The story of how Derbyshire Place and a neglected community named Port Orange came to nourish each other brings to mind a quote from beloved children’s book The Little Prince: “What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.”
“For a long time, I had to tell people there was a community center here. It always looked closed,” said Miguel Rodriguez, executive director of Derbyshire Place, a ministry of First Church Port Orange.
The Holly Hill community it serves is a “food desert”—an area where affordable, fresh, healthy food isn’t easily available.
“Now community members have really taken ownership, and that’s why it’s thrived,” he said.
|Miguel Rodriguez, contemporary worship leader at FUMC Port Orange, leads the Derbyshire Place ministry.|
A year ago, as worship leader at First Church Port Orange, Rodriguez was volunteering with the children’s program at “The Derb,” as it’s affectionately known.
“I have a vision for this place,” he told Pastor Tom Nelson. “I’d like to run it.”
For the past nine months, Rodriguez has been building on The Derb’s mission to strengthen families in the area, which has struggled both economically and socially.
“That was my motivation in taking the position,” he said. “My wife and I have six boys. We understand and believe in blended families.”
In looking for where to begin, Rodriguez was drawn next door to a government-subsidized apartment building for seniors. He spoke with the manager and told her he wanted to start a support group for single moms but wasn’t sure how to reach out.
“I’ve been waiting for this,” she said.
The group, called The Vine, now meets monthly, providing free dinner and childcare.
That kind of collaboration with the community has been key in the success of The Derb, which is completely staffed by volunteers and financially supported by local businesses, organizations and other UMCs.
In addition to The Vine, there are exercise classes for seniors, Saturday programs for youths of all ages with free lunch, arts and crafts, games, Bible study or just a safe place to hang out.
In partnership with Orbitz Performing Arts Academy, there is a free performing arts group that allows kids to explore their creativity. There is a music group where elementary-age kids sing and are learning to play the ukulele. They also have family movie nights and are starting a men’s group.
The Derb partners with the Florida Health Department, Can Community Health and Halifax Health on Wellness Fridays. It offers health information, HIV testing, access to a nutritionist and a smoking cessation program.
On weekends, a licensed social worker comes to counsel and help anyone in need to apply for housing and other assistance programs.
“Most people don’t have a way to get to these resources, so we are bringing them to the community,” Rodriguez said.
He is especially proud of The Derb’s “really homey” thrift store, which sells clothing, household items, electronics, and furniture. Each piece of clothing is $1 and free to those who can’t afford to pay.
There is also a computer lab that’s open to everyone. Recently, the lab’s brand-new computers were stolen. Rodriguez said he was stunned by the media response and how it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“The next day, channels 2 and 6 and Fox News were at my door, wanting to get the story and help us get our computers back. A Sarasota businessman saw it and bought us computers that are even better! I joke that the devil didn’t know he was giving us an upgrade.”
|Derbyshire Place garden volunteers created a 100x80 foot garden space.|
The Derb’s crowning achievement, and most ambitious undertaking, is a new community garden. It broke ground Jan. 15 on what was formerly an unpaved lot. With expert advice from University of Florida master gardeners and the Volusia County Health Department, the 100-foot by 80-foot garden—one of just a few in the county—will hold a total of 48 plots. Community members can buy a plot for $25 or whatever they can afford.
They plan to begin planting in March and will grow vegetables and fruits including cabbage, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes and blueberries, along with a grove of fruit trees. They’ll also grow a variety of herbs and spices they hope to sell to local chefs as a source of revenue.
The real goal is to bring a source of nutritious food to the community, to teach community members to plant, harvest and be self-sustaining.
|A few of the Derbyshire Place volunteers.|
“I thought, I’m a poor guy from the Bronx. What do I know about gardens?” Rodriguez said. “God is using this to bring the community together, to bridge the generation gap and become a community again.”
“The spiritual needs of the community still need to be met,” Rodriguez said. “But I can’t preach to someone who’s hungry. Once we can meet their physical and social needs, that is stronger than any message I could preach. We try to stand in the gap with them.”
Thanks to a local catering company, The Derb will be starting a junior chef’s academy to teach children how much fun it is to cook healthy food for themselves.
“We hope other churches and organizations will continue to support us in the mission that God has called us to do: we are a church outside the walls,” Rodriguez said.
—Eileen Spiegler is a freelance writer based in Fort Lauderdale.