As a firefighter, Anthony Williamson often sees people at their worst moments. He also sees some of the most unsafe parts of the city.
Years ago, while en route to calls, he saw children jumping up and down on a dirty mattress that had been thrown away. It was their playground. He saw kids playing basketball on a court littered with needles and broken bottles.
"We would see kids that were just in despair. They were despondent. You could see the looks on their faces, like they didn't have hope. … And so we were like, 'We've got to be able to do more,'" said Williamson, a battalion chief for the Indianapolis Fire Department.
So in the early 1990s, he and another firefighter decided to start a nonprofit to serve at-risk kids in Indianapolis. They envisioned an organization that does not just save people when they've already reached rock bottom, but that helps them at an age when positive influence matters the most. They called it Saint Florian Center, named after the patron saint of firefighters.
Today, the center relies on a small group of firefighters who volunteer to provide a variety of services, including summer camps and after-school programs. It serves predominantly Black and Hispanic children, many of whom are from single-parent households.
The summer camps last seven weeks. Children go through a structured curriculum that teaches them teambuilding and leadership skills, fitness and survival tactics, philanthropy and social justice, CPR, entrepreneurship and more. During after-school programs, dedicated to students ages 10 to 14, volunteers help with their homework, conduct leadership activities and teach kids practical skills on, for example, how to confront someone who's tempting them to do something bad.
The center also has a program that teaches high school students how to interview for jobs and how to keep them, among other things. Because so many of these kids have never traveled outside the city, or even outside their neighborhood, the center also takes them on out-of-town field trips, as well as outings to local parks and museums.
Williamson said they rely almost entirely on donations, fundraisers, grants and company sponsorships. Whenever they're short, he and his volunteers use their own money to make up the difference. Because the center does not have a brick-and-mortar headquarters, more than 90% of the money is spent on programs, Williamson said.
Lori Jones' 19-year-old daughter, Jaime, began attending programs at the center when she was 7. Over the years, Jones watched as her daughter's confidence grew.
"She flourished so, so much," Jones said. "She was confident enough to actually try out for the cheerleading team and the dance troupe, things that she never really wanted to do before."
Jaime also excelled at school, eventually getting an $80,000 academic scholarship at Butler University, where she's now a sophomore studying communications and a member of the cheerleading team. Jones said she's considering becoming a sports reporter.
The center is Williamson's life's work, a combination of everything that the school-teacher-turned-firefighter loves to do: helping and teaching children.
Growing up, he was one of 10 kids raised by a single mother. The holidays were one of the toughest, he said, because he always ended up as the one kid with no gifts. So on holidays, his organization donates dozens of toys to several churches and organizations in the city.
"I started thinking about running a summer camp when I was in middle school. That's how long I've been thinking about doing this," Williamson said. "So to see it come to life is just something that you can't even describe."
What is your organization's mission?
Saint Florian Center serves at-risk kids by helping them excel academically and develop problem-solving and leadership skills.
How many people do you serve?
The center serves about 1,000 youth, ages 6 to 17.
What is your organization's No. 1 need?
The organization is most in need of:
Culturally diverse books that portray kids of different backgrounds and ethnicities
Gift donations for the holidays, like stuffed animals
Movie passes, museum tickets and other activities for children
How can people get involved?
Go to the center's website, https://www.saintfloriancenter.org/, to volunteer or make a donation.
Making a difference with IndyStar: Support Season for Sharing
The shared mission of IndyStar’s Our Children initiative and annual Season for Sharing campaign is to harness the power of journalism to make a difference in the lives of Central Indiana youth. We invite you to join us by making a financial contribution. The Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust will match donations dollar-for-dollar, up to $25,000. All charitable donations are tax-deductible.
Funds raised during this year’s campaign will be distributed in early 2023 to organizations serving primarily Marion County youth and families.
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Contact IndyStar reporter Kristine Phillips at (317) 444-3026 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @bykristinep.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Season for Sharing: Saint Florian Center helps Indianapolis' at-risk kids