ORLANDO, Fla. – If you visit the Boys & Girls Club in the West Lakes neighborhood in West Orlando, you can hear a cacophony of kids laughing, playing basketball, dancing or fine tuning their musical skills.
A lot happens inside this club.
All of it because of the names on the outside: Jacqueline Bradley and Clarence Otis. Philanthropists who rarely talk about their giving, but they made an exception in this case.
The husband and wife donated the initial $4 million to get the $9 million project off the ground in this historically Black neighborhood.
Bradley said the decision to build the club in West Lakes just made sense.
”We thought this is the perfect place because one, its location, we’re very close to Jones High School, we are close to Orange Elementary and the students can walk here with great ease,” she said.
Otis said building a Boys & Girls Club in West Lakes is not only the right place, but the right cause.
“This was the right kind of facility to really invest in the kids and make sure they had the resources that they need to thrive and to really have big aspirations and achieve those dreams,” Otis explained.
Otis had dreams of his own. He grew up in Watts, a neighborhood in south central Los Angeles. He described it as a place that was under resourced with substandard housing and schools as well as its share of crime. He said the nicest building in the area was a McDonald’s restaurant.
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But he said the area did have a lot of assets: the people.
“Most of those were people who were dedicating their time and attention to helping us,” he said.
Otis continued by saying, “I grew up in a community where I would not have gotten out and thrived without people investing in me. I came from a functional family, highly functional. My father worked all the time my mother did not. She raised us but because of my father’s work schedule, we needed other people to invest in us and get us places and take us places.”
When West Lakes was looking to build a Boys & Girls Club to invest in the kids in this community, nonprofit Lift Orlando’s CEO Terry Prather said they needed someone to fill big gaps in funding. They got that and so much more.
“And then steps up Clarence and Jacqui with big hearts and big pockets,” Prather said with a smile on his face.
Prather said they the two wanted to be involved in more than giving money, they wanted to make sure the club met the needs of a community they have been a part of for more than 30 years.
“They stepped up. They’ve been more than just fundraisers. Their heart and soul went into this project. We often talk about this as Jacqui’s place,” Prather said.
Prather said Jacqui often shows up unannounced and spends time with the kids who love seeing her. Her vision for the West Lakes Boys & Girls Club came to life as she played a big role in just about every aspect of designing it.
The 30,000 square-foot facility has room for 250 kids. It is the largest in Central Florida.
It wasn’t their intention to build the largest. Bradley comes from a family of educators. Her mom was a first-grade teacher and her dad was a junior high principal. She said she simply wanted the West Lakes kids to have opportunities that might otherwise pass them by.
“Often times young people, based on their economic situation, are not given the opportunity that they are so deserving of,” she said. She went on to say, “We wanted to make sure that we created a situation where irrespective of your economic background, you’re going to have a first-class experience.”
Once you walk in the doors of the two-story club, you’ll notice all the windows and high ceilings. There are several gathering spots where kids can sit and talk with one another. Bradley said she wanted the kids to be able to have meaningful conversations with one another. She said the pandemic really took away a lot of valuable time for these kids to communicate face-to-face. This club gives them space to reconnect.
Otis, a retired Darden Restaurants CEO, said helping these kids fulfill their potential is satisfying.
The man, who once oversaw more than a thousand restaurants that served people their favorite dishes, has never forgotten those who served him in his youth.
Now, he and his wife are feeding a community and helping them to grow. He said these boys and girls have so much potential.
“I just think about what they are going to become, what kind of parents and community leaders and how important that is and how for some of them that might not be possible without these kinds of experiences, without adults who are helping guide them and make them feel wanted,” he said.
Bradley said she hopes one day these kids will look back and have fond memories of the time spent at the Jacqueline Bradley & Clarence Otis Family Branch Boys & Girls Club. But she wants them to do more than look back. She wants them to give back too.
“I would like them to know that anything is possible because certainty growing up as a Black girl and my Black community, I went to all Black schools, that anything is possible. So color is not going to restrict you. And also I want them to know that it’s important to be of service,” Bradley said.