In the summer of 1990, the St. Petersburg Catholic Diocese wanted to do something viable in the black community. They asked Deacon Lionell Roberts, formerly the director of the St. Petersburg Black Catholic Diocese, to gather a group of individuals together to discuss the development of a community center at the Diocese property located at 2335 22nd Avenue South in St. Petersburg. Deacon Roberts contacted Bob Brown, Lounell Britt, Shirley Davis, and Effie Alexander all residents of south St. Petersburg and lived within the proximity of the identified site. The group began discussing how to put together a program or a center in the black community from the perspective of those who were solid, law-abiding citizens. Much discussion took place over that summer by these leaders to brainstorm how to pull the community together to address issues and concerns. The group believed that these solid community members were the backbone of the community and were the ones who could make this idea a reality. It would be the community who knew their needs best and what would be important to them.The generous support of the St. Petersburg Catholic Diocese in providing a 25, 000 square foot facility for one dollar ($1.00) per year presented a great challenge, namely the renovation of the building that had set vacant and boarded up for five years.
Many of these people were born and raised in St. Petersburg and had a sense of community. What developed from the discussions was the old settlement house concept…people coming together to solve the problems within their community. The summer passed with these individuals doing much thinking dreaming and planning.
This group had a unique ability to meet with people and gather support; soon a board of trustees was formed. As momentum gathered and the prospects of renovating, the project seemed overwhelming to some. However, to the others, this prospect only brought their dream alive with increased activity. This effort led to the leaders reaching out to others in the community to help make what was by then called the” Black Family Service Center” a reality.
It was decided that the name would be changed to the James B. Sanderlin Family Service Center after Judge Sanderlin who worked for social change throughout his life. His personal involvement in the community in his quiet way, exemplified the spirit of the Center. He was known for treating all people well, he fought for the rights of the elderly, of children, of common folks as well as the black community. The sincere regard for his fellow humans was the same motivation that drove the development of the James B. Sanderlin Family Service Center.
As the scope of these efforts grew, more people began to learn about what was happening and wanted to be a part of making this dream a reality. Raymond Sanderlin (the judge’s brother), Raphael Barrimond, John Scardino, Dianna King, M.A. Musselman, Bernie Roth, Rudy Heiter and many, many other brought their talents and energy to the Center. The St. Petersburg Times, Florida Power, Dr. Moska and others recognized the value behind the vision and made financial contributions to assist in launching these efforts.
Volunteers gathered to haul out trash, clear away broken glass, cut weeds. In the fashion of the old barn rising, the Center began to take form. As the dream began to turn into an operating structure requiring muscle power as well as brainpower, and as the numbers of people swelled, organizational meetings started on Saturday mornings. Sitting under the towering porch roof, soaking up the warm air and gazing out at the beautiful landscape, these dedicated neighbors turned their efforts to developing an operating structure. Defining the role of the board, developing committees, determining the allocation of space, defining goals for agency focus, always trying to keep an eye on the mission, seeking ways to raise money, handling day to day operations and the never ending networking engulfed the tireless workers.
Communications became more difficult as the number of people involved continued to grow. Efforts began to get information into writing and many “worker bees” picked up their hammers, paintbrushes and rakes to keep the renovation moving forward. The activity attracted even more supporters and others became infected with the desire to make this Center a reality. People walked in and could not help getting involved. Some had known Judge Sanderlin and wanted to contribute because of what he had meant to them, others came as friends and coworkers of the “first wave” of volunteers, and still others, curious as to what was happening joined the group. Through word of mouth, African American social clubs, church groups, sororities and others from the neighborhood began to assist in cleaning, erecting fences, purchasing needed items, and assisting in bringing the dream to reality.
One room at a time, not waiting for money but operating on the faith and desire that this was meant to be, renovation and planning moved forward. Volunteer, Raphael Barrimond, decided to renovate rooms himself to show others what could be done. This first agency, AARP Senior Employment Program moved into the newly renovated rooms and began to assist with the yard work, security, and serve as host to the many who began to come see what was going on.
At times, it was not known how we would keep the lights and water on, but prayers were answered and faith kept it going. Bob Brown met with people behind closed doors, presented the dream, and raised some significant money to get things going during the early days. The first board sponsored fundraising event occurred in October 1991. The Sanderlin Gala occurred the same day that the official dedication of the Center was held. These efforts provided funds to “keep the lights shining” for a few more months.
In January 1992, the first major private contribution by a citizen donor in memory of their deceased daughter occurred. This $8,000 donation made it possible to renovate the first conference room in the building, providing a place for Honeywell’s black employees to hot the “Black History Month Banquet.” Also in 1992, we had our first Family Fund Day called “Parade of Services,” twenty-five community agencies participating in this event. The word was spread that St. Anthony’s and the St. Petersburg Free Clinic along with a coalition of many other organizations would bring in the preventative and primary care clinic that had been a part of the dream since the first days of planning. Prayers were being answered once again.
A year and a half later, we realized we had made mistakes, we had missed opportunities, we had a few times, fallen asleep at the helm. However, we also realize we have made phenomenal progress and all through individuals coming together in this collective effort driven by love and desire to make the world a better place for all of us.
Both financial and service related contributions had been given toward the renovation of the Center resulting in nearly 15,000 of the total 25,000 square feet of the interior renovations having been completed or under way. This represented a total of $294,500 in contributions of materials and labor. Additionally, we had received commitments for $11,000 for HVAC units from Florida Power Corporation. We had residency agreements with St. Anthony’s Hospital, the St. Petersburg Free Clinic Elder Care Clinic, Operation Par, Family Resources, Inc., AARP Senior Employment Program, and Florida Parent Child Center, which represents $64,676 of contribution towards the operational and maintenance expenses of the Sanderlin Center thus enhancing our ability to go forward with operation of the Center. Each of these agencies brought services into the community that help the Sanderlin Center meet its mission and program goals. The board of trustees decided that the remainder of the space would not be dedicated to outside agencies so that additional programs and services based on needs identified by the community could be established at the Center. This would allow us to accomplish our full mission of being a catalyst for empowerment. Nearly 3,000 feet of this remaining non-dedicated space will be renovated through private efforts, donations, and grant funds.
At the 1992 retreat, the Trustees gathered to refocus the vision and develop plans for the coming months. The months of hard work, listening and talking to others who were involved had prepared us for this meeting. The mission statement was refined, goals were written and programs ideas were laid out. Education, family life, economic programs, cultural arts, health and employment continue to be the focus of these goals programs.