Religion

Faith-Based Alliance gaining traction in Manatee County

BRADENTON -- There's a difference between a "Good idea and a God Idea," said Bradenton Planning and Community Development Director Tim Polk, who is a member of the growing Faith-Based Alliance in Manatee County.

"We started with a good plan, and now we got a God plan, and a God plan is much better than a good plan," said Polk.

The Faith-Based Alliance began about a year ago with a focus in the city Central Community Redevelopment Agency district as a means to gather various pastors under one roof to begin addressing serious community issues and work together for resolutions.

Polk said when he realized there were about 35 churches and religious organizations within the boundaries of the CCRA in East Bradenton, the idea was "to be a friend, work hand in glove and be a conduit for development and social issues in the community."

Polk said he sees churches as "anchor institutions" that teach people to live right.

"We had a number of church partners in the CCRA anyway, so this was a natural progression and helps us achieve the CCRA mission of transforming community by transforming lives," Polk said. "Having people who have a Christian foundation helps out a whole lot

in helping us with our social initiatives."

The agency's social initiatives includes CareerEdge, which helps train or retrain citizens for new careers, and Suncoast Community Capital, which helps low-income families become financially independent through financial education. Polk said as important as those two agencies are to the community, the Faith-Based Alliance is something he sees as being a key to ultimate success.

"I look at it as the most important initiative we've launched," he said. "Eventually, it will stand on its own. We are just facilitating it. I think it's huge not only for the CCRA, but for the city and Manatee County."

The initiative spread outward to Manatee County. Membership and regular participants in monthly meetings include city and county people from Manatee County, Sarasota and Hillsborough counties looking to initiate similar initiatives. Citizens, church leaders and law enforcement officers are a part of a program designed as a one-stop place for people to find help with a variety of problems.

Pastor Don Sturiano, senior pastor at Kingdom Life Christian Church and chaplain for the Bradenton Police Department, said he came on board in the first month of the program and is now chairman of the alliance.

"It has taken the first year to meet, discuss and more importantly listen," said Sturiano. "We didn't want to come on board with an agenda. We wanted to hear from the ministers, hear from civic organizations, the community and the citizens. Seventy people attended our last meeting and it was well rounded. Our mission is to connect the dots of what's already there."

The alliance mission statement reads: "To work collaboratively with our community partners to enhance the quality of life for all citizens and to individually empower them to effectively use the services and resources of this community for personal growth and development."

Polk said the alliance will tackle serious issues such as crime, housing, unemployment, keeping people out of trouble and giving those who have been in trouble a second chance.

Polk said the alliance is something people and organizations are beginning to believe can work.

"I've been involved in similar initiatives in other cities," he said. "What is unique about this one is that you have community leaders and community-based organizations allied with churches. We have United Way, Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity and they are all coming to the table to heal the hurt by being a conduit to connect people to the right programs that already exist."

Polk said Bradenton is the only place he knows where religious, civic, community and government leaders work together for a common goal.

The Friendly City

Bradenton's "Friendly City" mantra is sometimes the target of cheap shots, but the reality is every city has issues. Polk and Sturiano said there is no question the city deserves its title and the alliance is a perfect complement.

Part of Bradenton police officer Kimberly Camacho's duties is to help neighborhoods start crime watch programs. She's a badge in some rough areas at times, but she's also a Christian alliance member. While on duty recently, Camacho was dealing with a homeless citizen who said he was struggling to find work.

Camacho took it upon herself to help find a solution.

Sturiano said Camacho's first phone call was to the alliance to find out how to help the man find work. The alliance directed him to an individual at Turning Points who specializes in helping the homeless find jobs quickly.

BPD Chief Michael Radzilowski, who will be retiring soon, has been a part of the joint partnership with Kingdom Life Christian Church in the "Honor the Badge" program that raises money to take needy children to Toys 'R' Us during the holidays. Last year, Sturiano said there was a large demand and it was obvious they were going to have to start turning families away.

"We were going to be about $1,500 short," said Sturiano. "Chief pulled out his personal credit card and covered the balance. While he was doing that, I was texting people to try and raise the money and within two texts, I had about $2,000 donated. I told the chief we would reimburse him and he refused, saying it was better to give. You have a mayor that will see someone walking in the rain and pull over and give them a ride. When I tell people about the relationship between the church and the city government, they say it's amazing and they wish they had that there."

Sturiano said there is no question Bradenton is the Friendly City.

"When I started my church nine years ago, God called it on my heart first to love the city and as I loved the city, He would build a house," said Sturiano. "What I've seen as I've gotten to know these folks first hand is that they care. It is the Friendly City. They care about who they work with and they care about the citizens and they honor God."

Alliance future

In its first year, the alliance has established a base of support for a community in need and directs those in need to the right agency. That's just the beginning, Polk said.

Polk said he sees the alliance taking on a life of its own as a "vessel that gets things done, that works with solving problems before it becomes a problem, dealing with crime, race relations and teaching people that if you work together, you can get problems solved. You have to learn to talk with each other rather than at each other."

Polk said the alliance can also act as a buffer for those unwilling to trust taking their problems before a public entity like city council.

"They can say things to us that they would be afraid to say to anyone else," he said. "This gives them a mechanism to get things said that they need to say. But mainly, this provides them a place where people care and direct them to the organizations that are out there already that can help them."

The one-stop term is already known in the community with the Turning Points One Stop Center for the homeless. Sturiano said the alliance is a stop for those one or two levels away from needing Turning Points.

"I see that getting bigger," he said. "I see the alliance coming up with bigger and better initiatives and us becoming the funnel for all of the community's organizations to let these people know here is the place you need to go. Your one stop for help, whatever that help may be. For me, it's seeing the calling of when I first came to Bradenton all over again, to better love and better serve the city. I see the alliance as a real tool to make that happen."

The alliance is working on a website, creating a voting board of directors and looking for more churches and citizens to get involved. For more information, contact the CCRA at 941-744-2362, ext. 104, or email pastordon@kingdomlifechristianchurch.org.

Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.

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