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Layla's House Opens Today in Sulphur Springs

A late teenager's wish to help children will be fulfilled in a new community center.

Layla Chami's work can finally begin Tuesday morning, less than four years after leukemia cut her life short at age 16. At 8:30 a.m., Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn and other dignitaries will be on hand to cut the ribbon on , 1516 E Eskimo Ave. in Sulphur Springs, a Tampa YMCA community support center for parents and their children.

“I would say (today) is likely to be the most exciting day for us since she came down with the disease,” said Layla's father, Tawfik Chami.

From an early age the Berkeley Preparatory School student aspired to work with children, and toward the end or her life she hoped to become an obstetrician. Creating this type of facility to honor Layla's memory seemed a natural choice for the Chami family.  

Tampa YMCA spokesperson Rebecca Bray said Tampa's Child Abuse Council will provide programming for Layla's House, which is patterned after the council's Baby Bungalow in South Tampa. Classes will include parent counseling programs; infant massage classes; Baby & Me infant playgroups; the Parents as Teachers program, which encourages learning and interaction with children through group meetings and developmental screenings; Fathers Resource and Networking Center; and family literacy programs.

“It's not going to be a day care,” said Tawfik Chami. “It's going to be a place where parents and children can get education and support.”

Chami, a native of Syria and gastroenterologist, said his family and friends raised about $230,000 of the half-million dollar Layla's House. The City of Tampa also chipped in a grant, along with four lots — three for the facility, and another adjacent to the structure where children can plant a community garden and learn about composting.  

Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg paid for the facility's , which was installed by volunteers on Jan. 7. Construction for the 3,000 square foot Layla's House started in July 2011.

When Layla succumbed to leukemia on July 17, 2008, she was an honor roll sophomore at Berkeley. She played varsity basketball, sang for the school choir, and played Mozart on the piano.

“She was really extremely giving and loving since she was very small,” said Tawfik Chami. “She was really vibrant and radiant, with a very strong personality.” In her younger years, Layla would ring her neighbor's doorbells and offer to walk their dogs. She also insisted that her mother, Maria, give her schoolmates car rides from the bus stop to their front doors. “She was like the defender of the weak and unfortunate,” Tawfik Chami said. 

Layla House is actually the early childhood component of a broader YMCA initiative devoted to Sulphur Springs called Neighborhood of Promise. The project proposes to align education to social services in a pipeline that spans birth to college or career. “This is the first floor, so to speak,” said YMCA spokesperson Rebecca Bray.  

The elementary school component, the Community Learning Center, opened three years ago at Sulphur Springs Elementary. “It provides a seamless transition from their classroom to their after-school activities,” said Bray. “Through our work there, we realized we're making a difference for kids in K through 5, but the kids coming to school in kindergarten (in the neighborhood) are already behind. So we asked, 'what can we do now?' ” 

Middle school, high school, and college/career components are planned to ultimately complete the Neighborhood of Promise project.

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