BRADENTON -- When residents in the Ballard Park neighborhood banded together because they were tired of being afraid, little did they realize that their neighbor-helping-neighbor approach would extend beyond the confines of their Parkside Apartments.
Many residents at Parkside contend with disabilities and other challenges but don't let their position on the lower rung of financial stability stand in the way of reclaiming their neighborhood. The complex may not be an ideal place to live for most people, but as resident Kat Lewis said, "We may be impoverished, but we are decent people. We deserve a home and to do that we have to change our environment."
The Bradenton Herald profiled the community last Sunday, examining how these residents have come together to take back their community from crime. The residents spoke out about their efforts because they want people to know that if they could do it, anyone can. They expressed hope their efforts would spread throughout the community. Though they can barely afford the basic necessities of life, they didn't ask for handouts.
But their spirit of neighborhood self-reliance has sparked donations of all kinds. A local church donated two new picnic tables. A restaurant wants to host their next potluck dinner. A second-grade class is going to raise money for a swing set, toys and books. An 89-year-old woman who grew up in a similar environment is pledging $200.
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"I think people want to help other people who are trying to help themselves," said Bill Meek, who purchased a new basketball hoop last week for the 12 children in the complex at 1515 Ninth Ave.
"My wife and I are just so impressed with the courage and strength it takes to do what they are doing," said Meek. "Most of us have experienced ups and downs in life. You learn from it and keep going. I've had some great people help me, so we try to extend a helping hand when we can."
The Meeks aren't wealthy people, but they put aside a little money every month into a special account they jokingly call the "Meek Foundation."
"We see people who are in need, who are having a hard time for some reason," he said. "We've all been through it, and we just try to ease the burden as best we can."
Jean Green, 89, spent her childhood in the Great Depression in the 1930s. She's not wealthy, either, but remembers walking the train tracks looking for pieces of coal that had fallen off the coal trains to try and sell for food. Green could have never imagined having something like a swingset as a little girl, so she donated $200 toward buying one for the children at Parkside.
"I've lived in a similar situation as a child not having anything," said Green. "I lived in a condemned building and my mother was widowed. Life was tough, so what inspired me about these people is the way they are helping themselves with how little they have. They are working together to help each other. I'm not a rich person, but you've got to help people when they are trying to help themselves."
Businesses join the battle
Those stepping in to join the community's battle to transform their neighborhood understand hard times. Meek just underwent a liver transplant; Stefanie Kite, the co-owner of Ferraro's Pizza on 14th Street West, is battling cancer. Kite, who bought Ferraro's seven months ago with her husband Kevin, said business is good, but she deals with a lot of the same issues as the Parkside community.
"We understand their situation," said Kite. "Being part of the community, it's a responsibility to help, and the best way to do that is to pull together as one community."
Kite is offering Parkside residents a safe place to hold their potluck dinners, and wants to chip in with food and become part of the fight. Hailing from the Midwest, Kite said her upbringing dictates, "That it's important to do what's right for people."
Law enforcement gets involved
Efforts to combat crime in their neighborhood are being noticed by law enforcement. Bradenton Police Chief Melanie Bevan plans to visit the community this week, spending her own money on some surprises for the children.
"I just want to thank them and applaud them on their commitment to taking back their community," said Bevan. "As I've said before, when a community stands alongside its police department and actively partners with the men and women serving and protecting, that community becomes stronger. The residents, and the result of their work in conjunction with officers from BPD, is community policing at its finest. It's something we should all strive to replicate in neighborhood after neighborhood."
Children helping children
Ellen Parker's second-grade class at Annie Lucy Williams Elementary School in Parrish discussed the community's efforts and how they were trying to make it safe for children. The students want to help and are in the midst of a fund-raising campaign to buy the Parkside children a new swing set, books and toys.
The second-graders have lofty goals, hoping to raise thousands of dollars and, as one student said, "513,581 books."
Sometimes wisdom comes in small packages like Regan Jones, 8, who said she wants to help because it's important "to make the world a better place."
"I feel confident we can get a lot of things donated, and that makes the people who need it and give it feel good," Regan said. "The kids there deserve to have the right to get what other kids get. I just want to tell them they are on the right track, keep it up and never give up."
The students will appear on the school's internal news show, make up flyers and plan on getting the whole school involved. The kids are asking their siblings and parents for help, and Regan took it one step further by asking her parents if she could do extra chores to make money to donate.
Kaitlyn Johnston, also 8, said the project makes her happy. "We aren't thinking about ourselves," she said. "I want to keep on helping the community and not stop making the world a better place."
Parkside resident Margie Malanda said her community has been overwhelmed by the support they have received.
"We may be poor here, but we have our pride," said Malanda, 66. "We didn't ask for this and weren't expecting it. We just wanted to show what one neighborhood could do if they worked together. Our only hope was that the surrounding neighborhoods would see what we were doing and would want to do the same.
"It's overwhelming to know that so many people care about us and for that, everyone here is so grateful."
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter@urbanmark2014.