SARASOTA COUNTY - Sarasota resident Rita Larsen has always had a heart for helping others. She was the director of childcare at the YMCA, volunteered with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and worked for 10 years in social services for adult criminal probation.
While counseling people coming out of prison, Larsen says she learned how crucial it is to positively shape children's lives so they don't take the wrong path later on. And that's what led her to the place where she's been making a difference for more than a decade.
In Rita's class at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Sarasota County, they take bingo to a whole new level. But it's not just bingo; Miss Rita, as the kids call her, does it all. “Anything from working with kids who need some extra attention, to blowing bubbles, to hopscotch, to bingo games, tutoring you name it, whatever they need me to do, I'll do.”
Larsen has been volunteering at the Boys & Girls Clubs seven hours a day, five days a week for the past two years, and touching hearts and lives for even longer.
She previously worked at the club for ten years. “Trying to get to these kids before they get so jaded, and so sarcastic and giving up on the world. We gotta start when they're little.”
That's what Larsen did with Maribel Cedillo when she was just five years old. "Over the years she started taking over some of the duties in the room, she would mimic the things I said, the way to say things to people,” says Larson.
"I love Miss Rita. She's just always been there for me," says Cedillo. Now a 17-year-old rising junior at Booker High School, she says she was by Miss Rita's side every day in the Fun Club, a program Larsen created to help children embrace gender and cultural differences and become leaders.
It worked; Cedillo is now leading the Fun Club as a counselor. "She taught me everything I know, like everything…how to be respectful with the kids, how to treat the kids, how to talk to the kids nicely."
Larsen has also made an impact on Bryan Hudson. Like Cedillo, he started coming to the club as a young child who need a little extra attention. "Conflicts with bullying, trouble sometimes finding friends with other people, she was always a great person to talk to."
Hudson has matured into a confident young man and counselor at the club. "She practically changed my life. She helped me out with a great deal of things. I will never forget her for anything she does; I'm very grateful."
Larsen says she's grateful to have the opportunity to shape the future of the Suncoast community. “It's like that legacy, you hit one kid and it trickles down, I tell them all the time: you do one thing, trickles out.”
Director of operations Randy Bouck says Larsen's influence has trickled out to the entire staff at the Boys & Girls Clubs, which is why they nominated her for 7 Who Care. “Not only is she a mentor, she's a friend, she's a coach, she's a coworker, she's a mother to a lot of these kids. And I really can't put a number or a phrase, or words to what she's meant to us. She embodies and encompasses what we stand for and that's excellence in life.”
The staff and kids know Larsen deserves an award as big as her heart, but she gives all of the credit to the Boys & Girls Clubs. “I feel thankful I can be a volunteer. I don't know how to explain it; it's a good, warm feeling. Never in a million years would I have thought that this would happen.”
At the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County, Rita Larsen also started an anti-bullying initiative, a culinary program, and the Helping Hands clubs, through which the children volunteered with other non-profit organizations on the Suncoast.