The Speer YMCA exhibits an educational and economic impact for the community

Come August, an important partnership between Pinellas County and the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg expands a healthy world of possibilities for Tampa Bay area middle school students. With the opening last December, of the sprawling, 19-acre Speer YMCA, everything is in place to welcome the first class of the new Mangrove Bay Middle School, who will share the Speer YMCA’s location and facilities.

Located on 62nd Avenue, at what was once the site of Riviera Middle School, the joint YMCA/ Mangrove Bay campus boasts an 111,757 square foot two-story, multi-purpose building, nearly half of which will be shared by the school and the YMCA — including a media center, dining hall, gymnasium, culinary center, pool, sports field, track and garden. Mangrove Bay Middle School will be a health and wellness leadership magnet school, for 600 students, completing the current Pinellas County Schools health and wellness focus with an elementary school and high school already thriving as Tampa Bay area charter schools. 

Together, the YMCA and the school district are building on a model that has been successful in select YMCAs across the country. 

“We visited a number of facilities, across the nation, and learned from those visits, taking the best of what we learned and also realizing what not to do,” says David Jezek, president and chief executive officer of the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg. He cites the positive example of the Orlando-area Lake Nona YMCA, which shares its buildings with Northlake Park Community School. “It’s been a catalyst for Lake Nona’s overall community development and it’s been a model that’s been replicated across the country. We are now among sixteen others that use this type of model, a YMCA partnered with a local, public school, making an educational and economic difference to the wider community.”

The Speer/Mangrove Bay initiative is simply the latest in a long line of successes between Pinellas County and the Greater YMCA of St. Petersburg, a partnership that stretches back nearly thirty years. 

“We’re pretty proud of all we’ve been able to accomplish. In addition to the school, we’ve broken ground, recently, on a number of projects including the establishment of three preschool centers,” Jezek says. “We’ve learned it’s important to guide children sooner rather than later. And starting the YMCA in the Cayman Islands is something you don’t get to do that often.”

Jezek is referring to the 2012 start-up of the YMCA in the Cayman Islands. According to their website, the YMCA in the Cayman Islands was launched in the same way the original Y movement began, in London, England, in 1844, from a small group of concerned citizens who wanted a community center to provide youth engagement and health education. The organizers were put in touch with Jezek for guidance. 

The Greater YMCA of St. Petersburg “was instrumental” in setting up the Cayman Island Y. Closer to home, the YMCA has been one of three providers of before and after school care, across the Pinellas school district, for the last two decades, with a presence in twenty-four Bay area schools. Local YMCAs also run seasonal programs, like Summer Bridges, which supports education and guides children’s physical development, with the ever-popular YMCA camps, exercise and sports programs, or swimming lessons. To Jezek, the most important impact is on people but you can’t deny the positive economic impact as well. 

“Our Speer YMCA/ Mangrove Bay Middle School project alone has created over 400 jobs, including construction-related jobs,” Jezek says. “We’ve hired over 100 employees already and, when the school opens this fall, the combination of new jobs in our community will be over 200. We’re just gearing up to hire for summer camp and our aquatics staff with the new pool opening. We have over 5000 members already at Speer in just the first two months. The membership response has far exceeded our expectations.”

Membership fees are just one of the ways the YMCA can continue its good work across the Bay area, with various fundraisers and levels of donation available. Many individuals choose to send a local kid to camp, or volunteer themselves, with dozens of opportunities. Local businesses can show their support with corporate sponsorship. 

“It’s one pair of pants,” explains Jezek, “but there’s a lot of different pockets to fill. The success of the Speer YMCA will make us an even stronger organization, so that we can continue to have meaningful impact in all the areas that are in need of our services.” 

Right now, YMCAs across the country are getting ready for Healthy Kids Day, the Y’s national initiative to improve the health and well-being of kids and families. Free and open to the public, the events will be held this year on April 20, at two different Pinellas locations, the Bardmoor YMCA and the Jim and Heather Gills YMCA, featuring healthy snacks, music, exercise demonstrations and more. For over 30 years, YMCAs and their communities have hosted free community events aimed at inspiring kids and families to keep their minds and bodies active throughout the summer months and beyond. 

Jezek will be there, of course, along with his extended family. He’s a YMCA lifer, recently celebrating 30 years, professionally, with the YMCA not even counting summer camp work while a teenager. 

“I’m second-generation,” Jezek says. “My father had a 35-year career with the YMCA and my brother as well. You can almost say that the YMCA is in my DNA.” 

Jezek has been the CEO of the YMCA, in St. Petersburg, since 2008, and it’s his last stop, after working for YMCAs in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. “It’s been an exciting sixteen years here,” Jezek concludes. “We’ve seen tremendous growth and we have so many more exciting projects in the works.”♦

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