SANFORD – Pastor Kenneth Clark, founder and executive director of Vibrant Families Inc. (VFAM), knows firsthand what it’s like to experience hardship, abandonment, racism, illiteracy and being a fatherless boy. His rescue from that season of his life set the stage for his purposeful direction in life.
Now at the age of 45, Clark – a husband and father of three – finds himself at the helm of a new non-profit that aims to give hope to at-risk and fatherless boys, introduce them to new things and show them the opportunities that are available to them.
“Right now, much evidence suggests that due to systemic and individual inequalities, young boys living in single-mother families tend to be at higher rates of suicide, substance abuse, homelessness and involvement in the juvenile justice system. Many of the kids we are reaching believe the only way they have a chance at a better future is through playing ball, selling drugs or joining a gang. And that’s only because they haven’t experienced anything else and do not know what’s possible, “We don’t have bad kids, we have bored kids,” says Clark.
In the Fall of 2021, following a dedicated five-year tenure as Location Pastor at a local church, Clark embarked on a bold venture by founding Vibrant Families. This endeavor was prompted by his profound realization that his passion, ignited at the age of 18 during his initial mission trip, extended beyond preaching the gospel from a platform. Rather, it was a fervent calling to serve those in need, particularly young children facing circumstances similar to his own upbringing; no father or male role model.
Vibrant Families, which launched in the Spring of 2022, has two facets: The Legacy Club, the mentoring of boys by everyone from corporate executives, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and athletes, and truck drivers to teachers; and the Better Together Program, a collaboration with local businesses and organizations focusing on education, youth empowerment, sports, sponsorships, local government, first responders, community events, wellness education, and the betterment of families in underserved areas.
The Legacy Club is the first non-government funded program operating alongside Seminole County Public Schools (SCPS), but with their current resources they can only mentor 25 students at one school, according to Clark. Approximately 90 percent of the group’s intended audience encompasses various regions within Sanford, Seminole County, and adjacent counties in Central Florida. In order to effectively communicate the available programs and services to the residents of these localities, the VFAM team collaborates with educators, nonprofit organizations and community leaders. This partnership assists in identifying families requiring assistance.
The J. Douglas Williams YMCA is one of the program’s many partners along with Chick-Fil-A (Sanford), which provides food for the boys and mentors during activities. The YMCA offers them the use of their space for programming.
In its first 18 months of operations, VFAM has shown significant progress and has reached one of its three 2023 goals. They recently purchased a shuttle bus that can transport 14 students to programmed after school events and weekend outings.
The mentors meet with the boys at a minimum twice a month; once for programming at the YMCA, second for Saturday excursions, where they introduce the boys to new experiences like back-to-school shoe shopping every August at the Nike Outlet and other excursions like bowling, a day out on the boat, the beach, golfing or an Orlando City Soccer match.
Before starting VFAM, Clark led a volunteer team he created at the church he pastored to participate in Seminole County Public Schools’ Dividend Volunteer program. They partnered with the school and through mentoring and volunteering assisted school staff in raising the letter grade to a C.“ Every week for two years during the school year, the team tutored and mentored the students,” he said. Their efforts earned the congregation the title of SCPS Partner in Education of the Year.
Students helped by the VFAM programs are predominantly from single-mom homes. “The boys, who come home from school to empty houses with nothing but electronic devices receive information that’s not always serving them well,” he said. “We want to teach them how to dream and then provide the steps to make those dreams come true!”
Vibrant Families sometimes takes the boys to a nice restaurant to show them that they could become a chef or when they graduate high school they could learn a trade and eventually start their own company. “These are paths they don’t even know exist,” Clark said.
Last December, reaching out to businesses and private doners Vibrant Families raised $50,000. This year their 2024 fundraising will start in October with a goal of $250,000, which will allow for expansion of its support programs to additional schools and more groups of children.
Next year, Clark says Vibrant Families hopes to secure a grant that will allow them to go from 25 students to 85-100. With or without this grant, they still plan to provide services for up to 50 students.
Clark’s early life began believing he would not live to see his 18th birthday, and then being adopted at the age of 13 by a middle-class Christian couple, taught him that there was another way to live. “That way included having my own bed to sleep in, eating healthy meals for the first time and feeling safe.”
Afterward he flourished. He received football scholarship offers to Division I and II schools but decided to accept an internship with a ministry and international missions organization. He then went on to Bible college while working for a rental car company.
A serial multitasker, Clark’s professional journey, over a span of 22 years, led him through roles within Fortune 500 companies and consulting partnerships with non-governmental organizations, small congregations, expansive mega-churches and local community partnership ventures.
At the same time, he was also building successful relationships.
“It shouldn’t take luck (like his being adopted).” The young boys in Seminole County need to see other opportunities. If not, they’ll just keep doing whatever is presented to them.”
Clark wants the boys to believe in themselves, no matter their color, background or how their journey started. “Some of our boys’ fathers are second-generation incarcerated men.”
A pastor, husband and parent, Clark also wears a few other hats. He is the Sales Manager of Acquisitions for a Christian publishing firm and is a marriage coach. He also is working on his first book, which explores the principles of living a vibrant life regardless of where your journey began.
But his heart is bound to Vibrant Families and the possibilities it brings.
Clark said The Legacy Club meets every other week to talk about issues like anger, emotional intelligence, or something in the news that’s relevant to them. “Kids know so much about the world today, but they just don’t know how to process it.”
Short-term goals include having a safe space like a center where the community can hang out, with a coffee shop, an area to play sports and classrooms where they can learn how to cook, learn how to play music and even get haircuts. He said the long-term goal would be to establish more Legacy Clubs in neighboring counties, cities and states.
Of course, increasing the number of new mentors is the foundation and is always needed.
“When some of the more affluent mentors say, ‘I don’t know how to connect with these boys.’ I tell them all you have to do is just show up and be present, because love communicates through barriers,” he said.
“These boys just want to know you care. Million dollar earners and successful men connecting with at risk and fatherless boys, that’s my platform, that’s Jesus to me; and I can’t get that from a Sunday pulpit.”