Coalition of love sought to help revitalize neighborhood
by Mark Young
It only takes a hug from East Bradenton resident May Lizzie Jennings, the unofficial mayor of her impoverished community in Washington Park, to know you are loved. The 71-year-old exudes faith in God and takes the Biblical command of “Love thy neighbor” to a whole new level.
“Everybody says they love the Lord, but don’t love the people around you,” Jennings said. “How do you say you love the Lord and don’t love His people?”
Jennings is on a mission to spread that love throughout her neighborhood, and it’s a mission noticed by Habitat for Humanity’s program manager, Didi Boyd Hager. Habitat is partnering with Jennings to form a new coalition to identify Washington Park assets, enhance them and determine what the community needs. Habitat is focusing on specific areas of the neighborhood and identifying vacant lots for potential purchase.
“We are looking at the whole community, but targeting this area for new construction,” Hager said. “This is just the beginning of activity. We are looking for other people to get involved in this grassroots effort to help this neighborhood, and hopefully build a coalition behind that. Habitat can only be a spoke in the wheel. We can’t be the whole wheel.”
Jennings takes it upon herself, along with family and a small group of volunteers, to make a dent in some of the neighborhood blight. Whether it’s mowing someone’s lawn, cleaning up trash, washing someone’s windows or delivering food to her neighbors, she refuses to live in a run-down neighborhood, which is bordered on the north by Ninth Avenue East, on the east by Ninth Street East, on the south by 13th Avenue West and the west by First Street.
According to a 2013 city of Bradenton housing stock assessment, the overall condition of Washington Park homes ranges from average to good, but most homes did fail at least one criteria of the study.
“There is a strong need for various repairs throughout the neighborhood,” the report states.
The city funds housing rehab projects through federal Community Development Block Grant dollars and Florida’s State Housing Initiative Partnership program, but those funds have dwindled over the years. Jennings says the city does a very good job servicing the neighborhood, but she isn’t looking to rely on government.
“People expect officials to do it for them, but it’s not officials’ responsibilities,” she said. “It’s neighbors helping neighbors. We go in and check the properties and see what needs to be done, knock on doors and see how we can help. People may drive by a house and see it run-down, but you don’t know the story of what’s going inside the home without knocking on the door.”
Jennings often finds someone elderly on disability or a working family struggling to make ends meet, “so we come and do it for them. Those who are able to help, do what little they can. I can’t give up. It’s your neighbor and you have to do something about it. You have to reach out and touch their lives.”
According to 2010 U.S. Census, the neighborhood has transformed from elderly in the 1990s to a younger and more diverse population. The average age range in the community is 45- 54 years old, with 23.6 percent identifying as white, 56.3 percent identifying as black and 36.8 percent identifying as Hispanic.
Market value for homes in Washington Park has risen, but more than 40 percent of the neighborhood’s homes are valued under $100,000. The median household income is about $35,000.
While Washington Park has had reputation issues pertaining to crime, it’s no more than usual, according to Bradenton Police Department Assistant Chief Josh Cramer. He said the bulk of the criminal activity typically occurs on the district’s fringes along the main traffic corridors and not necessarily within the residential areas of the district.
Jennings said there are too many people in her community who have lost hope. But she goes “street by street to show people there is hope if we work together. Everybody wants to blame the government, but oh no, it’s the people and we are God’s people. You have more people paying attention to the president instead of paying attention to God and don’t want to embrace one another.”
On a recent weekday, Jennings walked the neighborhood looking to see what needed to be cleaned up. She found a group of men standing around so she gave them trash bags and six rakes, and put them to work.
“They grumble, but they do it,” she said. “I take them water and soda and tell them it will be McDonald’s for lunch at noon. We have fun doing it. Sometimes we run head-to-head with people, but we work it out.”
Tropicana is chipping in for the effort, donating money for lawn equipment and picnic tables that Jennings hopes to use for Bible study classes for the neighborhood children. The small coalition recently met for the first time with only four people attending.
“It’s a challenge to get people involved,” Hager said. “As with anything, it takes time to build trust. We have a small knitted group of women already working together, and my goal is to take that group and expand it and hopefully it takes seed and grows. There is just a lot of potential here and a lot of good people in this neighborhood. If we can tap into those resources and the assets that are here, then we can expand on that.”
The community meetings are designed to bring the residents together to identify what will make their community better. They want to work with outside individuals and agencies that can then bring expertise to resolve those needs. And Jennings hopes to see the young community get involved, as well.
“We need people with a vision,” she said. “God gave everyone a gift, so let’s put those gifts to work. It’s a blessing to help somebody. That’s what it’s all about. It’s all about planting a seed and that’s something we have strayed so far away from.”
Beginning July11, the coalition will meet the second Tuesday of each month. Hager’s goal is to listen to the residents and not try to determine or guess what they may need. That can include a wide array of things, she says, from housing, to playgrounds to safety.
Women Flex their Muscles at Habitat for Humanity Build Event
By James A. Jones Jr.
Bradenton - Brittany Holley climbed all over the building site Thursday, stapling moisture barrier onto window and door casings, drilling holes into the concrete foundation to attach temporary wall supports, toting building materials and fetching supplies.
Through it all, a smile lit up her face, knowing that she was helping build the Habitat for Humanity house that she and her three children will move into in a few months.
She also smiled at the sight of 30 or so volunteers converging on the 2200 block of 10th Street West to help during National Women Build Week.
“Today I started off drilling here, just to make sure this wall is stable. I have been putting down some foam blocks. I was drilling rebar. This is an awesome stress reliever right here, hammering staples in. This is just to make sure the water from the concrete doesn’t mess up the wood or anything,” Holley said. “I ran over there to the other Habitat house where I was painting a little bit. Anywhere I can help, anywhere I can get in, I am here and ready to work.”
Thursday’s volunteer workforce included a number of heavy hitters, including Carol Probstfeld, president of State College of Florida; County Commissioner Betsy Benac; Bradenton Police Chief Melanie Bevan; schools Superintendent Diana Greene; and Angel Colonneso, Manatee County clerk of the circuit court.
“This is a whole new experience, I am excited by it,” Probstfeld said.
One of her first jobs was helping install a window casing. She mused that maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing for everyone to help build their own house.
Kathy Shjarback served as crew leader for the women build.
“This is my third women build. I have helped build more than 50 houses,” Shjarback said. “I love to see families get a chance to do well. Most of the homeowners learn how to maintain their home, and to take pride in it.”
Mike Kunst, an assistant store manager for Lowe’s, said he was learning new things, too, at Thursday’s build.
“I have never seen the plastic foam forms used before. It’s pretty interesting seeing how they go up,” Kunst said.
The molds, also called insulated concrete forms, were stacked and leveled by volunteers. Later, concrete will be poured into them. The walls will eventually be covered by drywall on the interior and siding on the exterior, helping produce a strong structure that helps keep energy bills low.
Amy Van Dell, resource development manager for Manatee County Habitat for Humanity, said the insulated concrete form makes for a low-maintenance, energy-efficient home.
Jim Crouse, a Lakewood Ranch resident who has been a Habitat volunteer for 10 years, called the women build event a lot of fun. He appreciated seeing all the volunteers swarming over the construction site.
Volunteers Thursday were working on an attached villa, which will house two families, starting in September when construction is completed, Van Dell said.
Lowe’s donated $2 million to Habitat’s 2017 National Women Build Week. For more information about Manatee County Habitat for Humanity, visit manateehabitat.org.
Read more here: http://www.bradenton.com/news/local/article149967062.html#storylink=cpy