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Momentum builds as Washington Park residents engage with coalition

Washington Park Community primary

Lizzie May Jennings hugs those who attended the community’s first Washington Park meeting in July as a growing group of residents and outside partners join forces in an effort to clean up and make safe the East Bradenton neighborhood. Zack Wittman, Herald file photo

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BRADENTON - Sometimes the most difficult task to complete when invoking change is first to get others involved. If that is true, a coalition spearheaded by Habitat for Humanity looking to bring change to East Bradenton’s Washington Park community is off to a good start.

The Bradenton Police Department hosted the second community meeting at its Sixth Street Court East police substation, and it was standing room only as attendance more than doubled from a meeting held last month. That first meeting drew more people representing agencies outside the neighborhood seeking to help than it did residents.

On Tuesday, concerned residents far outnumbered those agency representatives and though space was tight, Habitat’s Programs Manager Didi Boyd Hager said “this is a good problem to have.”

Coalition building began in early June between Hager and May Lizzie Jennings in her Washington Park home and the effort is blossoming quickly.

“Our mission is to help this community come together,” Hager said. “The people here are part of a coalition building to listen, to give their input, their direction, their talents to what this community needs, but we need to hear from you.”

Residents reiterated some of the issues the community faces, which includes better lighting, sidewalks, safe places and routes for children to get to nearby parks and bus stops, and a general cleanup of the neighborhood, which residents proclaimed as “filthy.”

Bradenton Police Chief Melanie Bevan attended the meeting to address concerns from residents and was pleased with the turnout.

“It’s always important when trying to do all we can for the neighborhood that the neighborhood comes out,” Bevan said. “At the end of the day, we can’t do anything as a city or as a police department unless you are involved. Neighborhoods are about families so if there are things you would like to see from the police department, things you need help with, house issues, code issues or if someone in your neighborhood is bringing you down, you need to let us know. We are here to do all we can.”

Residents said they would like to get know the officers better to establish more trust but acknowledged Bevan’s implementation last year of her Walkin’ the Beat program has been effective. Officers are required to get out of their vehicles from time to time to engage with the community. Others were concerned that the current effort would simply disappear as time goes on, but Hager said that isn’t going to happen.

“This is a village,” she said. “I can’t do this by myself and I don’t want to. We want to get to know you and what you want in the community so there is trust built to have this community sustain itself and be an up-and-coming neighborhood. Unless I’m in the hospital on my death bed, I’m going to keep my word, but I can’t do without you all.”

Residents expressed frustration about the lack of caring in their own neighborhood, particularly about the dumping of trash. Several of those attending say they are involved in organizational and church cleanup efforts, but that few, if any of their neighbors, participate.

“I’m 71 years old, and if I can pick up trash then by God everyone can,” Jennings said. “It’s a shame. I’m ashamed of the way the neighborhood looks. We can do better.”

Monthly community meetings will continue. Hager is the point person for the growing coalition, and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call 941-748-9100, ext. 102.

Mark Young: 941-745-7041, @urbanmark2014

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Raise your voices for affordable housing -- for everyone


FILE PHOTO: Terrill Symons talks about the solar panels on the roof of his Habitat for Humanity home. Manatee County Habitat for Humanity is focused on making sustainable home building and repairs. Tiffany Tompkins This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

This week (July 22-29) has been National Housing Week of Action. Rallies and events took place nationwide, bringing attention to the growing affordable housing challenges in cities throughout the U.S. The campaign “Our Homes, Our Voices” raises concerns about the significant reductions to federal funding for HUD and the USDA programs. Advocates are urging Congress to “lift the low spending caps and fully invest in affordable housing resources” to help economically vulnerable families keep a roof over their heads and help communities thrive.

Manatee County Habitat for Humanity benefits from Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), a program of HUD and administered by our local municipalities. Funding has helped us build 18 Habitat homes in Ellenton and acquire property in Bradenton to build affordable homes in a neighborhood in much need of revitalization.

At Habitat, we believe everyone deserves a decent place to live. Over the past 23 years, our homebuyer program has enabled 127 families to do just that. An investment in affordable housing pays off with the long-term benefits of increased economic mobility, improved health and higher educational achievement for children and families. In addition, communities that invest in affordable housing infrastructure generate more jobs, boost family income and further encourage development.

The affordable housing crisis is big, and slashing federal programs that have kept families stable is a huge step backwards. Finding long-term sustainable solutions will require all of us working together at the local, state and federal level to make decent shelter — not a privilege for some, but attainable for all.

Diana Shoemaker, Executive Director, Manatee County Habitat for Humanity

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Cops put on hard hats to provide housing, discourage crime

by Jessica De Leon


BRADENTON - Committed to bringing down crime in the city, Bradenton police officers and employees put on hard hats and helped build one of the latest Habitat for Humanity homes.

About 25 members of the Bradenton Police Department joined forces with Habitat for Humanity volunteers on Thursday morning to help build a duplex in the 2200 block of 10th Street West.

“This has been an ongoing project, and we went out, picked up our hammers and got to work,” spokesman Lt. Brian Thiers told the Bradenton Herald after work had been completed for the day.

Officers and police personnel helped Habitat volunteers with siding, framing and painting.

“We had a great time,” Thiers said of their work with “a great organization. We worked well together.”

Thiers commended Habitat’s volunteers for the amount of time and effort put into their projects.

“It was a great honor to be able to join with them, to work in our city, the city we keep safe. And today, we got to build a little of it,” Thiers said.

The duplex, which will provide homes for two single mothers and their children, is part of new construction projects that are being built in an area of the city that for years has been a high-crime area.

“It’s part of a concerted effort to rebuild this area,” said Bruce Winter, construction director for Manatee County Habitat for Humanity. “To have the support of the police, fire department and code enforcement here in the city of Bradenton allows us to come into this neighborhood and help to revitalize it.”

The duplex comprises the third and fourth dwellings built in the Midtown Bradenton and Village of the Arts neighborhoods. Previous projects have been built in the village, and future projects have also been planned, according to Winter. One of the homes is part of the organization’s Women’s Build project, for which Police Chief Melanie Bevan is the co-leader.

In addition to the labor Bradenton police officers provided, their mere presence has aided the project. Thursday morning, the block where the duplex is located was lined with police cars, and other officers who were on duty regularly patrolled the area.

The increased patrols, not just during building time, has really aided in controlling vandalism and theft of building materials, which is often a struggle, Winter said.

Bradenton police officers intend on continuing to work with Habitat, Thiers said, and they looking forward to helping other families have a fresh start while helping to clean up the neighborhood.

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Grassroots effort to revitalize Washington Park area begins with Tropicana financial boost

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Confucius once said the longest journey begins with the first step, and if Tuesday’s gathering was any indication, a first step has been taken from a grassroots level to revitalize East Bradenton’s Washington Park neighborhood.

Residents were outnumbered by outside agencies, business and church representatives hoping to see the effort flourish. But a handful is a good start, said Didi Hager, program manager for Habitat for Humanity. Hager initiated the neighborhood effort after scouring the neighborhood for potential Habitat home sites and meeting the people within the neighborhood trying to make a difference.

Among the attendees was Tropicana’s Tony Griffin, who announced that Tropicana is donating $2,700 toward the purchase of a grill and picnic tables the community hopes to use to establish a safe place for children to eat, play and study the Bible. It’s another step, and yes, for the residents of Washington Park, a giant leap toward early goals.

Hager said only four people attended the first community meeting a couple of months back, but the small assembly area at St. Stephen AME Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard was filled Tuesday with at least 20 people looking to make a difference.

“I know this has to work,” Hager said. “God never lets us down. We have targeted this neighborhood because there is leadership here. We have to have so many in things in place that can make a difference, but what we need is input from the community.”

Tuesday’s gathering was intended to begin that process and to learn from the residents what their greatest assets are, and what they are lacking.

“It’s not our job to come in and tell you what you need, so we want to know what you need and then we can work together,” she said.

One of her greatest assets is Washington Park’s May Lizzie Jennings, who organizes neighborhood cleanups. She does it out of her faith in God and a “Love thy neighbor” biblical philosophy. Tropicana also is donating lawn equipment to help Jennings and her small army of volunteers make a further dent in the cleanup efforts.

West Bradenton Crime Watch founder Tami Goudy is one of several people looking to get involved. Goudy spearheads several programs that teach communities how to protect themselves and one another.

“It’s something we have forgotten how to do,” Goudy said. “Over the years, we have just gone inside and look out for ourselves, and that’s not good.”

Bradenton Police Officer Jeff Cox also was on hand and has worked the Washington Park area for the past seven years.

Cox said programs like Goudy’s play “an important role, even for us. I grew up in this area. It’s pretty essential because once neighbors start getting to know their neighbors, they see what’s normal and what’s not. They see something different in the community and then tend to call us more.”

Getting people involved is the challenge, but Jennings believes God will direct this effort to grow.

“The most important thing is hands on hands and knock on doors and do it by word of mouth,” Jennings said. “We have not because we ask not. People will not say anything, they will suffer when there is help available, but we are all God’s children and we can make a difference.”

The Manatee County Department of Health also wants in on the ground floor of revitalizing Washington Park. Keisha Gains said the department just finished a community garden in another community and would like to do the same for Washington Park.

“We also oversee a community health plan, and I’ll share at the next meeting what we came up with from other community feedback,” Gains said. “I would love to hear more feedback from these residents on how we can help bring whatever you need to this area in relation to health.”

Residents attending said their biggest concern is for the community’s children. The nearest park is too far away, and reaching it means crossing busy roadways that virtually circle the Washington Park neighborhood.

“I’m hoping we are consistent and the group will grow, and that those who are here will stay committed,” Hager said. “This will grow and take on a life of its own. That’s my goal, to build a coalition that helps to build a safer and better neighborhood.”

The next meeting is at 6 p.m. Aug. 8 at St. Stephen AME Church, 629 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

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