Volunteers spruce up Bradenton Riverwalk

BRADENTON -- A large group worked in clusters sprucing up Riverwalk early Wednesday evening.

At the butterfly garden, some broke into soil with shovels, while others knelt down, ready to plant Mexican fire bushes and petunias.

Employees from the Florida Department of Health in Manatee County and volunteers with Realize Bradenton worked together on the beautification project as part of Florida Health Cleans Up!, a venture of Healthiest Weight Florida.

According to its website, Healthiest Weight Florida is a public-private collaboration of state agencies, nonprofits, businesses and communities working to help Floridians make informed choices about healthy eating and active living.

About 15 DOH-Manatee employees picked up litter and collected cigarette butts from the nearby skate park. According to Megan Jourdan, DOH-Manatee public information officer, cigarette butts are one of the greatest sources of litter in the world.

Cami Foreman, who works for DOH-Manatee, held up a clear bag filled with trash she and a co-worker collected. She said it was horrible to find so many cigarette butts but it doesn't deter her from coming to the park.

"I come often. I bring my kids, my dog," she said. "My dog loves it down here. ... It's a little treasure."

Jourdan said Riverwalk provides a great venue for physical activity.

"There are always people out exercising," Jourdan said. "It's a beautiful health example in the community."

Jourdan credited the city Public Works Department for keeping the park beautiful. Two departments workers brought the plants and tools for the project.

Josiah Cooper, an environmental specialist II with DOH-Manatee, dug in the garden. The 33-year-old Palmetto resident said he and his co-workers were happy to participate. Cooper said he brings his 5-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son often to Riverwalk.

"It's got anything a kid could ask for -- got a playground right next to the spray ground so they can come in their swimsuits and get all wet and then run all over the playground and just get wild," he said. "It's got a nice layout for the kids."

Realize Bradenton volunteer Marilyn Sanders, 52, planted a Mexican fire brush.

"I love it," she said. "One of my favorite things to do is to expose it (Riverwalk) to other people. ... Believe it or not, a lot of people have not been here."

But scores of residents have been drawn to Riverwalk.

"The award-winning Riverwalk is really where the community gathers so it really builds the social connections that are important to a healthy community," said Johnette Isham, director of Realize Bradenton.

Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.