BITHLO | It’s Saturday morning, around 10 a.m. at the Orange County Academy in Orlando – a small “not-for-profit” private school located in Bithlo’s Transformation Village. A group of students from the University of Central Florida Catholic Campus Ministry, religious, educators, neighbors and more gather, united by charity and love of neighbor, to help create safe shelter for the homeless.
The students pile into a truck and head to a rugged property. Dessa Dixon and co-director Jeovanni Diaz, of the campus’ social justice ministry, coordinated the volunteer effort. They remember the first time they went. “The property was kind of a disaster,” Dixon said.
There was a double-wide trailer home strangled by weeds, vines, surrounded by garbage and yard debris. “It was completely trashed. The back of the property was overgrown, so that the first time we went it was hard to tell there was a house there,” she added.
The first order of business was to unearth it, so they began by stripping the home of vines, pulling weeds, hauling off yard debris and mowing. Since October 2022, members of the campus ministry, from eight to 20 people, have gone three times and seen immense improvement.
Eventually, the double-wide will become a new residence for Matt, Suzanne, their 11 children and a young man of 15 they took in because his living situation was poor. They took him in when they rented a home, but their landlord sold the Bithlo property to developers, leaving the family with nowhere to go. They currently live in a camper. In the last few years, the family has suffered many hardships. Matt can’t believe so many people who don’t know him, would come forward to help.
“It really feels good,” Matt said. “I ain’t ever had nobody do that for me.”
He said his kids will be most excited about getting into the house and out of the camper.
All the school-age children attend Orange County Academy, a division of United Global Outreach, an organization that seeks to develop a model of neighborhoods, resolving any barrier to success.
Tim McKinney, CEO of the outreach and a Catholic Charities of Central Florida Healthcare Services board member, along with a team of interfaith churches, donors and community members are making the residences possible. In addition, this community helped put two more RVs on the property to house one woman rescued from drug abuse and three young men who were homeless – two of whom are also students at Orange County Academy.
One of those students, age 16, said he had never had his own bed before.
For Dixon and Diaz, the experience has been eye opening and rewarding. After three visits over five months, Diaz said, “The doublewide looks good. There’s been a big transformation.” The change was so great, he wished they’d taken before and after photos. “Before it looked like a jungle outside. It looks a lot better, a lot clearer,” he said.
“I’ve always been interested in serving others. It’s a good way to give back to the community,” Diaz said recalling how, in his freshman year, he realized he had a lot of extra time on his hands. “I might as well give it to people in need,” he said. Two years prior, he served on a mission trip in Peru. Now it was more about, “What can I do in my own community?”
Diaz recalled Matt and Suzanne’s family members stepping in to work alongside them. He even met the woman who is to be a future resident. “She was three years sober and there helping us. You see God work through these people. Even though they have so little, you can see they have so much to give,” Diaz said. “We also see that in the volunteers we bring, giving up their weekend to serve—there’s a lot of love around and I think it’s all because of God.”
Acknowledging the progress on the property, Dixon was quick to note there is still much work to be done. The home was almost as battered inside as the property was on the outside. Drywall was torn out, insulation replaced, then new drywall, cabinets and appliances added. McKinney concurred adding, the inside and outside make the double-wide a complete renovation.
“I back up Jeo (Diaz) 100%,” Dixon said. “It’s not all about me. It’s about the people around us and how we can help others.” She said sometimes she’s hard on herself, feeling she should be bringing more volunteers, then she realizes “it’s about how we can help others and spend that time.” She said that recognition is where she sees God’s hand is in all of it.
“It meant everything to have Catholic Campus Ministry help us with this project,” McKinney said as the project winds down to a close in the next 60 days. “In fact, we couldn’t have succeeded without them. These are some of the hardest working college students I’ve experienced,” he said. “Over the past 12 years, we’ve had thousands of college students serving, but this group definitely rises to the top of the list. Not only in their heart and compassion for others, but their skill and work ethic.”
Brother Adam Neri of the Brotherhood of Hope is director of Catholic Campus Ministry at the University of Central Florida. He was pleased to see the social justice ministry jump at the chance to serve others in a physical way.
“Having a heart for the poor and activating that heart into action is a foundational principle of the Gospel,” he said. “We want to encourage this in CCM as a regular part of living a full and abundant Catholic life. We are happy to partner with and serve our neighbors in Bithlo.”
By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff, April 14, 2023