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Art O’Hara leaves legacy with R’Club’s historic Happy Workers project

Megan Holmes

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For 90 years, Happy Workers has cared for children in South St. Petersburg. Now, the historic staple of South St. Petersburg is finally getting the care it deserves. City Council member Gina Driscoll, accompanied by Pinellas County Urban League’s Watson Haynes and Bank OZK’s Barclay Harless, toured the historic Happy Workers site Tuesday morning to see the changes first hand.

Founded in 1929, Happy Workers is one of Pinellas County’s oldest child care organizations. In its heyday, many of St. Petersburg’s best and brightest leaders, including Haynes, Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin and Senator Darryl Rouson attended Happy Workers. Its list of graduates even includes actress Angela Bassett. 

But in 2016, the historically significant site had fallen into disrepair. The structure itself was racking up code violations and employees were missing essential paperwork, including background checks, necessary to keep the site funded and running. Happy Workers was at serious risk of losing Early Learning Coalition certification and United Way funds – and Art O’Hara, the late executive director of R’Club Child Care, was approached to try to save the “South St. Pete jewel” that had provided affordable daycare in south St. Petersburg for decades.

Happy Workers became O’Hara’s passion project. R’Club took over the management of the historic building and daycare center in 2017, becoming one of 10 early learning sites managed by R’Club. “I think the name is important because it’s got a lot of history to it,” O’Hara told the Weekly Challenger in late 2018. The site was named Happy Workers, an R’Club Early Learning Academy, to pay homage to its past.

O’Hara worked tirelessly to secure funding for renovations to Happy Workers. He secured $350,000 in grant funding from the state legislature, another $150,000 in funds from Pinellas County, and raised nearly $1 million in private dollars. With both public and private money secured, R’Club first made repairs to the buildings to pass fire code standards. The organization implemented background checks, hired more staff and revamped the early childhood curriculum, in line with R’Club’s other programs. Then, they went to work on renovations. 

The church, built in 1928, is the oldest building on the site and was the first structure to be renovated starting in January 2018. Once unused, it has now been completely converted into the main office for Happy Workers staff. Renovations are in progress in the classrooms now. Once complete, student capacity will more than double, from 58 to 120 students. 

According to Amy Shore, R’Club’s Development Director, who led the tour through Happy Workers, the total renovations will likely run up to nearly $2 million. Renovations costs for each classroom run between $17,000 – $23,000. “It will be state of the art when it’s done, really nice,” Shore said. “It’s really exciting.” 

The long history of the building was palpable on Tuesday’s tour, as R’Club’s team of contractors recently pulled a time capsule from the walls of the classroom building – inside they found newspaper clippings, photographs and records from 1960 – the last time Happy Workers was renovated and reopened. R’Club expects this round of renovations for the first of the classrooms to wrap up at the end of September, then work will begin on the second.

Shore spoke to O’Hara’s legacy and how deeply involved he was in the Happy Workers project. 

“I’m sad Art won’t be here to see it all,” she said. “This really was his thing. We’re going to have a plaque here with his name on it.”

“You want it to get finished, it’s like Christmas.”

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