Achieving members of the Flip's Squad Career Explorations program earned a trip to Wannado City on Friday
Reginald Austin became a police officer on Friday.
Reginald Austin, it should be mentioned, is 11 years old.
It should also be noted that Reginald's first and second career choices are professional football player and golfer. But on Friday he was the long arm of the law and loving it, thanks to "Flip's Squad" and an ambitious and rewarding trip to Wannado City.
Confused? Let's rewind.
Flip's Squad is an outreach program designed by Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Jermaine Phillips, designed to help at-risk or underprivileged children set and achieve important life goals. This spring, Phillips involved Flip's Squad in a six-week Career Exploration Program run by the NFL/YET Centers of Tampa Bay. The culmination of that program was a trip to Wannado City in Ft. Lauderdale for the 30 top achievers among the third, fourth and fifth-graders who participated. Wannado City is a theme park that allows kids to try out an enormous variety of careers and learn to manage money through earning and spending opportunities.
And Reginald Austin was one of those 30 Flip's Squad students who earned a spot on the trip by accumulating points through attendance, behavior and essay scores. Reginald, like many 11-year-olds, particularly those who happen to have an NFL player as a part-time mentor, wants to play football for a living. The Career Exploration Program he just finished taught him to believe that he could strive for any career but also to expand his horizons to find out where else his interests may lie.
Reginald might someday like to wear a badge. That was his favorite part of the trip to Wannado City on Friday.
"I liked when I became a police officer, because I could catch people doing the wrong things," he said.
At Wannado City, as the park's slogan goes, "kids can be whatever they want to be – right now." Cop, cook, doctor, paleontologist, banker, child caregiver, chocolate factory worker – that was a popular one on Friday. Visitors are given a certain amount of money when they begin their visit, then can earn more by taking on a job.
And if you think that doesn't sound like a "theme park" to you, Harold Hart of the NFL/YET Centers said several of the Flip Squad kids told him they liked Wannado City more than Disney World.
"When we first got there, it was kind of like they were feeling their way around," said Hart. "And then when they really got into what was happening, as far as earning money and getting involved in the different careers, they all got really excited. They had a lot of fun."
Phillips, who said he was nervous when the Career Exploration Program began, heard the same comments on the trip back to Tampa. When the program began, he immediately saw passion and inspiration in the at-risk students, which motivated him to push the program to a very satisfying end. Phillips said the students in the program "raised the bar" and he did the same by finishing it with the trip downstate. The experience at Wannado City played into the main theme of the program – that any career is possible for those who believe they can do it, regardless of their backgrounds.
"It meant a lot to me to be able to do something educational and show them that they are not limited in what they can do with their lives," said Phillips. "They can go out there and do different things as far as modeling, medicine, fire fighting, they can be a lawyer, be in a courtroom, things of that nature."
During the Career Explorations Program, the students heard from a variety of speakers, including a handful of men and women who have forged satisfying careers with the Buccaneers. The Buc speakers included General Counsel Roxanne Kosarzycki, Director of Rehabilitation Shannon Merrick, Chef Mick Sabo, Equipment Manager James Sorenson, Strength and Conditioning Coach Mike Morris and, of course, Phillips himself.
Thanks to Phillips and the NFL/YET Centers, the program was a rousing success, and Friday's trip was both a reward and a re-emphasizing of the main theme of the previous six weeks. Phillips was thrilled to see how the young students responded to all of the career-minded stimuli.
"I had an array of emotions going through me when this program began because it's my first time doing this," said Phillips. "But the kids are what this program is about, and they are what have made this program successful."
Experiences like the trip to Wannado City could help many of these students be successful in life by making them believe anything is possible. Phillips has made his own way through playing in the NFL, but he thoroughly enjoyed watching the Flip's Squad kids dream in many other directions.
"They were working on investigations in crime scenes and things like that," said Phillips. "It was stuff that made them say, 'Wow, I didn't know I could do this.' I think they really enjoyed being a part of the Miami Herald and writing stories, or going to Publix and doing interviews of different people. It's experiences like that you don't forget, that last a lifetime."