The front lawn of the Rubonia Community Center was bustling with activity on Wednesday afternoon as community members planted vegetables in orange Home Depot buckets. The activity spilled to the inside of the center as children played games and completed homework.
Last year at this time, this was not the case. Much to the dismay of the community, the center had been closed since 2013. But the center reopened last summer, bringing with it the return of the community’s gathering place.
“It is ecstatic,” said Derrick Randall, a Rubonia native. “It’s overwhelming to the point of you know the community is coming back together, and that has been the whole mission of the D.L. Randall Foundation.”
For the last few months, Randall, who is founder of the D.L. Randall Foundation, has been leading programming for Rubonia youth at the community center Tuesday through Friday. About 40 elementary, middle and high school students come to the center, 1309 72nd St. E., after school where they do homework, arts & crafts and group exercises.
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Most importantly for Randall, it keeps the children off the streets.
“We are just trying to provide warmth and comfort to them so they grow and develop in a good environment,” he said.
To help run the youth program at the community center, the D.L. Randall Foundation received $150,000 from the county for the one-year period that runs until Sept. 30.
“This is what it is all about for me,” Randall said. “Now I am able to give back and watch them grow and develop. That’s what it is all about for me. Everything I do in Rubonia is a joy. For me, it’s always a joy being at home.”
On a recent afternoon, 11-year-old Maria Hernandez was playing foosball at the community center.
For the fifth-grader at Palm View Elementary School, her favorite part of coming to the community center everyday after school are the projects.
“Sometimes we do projects here,” she said, adding that her favorite was making volcanoes.
Eugenio Betancourt, a third-grader at Palm View, says he has made a lot of friends at the Rubonia Community Center.
“It’s fun,” the 8-year-old said. The games and the library are his favorite part.
Rubonia Mardi Gras returns
The signs leading into Rubonia call it the “Home of the Mardi Gras” and, after a two-year hiatus, the historical event will make its return Feb. 25.
“I think the community is very excited,” Randall said. “I think everyone is anticipating it and overjoyed at the fact that we are having the Mardi Gras again.”
The event, which had been put on annually for more than 35 years, had been canceled mostly because of financial reasons. But the D.L. Randall Foundation is bringing back the event this year.
“Everybody is really on board,” Randall said. “Everything is starting to speed up. A lot of vendors are reaching out on a daily basis. The community is excited, which is a good thing. If not a community event, then who are we doing it for?”
At 11 a.m. that Saturday, a parade will take place on Bayshore Road before the event returns to the community center grounds from noon to 6 p.m.
“The one thing that is different is this year it is more organized in a stable area,” Randall said. “We are having it inside the grounds of the community center, whereas it has usually been up at the front area of the Rubonia community. This year we are bringing it down here.”
The theme is family reunion, Randall said.
“We want to bring it back to the family and kid-oriented atmosphere,” he said. “That’s the same thing that brought me back home here to do the things that I am doing now. The memory of coming up through the parade was so warm and family-oriented that I wanted to come back and give that back to the kids that are growing up now.”
At this year’s Mardi Gras, the community’s youth will be in positions of leadership as they will be both volunteering as well as welcoming people to Rubonia, Randall said.
“We will have a float with a king and queen that we will pick from the kids of the center that have been stellar in leadership and school,” he said.
For Louis Goff, a Rubonia native, Mardi Gras brings a “great feeling in the community.”
“It’s been greatly missed,” Goff said. “See a lot of people enjoying themselves. Just the whole atmosphere of Mardi Gras. Everyone comes together to work toward one common goal.”
Rubonia community learns to garden
On a recent afternoon, Mary Brown, the Rubonia Community Association chairwoman, sat outside the Rubonia Community Center on a white folding chair as she planted collard greens and bell peppers.
“We need fresh vegetables,” Brown said.
Manatee County Master Gardeners were at the center to teach residents in Rubonia, which is considered a food desert, how to grow vegetables in above-ground buckets. Thanks to a MLK Day of Service grant from the State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota, the master gardeners hosted the Plant-A-Pail program in Rubonia.
“We like Rubonia a lot,” said Debbie Lansing, president of Manatee County Master Gardeners. “They are very enthusiastic growers here. They like growing things.”
While initially intended for the adults in the Rubonia community, the children inside the community center came out that day to plant vegetables.
“It’s great that the kids are getting involved,” Brown said. “This is great for all the children to be involved.”
The community has started to get involved with the programming at the center, Brown said.
“They are enjoying it,” she said. “We are getting more commitment from the people. That’s what makes it work once we get commitment.”