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Westside Man Runs Youth Center For Kids 'Society's Given Up On'

Lindsey Kilbride

The Duval County school district has many programs in place for at-risk youth: mentorships, graduation coaches, reading interventionists, and so on.

But guidance for kids doesn’t always come from the district. One Westside man is taking the matter into his own hands.


On a recent Wednesday afternoon, James Gandy was wearing a T-shirt and flip-flops. His hair is shorter on top and longer in the back. He’s tan, looks outdoorsy. Gandy’s been running a tree service business for 30 years.

“I just put that on the back burner,” he says. “I work about one day a week, and I work around what I have to do with these kids.”

These days, Gandy heads an afterschool program out of a one-room building behind Abundant Life Christian Fellowship church on the Westside.

That afternoon, Gandy was working on fractions with one of the kids.

“This is a straight-A student right here,” Gandy says with a smile.

He points to another student at the same table.

“He’s getting there,” Gandy says. He's got one grade to bring up.”

The donated center doesn’t have much. There’s a small kitchenette, a few tables, one computer.

Gandy says on a typical day they do homework, read, learn new vocabulary words and then play outside. He also feeds the kids dinner. That night it was fajitas.

Gandy and his wife pay a lot of the center’s expenses out of pocket because, for the kids, the center is free.

“So I went out into the community," he says. "We started feeding them over the summer feeding program. Gang kids, kids who wander the neighborhood after dark, and they came every single day. We started doing projects with them.”

Anywhere from 12 to 25 kids come every day.

Credit Lindsey Kilbride / WJCT News
A elementary-schooler does his homework at the Abundant Life Community Center.

“I got directly involved with every teacher,” Gandy says. “I’ve had meetings with every teacher for all of my kids at the community center, so the teachers kind of use me instead of the parents. Most of these parents don’t have time to be dealing with this, so it’s been a gradual trust kind of thing.”

He says a lot of kids arrive with poor grades. Some are years behind in reading. He keeps copies of all their report cards in a filing cabinet.

One elementary-schooler went from a semester of C’s and D’s to all A’s. Another girl is working to bring up her C in science. Gandy says he sees potential in these kids that other’s don’t.

“When I got fourth-graders who never get encouragement because they’ve been left behind in the first grade, the difference is unbelievable when they start getting past — when they get to second-grade level and they know they’re making monster progress — now they feel like they’re capable of achieving the same kind of stuff the rest of the kids are.”

On weekends, Gandy takes the kids on field trips, to libraries, camping. They toured the kitchen of an Applebee’s to get a taste of the restaurant business.

The Abundant Life Center relies on volunteers. That afternoon, 15-year-old Imani Smith-Pearman was helping a younger child with homework.

The Frank H. Peterson sophomore says she grew up in the surrounding neighborhood.

“I come up here for volunteer hours, and also it’s fun and good to know that I’m helping a little child out,” Smith-Pearman says.

She says she knows what can happen if kids don’t have people like her around.

“A lot of kids that I went to elementary with now, since we didn’t have nothing like this when we was little, a lot of those kids are like fighting, in gangs or in jail now, doing some bad stuff,” she says.

She says coming to the center keeps her on the track to going to college. She wants to be a pastry chef.

Gandy says he started off on the wrong track himself — in and out of detention centers — until a mentor came into his life.

“These kids, to me, if somebody doesn’t step in, are not going to succeed in life. They’re our future criminals, they’re our future 16-, 17-year-old mothers that get stuck in the cycle,” he says. “Most of society's given up on those kids. In school they’re acting out because they’ve been left behind.  So we tell them we love them every day. We encourage them to do better than they’re doing. We fight through the tears.”

He doesn’t think sheriff, mayor, or superintendent can fix his neighbors’ problems. He says it’s up to the community.

Lindsey Kilbride was WJCT's special projects producer until Aug. 28, 2020. She reported, hosted and produced podcasts like Odd Ball, for which she was honored with a statewide award from the Associated Press, as well as What It's Like. She also produced VOIDCAST, hosted by Void magazine's Matt Shaw, and the ADAPT podcast, hosted by WJCT's Brendan Rivers.