You don’t often hear someone say they are going to transform a community. Then actually start doing it. You don’t often see the work that goes into revitalizing an area from the inside out. You don’t often feel the dedication it takes to change generations of neglect.
But sometimes, you do.
United Global Outreach (UGO) is an organization dedicated to improving communities around the world through four key elements: food, clothing, shelter and education. But, more than that, they are an organization that delivers change through action. And their newest project? The revitalization of the city of Bithlo.
Behind the junk yards and equipment rental facilities in this one stop-light town lies a rural area filled with the forgotten. They walk the streets because there are no sidewalks. They sleep the day away because there are not enough jobs and no public transportation. When they can find work, they work with their backs because a large portion of the older population cannot read and write.
But, that’s about to change.
“We’re going to transform the community in every aspect,” says Tim McKinney, executive vice-president of United Global Outreach. “Basically, Bithlo has become the outcast of Orange County. If you’re from Bithlo a lot of people say you’re worthless and, over the years, the people here have started to believe that.” McKinney and the staff at UGO have already begun to revitalize the area and it’s residents by renovating a dilapidated church into their base of operations.
Every Wednesday at the center, UGO hosts a meal program where they provide food and top-quality clothes to attendees. Each week the evening grows, recently drawing more than 160 residents. As for the clothes: “It’s a lot of nice clothes, things they’ve never had the opportunity to wear before. When you can continually show them they are worth something, they start to believe that,” he says.
That process has already started as the community has noticeably grown closer together according to UGO. “We’ve literally only been out here in full force since the end of July, and we’ve gone from our first community event with just over 100 people to more than 600 at our last event, which is about 10 percent of the population here,” says McKinney. “The community is catching onto our concept where people you didn’t know have helped you and now when they come out they are starting to interact with neighbors, play games with each other and even donate what they can.” He says it’s a far cry from before when most residents would mainly keep to themselves.
On January 4, 2010 the site will also become something Bithlo has never had before: a private school and adult learning center. The Orange County Academy will serve 39 students in grades K5-3rd for the first time in the history of the town, according to McKinney. “We got here not intending to open a private school, but we quickly realized education was lacking for kids and adults here,” he says. Their goal is to provide an education that will rival the level of any first-class private school in the county. At night the school will offer adult reading classes, adult computer literacy classes and an Internet café for those who cannot afford Internet access.
The final element of UGO’s four-step approach involves shelter and cleaning up the community. They identify properties where people aren’t able to maintain the exterior and will clean it and haul away junk and debris. “We don’t believe you’ll get anything better in life unless you learn to take care of what you have,” says McKinney. “Before us things hadn’t changed for at least three generations out here.”
UGO volunteers spend a lot of time walking door-to-door in the area to promote what they are doing and meet the residents who live and support their efforts face-to-face. “A lot of the problems have been overlooked because they didn’t have a voice and we’re here to give them one,” McKinney says.
You can’t always see the change right away. But sometimes you can feel it.
Below are a few links to learn more about UGO and their programs.
- United Global Outreach (UGO) Main Web site
- United Global Outreach (UGO) Facebook Page
- East Orange Academy Facebook Page
- E-mail UGO’s Executive Vice-President
Article by Corey Gehrold