Bridging the Gap: Shirley Proctor Puller Foundation

by | Nov 9, 2021 | Children & Youth, Education | 0 comments

Give a kid a book and you open up a world of opportunity — that was the belief of Shirley Proctor Puller, a beloved educator at Northeast High School. Not only is it the truth but it’s an important truth for young minds in the South St. Petersburg community; an area with five of the most challenged schools in Pinellas County. These schools need help, and that’s exactly what the Shirley Proctor Puller Foundation does.

With the help of donors, such as PCF, SPPF works to bridge this educational gap and bring opportunity directly to the children via the M.A.S.T.R. Kids summer camp and after-school program.

I am helping to re-create the community that created me. Bridgette Heller, Shirley Proctor Puller Foundation co-founder

After Shirley’s passing, her daughter, Bridgette Heller, and her father, William Puller, founded SPPF along with the help of other family members and Shirley’s closest friends — many of which are still involved in the programs today.

The foundation began in 2014 and strived to increase literacy rates and minimize the summer slide among elementary and middle school students in the community. Even after the first year, the program saw promising results: 80% of summer camp attendees avoided the summer slide, and more than half of the students returned the following year.

With each passing year, the two programs reach greater heights. Now, they bring students up to their grade level in essential subjects and provide them opportunities to learn and become excited about STEM careers by offering a variety of enriching activities, such as coding.

Even with impressive success rates (more than half of the 70+ summer camp attendees showed academic gains in at least one core subject), SPPF faces challenges, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on Pinellas County Schools in 2020.

Bridgette explained that PCF has been “foundational in support” in keeping SPPF running during the global crisis. The pandemic increased the need for resources — masks, access to computers at home, and additional tutoring — to combat the “COVID slide.”

In 2020, PCF donated more than $27,000 toward resources for kids and families in need to transition to virtual learning and ensure that students aren’t falling even further behind with the added struggles of online learning.

However, there is still more to be done. According to Bridgette, two of the most significant ongoing challenges are adapting to constant changes in technology and learning tools and finding the best integrative learning approach to help middle schoolers become passionate about STEM subjects and promote self-driven learning.

With donor support and partnerships with other community programs, SPPF continues to grow and offer new activities and opportunities to the students each year. This year, they partnered with the St. Pete Innovation District and the St. Pete Catalyst to create “STEAM Dream TV,” a video series that began airing in September and showcases local professionals in STEM and arts careers. The students in the M.A.S.T.R. Kids program conducted the interviews and witnessed the process of video production, an enriching experience that all the kids loved.

For Bridgette, interacting and working with educators and these local organizations to put together valuable experiences for the students is the most rewarding part of the job. “I am helping to re-create the community that created me,” Bridgette said, which is not only the legacy of Shirley Proctor Puller but “the legacy of the entire community.”