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Immokalee opens Preschool, Community Center

 By Judy Weeks

IMMOKALEE — The Immokalee community achieved one of its most important goals on Sept. 12 with the grand opening of its long-awaited Preschool and Community Center.

“In October it will be 20 years since I began my teaching career as an aide in the Head Start Program that served our community,” said Immokalee Preschool Manager Michelle Aguilar Ford. “I love children and realized from the very beginning that I had found my chosen career. Over the years it has been a joy for me to help guide our little ones on the road to higher education. Today’s ribbon cutting ceremony opens new doors for the educational possibilities of our next generation of leaders.”

With an eye to the future the Seminole Tribe established its own preschool on the old forestry property in 1999 and immediately realized the enrollment limitations due to the size of the facility. By the time that new trailer classrooms arrived, the school was again bursting at the seams and unable to accommodate the growing list of children requiring their services.

“I grew up in an era when education for our Tribal Citizens was limited and one of my life long dreams was to see our community equipped to provide our children with the educational start that they deserve,” said former Immokalee Liaison Elaine Aguilar. “Today my dream has become a reality. Not only do we have an adequate preschool, but we are blessed with a community center that can double as an emergency shelter.”

Following the invocation by Pastors Bruce Pratt and Josh LeadingFox, the Preschoolers led the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag and the Manteele. All of the Seminole Tribal communities were represented by their leaders or community members wanting to share in this momentous occasion.

“Today the Tribe is meeting its financial commitment,” said President Tony Sanchez. “However, the school will only be successful if we, the people, meet our commitment through the attendance of the students and our parental responsibilities.” 

Voicing the importance of education for both individual and Tribal survival, the following dignitaries approached the podium and agreed that education is a worthwhile investment that pays the biggest dividends: Chairman’s Administrator Danny Tommie, B.C. Council Rep. Mondo Tiger, Hollywood Council Rep. Marcellus Osceola Jr., Immokalee Council Liaison Kenny Joe Davis, Sr., B.C. Board Rep. Joe Frank, Hollywood Board Rep. Christopher Osceola, Brighton Board Rep. Larry Howard Sr. and Immokalee Board Liaison Dorothy Scheffler.

“The people of Immokalee have wanted, asked for and deserved this preschool and community center for a long time,” said former Council Rep. David Cypress. “Unfortunately, it isn’t always possible to accomplish our goals as quickly as we would like. Especially, with the rapid growth that has taken place within the Seminole Tribe during the past few decades. I am very happy to be a part of this outstanding achievement that will help to insure our future and promote the preservation of our culture.”

It may have been more than twenty years on the drawing board, but it only took fifteen months for David Nunez of Seminole Design, Inc. to construct the state of the art facility in partnership with DeAngelis Diamond Construction. Architect Robert McIntyre created the structure on paper and Construction Manager Ron Bobrowski was instrumental in making it a reality.

The Preschoolers officiated at the Ribbon Cutting Ceremony with the assistance of the Tribal dignitaries and then joined the crowd for the luncheon buffet and Open House activities. The building was lavishly decorated in a Candyland theme for the Grand Opening and first day of school.

The 20,000 square foot building comprises a preschool that will be capable of accommodating a generous influx of students and a community center/emergency shelter. Extremely security conscious, the entrance, all classrooms and corridors require coded keys and passes for admittance.

The preschool occupies one wing of the building and is designed to handle five separate age groups with a series of large classrooms, administrative offices, a conference room, storage areas, a cafeteria, open air porch and fully equipped playground with artificial turf. The nursery has an infant playroom, sleep area, outdoor sun room, a half kitchen and bathing facilities.

On the opposite side, the community wing has a capacity of 400 people with theater style seating or 200 when dining tables are in use. Its purposed use is community meetings, council meetings, temporary training workshops or an emergency shelter. The entire building is served by an enormous generator capable of operating the facility for several weeks if necessary.

A centrally located kitchen has all commercial appliances, a walk in cooler, freezer, pantry and storage area that can serve both entities. In addition, large bathrooms with showers and a laundry room have shared access.

“My two sons received their start in the Immokalee Preschool,” said Immokalee Council Liaison Kenny Joe Davis, Sr. as he toured the new facility. “It gave them a sense of culture, community and family while providing them with the tools necessary to compete in the public school system. I know how much my children benefited under limited circumstances. I can’t help but think that the sky will be the limit for the graduates of this new facility.”

Site Manager Ford introduced her staff and thanked everyone for their dedication to the Preschool Program and diligence that made the new school a reality. She said, “I thank my mom, Elaine Aguilar, for persistently refusing to accept no for an answer and supporting our cause for so many long years. My gratitude goes to the Tribal leaders, both past and present, Preschool Director Leona Tommie Williams, community members and parents who have made this possible.”

“Thank you can not convey the feelings that I have for my extraordinary staff members who are totally committed to the school. They have put in long days and weekends making today possible,” continued Ford. “Last, but not least, I want to acknowledge Douglas “Butch” Dell and David Thompson, Jr. from the Hollywood Buildings and Grounds. These two hard working men literally moved our entire center by themselves in just six days and had us up and running for today’s Grand Opening and first day of school.”

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