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Angel Bettis, 7, left, and Quivari McClinton, 7, swing during free time while taking part in the Harlem Heights-YMCA summer camp at the Harlem Heights Community Center.
Angel Bettis, 7, left, and Quivari McClinton, 7, swing during free time while taking part in the Harlem Heights-YMCA summer camp at the Harlem Heights Community Center. / Andrew West/The News-Press
Kathryn Kelly / Terry Allen Williams/The News-Press

The Heights Foundation

» Budget: The $493,000 annual budget will increase to about $1 million when the new building opens.
» Location: 15570 Hagie Drive in Harlem Heights, Fort Myers
» People served: The foundation touches about 1,700 people in the Harlem Heights community.
» How to help: Visit heightsfoundation.org or call 482-7706 to donate or volunteer.

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All Kathryn Kelly wanted to do for Thanksgiving in 1999 was give a needy family a turkey — but what followed forever changed her life and her community.

After Kelly donated the turkey, she kept finding reasons to visit the Harlem Heights family and its six children. After a few trips, she was invited inside for the first time.

“The kids were sleeping on mats on this damp, concrete floor,” Kelly said, “and rats were crawling all over the place at night.”

Meeting that family, who lived less than a mile from where Kelly grew up, inspired her to found the Heights Foundation. The organization strives to eliminate poverty through education in the low-income community of Harlem Heights. It provides free or reduced charge services such as tutoring to neighborhood children and job training to their parents.

This year, the Heights Foundation has been named a finalist for The News-Press People of the Year Award. The nomination comes at a crucial time for the foundation — it’s community center, seven years in the making, will open in the next month or two.

The center will allow the foundation to consolidate programs that are now spread all over the neighborhood, Kelly said. The vibrant red, blue and yellow building also could allow the foundation to reach three or four times as many people, and will provide new programs such as food service training, drama and dance, Kelly said. There will be a gallery to display student artwork and an outdoor stage perfect for community festivals, family reunions and weddings.

The road to completion wasn’t easy. After about three years of fundraising and planning, the foundation broke ground on the building in 2008. The same year, the country entered a recession and a donor had to withdraw a $4 million pledge, leaving the foundation in debt. Staff called an emergency board meeting and made the tough decision to halt construction.

It was difficult to keep faith in the project, and some people told her to quit, Kelly said. But thanks in part to a recent $1 million donation from a part-time Sanibel Island couple, construction started again in July.

The building needs kitchen equipment for its food service training program and sound and light equipment for its auditorium. That will probably cost between $150,000 and $200,000, Kelly said.

Workman is quick to clarify the foundation is not about charity — it’s about providing opportunities and removing obstacles. For one family, it was a $100 loan so a mother can buy a telephone. For another, it was a staff member who noticed an exhausted child, found out the child had no bed at home, and provided one.

The Heights Foundation encourages everyone who comes through its doors to give back in some way, no matter how little they have. It’s a message that’s stuck with some of its youngest members.

“You always need to help someone else,” said Victor Cruz, a fifth-grader at Heights Elementary. “Because if, let’s say an old lady is at Publix and she drops something, we would have to help her out.”

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