Filling needs, saving lives: Organizations join forces for children in Wimauma

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

Bethune Park in Wimauma serves as a focal point for a number of organizations and volunteers joining forces to help children in Wimauma. Mitch Traphagen photos.

Bethune Park in Wimauma serves as a focal point for a number of organizations and volunteers joining forces to help children in Wimauma. Mitch Traphagen photos.

There are numerous organizations, ranging from regional and national groups to heroic efforts made by local churches, all focused on helping impoverished and disadvantaged children and families in Wimauma.

But despite that, and despite the best efforts by so many caring people, the needs always seem to exceed the supply.

Now, however, several local and regional organizations are joining forces to combine their own unique fields of expertise to take on a number of problems in the South County community. They are focused on helping those in need and, in some cases, saving lives. They are helping to ensure futures for those who may not see much positive in the future, if they see a future at all.

This summer, representatives from the Hispanic Services Council of Tampa, the Boys and Girls Club of Tampa Bay, the Wimauma Citizens Improvement League, the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, the Hillsborough County Parks and Recreation Department, Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, the University of Florida Cooperative Extension Services, The Hope Fund of Sun City Center, the Campaign Against Human Trafficking of Sun City Center and concerned citizens joined forces to bring about a solution before problems took root among the youth of the community.

A summer program was created to provide elementary schoolchildren with a safe place to go during the out-of-school months. It is not a mere daycare program; counseling and mentoring are a large part of the focus. Each of the organizations brings its unique expertise, joining with the others to provide a comprehensive program highly tuned to making a difference in the lives of disadvantaged and potentially endangered children. And the HCSO has dedicated officers to ensure the safety of the children.

When school begins, the summer program will become an after-school program and will be expanded to include counseling and mentoring for middle-school students as well.

To someone simply driving through, Wimauma may appear to be a sleepy hamlet on a quiet road leading into the interior of the state. But those who work there are fighting problems that are very real, with long-term and even deadly implications for children.

To someone simply driving through, Wimauma may appear to be a sleepy hamlet on a quiet road leading into the interior of the state. But those who work there are fighting problems that are very real, with long-term and even deadly implications for children.

“The situation is so critical in Wimauma,” said June Wallace, founder of the Campaign Against Human Trafficking in Sun City Center, an organization of more than 100 members working to stop the often invisible but very real problem of human trafficking in the Tampa Bay area. Wallace, supported by an extensive report commissioned by the Allegany Franciscan Ministries, sees Wimauma as a hotbed for the problem of human trafficking.

Wallace credits the other organizations but particularly Carla Miles of The Hope Fund for making a needed investment in the youth of Wimauma.

“Carla Miles was able to get her group involved to engage more children,” Wallace said. “The after- school program will be much more extensive. What we’re concerned about are the older youth who have no place to expend their energy. There are no indoor basketball courts; there is no place for them to go. It seems that every time the county budget was cut back, it was cut back in Wimauma.”

According to Wallace, in the past The Hope Fund provided after-school services on a one-on-one basis with the children.

“The Hope Fund is a huge part of this,” she said. “Previously, when these kids graduated from elementary school, that was the end of the mentoring for them. Now they are going to be open to middle-school students. They are one-on-one with the students. They had 90-some children and more than 100 volunteers.”

Like the Campaign Against Human Trafficking, most of the volunteers came from neighboring Sun City Center. The program has been targeted children from Wimauma and Reddick elementary schools.

Additionally, the Boys and Girls Club of Tampa Bay, working with the Hispanic Services Council, has created a three-year youth development venture that is funded through organizations ranging from the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, Hillsborough County Schools and the HCSO to organizations such as Ameriprise Financial in Sun City Center and Feeding America.

Each organization is bringing its own expertise to the table, be it financial or working with children to show them a future that, with work, they can attain. There are cycles that do not have to continue.

For Wallace and the 100 members of the Campaign Against Human Trafficking, her expertise is working to bring a stop to a problem that few people see or understand.

“There is human trafficking in Wimauma,” she said. “The Clearwater / Tampa Bay Task Force on Human Trafficking identified that a long time ago.”

The problem is, according to Wallace, that a lot of people won’t self-report in Wimauma, due to a variety of reasons, including an inherent distrust of government and authorities.

“There is both labor and sex trafficking there,” she continued. “There is even child sex trafficking. Even if people are here legally, they are hesitant to report it.”

She went on to say that many people there prefer to solve the problems themselves, or simply endure it. And the problem continues. She knows her organization has a big fight on its hands.

“There are three very strong youth gangs in Wimauma,” she said. “They are mostly middle- and high-school students, and they are recruiting and grooming fourth graders.”

The hope of her organization in these programs is to bring these problems to a halt, and certainly to stop them from escalating. And despite the problems, she sees hope. With so many organizations joining forces, a foundation is being laid to change the landscape, to stop a cycle leading to bad things for children. She even sees promise in the growth of Wimauma that includes a new Hillsborough County Fire Rescue station.

“We are really hoping that will do a lot of good because then you have built-in mentors for these kids,” she said, referring to the HCFR officers who will staff the station.

In addition, town hall meetings have been held with Hillsborough County commissioners Stacy White and Kevin Beckner, with the next meeting to be held with Commissioner Beckner at Wholesome Community Church, 16110  U.S. 301 in Wimauma at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 11. The public is encouraged to attend. Even with so many organizations joining forces, the needs often exceed the supply — and nearly everyone in the community and the surrounding area can have a role in ensuring a bright future for children. While the focus is on Wimauma, this is a problem that will require the support of the greater community of South Hillsborough.

This summer, thanks to so many organizations and countless volunteers, the foundation has been set. And now the work of lending a helping hand through continued support begins. With each day, the future can be a little brighter for area children, for all of us.

For more information about The Hope Fund, visit www.the-hope-fund.org. The organization provides a wide range of services through their all-volunteer staff.

For more information about the Campaign Against Human Trafficking and how you can help right here at home, visit www.sccblueheart.org. CAHT is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.

If you suspect human trafficking or are a victim, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 888-373-7888 or text 233733 (Text “HELP” or “INFO”), 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Further resources are available at  www.traffickingresourcecenter.org.

Comments