By Amy K. Brown
Gang members in tutus are not something you’d expect to see in a tough Tampa neighborhood—unless, that is, you’re visiting the Prodigy program.
Created through a partnership among Bay Area Youth Services (BAYS), Hillsborough Community College, and the University Area Community Development Corporation (UACDC), Prodigy is a unique juvenile diversion program aimed at keeping troubled kids out of trouble by introducing them to the arts. The UACDC provides the building and grounds, and BAYS provides case management.
“The university-area community, formerly known as ‘Suitcase City,’ is now the second largest depressed, blighted area in the state of Florida,” said state Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, who was instrumental in creating the UACDC and now sits as the nonprofit group’s chair. “There are over 40,000 economically disadvantaged residents. There are over 12,000 children that are school-aged, plus infants and babies.”
The area became known as “Suitcase City” because of the transience of the population.
“Over 90 percent of this community changes over in a given year,” Crist said. “This area suffers from the highest crime, the largest concentration of poverty, and the list goes on and on. When you look at juvenile crime [in the Tampa area], the majority of the juvenile activity and juvenile crime comes from the zip codes we service here,” he said.
Back in the early 1990s, several area organizations, including Hillsborough County government, the University of South Florida-area Community Civic Association, of which Crist is president, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, led by Janet Reno, and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office sought out a government “weed-and-seed” designation.
Suitcase City received the Justice Department designation — one of the first 15 nationwide — thanks to the community’s efforts to weed out the area’s violent offenders and help plant the seeds of a healthy neighborhood through early intervention, drug treatment, and economic revitalization and stimulation.
Through continuing needs assessments, it became apparent that the community needed a multipurpose facility “to provide a variety of services to an ever-changing community,” Crist said.
Local businesses and community groups donated millions, and the money was combined with state and government grants to form the nonprofit University Area Community Development Corporation to build and manage the community center.
“Unlike most public facilities, this is a public-private partnership,” said Crist. “We’re combining both private money and public money to provide public services.”
And, the crown jewel of that partnership, according to Crist, is the Prodigy program.
“What our vision is, is there are so many kids who have potential for talent, but they never realize it because they’re never given the opportunity,” he said.
The program teaches neighborhood kids visual and performing arts in order to modify their behavior and to provide new skills to enhance their learning abilities, Crist said.
More than a thousand kids between the ages of seven and 17 participate in Prodigy. Some are referred to the program from the state attorney’s office, and some are required to complete the 90-day program by other juvenile agencies — Teen Court, Drug Court, or the Department of Juvenile Justice. Others come directly from the neighborhood and attend on a volunteer basis.
“We are always looking for ways to reduce the occurrence of major crimes being committed by juveniles,” wrote Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober in a message to his assistant state attorneys. “Juvenile offenders who reside within the designated service area can be referred to the program . . . . Their offenses must have been either misdemeanors or first-time nonviolent felonies. Siblings of referred juveniles are also welcome to participate.”
Prodigy kids — whether required to be there or just attending for fun — register and attend classes in two major areas, said Larry Bukovey, Prodigy unit supervisor: visual arts like pottery, photography, painting, and drawing, and performing arts like dance, acting, improv, drumming, and guitar.
“The kids have an opportunity to go to these programs, and when they’re finished, when they’ve successfully completed the programs, they will not have a record [of their offense],” said Bukovey.
Most of the students have little or no artistic training, Crist said. For many, Prodigy is their first encounter with the arts.
Shannon, a Prodigy student, said that, thanks to her involvement in the Prodigy program, she plans on becoming a graphic artist — something she never would have known about before.
“They have a computer graphics class here, so I think it’s really good for me because I get to see more of what I’m going to be doing as a profession,” she said. “It helps me get some time under my belt for my job.”
These are also kids “who wouldn’t have normally been caught dead standing on the grounds of a theater that had ballet, much less [danced in one],” Crist said.
Last Christmas, 22 inner city children danced with the St. Petersburg Ballet Society in five performances of “The Nutcracker.” Sixteen of those children were adjudicated youth from Prodigy.
“These kids say, ‘Send us to a boot camp, but don’t put me on no stage in dance tights. Forget it. I don’t want to be like that in front of the rival gang.’ But, you know, we do that,” said Crist. “And, at first, it’s a little bit of punishment and torture, but once they realize that the moves they learn in ballet improve their basketball game and improve their football game . . . then all of a sudden it becomes cool.
“A lot of these guys and girls who are cut-ups in the classroom are natural performers. They’re looking for a venue. We give them that venue. When they realize they’ve got a talent and we’re able to help them channel it positively, then they move in that positive direction and they sit tight in school, they mind their teachers, they get through the class so they can come here and perform.”
Crist and Bukovey estimate that the program affects more than a thousand neighborhood kids directly through participation in Prodigy, and at least a thousand more indirectly, through their interactions with siblings and peers.
“It has been proven time and time again that children who are consistently involved with the study of music and musical instruments do better in math and sciences and have better focus in the classroom,” Crist said. “It’s also been proven that kids who are actively involved in theater and dance have better personal relationships with friends, with siblings, with peer groups, and with other races, genders, and diversities.”
And statistics show the program is successful at keeping these kids out of trouble. As part of their contract to provide case management services, BAYS must show that at least 75 percent of kids referred by agencies like the state attorney’s office complete the program, and 80 percent of participating kids referred for crimes remain crime-free for six months after release from the program.
“We’ve met that every time,” said John Burek, BAYS Circuit 13 supervisor. “National standards are much lower than that. [Prodigy] exceeds the national average for youth participating in a program like this.”
The success of the program is also due in large part to the UACDC facility, Crist said.
“In a community that has had nothing but pain and suffering and blight, we needed something to arise from the ashes of despair,” he said. “And, we thought of the beautiful phoenix, the bird who crashed and burned and rose from the ashes of despair. So does this building rise from the ashes of despair from the community here in Suitcase City.”
The building itself is laid out in the shape of the phoenix — one wing pointing south, one pointing north, its beak facing west out into the community, and its head, a tower, rising to the heavens. Digital cameras monitor the exterior and interior of the building. Vulnerable windows are barred for protection, but they don’t appear jail-like. The walls are sprinkled with brightly colored tiles, derived from local gangs’ graffiti which “has helped provide security here,” Crist said.
The phoenix provides a secure and nurturing atmosphere for Prodigy students to stay off the streets and become healthy and productive community members.
“Some of these kids are adjudicated felons,” Crist said. “And, all of a sudden, their whole attitude and outlook on life have changed, because now they realize that if they screw up, and they go into their adulthood as a screw-up, the rest of their natural life will be screwed up. That is probably the toughest thing to help a kid identify — that life is a lot more than what is today, that there are going to be a lot more tomorrows than there were yesterdays, and if you want them to be good and happy and enjoyable ones, then you have to start making your change now.
“Prodigy has been extremely effective in providing that kind of support and influencing and making those kinds of changes within a child’s mind. You’ll see kids who are still just as outspoken, who are still just as energetic, and still just as deviant, but you’ll see that energy being channeled in a positive direction, and being utilized in a positive way, so that they still get the satisfaction they need from their behavior, but they get it in a positive direction.”
Recent graduates of Prodigy and other UACDC programs will be honored June 22 at a gala hosted by the UACDC.
(Editor's Note: For updated information about the Prodigy program, visit www.prodigyarts.org)