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Lightning employees partner to Renovate historic downtown school

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

Inside the main entry of St. Peter Claver Catholic School, a group of Tampa Bay Lightning employees are busy transforming a dingy hallway into a welcoming vestibule.

The temporary workers are each armed with a roller brush. Trays of yellow paint sit atop a drop cloth protecting the carpeted floor.

A swath of the new color is applied to the marked, faded wall. It immediately brightens. Soon, all 20 people are rolling, dipping, layering and smoothing.

In less than an hour, the entire hallway is completed.

Peeking her head out from an adjacent office, Sister Maria Goretti Babatunde, St. Peter Claver's principal since 2008, marvels at the pace of the helpers. She can't remember the last time the school received this kind of attention.

"I've been here close to nine years now, and we've never had this huge makeover," she said.

Last week, over 150 volunteers from the Lightning, United Way Suncoast, Majestic Athletic and students from the University of South Florida Sports and Entertainment Management MBA program joined forces to renovate the downtown Tampa structure tucked behind a brand new apartment building for senior citizens on the corner of Governor and Scott Streets. St. Peter Claver has been running continuously since 1894 and is the oldest predominantly African American school in the state of Florida.

"This school is 121 years old and there's a lot of maintenance and TLC that the building needs, and having this done with people who are just generous is really huge," Babatunde said.

Students range from pre-school to eighth graders. Most are from low-income families with challenging home lives.Many are on scholarship, meaning the school must find creative ways to come up with or account for the nearly $400,000 it must raise yearly to continue operating.

"It is really critical to our thriving, not just survival, but we thrive, and this type of support helps us stay on track and do great things in the community and with our children," said Harold Jackson, who graduated from St. Peter Claver in 1966 and is a member of its Advisory Board.

On this typically-Florida, humid, mid-August day, sweat-soaked volunteers alternate painting chipped and greying picnic tables, wiping down kitchen appliances in the school's cafeteria, drawing a mural on the inside of a bathroom and tilling a small patch of grass to be used as a place where a vegetable garden could grow.

Meanwhile, students at St. Peter Claver, having started school three days earlier, are temporarily housed at the Boys & Girls Club behind the school where more volunteers keep the younger kids entertained by reading books and watching movies while the older students play games in the gymnasium.

"For the Lightning, it's important for us every day to lead the way and to hopefully inspire others along the way to do good," Lightning senior director of community relations Kasey Smith said. "And it can be very small or it could be something a little larger, it doesn't matter. If we all can just do our little part and collaborate and think always that there's someone behind us that's not as fortunate as we are and somebody in front of us who maybe is a little bit more fortunate but we all keep working together to really better the community, then we all can be proud that we're doing the right thing."

Around lunchtime, Little Caesars donated and delivered nearly 100 pizzas for students and volunteers. ProShred also got involved, disposing of unwanted documents in a secure fashion.

After lunch, students, teachers and volunteers chose sides for an impromptu pickup basketball game. One of the players, Nicholas Castro, the director of volunteer engagement strategies for United Way Suncoast, said he couldn't wait for the reveal later in the afternoon, when students would be ushered into their newly-renovated school and see the upgrades firsthand.

"This is why I do what I do," he said. "A lot of the kids are not privileged to get certain items, to get certain treatment. This school definitely needs attention, and, especially it's just right outside the downtown area, it's overlooked very easily. So, knowing that the kids are going to see the big makeover, the big change on their face is priceless."

Janelle Wells, a visiting assistant professor in USF's sports and entertainment management program, spent the morning as captain of team bathroom. Her crew was tasked with giving each bathroom a face lift.

Despite the beads of sweat gradually dripping into her eye, Wells said she enjoyed getting her hands dirty to be a part of the legacy of St. Peter Claver. She hopes to make the volunteer initiative a "legacy project" to teach her USF students about giving back and investing in the community.

The heat's not going to stop us," she said. "When you see a smile on those children's faces, it makes all the difference. I can sweat. I can put my hands in bleach. I can wipe down a toilet bowl. It doesn't matter because nothing means more than the smile on that child's face."

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