In 2014, Zac’s Friendship House opened their doors after Jesus Reyna and Betsy Villareal lost their son Zachary Cole Reyna. Zac, who was diagnosed with primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), a brain eating amoeba, after swimming and knee-boarding in a canal left the family and community with a hole that was longing to be filled.
“Zac was the type of boy, when he’d come home from school, who would bring all of these friends with him.” his mother Betsy told me. “He would say ‘Mom is it okay if so-and-so comes too?’ He was so giving. I would have a house full of boys because he just wanted to share everything he had,” she added.
The community rallied together to support the Reyna family during their time of loss and hosted benefits to help the family emotionally and financially. In keeping with the spirit of Zac’s generous spirit the family knew they wanted to give back to the same community that had shown them such deep heartfelt support.
Jesus and Betsy felt a strong calling to create a space for children like their son, and like the friends that Zac would so often bring over to their home after school, and so, Zac’s Friendship House was born.
On Zac’s Friendship House’s facebook page, their story reads:
“We have been given a vision of a home for needy and unprivileged children and for children who do not know the word of God. This house will be available for any child who has these needs. We want the house to have a small computer lab and study room for children to do homework be tutored if needed and use a computer if one is not available at home. We will be able to teach the children morals, life skills and about God. Also, we want to have a recreation room and an eating area to feed kids who might need a meal before they go home. Through Zac’s Friendship House, many kids’ lives will be changed for the better. They will finally know what it feels like to be loved, to have a Thanksgiving dinner, a Christmas, an Easter or just celebrating their own birthday. Zac’s candle will glow brighter and brighter in heaven with every life changed.”
This really encapsulates the energy of these two people that I sat down to have a conversation with after learning of the three year extension for special exemptions from the City of LaBelle to continue to provide the services that they offer our community.
Even after returning to LaBelle a few years ago, I still didn’t realize the full capacity of what Zac’s Friendship House was offering to the youth of our community. I walked into the bright orange building at 140 Jaycee Lions Drive to a veritable playground for middle school aged children. The Friendship House has a full kitchen which acts as a concession stand offering snacks to the children who come to the house to take part in their after school program. The back room, which used to be a bar when the building was the Lion’s Club, has been converted into a game room complete with oversized stuffed chairs and flatscreen televisions equipped with video gaming systems. The main room is filled with multiple pool tables, air hockey tables, and foosball tables.
The whole house just screams “FUN” at you from the moment you walk in the front door! Unfortunately, the center did suffer some damage from Hurricane Irma, and because of a technical ‘wind damage’ clause in their insurance policy, none of the costs to repair the damage was covered by the insurance company.
With all of the repairs, now almost complete, Jesus and Betsy are hoping that 2018 holds many opportunities for growth and expansion for their labor of love.
“In 2014, when we opened, we just wanted to keep giving to the children of the community the types of things we would give our son (Zac).” said Jesus Reyna. “We had so much help and support from the community because it was so current.” he added. “We have had some challenges more recently, being a non-profit organization, but we are going to continue to work to do what we can to provide this service to the community.”
So what exactly are the services that Zac’s Friendship House provides?
The House offers a safe and fun environment for middle school aged children from 6th to 8th grades to stay, play, learn, and grow in after school. The children can be bussed from Hendry and Glades County Schools to a location where Zac’s picks them up and transports them to the Friendship House. The facility offers a snack and recreational time, a homework period with a tutor, team building activities, enrichment activities, and a faith based learning time as well.
During the summer months they offer summer time care for students in 5th to 8th grades with a breakfast, lunch, and snack provided. They also provide opportunities to take field trips as well as fostering a mentality of service and ‘giving back’ to the community through trips to the nursing home to deliver hand made holiday cards or to the Zachary Reyna Memorial Playground, where they pick up garbage and clean up the park grounds.
(It is notable to mention that the Zachary Reyna Memorial Playground was named after Zac, but is actually a county park and is not affiliated with the Zac’s Friendship House and that all funding or donations made are going to separate entities.)
The entire program is offered at the rate of a $15 registration fee, and then $35 per week. The Reyna’s also host an annual 5K called Zac’s Grand Slam 5K to raise money for the operation of Zac’s Friendship House which will be on March 10 of 2018.
The Reyna’s goal is to bring in enough funds that they could offer the after school program to children whose parents are not able to afford the weekly tuition costs for no charge, and ultimately they would love to bring in a Director to facilitate the daily operations of the house. As for now Jesus and Betsy are pouring their hearts and hours into Zac’s Friendship House knowing that they were called to create this space for a reason. “I know that it’s in God’s hands. I know that if He want’s this place to stay open then He will provide the means to keep it open.” Reyna told me.
As our time together drew to an end, and we stood in the foyer of Zac’s Friendship House, Jesus and Reyna began to tell me about some of the children that they are building relationships with through caring for them in the after school program. It was apparent how much devotion and dedication they have for these young people as their eyes lit up and through smiles and laughter they described in loving detail the unique bonds they hold dear with the children who have come in to their lives through this endeavor.
All in all, I believe that Zac’s Friendship House has offered, above and beyond the services of an after school program, a healing of sorts for the family and community who were so touched by Zachary Reyna’s presence and his love, and this safe haven for children is a space continued in Zac’s honor to promote the generosity of spirit that he displayed and taught us all by his example.
If you are the parent of a middle school aged child and are looking for affordable after school care for your child in a safe and fun environment, I encourage you to stop by Zac’s Friendship House and check out the facility and new kids can try it out for free for one week. If you would like to make a donation to ensure the continued services provided by Zac’s Friendship House you can contact by calling (863) 675-6700.