Youth Village Expanding To Meet Local Need
The Youth Village after-school program started 20 years ago in a spare room of a Niceville church with just five kids.
“That was including my daughter,” said Youth Village Founder Nellie Bogar.
Seeing a greater need in Fort Walton Beach, Bogar moved the nonprofit in 2004 to the old Striving for Perfection Ministries building on Pelham Road. Now, Youth Village has served more than 2,700 kids. The program, which serves kindergarten to eighth-grade students, stays at capacity with up to 50 kids on a waiting list.
“The walls feel like they’re closing in on you,” Bogar said with a laugh.
Youth Village will soon have room to grow. Earlier this month, the nonprofit had a groundbreaking ceremony at 700 Shady Lane, just a half-mile south of its current location. The new facility will be twice the size — 6,200 square feet — of the current one and will provide room for a voluntary prekindergarten program (VPK), known as the Youth Village Preschool Academy, which will be headed up by Bogar’s daughter, Valerie.
Valerie was 13 when Youth Village started. It was a safe environment for her and her friends after school where they could do homework. Now, she’s looking forward to continuing the legacy and serving a new generation of children.
“Many of the childcare programs in the area are full or almost full,” she said. “There are more and more families moving into the area and they need a safe place for their children to gather during non-school hours.”
According to data from the Florida Department of Education, 41% of children who participated in VPK were not ready for kindergarten for the 2017-2018 school year. Overall, the state had a 47% readiness rate, including children who did not attend VPK. Florida is also ranked near the bottom when it comes to per-child spending, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. On the high end, District of Columbia spends more than $17,000 per child, while Florida spends $2,177.
In Bogar’s experience, school readiness is an important void to be filled in Okaloosa County.
“We see some kids in kindergarten who can’t write or read yet,” she said. “We want to bring in those 3- to 5-year-olds to get them ready. We want to fill in the gap.”
Like a proud mother, Bogar said she’s seen firsthand how early education can make a difference in a child’s life.
“Some of our students have gone to join the military; one lady got a free ride to Loyola University in Louisiana,” she said. “Some of the students even come back to teach and volunteer.”
Beatrice Schutter was a “somewhat quiet child” when she started going to the Youth Village. She credits the nonprofit’s summer camps and theater program for helping her break out of her shell. She made friends and found a confidant in “Ms. Nellie.”
“The most impact came from knowing that someone cared,” she said.
When her husband — another Youth Village alumnus — was medically discharged from the Air Force, Schutter found herself looking for a second job and applied to Youth Village.
“Knowing that I had always dreamed of being a teacher, my husband encouraged me to apply,” she said. “He said ‘My dream job didn't work out, so maybe now it's time for you to chase yours.’”
It’s been a little over a year now and Schutter said she enjoys making a difference in the lives of children.
“One of the things parents love about us is that we spend time to focus on academics, whether it be by helping them with schoolwork or finding activities to help promote progress in their academics,” she said. “I’m happy to be able to give these kids the same comfort and care that I got in the program.”
Bogar said 95% of the children she serves live at or below the poverty level and come from single-parent families, which is why she relies on grants and donations to help subsidize costs. The good thing about VPK is that it’s free to all 4- and 5-year-olds who reside in Florida.
But before kids enroll, the facility has to be built. While Youth Village has purchased the land, Bogar said the total cost of the project is $750,000 for construction and new hires. So far, the nonprofit has raised a little over $200,000.
“We’re looking for the community to get involved,” Bogar said. “Anyone can give in terms of money, or by donating items like computers and furniture or volunteering.”
It wasn’t always Bogar’s intent to start a program like Youth Village, but she says, “God’s plan was better than mine.” She’s looking to bring Youth Village to more areas like Crestview and DeFuniak Springs.
“This is like a home for the kids — we’re more like a family,” she said. “They need to be here.”