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A Legacy Honored: Girls Place receives $15,000 in honor of Renae Clements

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When recently retired Executive Director of Girls Place, Renae Clements, received the news that she had won the Safeco Insurance Community Hero Award, she responded, “First, I was in shock, and then I was thrilled. So many people helped make this happen. It was an amazing effort that will truly pay off in terms of helping our clients.”

Nominated by Kacey Anderson of McGriff-Williams Insurance, Renae was part of a nationwide contest in which individuals of outstanding achievement in community service competed for a total of $15,000 for their organization. By receiving enough votes to get through the first round, Renae won an initial $5000 for Girls Place. Then, even by generous Gainesville standards, a huge outpouring of voting support over a three-week period came from a wide swath of businesses, churches and individuals, putting Renae over the top into first place.

Gia Arvin of Matchmaker Realty, the current president of the Operations Board of Directors of Girls Place, commented, “It was really incredible – the amount of assistance everyone gave, beginning with Kacey and the team at McGriff Williams Insurance. Renae is the most deserving person I know, and we were all ecstatic about the recognition and honor for one of our own.”

The fortunate recipient of the financial award, Girls Place, is an after school enrichment program. It had its inception in the early 1980s when Gainesville’s Junior Women’s Club saw a need for after-school athletics for girls who were, at the time, excluded from the Boys Club. Renae was hired to run the newly formed Girls Club, and did so very successfully for the next thirty years.

With a background in public relations and Florida state politics, Renae combined her business savvy with a passion for education to help empower young girls. At Girls Club—later renamed Girls Place—she raised funds, secured a five-acre land donation from the city of Gainesville, and oversaw the building of a clubhouse. The facility gave girls, ages five through eighteen, a safe and productive place to go after school, over the Christmas holidays and during spring/winter breaks and summer months. Under skilled supervision on the campus, they could study, do homework, socialize, engage in sports, express themselves creatively, and grow in confidence.

Gia’s enthusiasm for this non-profit organization is rooted in the fact that she was a participant as a child in the Girls Place basketball and softball cheerleading program. She recalled, “It was a wonderful setting in which to make friends, learn new skills, embrace opportunities for growth, and just have fun. We all admired Mrs. Clements for her tremendous dedication and her mentoring skills; she was, and is, a total inspiration.”

Organizationally, the division of Girls Place age groups is done in way such that girls from diverse ethnicities and backgrounds are brought together, engendering open-mindedness, positivity, celebration of differences and mutual cooperation.

“Through inter-generational sharing, we help the girls build self-esteem and become strong and independent,” Renae stated. “Many of them are already coping wonderfully with difficult situations. We’re here to help them along by giving them love and guidance, and teaching them respect for self and others. If children know they are loved, they can accomplish anything.”

Another way such values are instilled in the girls is through the mentorship program of Girls Place. Once a week, someone from Gainesville’s professional community speaks with different age groups on a particular topic: gardening, healthy eating habits, occupational options, artistic pursuits, etc. These efforts are bolstered by weekly field trips after school and during the summer months that give the kids exposure to museums, parks, local businesses and nature trails. Specialty classes are also offered periodically on topics such as cooking, martial arts and agriculture.

With a keen emphasis on physical fitness, the “Morning Miles” program encourages parents and kids to walk or run every morning before school starts. A gardening program involves the girls in growing their own fruits and vegetables. The on-campus gymnasium hosts basketball and volleyball practice hours well into the evening. (There are currently forty different Girls Place teams!) Besides soccer and softball, teams are also developing in the sports of Lacrosse and track and field.

Although Girls Place has a small, highly-qualified paid staff, all of this supervising, counseling and mentoring of at least 120 girls a day would not be possible without the wholehearted efforts of approximately 200 dedicated volunteers. This includes a Grandparents Program, harnessing the considerable life skills of seniors in the community to read, draw, and interact meaningfully with the girls, as well as a large number of University of Florida students.

“It’s really heartwarming that, after leaving Girls Place as participants, a number of young women return to serve as counselors and mentors,” Gia added. “Their experience and enthusiasm are channeled back into the program with wonderful results. Kacey Anderson, on our Board of Directors, is a great example of this.”

Girls Place has merited financial assistance from United Way and the Central Florida Community Action Agency. But in order to keep the non-profit facility in excellent condition, running smoothly and expanding with ever-increasing demand, a busy round of signature fundraising events happens throughout the year. “Hats, Hearts and Handbags” features Gainesville women leaders buying and decorating tables for a theme contest and silent auction. “Swamp Chomp” is a fun, tailgating fundraiser during Gator season that presents a live band, dinner, dancing and silent auction to benefit the Mentoring Program. For the first time this year, the organization hosted “Giddy Up for Girls Place,” an event centered on a country western theme of boots, jeans and barbecue, which supported capital improvements on the campus.

According to Gia, “The $15,000 Safeco Community Hero Award given to Renae Clements will be used to expand our Mentoring Program and to install cameras to improve our building’s safety and security. With so many people coming and going throughout each day, it’s an added measure to ensure the girls’ safety.”

Renae added, “In all of our years of operation, Girls Place has never had any debt service. Fundraising has always been the biggest challenge, because we’re a grass-roots organization with no association with a large, umbrella corporation. We’re locally supported, and we’d like to keep it that way. We’d also love to be able to increase our number of partial scholarships.”

The after school activities, athletics, specialty classes and summer day camp programs have comprised a winning combination of benefit for thousands of girls in the Gainesville area over the last three decades. The foundation was solidly laid by a remarkable woman, Renae Clements. Commenting on handing over the leadership baton to the new Executive Director, Janna Magette, she said, “I have so very many cherished memories of girls who came from all types of backgrounds and prospered in our nurturing environment of team players. I’m grateful to have been part of it all.”

 

 

 

 

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