Jacquelyn Paulk began teaching in Sarasota County in 1958, first in the segregated schools of Newtown and then as one of the first African-American teachers at integrated elementary schools. When she retired in 1996, her passion for students and parents was legendary.
Retirement was just the beginning. After volunteering at different programs for years and frustrated that at-risk children in Newtown could not read, Paulk, a Newtown resident, founded an after-school learning program in 2004 called SOAR Learning Center, which tutored students in kindergarten through third grade in Newtown.
For years, the program never had a permanent home, until Hurst Chapel AME Church gave her an old, tiny three-bedroom house where she could cram 40 kids, teachers and parents. Paulk never took a salary and worked full-time to find funds, supplies and teachers. The program allowed students to catch up and excel, and many students still write to Paulk to tell her that if there was no SOAR, they wouldn’t have succeeded in school.
But all this success looked like it was coming to an end. By 2015, SOAR’s tiny home had become so rundown it was forced to close. By then, David Rubin and his wife, Adie, had entered the picture. Looking for a way to give back to the community, they’d discovered SOAR and came away inspired by Paulk’s success. At first, the Rubins paid for utilities and equipment. But when the building was condemned, Rubin, a founder of Sarasota-based Lumina Health Products, became consumed with resurrecting the program and creating a new permanent home for SOAR. While Paulk began to rework the curriculum, Rubin, 70, raised hundreds of thousands (much of it his own money), created a board and is now chair. “People jumped in and little by little it came together,” he says.
The brand-new 3,000-square-foot facility, designed by Sweet Sparkman Architects, opened last fall with help from a $100,000 grant from the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation. The complex, named the Jacquelyn Paulk Campus, has four classrooms with digital interactive boards, a main room for homework, a computer station, kitchen, library and a playground and picnic area.
Rubin says SOAR is a bit like a bumblebee. “On paper, a bee should never be able to fly, and this school should never have been built,” he says. “But, wow, it lives, and it brings tears to my eyes to see children sitting with teachers.”