St. Pete after-school program inspires curiosity and love of learning in its students

Inspire curiosity and love learning – those are the concepts behind an after-school class for kids in St. Petersburg. But, what makes this program unique is the family who started it.

It's a classroom that seems more like a game show than a STEM class for students. The game show-like atmosphere is part of the Shirley Proctor Puller Foundation's "Master Kids" program. It's an after-school STEM program to fire up both sides of kids' brains with math, art, science, technology and reading. 

"Think of it like a piece of Swiss cheese," said Keisha Snead with the Shirley Proctor Puller Foundation. "Their little bodies are a little Swiss cheese, and we're closing it. All of those little open holes with the things that they're missing in their education." 

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Shirley Proctor Puller was a passionate educator with more than 30 years of experience. She saw a need for an after-school educational program in her St. Pete community. 

Pictured: Shirley Proctor Puller.

"She felt like public school was always the answer," said Bridgette Heller, the co-founder of Shirley Proctor Puller Foundation. "But that public school today needed a little bit of help from the community at large to be able to really encourage the children and help them reach their maximum potential." 

Puller died in 2013 and her family started the initiative in 2016 in her honor. 

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"My mom, actually, her initial request was just that we do something to help children in this county, and particularly in this neighborhood of South St. Pete," said Heller. "Children who were economically disadvantaged." 

The help is paying off in big dividends. 

"When I took my fast test, I got a really low score," said Latayah Neeley, one of the students. "But then when I came here, I got a better score." 

"I enjoy that," said Annon Vanderbilt, another student with the program. "I did the actually learning, and I enjoyed going to steam for to like, have so we can like invent projects, and then we get to take them home." 

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"They are just as brilliant as their counterparts when they go to school," said Snead. " And to believe in themselves, to know that they can do and achieve anything that they put their minds to." 

Heller is so proud of how her family stepped up to fulfill her mother's dream. 

"She threw down the gauntlet and asked us to solve. And now I take great pride in looking up every now and then say, ‘hey, how about that?’" she said. 

A testament to the power of education, community and unwavering belief that every child deserves the chance to reach for the stars. The grassroots efforts year round after-school program has a waiting list. They get their funding from public and private donations.


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