and at Thanksgiving and Christmas the Church and Community Outreach provided food for some 300 families through the Center.

One of the highlights of the past year was the making of a video by the older kids at the Center. The video, called “SAY–Same As You” now is shown on You Tube on the internet. The young people used music, song and dance to illustrate how much alike people are, despite their diversity. They also each wrote a paper about their experiences. The program premiered in a special showing at the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa, that donated the space, where a couple of them talked about how it all came together.

The Center has a total of six full-time and three part-time employees, including its most recent addition, William Martin, the Center’s new Life Coach. However, it relies heavily on help from volunteers to keep programs going. And AARP provides some help through a paid work program for seniors. Interested individuals who would like to work as volunteers are always needed at the Center.

“It’s a labor of love for all of us,” Janet Hooper says.