The Vero Beach Woman’s Club recently hosted an inaugural Mad Hatters Tea Party, complete with an Easter Bonnet contest, to raise money for scholarships to be awarded to deserving high school seniors at Gifford Youth Achievement Center.
Tables set up inside and on the porch of the historic VBWC building, built in 1916 and expanded in 1926, were set with vintage teacups and tablecloths, and the assorted teas, delicious tea-sandwiches and sweets were provided by Quail Valley Golf Club.
“We’re working hard to get some programs together for the coming year,” said Charlotte Terry, VBWC president, before introducing the new slate of officers and thanking past president Susan Heath and treasurer Ann Beyerle for their decades of service to the club.
“The end goal for this tea party is to raise enough money for scholarships for young women from the Gifford Youth Achievement Center,” said Terry, before introducing Freddie Woolfork, GYAC director of public relations and facilities operation.
“I learned a long time ago that when you work with women, things get done,” said Woolfork, before giving a brief history of GYAC, which opened in 1998 as the Gifford Youth Activities Center. At the time, he said, they took a “broccoli and candy” approach, blending education with fun. In 2016 the name was changed to the Gifford Youth Achievement Center, which better reflected its objective.
Woolfork related that in 1964, when schools elsewhere became integrated, he had been a student at the Gifford High School, and that integration didn’t take place here until 1969, his senior year.
“They bused me over to Vero Beach High School, all 792 of us – that number is rooted in my mind – from seventh grade to 12th grade,” said Woolfork. The impetus for the establishment of GYAC came in 1996, when the graduation rate among Black seniors had plummeted from 92 percent at GHS to 23 percent at VBHS.
“Gifford Youth Achievement Center, with the acronym GYAC, says it all, because it also stands for ‘Giving Youth A Chance.’ And that’s what we’re doing right now,” said Woolfork, noting that the graduation rate among Black seniors today is 81 percent.
Xaria Reason, a senior at Sebastian River High School, and Kytiana Williams, a senior at VBHS, shared their experiences at GYAC.
Having been enrolled in GYAC since kindergarten, Reason said she considers it her second home. GYAC sparked her interest in musical theater by introducing her to Riverside Theatre, where she first performed in “The Wiz” in 2011. She has since performed in more than 20 Riverside productions, including “My Fair Lady” in 2019. That same year she traveled to the Junior Theater Festival in Atlanta and won the Excellence in Choreography Award.
“At GYAC they invested in my dreams and gave me the opportunity and freedom to find myself, love myself, and explore what makes me happy. That is the greatest gift I could ask for because far too often children like me are denied the chance to live their dreams, simply because the resources are unavailable,” said Reason, who plans to attend Florida A&M with a goal of becoming an obstetrician. “I plan to come back to my community, GYAC specifically, and pour positivity, love and motivation back into the place that poured so much into me.”
Williams, who has been enrolled in GYAC just shy of six years, said she is headed to Bethune-Cookman University and hopes to become a veterinarian. Williams said she was grateful for the many opportunities offered by GYAC, including going on college trips and attending science camps.
“They have helped me with subjects in school, becoming a woman in life and what to expect once we go off to college. I just want to thank GYAC for getting me this far,” said Williams. Despite having changed her major numerous times, she said the consistent response from GYAC staff has been that she can do anything she puts her mind to.
The VBWC was founded in 1915 by Irene Young, wife of Anthony W. Young, who became Vero’s first mayor in 1919 when the city was incorporated. The building was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in February 1995 and is available for event rentals.
Photos by Brenda Ahearn