By Jacob Engels
Earlier this week we sat down with Timothy McKinney, Executive Vice President of United Global Outreach to do a Q&A with him about the progress that UGO has made in Bithlo since setting up in the area three years ago. He has been leading the charge to help improve transportation, access to healthcare, fight illiteracy, and address environmental concerns in the Bithlo area.
How did United Global Outreach start?
Nothing scientific about it. I got to a point in my life where I wanted to make a difference in the area where I grew up. I decided to find the worst part of town that needed the most help and dedicated myself to helping change it for the better. Never heard of anyone ever trying to help the Bithlo area, so I drove east. We found seven areas of life that were severally behind most everywhere in the county; transportation, education, health care, housing, the environment, food, and a sense of community were really lacking.
So, three years ago United Global Outreach got involved and started to make an effort in actually changing what was going on here in Bithlo.
What have you accomplished over the past 3 years?
A lot has been accomplished but there is still a lot to do. Let’s break it down.
Healthcare and Medicine —
Before we started working in the area there had not been one permanent medical center present ever in the history of Bithlo. Just recently, we recruited a community health center to open up a location and provide permanent medical care for the area. So far, there are 3 exam rooms and a lab room.
We also received a grant from the Florida Blue Foundation to add dental care to the center and encouraged Lakeside Alternatives to come into the community to provide mental health services and treatment to the residents. They have expressed interest in doing so and will be here weekly starting in the near future.
Dr. Alice Sterling, an optometrist, has engaged the Central Florida Association of Optometrists who have purchased eye exam equipment and are on stand by to be deployed into the community. In the meantime, Dr. Sterling along with Dr. Nair from Waterford Lakes have been providing eye exams to the residents.
Coming up, we will be providing 100 eyes exams and sets of glasses to the community courtesy of the Vision Services Plan that recently had their bus visit Bithlo.
Transportation in Bithlo is deadly. No sidewalks, no street lights, and no safe way to get around. Recently the bridge on Colonial that goes through Bithlo has added extra space on the shoulder for people to walk at the insistence of Congressman John Mica, so now its only slightly deadly for residents to get around.
Just a few weeks ago, LYNX issued a press release that on April 21st they will be extending service into Bithlo. That will allow residents to travel safely throughout Bithlo and start engaging the surrounding areas. The bus will also be stopping at the medical center, which is huge. Most residents don’t have access to transportation, so not only will it allow them to travel safely, but it will allow them to seek employment outside of Bithlo.
Ananth Prasad, who is the Secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation has allocated $10 to $11 million transportation dollars to help expand the bridge to a six lane roadway.
We have made some huge steps forward in the transportation realm that increase safety, convenience, and the ability for residents to seek employment. However, we are far from being finished, there is much more to do.
One thing that really stood out to me about Bithlo was the high illiteracy rate and high dropout rate. To help combat that problem in the short term, we opened the Orange County Academy which is in its third year and has almost forty students in kindergarten through eighth grade. This is not a solution for Bithlo, but it is a way to engage the children and community until we can forge a serious plan with Orange County Public Schools to address the problems that have been festering for decades.
OCPS has been cooperative, but it is the 10th largest public school district in the nation, so the bureaucracy that is in place is definitely slowing down the process.
We have built a good realtionship with East River High School and continue to reach out to other area schools so that we can all coordianted and work together to solve the high illiteracy and dropout rates.
Soon, the Orange County school system will be hosting GED classes at the computer lab here at the Orange County Academy.
Tremendous progress has been made, but there is still A LOT that needs to be done.
Bithlo has been a place for 50 years where if you weren’t allowed to do it in unincorporated Orange County or one of the municipalities, then you would do it here. There wasn’t any government oversight and that caused a lot of damage to the environment in the past five decades.
There was a dump that was so bad that former Mayor Linda Chapin had to shut it down. It’s now 20 years later, and the site has been fined $250 a day since it was shutdown and the total is over $1.8 million dollars.
I was told that at this Tuesday’s upcoming county commission meeting they will be designating that site as a Brownfield Site which is one designation below the EPA’s Superfund category. That will help expedite the cleanup and eventually erase some of the damage done to that area environmentally over the past several decades.
Drinking Water —
At worst the drinking water in Bithlo is poisonous and at best its horrible quality. UCF Environmental Engineering students, Orange County Health Department, and the Orange County Environmental Protection Division, are all conducting tests on the water and trying to figure out the sources of the contamination so we can solve the drinking water issue.
Mayor Jacobs and Congressman Mica are currently working on bringing municipal water to the area at low or no cost to residents.
Are local State Senators and State Representatives taking interest in Bithlo?
We have reached out to State Representative Tom Goodson, but so far he has not been involved. However, he has indicated that he would like to help any way he can, so we hope to see some some action from him soon. State Senator Andy Gardiner has told me that he wants to come out and take a tour soon and said he is currently trying to figure out how he can help. Representative Joe Saunders has also shown interest in becoming involved.
How can everyone else help?
We need people to mentor local residents and students. Creating that relationship and human contact is the resource we need most. The community and children in particular need positive role models and successful individuals to look up to.
Employment in Bithlo is not about jobs, it’s about those relationships. If we create those, then local business owners and employers will realize that there are good, kind hearted, and capable people that can be successful if given the chance.
They can also go to our website, ugo2.org to learn more about what we are doing and how they can help.
East Orlando Post will be focusing on a different aspect of United Global Outreach’s efforts each week in the Bithlo area in the coming months ahead.
Jacob Engels, is the Founder of East Orlando Post. Along with the Post, he owns several other business and is currently enrolled at Valencia College. Jacob has lived in Avalon Park since it’s founding and enjoys playing with his black Labradoodle Jasper, listening to indie rock, and seeking out new business ventures. He can be reached at email@example.com