Grassroots effort to revitalize Washington Park area begins with Tropicana financial boost

Washington Park residents voice their grievances with the neighborhood as they gather for their first official neighborhood meeting on Tuesday evening at the St. Stephens AME Church in Bradenton.
Washington Park residents voice their grievances with the neighborhood as they gather for their first official neighborhood meeting on Tuesday evening at the St. Stephens AME Church in Bradenton. zwittman@bradenton.com

Confucius once said the longest journey begins with the first step, and if Tuesday’s gathering was any indication, a first step has been taken from a grassroots level to revitalize East Bradenton’s Washington Park neighborhood.

Residents were outnumbered by outside agencies, business and church representatives hoping to see the effort flourish. But a handful is a good start, said Didi Hager, program manager for Habitat for Humanity. Hager initiated the neighborhood effort after scouring the neighborhood for potential Habitat home sites and meeting the people within the neighborhood trying to make a difference.

Among the attendees was Tropicana’s Tony Griffin, who announced that Tropicana is donating $2,700 toward the purchase of a grill and picnic tables the community hopes to use to establish a safe place for children to eat, play and study the Bible. It’s another step, and yes, for the residents of Washington Park, a giant leap toward early goals.

Hager said only four people attended the first community meeting a couple of months back, but the small assembly area at St. Stephen AME Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard was filled Tuesday with at least 20 people looking to make a difference.

“I know this has to work,” Hager said. “God never lets us down. We have targeted this neighborhood because there is leadership here. We have to have so many in things in place that can make a difference, but what we need is input from the community.”

Tuesday’s gathering was intended to begin that process and to learn from the residents what their greatest assets are, and what they are lacking.

“It’s not our job to come in and tell you what you need, so we want to know what you need and then we can work together,” she said.

One of her greatest assets is Washington Park’s May Lizzie Jennings, who organizes neighborhood cleanups. She does it out of her faith in God and a “Love thy neighbor” biblical philosophy. Tropicana also is donating lawn equipment to help Jennings and her small army of volunteers make a further dent in the cleanup efforts.

West Bradenton Crime Watch founder Tami Goudy is one of several people looking to get involved. Goudy spearheads several programs that teach communities how to protect themselves and one another.

“It’s something we have forgotten how to do,” Goudy said. “Over the years, we have just gone inside and look out for ourselves, and that’s not good.”

Bradenton Police Officer Jeff Cox also was on hand and has worked the Washington Park area for the past seven years.

Cox said programs like Goudy’s play “an important role, even for us. I grew up in this area. It’s pretty essential because once neighbors start getting to know their neighbors, they see what’s normal and what’s not. They see something different in the community and then tend to call us more.”

Getting people involved is the challenge, but Jennings believes God will direct this effort to grow.

“The most important thing is hands on hands and knock on doors and do it by word of mouth,” Jennings said. “We have not because we ask not. People will not say anything, they will suffer when there is help available, but we are all God’s children and we can make a difference.”

The Manatee County Department of Health also wants in on the ground floor of revitalizing Washington Park. Keisha Gains said the department just finished a community garden in another community and would like to do the same for Washington Park.

“We also oversee a community health plan, and I’ll share at the next meeting what we came up with from other community feedback,” Gains said. “I would love to hear more feedback from these residents on how we can help bring whatever you need to this area in relation to health.”

Residents attending said their biggest concern is for the community’s children. The nearest park is too far away, and reaching it means crossing busy roadways that virtually circle the Washington Park neighborhood.

“I’m hoping we are consistent and the group will grow, and that those who are here will stay committed,” Hager said. “This will grow and take on a life of its own. That’s my goal, to build a coalition that helps to build a safer and better neighborhood.”

The next meeting is at 6 p.m. Aug. 8 at St. Stephen AME Church, 629 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.