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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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Today that school, Orange County Academy, is a K-9 with 70 students. Lynx has re-established bus service to the town, which also now has its own community garden and library. A mobile dental clinic and community health center operate in Bithlo. Florida Hospital, student groups from the University of Central Florida and more than 65 businesses and organizations have partnered with United Global Outreach in Bithlo. United Global Outreach has been purchasing land around a little group of buildings it owns in Bithlo and hopes to expand on what it calls the Transformation Village.

“It will be the town center in Bithlo, eventually,” McKinney says. “It will have a coffee shop, a community center, a community school, an aquaponics garden.”

McKinney says the Transformation Village – which consists of some concrete block buildings painted with bright murals, a playground and a fire-engine-red Victorian that houses the library – is not just for Bithlo. He says it’s also a model for what can happen in other Central Florida communities. Soon, he says, the organization will likely begin to work in South Apopka, where three nuns – Sisters Cathy Gorman, Gail Grimes and Ann Kendrick – founded the Hope Community Center to help the area’s working poor. McKinney says that despite a lot of effort and resources, there has yet to be “fundamental transformation” in Apopka. He says he thinks part of the problem is that everybody is doing their own thing to help, but they aren’t doing it in a coordinated way. United Global Outreach attributes a great deal of its success in Bithlo to its partnerships. In addition to Apopka, he hopes to see the program roll out in Eatonville, and eventually perhaps Azalea Park and Ivey Lane.

One significant difference between the places United Global Outreach is targeting next and where it started in Bithlo, though, is that these communities already have things Bithlo was lacking: functioning infrastructure, health services, transportation and intact local governments. McKinney says they’re going to have to step somewhat lightly to make sure they get buy-in, not pushback, from these communities, which naturally have developed their own way of doing things. However, McKinney says, the bottom line is that every community needs some of those basic things they started with in Bithlo – and he knows where to go to find the people who are thirsting for them.

“We don’t want to roll in and invade the community,” McKinney says. “We will go in, like we did in Bithlo, and start doing things not just with the community organizations and the government, but with the little old lady who sits on her porch. We’ll really get into the fabric of the community and find out what the dots are that need to be connected.”

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