GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - This Thursday, the Boys and Girls Clubs' Forest Heights Center will open its doors in North Gulfport. Hurricane Katrina destroyed the old club. Instead of rebuilding the center in another location, the club will nurture children in the same spot it opened it doors 20 years ago.
For Forest Heights Youth of the Year, Tatyana Childers, it's a homecoming long overdue.
"Wow, we finally got our own place back again," Childers said.
It's a feeling shared by club directors.
"We referred to the Boys and Girls Club as the center because in so many ways it was the center of our lives. It was and is sort of our foundation," said Forest Heights Program Director Kewanna Riley.
It's a foundation rooted in the history of the Forest Heights community. Among the visionaries who help establish the concept behind community were Mary McCleod Bethune and Dorothy Height, for which the community was named. The renowned civil rights activists were prominent leaders in the National Council of Negro Women.
The idea was to create a community of home owners for those who, otherwise, could not afford one. The National Council of Negro Women and Department of Housing and Urban Development partnered on the project.
It was called the Turnkey III program. At the time, those who moved in had to be married, have children and have homes built to certain standards.
"Dr. Bethune thought every home would be brick. Her thought was that we would feel very encouraged by buying a home and rearing our children in a community that gave us support but yet looked good; every home had to be brick," said Mary Spinks-Thigpen, Forest Heights Homeowners Association President.
As the community and surrounding areas grew, so did the number of kids. The Boys and Girls Club found a home in the Forest Heights neighborhood. The Mississippi Regional Housing Authority deeded the land to the Boys and Girls Club of America. And on July 10th, 1990, the Forest Heights Center began its service to all children throughout the greater Gulfport area.
Coming full circle, the new center sits on the same land the old club began 20 years ago.
"There's a bond there that can't be broken. So we're definitely grateful the club is back here," Riley said.
With 21,000 square feet of space, the center has more resources and room to promote youth development. They promote that growth through core areas like leadership, education and career development.
They're the life-changing skills, Program Director Kewanna Riley learned as a club member and is now teaching her son. It's also where she met her future husband, a former club member and active volunteer.
"It really means a lot to be back here and give back to a young person some of the same things that were given to me," Riley said.
Riley hopes club members also develop an understanding that their work and talents should always be shared with the community.
"I pray that our members walk away as servants of the community. I believe that service to one's community is a service toward a better life," Riley said.
"We're not just the kids who go to the Forest Heights Boys and Girls Club. We're part of their community," Childers said.
The club also includes a community room. That's where the club directors would like to display some of the history of the community and club. It's also where they plan to hang some original artwork from club kids.
Thursday, September 23, is the grand opening of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Gulf Coast, Forest Heights Center. It's located at 201 Holly Circle. The festivities will run from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.
The club's return was made possible, largely in part, from foundations involved with Project Rejuvenation.