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Rebuilding Bithlo

United Global Outreach hopes its success transforming the town of Bithlo can become a model for other struggling Orange County communities

Photo: Photo by Willie J. Allen Jr., License: N/A

Photo by Willie J. Allen Jr.

A mural decorates a wall in Bithlo’s Transformation Village

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Timothy McKinney says it was four years ago that he first started thinking about Bithlo. Like a lot of people in Orange County, McKinney says, he knew Bithlo, an unincorporated town located just outside of East Orlando, primarily as the butt of offhanded jokes. Bithlo happens to be located along State Road 50, just before the town of Christmas, and, at the time, it was one of the worst parts of Orange County. He says he wanted to find out for himself why people liked to call it “the nightmare before Christmas.”

What he found was distressing: “The water there is not clean, it’s toxic, with cancer-causing chemicals,” he says. “A whole community is living in trailers, many of them 30, 40, 50 years old. There’s literally no infrastructure. No sidewalks, no buses went there at the time. There was no doctor in the community at all.”

Related: 24 Gorgeous photos by Willie J. Allen Jr. in 'Welcome to Bithlo'

It was, he says, a town that had been forgotten – so much so that most people were completely oblivious to the extreme poverty in Bithlo, which is (somewhat ironically) located in the same county commission district as Winter Park. Once an incorporated town, economic hardship bankrupted Bithlo in 1929, and attempts to revitalize the government there failed. In 1977, the state Legislature abolished it for good, making it an unincorporated part of Orange County, which promptly ignored it.

Now, after years of neglect, things are slowly changing in Bithlo, thanks in large part to United Global Outreach, the nonprofit organization McKinney founded to raise the town out of its decades-long depression. Just last week, the advisory board for United Global Outreach announced during a meeting that it’s had so much success bringing services, infrastructure, volunteers and attention to Bithlo that it’s ready to branch out to other struggling communities.

In 2009, United Global Outreach volunteers started out with a door-knocking campaign to ask Bithlo residents what their biggest challenges were. Some were obvious, McKinney says – access to clean water, public transportation, education and health care – while others, like a sense of empowerment, hope for the future and the right to live in a safer environment, were far more subtle. United Global Outreach put together a program that focused on seven core areas that McKinney thought needed to be addressed first: environment, housing, transportation, health care, education, basic needs and sense of community.

United Global Outreach quickly determined that it wasn’t so much money that it needed to succeed – rather, it needed cooperation and coordination. It partnered with churches, Rotary clubs, medical professionals and community organizations to hold weekly community suppers and outreach events. It invited mission workers from various churches to volunteer their time, and it asked medical professionals to offer check-ups, eye exams and dental cleanings to those who needed them most. In 2010, United Global Outreach even opened a little K-3 school for the community to help its most at-risk students succeed.

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