Over 100 Forgotten Families in Apopka
On the 800 block of South Hawthorne, there sits a beautiful six-acre piece of land with a modern 6000 square foot facility. Last year, you could take the short winding driveway under a small tree-line and arrive at the Apopka Family Learning Center (AFLC).
Since July of 2015, the building that used to be filled with children and families now sits empty. The property fenced-in and locked. For over 10 years in this location right behind the new Sportsplex, the AFLC provided family and educational services for over 100 children and their families every year. Most of them from low-income families in South Apopka. It was an institution in this underprivileged community for 37 years.
Last summer, over 100 children and their families abruptly found out that they would no longer be attending AFLC for enrichment programs. Many of them received counseling support and dedicated tutors. Additionally, about a dozen employees lost their jobs.
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At yesterday's Chamber of Commerce Candidate Forum, the question of what happened to the AFLC was asked by a member of the audience. Councilman Bill Arrowsmith gave a surprising answer.
"I don't know if the City was ever approached," said Arrowsmith. "I always contributed."
Valynn A. Sala-Diakanda, Director of Development at AFLC until December of 2014, and an AFLC Board member from January-September of 2015, remembers it differently.
"We met with the mayor (Joe Kilsheimer) three times," she said. "He told me they had no money. I even asked him recently... with the Alonzo Williams Community Center plans advancing, why not invest down the street? He said he can't get grants to support an AFLC purchase."
Mayor Kilsheimer confirmed those meetings.
"We met with them several times," said Kilsheimer. "But there was never a specific request for a specific amount of money. It was never clear to me what their plan was."
So quietly the AFLC disappeared.
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Despite the struggles, former employees are endeavoring to continue to provide access to quality after school learning experiences to all children in Apopka. Under a new name, The Afterschool Academy, programs have commenced at Inspire Church in Apopka.
Inspire is a small church on Semoran Commerce Place in Apopka. It has less than 100 members, but it was aware of the AFLC's plight and wanted to help. They offered to take the AFLC concept and bring it to their 10,000 square foot building.
"When some of our leaders at Inspire heard that the AFLC would be closing its doors, they immediately reached out to some of the board members to find out what could be done to help, wanting the serving of families in South Apopka to continue," said Denise Badger, Lead Pastor at Inspire. "What the AFLC did in providing education and hope to the children and families in South Apopka through tutoring and after school programs is what we wanted to see continue. We're thrilled at Inspire to be able to offer our facility so that these children and families can continue to be served and enriched."
Former employees of AFLC, such as longtime Apopkan Beatrice Puebla, who attended elementary school in Apopka, feel that families still need a place they can bring their children for quality enrichment programs regardless of their income.
"Inspire gave us a new home and we hope to continue quality afterschool programming and other educational initiatives that specifically cater to working families," she said. "We have a superior product that is accessible to everyone."
Since the Academy began at Inspire (January 4th, 2016) students have practiced their cursive handwriting, received homework assistance and even got an introduction to the 3D printing world and Google Earth.
"It certainly breaks my heart to see the people and an organization that I would have done anything for just disappear," said Sala-Diakanda, now the Managing Director for The Afterschool Academy at Inspire." But I'm thankful that Inspire gave us a new home and we hope to continue quality afterschool programming and other educational initiatives that specifically cater to working families."
"The very first week, I stopped in to get some work done at Inspire and ran into a group of smiling kids finishing up their snacks and heading outside to play," she said. This was the first week of the After School Academy that Val, Beatrice and Laura had started here, and already there were eight children soaking up the love and support like eager sponges. They were all so energetic and excited to be here, asking me all sorts of questions and wanting to give hugs and be hugged. It was the best start to my day, and I realized the blessing we thought we'd give to these kids by having them here, is just going to be a blessing back in the love and life shared."
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