Community transformation is long-term commitment




Seven years ago, St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando committed a chunk of its capital campaign to the transformation of a low-income community in East Winter Garden.
 
“That was a huge statement,” said Lynette Fields, St. Luke’s executive director of community transformation. “We had to change our mindset of doing big projects with quick impact to having a longer-term commitment where it takes longer to see the outcome. It’s relational.”
A Door to Curb team gives a home a fresh coat of paint.

The church partnered with East Winter Garden, a predominantly black neighborhood of about 500 homes with an average household income of $28,000.

“We did not come in with answers but with listening ears,” Fields said. “We were trying to create a pilot project. Can the church change the way it does mission, shifting from short-term relief to long-term commitment with long-term outcomes?”
 
The church met with residents to identify needs and established a community alliance to find solutions. A community survey turned up some surprising information—many residents had lived in the neighborhood for generations, and about half of them own their homes. East Winter Garden is a neighborhood with deep roots and pride but not a lot of financial resources.
 
Together, the church and the neighborhood established four areas to work on:
 
  • Educational support,
  • Economic stability,
  • Safe and secure housing and
  • Neighborhood well-being.
Since the initiative began, St. Luke’s has raised $1.8 million for its East Winter Garden projects, Fields said.
 
Door to Curb
 
Part of the community transformation work in East Winter Garden is named “Door to Curb,” and it helps residents improve the value of their homes and the overall community by enhancing pre-designated homes’ curb appeal.
 
The church bought a house in the neighborhood and renovated it for the base of operations staff five days a week. It also serves as the staging area for weekend work projects.
 
“We wanted to show them we were serious about making an investment and here to stay,” Fields said.
 
“There’s a serious shortage of affordable housing in Florida, especially Central Florida. Orlando is 45,000 housing units short,” Fields said. “Helping people stay in their homes is really important, and that’s what Door to Curb tries to do: provide safe and secure housing.”
 
Team member working on transforming the Door to Curb space for a house in East Winter Garden.
Homeowners apply for a $2,500 grant to do work on the outside of the house such as painting, repairs, and landscaping. The community alliance, which established the criteria for the grants, approves the applications.
 
“We’re the catalyst,” Fields said. “We make it happen.”
 
“We take the $2,500 and leverage it into a bigger project, maybe $10,000. We use volunteers and get businesses to give us discounts,” volunteer Susan Barbour said.
 
“We use local businesses—painters, foremen, window guys—whenever possible. That gives back to the community too, creating jobs and revenue.”
 
Jocelyn Smith, born and raised in East Winter Garden, is a disabled single mom who lives by herself in the house she inherited from her father. The house was in poor shape, the fence was broken and the yard was a mess. A community organization asked Smith if they could submit her name to the Door to Curb program.
 
The volunteers who worked on her house painted it, fixed the fence and landscaped.
 
“I’m very proud of my house now,” Smith said. “You just have to pray about it, and He sent me some help. I’m so thankful to St. Luke’s for coming into our whole community. They have helped other people in our community. They come out with water and food, whatever was needed to make things run smooth. You had all ages of people; they all had love.”
 
So far, Door to Curb has worked on about 17 houses, closing in on its goal of 20.
 
“We’re hoping Door to Curb will find other funders,” Fields said. “Another 100 houses need work.”
 
The transformation, including landscaping, is completed for an East Winter Garden home.
This program has transformed both the neighborhood and the church.
 
“We changed how we do missions, how we do funding, how we serve,” Fields said. “Some of our projects require volunteers make a commitment of two hours a week for 18 months. You have to go through training. We have a higher retention rate.
 
“People are really committed because it’s relational. They know people by name. Our volunteers have a whole different perspective on poverty. They have made friends they would never have made otherwise. It’s been beautiful to see.”
 
Barbour has worked on all the projects and has found her perspective has changed on many levels
 
“You get to know them as you work along beside them. They have their hopes and dreams. They are individuals,” Fields said. “It becomes a friendship. I started seeing things through their eyes. Most of the people I’ve worked with have been people of great faith.

“I’m not worried about my next meal or transportation. I’ve depended on myself and not on faith. They depend on faith and friendship to get the essentials of life worked out. That’s been such a lesson for me and my faith.”

Barbour encourages people to try it.

“Open yourself up to new relationships,” she said. “I can guarantee you it will change your outlook.”
 
—Lilla Ross is a freelance writer in Jacksonville.
 

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