INDIAN RIVER COUNTY – When a school bus from Wabasso rumbled past the white fences of Windsor last week, the glorious day at the beach that lay ahead for the 53 children on board was largely thanks to an unusual alliance of two women.
Seemingly worlds apart, yet barely a causeway away, Cynthia Bardes of Windsor and Verna Wright of Wabasso found common ground at the Dasie Hope Center, just across the Wabasso Bridge.
There, in a tightly-knit, economically depressed community, four generations of Wright’s family have lived and worked. Ten years ago, Wright opened an after-school center there with a full-day summer program.
Bardes, with Windsor’s help, saved that program from closing.
With one luncheon, proposed by Bardes and sponsored by Windsor, enough money was raised – $26,000 – to keep the doors open.
The Dasie Hope Center has always struggled financially, relying to a large extent on barrier island donations.
Recognized for its outstanding work, the center remains largely unknown to those outside of the tiny township of Wabasso.
Bardes discovered the center just months ago, when she convinced her granddaughter to donate a bicycle to one of the center’s children.
Since then, she has vowed to take the center under Windsor’s wing.
A large-scale benefit is planned for the upcoming season.
“When you see Verna’s warmth, when you see what they’re doing,” says Bardes. “These children are being fed there. And it’s right in our back yard.”
More than 100 children receive tutoring, mentorship, field trips to places they could not dream of seeing otherwise, and a hot evening meal.
Without it, Wright says, some would go without food but for their free school lunches.
Of the youngest children, all have passed the third grade FCAT test for the sixth straight year.
Of its older participants, six are in college, with more in the pipeline.
Academic performance improved 47 percent last year – every child is required to present all report cards.
That success can only be measured in the spirit of the kids themselves.
Bardes noticed, as they arrived from their various schools, how they quietly put their backpacks away, and did homework before starting their enrichment programs – computer training, tutoring, gardening, drama, dance, etiquette and cooking.
Every one, she said, extended a hand as they greeted her and looked her in the face with confidence and courtesy.
Bardes learned in March the center’s summer program faced cancellation.
The effect would have rippled through Wabasso, one of the county’s poorest areas. It would mean not only a lack of supervision and stimulation for many children, but in some cases, basic necessities like safety, hygiene and food.
“Wabasso is the forgotten part of Indian River County,” says Wright, who lives with her husband William, a retired math teacher, in Gifford, seven miles away.
Recently, her three daughters, all Florida A&M University graduates, returned to the area to help their mother with the center.
Bardes is one of several island residents recruited to help Dasie Hope’s bottom line. She stepped up quickly.
A two-year resident of Windsor after 28 years living in John’s Island, Bardes had an interior design business for many years; her husband David works in insurance.
They live in Vero throughout the summer, spending the autumn at their second home in Beverly Hills.
Flipping through the June issue of UK Vogue as she recently lunched on the terrace of Windsor’s commissary, Bardes smiled at photos of her with model Dree Hemingway¸ great-granddaughter of Ernest.
Photographers happened on Bardes during the shoot and seized on her elegance, asking to include her and her home in the spread.
The images are far from the one she recalls from her youth. In the 1960s, newly graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, Bardes worked as assistant at a Seattle program for 900 African-American children.
“It was baptism by fire,” she recalls. “Kids were saying, ‘Power to the people,’ and I didn’t even know who Stokely Carmichael was. I made my kids put their switchblades in my drawer before we met to do group work.”
Two years later, she moved to San Francisco and worked with the children of Chinese immigrants.
“I remember just walking the streets of Chinatown, looking for gang members and trying to get them to come to our center.”
Nearly half a century later, when a John’s Island Dasie Hope backer give her a tour, she was hooked.
“Dasie Hope is a small charity. You can see the results, and see what’s happening with each child,” she says.
Bardes was moved by Wright’s sense of urgency when money came up short for the summer.
“Verna was so upset about it. She was already starting to tell parents they really weren’t going to be able to have the center open this summer. And I thought, I’ve got to get these people involved.”
At Bardes’ suggestion, Windsor printed luncheon invitations to all its residents, and 45 women responded.
Wright came and spoke, along with two of the center’s college students, James McGriff and Abby Maldonado, home for spring break.
Before dessert was even served, one guest pulled out her checkbook to cover the cost of a school bus to take the children to the summer program.
By the time the rest of the checks came through the mail, $26,000 had been raised.
It is money hard-earned by Wright who routinely must make her case to groups like Windsor’s.
“I hate public speaking,” she says. “I’ll work to the bone behind the scenes, but I am not an out-front person.”
Her first talk was in 2001 at John’s Island, at the invitation of Carter Hopkins, active at the Gifford Youth Activities Center, where Wright also volunteered.
“I was a straight-up punk, a wussy,” said a laughing Wright of that first talk she gave.
It was 7:30 a.m. A committee of 12 had gathered, and Wright was a nervous wreck.
Arriving at the John’s Island clubhouse, her projector would not work. Then, the screen would not unroll.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to make a fool of myself,'” she says.
At that moment, Ellie McCabe, one of Vero’s most significant philanthropists, sensed her panic and stepped forward.
“I’ll never forget it. I didn’t know her and she didn’t know me, and had she not walked up, I probably would have left. But she put her hand on my arm, and she said in the sweetest, softest voice, ‘It’s OK, calm down. All this stuff isn’t important – tell us about your program.’ And then I couldn’t stop.”
Wright left with a $7,000 grant for her dream.
Two summers ago, the center opened a thrift shop in a donated store front on U.S. 1 just north of the Wabasso Causeway.
At another business not far from there, a vegetable stand on the dusty shoulder of C.R.510, Dasie Bridgewater befriended the center’s first barrier island donors, picking up vegetables for their families.
She ran her own de facto after-school program, watching over children who wandered over every afternoon. Under her relentless supervision, Wright says, they did their homework and learned their manners.
“Oh, God, my mom was my best friend,” says Wright. “That house had to be clean. She used to tell me, ‘If you get sick, how are the paramedics going to come in this nasty house and get you out of here?'”
There was another imperative: that she share. “My mother taught us that whatever you have, you share. You only have one cookie? You break it in half and give it to your brother.”
She also understood how it felt to be looked down upon.
Wright says there was a stigma to living in Wabasso, and that the other kids at what was then the all-black Gifford High School looked down on Wabasso kids as “living in the country.”
“I always took that as, ‘Well, we didn’t know anything and they knew everything because they lived in Gifford,'” she said, adding sass to her voice. “They had gas stations and hamburger stands. Gifford was like the city compared to Wabasso. After that, I always wanted to live in a big city.”
In the end, she remained here, meeting her husband while she was still a student at Indian River Community College.
They have been married 38 years.
In 2000, when her mother died of leukemia at 64, Wright vowed to open a center for Wabasso’s children in her honor – she added the word “Hope” as inspiration.
Her first check – for $500 – came from Graves Brothers, the citrus company that brought many of Wabasso’s original residents over from the Bahamas more than half a century ago.
“I thought that $500 was $1 million,” she says.
With it, she and her husband began fixing up the abandoned Masonic Temple.
They nailed up sheet rock, put in carpet, and put in air conditioning on a payment plan.
That didn’t mean, when she opened the center, the community embraced her right away.
“When we first started the center, they didn’t just flock to me,” she says. “For 2 ½ months, we sat over there with two kids. They wouldn’t come. Nobody’s ever had an after-school program here. But I knew a lot of grandparents. And I had to go door-to-door, I put flyers in the churches, and finally they started coming. And they’ve been coming ever since.”
Eventually, in 2003, the center moved to what was once the cafeteria of the old Douglas Elementary School, now a Head Start center. Three years ago, the center added a 2,000-squarefoot building with a computer lab and classrooms.
Wright sometimes drives kids home or takes them shopping for shoes or school supplies. She has intervened if home circumstances become untenable, testifying on the children’s behalf when necessary.
“We’re more than an after-school program. We involve the entire family,” she says. “You can fix that child and send them places but as long as he has to go back into the (home) environment, it’s going to affect that child.”
When Wright wrote a grant to start a business class at the center, she turned to her husband’s – and now her daughters’ – alma mater, Florida A&M University.
“I partnered with their business school to mimic their program,” she says. “If (Dasie Hope students) finished the nine-month program, they got a $1,000 scholarship at FAMU’s business school.”
Dasie Hope children know there will be follow-through. Wright herself goes to honor roll ceremonies, and teacher conferences.
Despite donations from United Way, John’s Island, Quail Valley, Grand Harbor, Orchid Island and Windsor, the center runs on a treacherously thin margin.
“What gets me stressed is when I don’t have money to buy the food or to take the kids on a field trip, or money to meet the needs of the kids.”
From September to November, the bank account dwindles, as bills pour in.
“Liability insurance costs $4,600. That’s payroll for us,” Wright says. “We’ve gone at least two months without pay. Would you work two months without pay?”
Cynthia Bardes hopes Windsor residents can ease Wright’s stress. She thinks the center’s relatively small scope and its results will appeal to their hearts.
“Windsor needs something that they can get their arms around.”
For the moment, Wright banished anxiety over what fall may bring.
Instead, she unlocks the center’s doors this summer with gratitude.
“My thing is, sometimes, when stuff goes wrong, if you feel the pain and you make a choice about how you react to it, you move on and you keep going, so you don’t fall apart.”