The two drug dealers had guns. And they had a message for Calvin Jones: “This is our neighborhood. We don’t want you and your learning center here,” they said, pointing their guns at him. “You need to get out of here.”
At 6’2”, Calvin is a former middle linebacker for the University of Florida Gators, and he is not easily intimidated. But he is not a foolish man either. He walked away that day.
But Calvin didn’t stay away. He came back the very next day with a 9-millimeter Glock tucked in his waistband and carrying a shotgun. And he had a message for the drug dealers.
“I told them, ‘I’m not going anywhere, so either you understand that or we can shoot it out right now.’ They walked away that day,” recalls Calvin, now 13 years later. “The word got around that the guy who’s setting up that learning center is crazy. No one bothered us much after that.”
The neighborhood that the drug dealers had laid claim to was Busbee Quarters, which had a reputation as one of the most drug-infested and dangerous housing projects in northwest Ocala. It was also where the majority of the children that Calvin tutored at Evergreen Elementary came from.
“Almost all of those kids were in special education classes,” says Calvin, 52, who grew up as one of 10 children in a housing project in Broward County. “There were so many of them, and I just felt like they needed extra attention, more than what they could get during normal school hours.”
Growing up, Calvin learned just how important a little extra attention could be to a child. Nuns from what was then Marymount College, now Lynn University, in Boca Raton, came into his neighborhood, loaded the children up on buses, and brought them to spend time at the college for summer enrichment programs. That intervention made an impact on Calvin, who later earned an athletic scholarship to the University of Florida.
“It’s so important for a young person to know that someone cares,” says Calvin, who also credits his parents and his siblings with giving him good guidance. “Without someone making that extra effort, a lot of kids never have a chance.”
With those concerns weighing heavily on his mind, Calvin visited Busbee Quarters to see firsthand what kind of environment the kids were growing up in. As he walked the streets of the 40-odd small block houses, the kids he taught came out to join him. One by one, they all gave him the same warning.
“There was this one little tan house right in the middle of the neighborhood,” says Calvin. “And all the kids kept telling me that was the ‘crack house.’ That everyone was scared of those people in that house. I told them that they shouldn’t be scared of a house or anyone who was in it. It was just a house and drug dealers were just people, nothing special about them.”
The next time Calvin visited Busbee Quarters, he saw that the crack house was boarded up. The cops had busted the drug dealers.
“I had been trying to figure out a way to give more to the children of Busbee Quarters,” says Calvin. “And when I saw that house, the one everyone had been so scared of, all boarded up, an idea came to me. I walked around that house seven times while I prayed about it and then I knew what I was going to do. I was going to open a learning center in that former crack house.”
When Calvin told his wife Catherine about his plan to quit his teaching job and open a learning center in Busbee Quarters, she thought he’d lost his mind.
“He told me that God had spoken to him and that this was his mission,” remembers Catherine. “I told him that he’d misunderstood and that his name was Calvin, not Moses.”
But there was no stopping Calvin. He set about renovating the former crack house, but the drug dealers were still lurking about and none too happy about the house’s new tenant.
“For a while there, the drug dealers would come at night and kick in the door,” says Calvin. “I’d get there in the morning to work on the house and the first thing we had to do was put the door back up. Finally we just started propping it up in the doorway since there really wasn’t anything inside of value for them to take, and they stopped kicking it down.”
Transformed from a crack house into a 680-square-foot cottage, the Skill Day Center opened its doors to the kids of Busbee Quarters in the fall of 1995. By now, Catherine, who had grown up in housing projects in Cross City, had left her job as a 911 operator with the Sheriff’s Office and joined Calvin on his mission. Their daughters, Cecilia and Calvis, were also volunteers. Their only educational supplies were a set of encyclopedias. The only requirement for the kids to attend was to bring homework they needed help with.
What followed were both the best of times and the worst of times. Kids soon crowded into the three-room house, the overflow spilling out onto the front and back porches. The need was definitely there. But the money wasn’t.
“We were a free, not-for-profit service,” says Catherine, who was also diagnosed with a rare blood disease during this time. “We had no income and no cash flow. Our car was repossessed, and we were evicted from our home. I was sick. For two years, we had to actually live at the center. But Calvin wouldn’t give up.”
Slowly, the word spread about the good work the Joneses were doing at the Skill Day Center. First locally and then statewide as individuals, groups, and businesses began making donations of supplies and funds. Then the Skill Day Center made national news.
In 1996, the Skill Day Center was chosen by the students of Vanguard High School and Evergreen Elementary as a “Make A Difference Project.” The national program was sponsored by USA Today Weekend and the Points of Lights Foundation. The students launched a major school supplies drive and carried out a spruce-up day at the center. From more than 8,000 national submissions, the Skill Day Center project was chosen as one of the 10 best “Make A Difference” projects in the country. The center was the cover picture for the special “Make A Difference Project” edition of USA Today Weekend. The Joneses and one of their students accompanied Ocala city representatives to Washington D.C. for National Volunteer Week. The group met and had their pictures taken with then First Lady Hillary Clinton.
“It was very surreal being there in Washington with all that pomp and ceremony,” says Calvin. “And then we came home to sleeping on the floor at the school.”
But the national recognition continued. In 1998, the Skill Day Center was chosen as a Daily Points of Light recipient. Appearances on national television talk shows, such as the Wayne Brady Show in 2004 took them to New York and Los Angeles. It was recognition that netted the Skill Day Center large donations from the community and major national corporations.
And it fueled Calvin’s dreams of moving the center into a larger facility.
“As time went on, we were offered buildings and land,” says Calvin. “But I didn’t want to leave the neighborhood. What good would it do to have the center where it wasn’t accessible for the very kids we wanted to reach?”
As it turns out, Calvin didn’t have to go very far at all. In fact, just out the center’s back door and across the street. On the corner of Northwest 17th Avenue was 1.6 acres flanked by a grove of oak trees. Howard Middle School was only blocks away.
“There was this piece of corner property that had remained undeveloped,” says Calvin. “Obviously it wasn’t the kind of neighborhood that anyone wanted to build in. So I decided to check into it and found out that several different people owned pieces of it. With a lot of help from a lot of people, we managed to get the property.”
And then bit by bit in mid-2004, the plans for a new Skill Day Center began to fall into place. Everything was donated — construction supplies, labor, subcontractors, landscaping. That generosity carried into the inside of the new 3,500-square foot tan and pink block building as well. Filling the nine rooms are donated tables, chairs, books, videos, computers, kitchen appliances, a piano, an organ, even the chalkboards.
The bright, spacious building has central air conditioning and heating compared to the one AC window unit and space heaters of the original center. There’s plenty of elbow room for everyone, from the common study area, to the library, to the media room, to the computer room. The kitchen alone is as big as half the old center was. And there are boys and girls bathrooms, both wheelchair accessible.
“When we officially reopened the center in November 2005, we were handed a key, unlocked the door, and walked in,” says Catherine. “It’s been a dream come true.”
As soon as that door on the new center was opened, the kids were back and they haven’t stopped coming. Officially open Monday through Thursday, from 7:30am until 5:30pm, anywhere from 30-50 kids a day can come by for extra tutoring or homework help. All ages, three years and up, are welcome. In addition to the Joneses, who don’t draw a salary, there is an eclectic roster of other volunteers. The center remains a not-for-profit operation, relying on volunteers and donations.
Sometimes the kids just come by to visit and check in with Mrs. Catherine or the man they call “Jones.” As for that 5:30 closing time, Catherine says “we’re more often than not here until 7pm if we need to be.”
While the Skill Day Center still draws mostly from the students of the surrounding neighborhoods for after-school help, it is also visited by kids from all over the city. Many home-schooled children log hours at the center.
“I think the word has gotten out about what we do here,” says Catherine, who recently earned her doctorate in Christian education. “A child in need is a child in need, regardless of socioeconomic status. And we’re willing to help anyone. We have an open-door policy.”
Calvin echoes that sentiment, saying, “The need hasn’t lessened. More than 10 years later, we still take it day by day, child by child.”
Indeed, the message that Calvin delivered to those drug dealers that day remains true. The Joneses and the Skill Day Center are here to stay.
WANT TO HELP?
Calvin & Catherine Jones
Skill Day Center
1700 Northwest 17th Avenue
Ocala, FL 34475