Holding a burger in his left hand and shaking hands with his right, Chris Stokes walked around Micanopy’s Willie Mae Stokes Community Center Wednesday afternoon greeting everyone as an old friend.
At an event called “Burgers and Books,” the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office Youth and Community Resource Unit gave out free grilled hamburgers and hot dogs and provided books, mainly for children but also some for adults. More than 30 people attended.
“We are here to be part of our community,” said Sgt. Paul Pardue, the disproportionate minority contact and racial and ethnic disparity coordinator for the unit. “The best way to get to know people is to break bread with them.”
Pardue said the books were all donated to the program to increase literacy in communities.
Stokes, the chief executive officer for the community center, said the sheriff’s department came in December when the community center opened and talked about partnering with the center in the future. The cook-out and book distribution was the first of these events.
Since December, the center, named after Stokes’ mother, has become a staple venue for Micanopy activities for many citizens. Stokes said the center averages visits from 25 to 30 people a day, with 10 to 15 of those being adults who come in the morning to do job searches or chat. The rest are children enjoying a place to be after school, get homework done and have fun.
One of the center’s daily visitors is 12-year-old Brionna Tillman.
Delores Tillman, her grandmother, said Brionna walks to the center each day from Micanopy Academy along with other students of the 6th-through-12th-grade school. They do homework or read for 30 minutes if they do not have any homework.
Brionna said her favorite thing to do at the center is enjoy free time.
“We do whatever we want. Play on the Xbox, arts, and crafts, whatever,” Brionna said.
Tillman, who is raising Brionna and her 6-year-old sister Arionna, said they have been involved with the center from the beginning. She said they donated most of the supplies for the center’s backyard, which is named after the girls’ father, Roger Lee Tillman II, who died in 2015.
Brionna said she loves coming to the center.
“This is the most amazing place — I’ll tell you that,” she said.
Stokes said staff from the community’s schools offer tutoring two days a week.
He said he wants to start recreational basketball, flag football, softball, baseball, and soccer. He is just waiting for donations to make it happen.
The community center operates entirely on donations. Stokes and his wife, Dolly, provide money whenever there is a need.
Finishing the last bites of his burger, Stokes, pastor of the New Beginning Christian Worship Center located across the street, said one of the center’s primary goals is to keep children off the streets and out of trouble. To help reach that goal, he hopes the center will be able to offer a summer-long camp for area children.
“The kids will go on trips. There will be arts and crafts. We’ll hopefully be collaborating with 4-H. We have computer equipment we haven’t pulled out yet here,” Stokes said.
He said the center is also partnering with Marion and Alachua County to help people with utility payments.
Stokes is happy to see how the community center has blossomed since its opening and how it has benefited Micanopy.
“We really strive here, providing a caring atmosphere socially and developing the community’s education,” Stokes said. “Our motto is to be the place where education and caring happen.”