The success of the Gaston Point Family Fun Day, an event initiated by four Southern Miss School of Social Work students, was about more than getting an A on a class project.
The back-to-school event, held Aug. 4 in the West Gulfport community, was a success by any measure – in or out of the classroom. Approximately 500 people showed up, and 250 backpacks and supplies were handed out to Gaston Point Elementary School students, according to Mickey Gholar, president of the sponsoring organization, the West Gulfport Civic Club.
“This is a very good jumping off point, and good starting point, what we did this weekend,” Gholar says. “Everyone is proud of what we did. We lifted the school spirit up. The spirit was high, and we’re going to try to continue doing this.”
Gholar praised the efforts of the four social work graduate students – Kiani Abel, Heather Alfonso, Tequila Hall and Gloria Smith-Sims – who conducted a needs assessment for the civic club and conceived the idea for the event as part of their Program and Community Development class this summer.
“When the USM group came in, that just put a good stamp on Gaston Point about moving forward and getting better,” he says.
We’re all together in this as a community and city.
Alfonso, one of three Gulfport residents among the students – Hall is from Waveland – says it was an easy decision to get involved with this community and this project.
“We kind of got plugged in because this happens to be right next door to me. We had a choice, but I said, ‘let’s pick this one.’ ”
Alfonso says she is all for experiences that get students to take real action. “I’m pro-experiential learning, so I’m for anything that gets us out of the classroom to see what some of the difficulties are but also to really to help people overcome boundaries instead of reading, talking about it or seeing it in a PowerPoint. So we ran with it instead of just developing a mock program.”
That approach is why she wasn’t concerned when her social work team encountered some initial doubts about their intentions.
“I’ll tell you one thing a lady said when we were there for the first meeting with the civic club. We explained what we were doing and one lady said, ‘Oh, they’re just doing this for a grade and don’t care.’
“That kind of hit home, because we really do care about the community and want to help them and do something that would be as long term as we could make it. I’m the only one that lives near the Gaston Point community, but we all cared about their issues.
“That’s everybody’s issue. We’re all together in this as a community and city.”
Gholar says the biggest issue the community faces is the departure of many of its younger residents, leaving behind more elderly and disabled citizens. That has also led to a decreased enrollment in the local schools.
“It is more like a senior citizen community, and there is a growing need for community help,” he says. “There is a lot of rental property in the area, and that means it is not as fortunate as some of the areas in Harrison County.
“It’s not as wealthy of a community as you’d want it to be. Parents are just not able to buy their children stuff, so buying the book bags, that really helped out a lot.”
The community is rallying with the help of Climb CDC, a community development organization that offers workforce training, housing and financial counseling, housing development and disaster-recovery resources; Goodwill, which offers workforce training; and Families First for Mississippi, which offers classes on life skills, parenting and workplace essentials.
Alfonso and her classmates have also connected with the Gulfport City Council and the Junior Auxiliary of the Gulfport. They hope the combined efforts of the involved organizations will lead to the creation of a Boys and Girls Club for Gaston Point and West Gulfport. “It will need a lot of community support, but it will allow kids to have good programming after school and in the summer,” Alfonso says.
Gholar says the outpouring of support is just what the local students – and the community as a whole – need. “We showed the kids that someone cares, that someone out there is reaching out to them and wants them to do better and to do good.
“Now it’s up to the parents to keep it going. We have some more issues, plenty more to do that doesn’t involve children that we have to take care of in our own community. And we’re trying to do that.”
About the West Gulfport Civic Club
Meetings are held the second Tuesday of each month, from 5:30-7 p.m., at the Gaston Point Community Center, 1506 Mills Ave. Or call (228) 860-3428 for more information.