TAMPA (FOX 13) - With the start of summer, dozens of children are filing into Tampa recreation centers at no cost, where they're given food, fun activities and a chance to play in peace.
Last year, the city decided to keep those centers open to give kids a safe place to hang out - and to stay out of trouble. The city said they felt like it made a difference, so they're opening the doors again this summer.
Nine recreation centers, and five city pools, are extending their hours, from 6 p.m. until midnight, as part of the Stay and Play program.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn launched the program in the spring of 2015 in response to a string of deadly shootings involving teenagers. One victim, 14-year-old E.J. Harris, was gunned down as he was heading home from playing basketball at Woodland Terrace Park, just a few blocks away from his house.
City officials wanted to give teenagers a safe alternative to spending their free time in the streets.
"We try to make it safe, fun and also a learning experience at the same time," said John Allen, recreation manager of the Tampa Parks and Recreation Department. "It's just something that has taken off. Last year, we had over 16,500 teens come through our program, and this year we hope to have more than that [this summer]."
In addition to open gyms and pools, teens at Jackson Heights have access to a dance studio, computer lab and video production equipment. Some of them said they are thankful for the independence the program offers them.
"Some people feel like being around their family, they can't be themselves. Being here, you can be your complete self, and you won't get judged," said Tian Dula, a Stay and Play participant who helps watch younger children at the center.
Homicides in the city have gone down since the start of the program. As of this May, there have been eight homicides, compared to 18 at this time last year.
Counselors at the centers are working overtime to accomadate the new program. The city has also hired additional staff. The program is expected to cost $300,000 this year.
"We all signed up to make a difference in our community. There is not a monetary value we can put on a child's life and their safety," said Jamal Jefferson, site supervisor at Jackson Heights.
Stay and Play is open to teenagers, ages 13 to 19, in addition to free annual recreation cards.
The following locations are participating in Stay & Play this summer:
- Copeland Community Center (Pool remains open until 8 p.m. on select days)
- Cyrus Greene Community Center (Pool remains open until 8 p.m. on select days)
- Desoto Community Center
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center (Pool remains open until 8 p.m. on select days)
- Grant Park Activity Center
- Gwendolyn Miller Community Center
- Jackson Heights Community Center
- Springhill Community Center
- Williams Park-Activity Center (Pool remains open until 10 p.m.)
- Spicola pool will remain open until 10 p.m.
Other events that will be held during Stay & Play are:
- Skating Field Trip
- Teen Court
- Anti-Bullying Lectures
- Stranger/Danger Program by TPD
- Speakers including ex and current athletes, TDP, local businesses, Fire Department, and Parks and Recreational Staff
- Future Leaders Training which includes resume preparation, interviewing skills, and educational opportunities
If you're interested in volunteering, please contact the Parks and Recreational Department or visit one of the participating Stay & Play sites for further information.