Children and Teens in Port St. Joe, FL Find New Summertime Opportunities


Summer has a whole new feel for young people in the small coastal town of Port St. Joe, Florida.

A partnership between the Jessie Ball duPont Port St. Joe Capacity Building Fund and Gulf Coast Workforce Development Board, Inc., has led to a bustling summer day camp for children and teens, and a summer job internship program for older youth in a community where opportunities historically have been few.

Port St. Joe, with a population of fewer than 5,000, remains a largely segregated community. Schools, city government, most commercial establishments and the “suburbs” are in the southern, predominantly white part of the city, while “North Port St. Joe” is a predominantly black neighborhood of low to moderate income homes and few commercial establishments.

The hub of North Port St. Joe is what remains of the former Washington High School — a gymnasium and a small cluster of buildings that function as community offices and classrooms. It is here that WorkForce has created a different summer experience for young people in the neighborhood.

Five days a week, the gymnasium is filled with children shooting hoops and gathering on the bleachers. Outside, the athletic fields are used for soccer lessons. The classrooms provide space for crafts or computer-based activities.

From 75-100 children and teens attend camp each day.

“Last year I went crazy trying to keep track of who came and went each day,” said Kimberly Bodine, executive director of Gulf Coast WorkForce. “Then I realized that in this neighborhood, all of these children just walk to camp. They aren’t being dropped off and picked up by a parent. They just walk in.”

Programming — a mixture of sports, crafts, reading, group discussions and field trips — is managed by local volunteers and a cluster of students from Auburn University who have “adopted” Port St. Joe for their campus ministry outreach.

A hot lunch is provided each day and, Bodine said, the population of campers generally swells at mealtime. Campers also receive an afternoon snack before they leave for the day.

The camp is funded by a $103,173 grant awarded to Gulf Coast WorkForce from the Jessie Ball duPont Port St. Joe Capacity Building Fund at The Community Foundation in Jacksonville. Gulf Coast WorkForce is one of 24 regional boards across Florida that serve the workforce and training needs of Floridians. Gulf Coast Workforce, headquartered in Panama City, serves Gulf, Franklin and Bay counties.

Given its charter to support workforce and training needs, why is Gulf Coast WorkForce running a summer day camp?

“These are the workers of tomorrow,” Bodine said. “If we can capture them today, teach them good habits and motivate them to stay in school and work toward their goals, our job will be easier down the road.”

Bodine and her deputy, Jennifer German, are on site in Port St. Joe virtually every day overseeing the camp. Assisting them is Case Manager Assane Beye.

The three also coordinate and oversee a summer work internship program for older youth, ages 18-21 WorkForce solicits local businesses to provide the jobs, and WorkForce provides a salary of $200 a week. Interns work four days a week and, on the fifth day, attend financial management classes taught by WorkForce to help them learn how to manage their paycheck responsibly.

This summer, 20 youth have internships through the program.

Khrysten Keys, a rising junior at the University of Florida studying English, heard about the internship program through relatives while in school. She applied, was accepted and placed at The Star, Port St. Joe’s weekly newspaper, where she writes articles and handles general newsroom chores.

“She’s done a great job,” said Editor Tim Croft.

Across town at The Bridge at Bay St. Joe, a nursing home specializing in care for cognitively impaired adults, Ashley Robinson, 18, who just graduated from high school, has an internship providing activities for the nursing home residents.

Two interns from last summer, Dajon Williams and Shalonda Whitley, used their internship as a springboard to full-time jobs at The Bridge, where they have completed the coursework toward earning their Certified Nursing Assistant licenses.

“The internship gave me a lot of clarity in my career — understanding where my heart is and where I want to be,” said Williams. “It gave me my purpose so I could get on to my next goals.”

The program also provides supports to help the interns through the inevitable rough patches. Beye often will pick the interns up at home and take them to work when they have transportation challenges, for example. “We do what it takes to help them succeed,” he said.

Ron Reid, CEO of The Bridge, had nothing but praise for the WorkForce program.

“The value to an employer is enormous,” he said, “because WorkForce has already vetted these candidates. We know that they will show up to work on time, dressed appropriately and prepared to fulfill their responsibilities.”

The value of these programs to the Jessie Ball duPont Fund is significant as well.

“This community of young people desperately needs the programs that WorkForce is providing,” said Katie Ensign, senior program officer at the Jessie Ball duPont Fund. “Like children everywhere, they need constructive fun, they need structure and they need opportunities. In a community where local resources are few, the assets that WorkForce brings can make a tremendous difference.”