Wayne Barton inside his Boca Raton office. As a police officer, Barton envisioned a study center designed to get young people off the streets and guide them toward a successful future. The challenge to meet the needs of these youths resulted in the formation of Barton’s Boosters, a group that worked tirelessly to raise $2.3 million to construct today’s Wayne Barton Study Center. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Rich Pollack
Wayne Barton never really wanted to be a cop.
In fact, not knowing what he wanted to do, a young Wayne Barton applied for a job at the Boca Raton Fire Department and the Boca Raton Police Department at the same time.
It was the Police Department that offered him a job first, and before he knew it, he became only the third African-American to wear a Boca Raton police uniform.
It was during his 19 years in the Police Department that he developed a vision for the Pearl City neighborhood.
Today, 35 years after he first put on a badge, Barton has retired from police work and is now founder and CEO of the Wayne Barton Study Center, a community-gathering place — focused mainly on children — that has served thousands of kids.
“I was a person who wanted to do some good for the neighborhood,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was getting into.”
Walk into the cavernous 25,000-square-foot Wayne Barton Study Center that stands on what was once a vacant lot in Pearl City and you see kids, lots of them.
The current building, which Barton opened in 1999 after raising $3.1 million in just nine months, is home to a variety of programs. They range from an after-school program with a strong focus on academics to three different types of summer camps. The center also runs a community food program as well as a scholarship program.
It is here that children can get help with their homework, improve their reading skills and prepare for the FCAT. But it’s also a place with a gymnasium that features an indoor stage for performances and an outdoor amphitheater.
Barton is understandably proud of all that the center has to offer and proud of the role it plays in changing lives.
So far, more than 162 kids who have been through the center have gone on to college, thanks in large part to scholarships that pay for just about everything. One young woman who came through the center recently received a master’s degree in nursing. Two more center alumni are working toward their master’s degrees.
“I get my joy out of seeing people become empowered and self sufficient for the rest of their lives,” he says. “People just want you to point them in the right direction.”
Barton believes that through empowering young people, he and the center have played a key role in transforming Pearl City into a neighborhood where residents feel safe and the drugs and thugs once prevalent are no longer commonplace.
“I took a weed-and-seed approach,” he says. “We planted the seeds and now those seeds are trees that are beautifying the area.”
Barton, 54, has been planting those seeds for more than three decades, initially as a police officer who helped define Boca Raton’s community policing efforts.
During his first three years in the department, Barton was assigned to other areas of the city, as were most officers, but he made it a point to get to Pearl City as often as he could.
“I was working in this community on my own time,” he says. “I sat on the porches with the pioneers and heard about how it used to be, about their struggles and their pain.”
By the mid-1980s he was assigned to the area and by 1991 he had started the Wayne Barton Study Center in a community center, later moving it to an apartment in the Dixie Manor public housing complex.
The program quickly outgrew its quarters and Barton set his sights on vacant property not far from the Florence Fuller Child Development Center.
“My motivation was not wanting a kid to go through what I went through as a child,” he says. Barton grew up in a Deerfield Beach neighborhood facing many of the same problems he saw in Pearl City. “I saw a guy get shot in the face for a pair of boots.”
But Barton doesn’t dwell on the past. Instead he focuses on the present and on providing kids with tools and inspiration to create a positive future.
“My goal used to be just getting these kids through high school,” he said. “Then my goal was getting them into college. Now my goal is helping them get their master’s degrees.”