BRADENTON -- When May Lizzie Jennings was returning to her home about three years ago, the East Bradenton resident remembers seeing trash everywhere.
After reading in the newspaper that the Washington Park neighborhood was blighted, Jennings has since been working to clean up the neighborhood in Bradenton, where she has lived her entire life.
Jennings refused to let the neighborhood where she's lived her entire life be considered blighted. She started the Neighbors Helping Neighbors group, which keeps the yards in the community maintained as well as the trees trimmed. Six volunteers work three days a week to ensure Washington Park is kept up.
"I got my crew and we started," she said. "We are keeping it clean. We can make a difference."
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As a way to help Washington Park's revitalization, Manatee County Habitat for Humanity has been working in the community and, to date, has painted eight homes -- something Jennings calls a "blessing."
"What we are doing is joining hands," Jennings said. "We are connecting together. We are going to make a difference."
Washington Park, which is just east of downtown Bradenton, is bordered by First Street on the West, Ninth Street East on the east, Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue East on the north and 13th Avenue East on the south.
The population declined from 925 in the 1990 census, to 839 in 2000, and 794 in 2010.
In 2010, only 56 percent of the housing in the neighborhood was owner-occupied, with the remainder being rentals.
"The neighborhood was included in urban renewal attempts of the 1970s, but is still plagued with poor infrastructure and gang activity," stated a 2013 neighbor
hood housing report from the city of Bradenton and Central Community Redevelopment Agency.
While Habitat for Humanity is known for building affordable, sustainable new homes for families in need, it started this new initiative to redefine themselves, said Diana Shoemaker, executive director of Manatee County Habitat for Humanity.
As part of a national effort, Shoemaker said, they are broadening their mission to include "the concept of neighborhood revitalization, and that is working with communities to determine with the residents what is most important to them."
In the past three years, Habitat for Humanity neighborhood revitalization affiliates nationally have increased their involvement in community projects by 60 percent. In the past year, these partners were involved in more than 3,000 community projects, working in more than 265 neighborhoods.
For Manatee County Habitat for Humanity, this neighborhood revitalization work is beginning in Bradenton's Washington Park neighborhood, which is bordered by the Tropicana plant and the headquarters for Bealls Inc.
The nonprofit's A Brush with Kindness program initially got them into the neighborhood, Shoemaker said.
"We started to get to know the neighbors, and we started hopefully making some positive impact on the neighborhood," she said. "We have been serving families with new homes, but this is a chance for us to work with existing homeowners."
More importantly, it has brought the Manatee County community into the Washington Park neighborhood, Shoemaker said.
"It brought the larger community into this community," she said. "Clearly efforts are being made in this community to make sure that this remains a safe, attractive community."
After working in the Washington Park neighborhood, Manatee County Habitat for Humanity hopes to duplicate the revitalization efforts in other neighborhoods in the county.
"The ultimate goal would be for us to have worked alongside the residents, and the residents themselves have identified changes they want in this community -- and they have actually in partnership with the big community made those changes happen," Shoemaker said. "Ultimately we are going to do this in another community. If the model works, then we are going to want to take it to other communities."
Jennings added: "I think it is working."
A neighborhood revitalized
Faye Smith's Washington Park home was the most recent Habitat for Humanity project in the Bradenton neighborhood. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Smith's home was painted as part of the State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota MLK Day of Service grants.
"That was wonderful what they did for me," Smith said. "I am happy. It looks like a brand new home. They say it just lights up the neighborhood with the colors."
As Smith's home was being pressure-washed and painted, it encouraged other people in the community to want their own homes done.
"One house can make a difference," Jennings said. "Once they have that pride, they feel good about themselves and where they live. When you come home and your house is painted and your yard is clean and landscaped, even trimming the trees, it makes a difference."
The community had lacked that connectivity before Habitat for Humanity came in, Jennings noted.
"Since they painted the house, it's been a blessing," she said. "It has really been a blessing. It just looks like people are opening up and talking more about the difference it makes."
In addition to Habitat for Humanity receiving a MLK Day of Service grant, Neighbors Helping Neighbors also received a grant, which they used to buy lawn equipment from Gravely of Bradenton.
"They got a grant and we got a grant, and we have basically both used it to help support this community in different ways," Shoemaker said. The community "getting a grant is a perfect example in the way in which residents are making an investment in their community, because you took that extra step."
Now with a house that looks like new, Smith wants to do more to help in the process.
"It opened my eyes to help more," she said. "When they have another house, I asked them to call me so I can go help."
A community coalition
Other community agencies, including Suncoast Community Capital, are helping revitalize Washington Park. Suncoast Community Capital worked with the neighborhood to put together a grant, said Tim Dutton, the executive director. The grant would enable the organization to work with youth in the community who are interested in starting businesses.
"We would work with them for a year," Dutton said, adding they would help them repair credit and develop a business plan. "That particular neighborhood is where we happen to have personal relationships."
While still in the beginning stages, the hope is they will build some kind of coalition in the community, Shoemaker said.
"The fact that they have something organized like that is a building block for us, and it's a chance for us to partner with that kind of group with other partners like Suncoast Community Capital," Shoemaker said. "Our hope is that we can be part of that conversation with Neighbors Helping Neighbors and anybody else that wants to be part of it.
"All these individuals are coming together around a table and we are having this conversation," she added. "The residents are helping to find what is already here, what is already working and what can be added that they will be invested in making happen."
Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.