Renae Clements has helped area girls for 25 years

Founder and director of Girls Place says she has no plans to retire just yet.


Girls Place Inc. director Renae Clements is pictured Tuesday.

Erica Brough/ The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 at 11:42 p.m.

On the floor in Renae Clements' office is a painting of five girls, sitting side by side on a couch with their arms around one another. The girls are wearing oversized sunglasses, costume jewelry and have ribbons in their hair. A caption under the painting reads, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun."

The girls swarming through the halls at Girls Place in Gainesville could easily be the ones in Clements' painting.

Twenty-five years after starting Girls Place, Clements, 66, sits at her desk in a black-and-white suit, which matches her salt-and-pepper hair.

Behind her is a wall of photos, newspaper clippings and awards. She says someone else put them up; she'd never do it on her own.

She says she owes a lot to the University of Florida for donating computers and athletic equipment and to the interns, employees and volunteers she's had over the years, but she gives herself almost no credit. In fact, she hates talking about herself.

Clements started Girls Place, originally The Girls Club of Alachua County, in 1985 to give girls a place to go during the summer and after school, since girls were not allowed in The Boys Club until it became the Boys & Girls Club in 1990.

Clements started in an empty office that the late C.B. Daniels, president of First National Bank at the time, allowed her to use for free. With a typewriter and a desk donated to her by the UF athletic department, Clements started raising money to make Girls Place a reality.

Clements was able to purchase land from the city for $1 and raise enough money to start construction on a clubhouse, which was finished in 1987. Most of the construction was done by volunteers whom she solicited by going to weekly union meetings and asking them to come on Saturdays.

Clements says it only took a day to put shingles on the clubhouse because she had seven roofing companies working on it.

"When you have a commodity like kids, it's helpful because people believe in kids," Clements says.

Because Girls Place is a single-sex organization, it is not eligible for federal funding. Yet in 2008, the nonprofit organization raised $389,450.The facility is funded by the United Way and members of the community through fundraisers. Some money also comes from fees parents pay for their children, but only families who are able to pay are charged.

Fundraisers like the Urban Meyer Scramble for Kids, which is a charity golf tournament that also benefits the Boys and Girls Club of Alachua County and the Children's Home Society, help keep the clubhouse running.

Clements "glows when she talks about the girls and what a tremendous need there is," says Diana Cunningham, who served as one of the first presidents of the Girls Place board of directors. "She is literally depressed when she can't find the funds to help them all," she says.

The club has four programs: after-school, athletic, summer day camp and specialty classes. Many of the girls participate in multiple programs throughout the year.

"I play all athletics except soccer," said Kiaris Felix, a fifth-grader at Terwilliger Elementary School, who has been coming to Girls Place since kindergarten. "My favorite is volleyball."

About 338 girls in 2008 participated in basketball, track, volleyball and soccer. The organization is planning to start a flag football team, as well. The teams are coached by volunteers who coach for city-sponsored teams.

Christi Arrington, program director and one of four full-time employees, cannot walk the 10 feet from the receptionist's desk to Clements' office without being asked questions and told about accomplishments by girls, all bouncing up and down in excitement as they speak.

She says it's a different story when Clements shows up. They are usually on their best behavior.

"She has high expectations for them, as far as how they act," she says. "They know she has these expectations, and they want to meet them."

Clements is not all business. She gives the girls candy when they ask politely and tells them about the pictures she has on her wall. They are particularly interested in her photo with Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow, she said.

Lisa Godbolt has seen a significant change in her daughter, Dominique, 8, since she started coming to Girls Place. Dominique has attention-deficit hyperactive disorder, or ADHD, and was living in foster homes before Godbolt adopted her.

"Everywhere else, they would put Dominique in a corner, and she was miserable, but when we brought her here, she became a brand-new person," Godbolt says. "The teachers here have really bonded with her."

Parents in Alachua County with girls in kindergarten through eighth grade can register their children for programs by filling out the application online at girlsplace<0x000A>inc.com. The Web site also has information about sports camps.

After 25 years, Clements has no official plans to retire unless the board of directors decides it wants someone else or her health begins to fail, she said. She said she has learned a lot from the girls and she hopes to continue learning more.

"They've taught me humility and integrity," she said, crying. "It's like Christ said, 'Suffer the little children to come unto me.' If we help the little children, we help the world."

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