It was a sunny day in the park to enjoy some hot dogs, hamburgers and BBQ pulled pork.
A couple hundred residents enjoyed the community BBQ alongside members of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office at Pride Park, 815 63rd Ave. E., Bradenton.
Monica Smith, 39, poured herself some more iced tea and lemonade after she and her youngest children, ages 3 and 4, had their lunch.
“It’s good,” Smith said. “I really do appreciate them because they have been helping me since I’ve lived here.”
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Originally from Georgia, Smith said she moved to Manatee County eight years ago.
“I love my area because they patrol,” the mother said. “I feel safe. They are out here showing their love for the community. Protect and serve.”
And serve they did. Sheriff’s office employees who work in the kitchen at the Manatee County jail prepared the food that was also served by sheriff’s office employees.
Members of various departments and rank were present.
“It’s something that we look forward to,” Sheriff Rick Wells said. “We had a great turnout, well over two hundred people that enjoyed some of our home-cooked meals from the kitchen staff at the jail.”
Community BBQs are something that the sheriff’s office has been doing for over a decade, Wells said, since his father was sheriff. It’s an event that has become a tradition twice a year in various locations around the county.
The neighborhood surrounding Pride Park has been plagued with some crime, which was part of the reason the park was chosen for Saturday’s BBQ.
“We want people to know we’re here,” Wells said. “It’s all about building trust.”
Keeping an open dialogue between his deputies and the community is important to Wells, who said he doesn’t want them just talking to members of the community when something bad happens.
“It’s about starting that conversation and keeping it going,” the sheriff said.
Part of the conversation on Saturday was the heroin epidemic that has hit Manatee County especially hard.
“Where’s the $27 million?” Wells said with frustration.
In December, then President Barack Obama signed the 21st Century Cures Act into law which appropriates $500 million in 2017 and again in 2018 for states to respond to the opioid crisis through a grant program under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. With Florida allocated more than $27 million under those grants, Gov. Rick Scott declared a public health emergency in May to enable those funds to be immediately distributed.
But the sheriff has seen no sign of the money.
“I want to know where the funding for treatment is that we were promised,” he said.
Wells, who has been asked to sit on numerous panels to discuss the epidemic, is ready to see action. Manatee County is no better off than when the epidemic first spiraled out of control three years ago, he said.
That was why he was happy to receive a call from Gerrie Stanhope, president of No Longer Silent, a non-profit based in Palmetto dedicated to bringing awareness to the heroin epidemic. Stanhope and other members of No Longer Silent were at Saturday’s BBQ talking with members of the community and making their presence known.
“I just wish we could get more treatment centers,” Stanhope said.
Like Wells, she too is frustrated with the lack of funds. Wells is dedicated to finding solutions to the epidemic, she said, but building community relations was the most important goal of the BBQ.
“It shows kids that cops are here to help,” Stanhope said. “Especially for troubled families because often the parents teach kids to be scared of the cops.”