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By Janelle Irwin
St. Pete has Midtown and Child’s Park, but for the county Lealman is one of the most troubled areas home to some of the county’s poorest residents. It’s a mecca for crime with top murder, prostitution and domestic abuse rates.
It’s where homes consistently break county codes with overgrown lawns and homes are in disrepair. Children go hungry. Moms and dads make tough choices between food and fixing toilets.
But in a community of sad sights, there is good news. The Florida Dream Center launched its Adopt a Block program in the Lealman area tucked between St. Pete and Pinellas Park in November of 2014.
It started with an alley.
“You couldn’t walk through it, couldn’t drive through it,” said Florida Dream Center board member Steve Cleveland. “It was a hot bed for prostitution.”
Cleveland and volunteers cleaned up the alley – removing tons of garbage to make it navigable again. Since then there have been multiple alley cleanups. One even revealed, on the other side of mounds of garbage and old televisions, a pot garden complete with its own irrigation system.
In the weeks and months following that first job the group has expanded. They walk the community every Saturday cleaning up trash, handing out food and talking to residents. They keep a list of who needs what and get to work filling those needs.
A mother on food stamps was struggling to keep her child well-nourished. When asked why she explained that all the fresh meat in the world wouldn’t help her family because she didn’t have a working stove. The Florida Dream Center got her a stove.
Another family was keeping their children home from school intentionally. The reason was harrowing. It was because they smelled bad. The family didn’t have a hot water heater and it was too difficult to boil water for hot baths to keep the children regularly bathed. The Dream Center got the family a new hot water heater.
Another man featured on ABC Action News had a rat infestation and was struggling to find someone to help him. He certainly couldn’t afford to hire a pest control company. The Dream Center hauled more than 40 rats out of his 650 square-foot home.
Cleveland can recall story after story of people the group has helped.
“I can’t even tell you how many toilets I’ve replaced,” he said. “Most of them were so beat up it was just easier to put in a new one.”
Then there was the meth house they cleaned out for the Sheriff’s Office after a bust revealed the owners had passed away and seized the property.
“The neighbors all came out and applauded,” Cleveland said.
The project began in Lealman and the request of the Juvenile Welfare Board. In addition to home repairs, road cleanups and doling out food to anyone who needs it, the Florida Dream Center is looking to do even more.
The group will be leasing space at Clearview Elementary School that’s being re-opened by the Pinellas County School Board. The school board will use part of the property for an adult GED program, but the Dream Center is leasing the rest. They plan to open a day care and possibly have a culinary school in the facilities fully functional kitchen.
They’re opening the first ever boys safe house for victims of human trafficking. The group works on that too.
They partner with the Sheriff’s Department, the County Commission and the School Board to do whatever needs to be done to lift Lealman from the county’s bottom of the barrel.
In its less than two years of operation, the Florida Dream Center has worked with nearly 2,200 volunteers providing 7,500 volunteer hours. They serve 48 blocks including a 200 unit apartment and a mobile home complex.
“We wanted to make the neighborhood start helping other neighbors to make it a better place to live,” Cleveland said.
The idea is, the better the town looks, the more residents will want to keep it that way.
Cleveland said he’s hauled some 360 tons of trash over the past 16 months. Each week he averages about three to five tons from various cleanups.
In Lealman there’s no grocery store, only a couple of convenient stores where residents can buy a gallon of milk for a jacked up price proving that poverty is expensive.
There are no social services available in the community either. So Cleveland works to connect people to services they need. That can range anywhere from applying for food stamps to finding access to affordable housing.
And sometimes, Cleveland said, his volunteers are able to get into homes where residents have shut out other social service providers.
“It’s about building trust. A lot of these people are afraid you’re going to take their kids from them,” Cleveland said. “I know more people in Lealman by their first name than I do in my own neighborhood.”
The group is currently remodeling a home gifted by Wells Fargo. When it’s done it’ll house a homeless family.
They do all this and more with a staff of just three people – one full-time and two part-time. Last year Cleveland said the group’s operating budget was just about $180,000.
They rely on private donations mostly. The only grants the group has gotten so far are two from the Juvenile Welfare Board for two vehicles – a box truck and a refrigerated truck – $10,000 from the Pinellas Realtors Organization for things like doors and toilets and $5,000 from the Tampa Bay Rays.
The group is still trying to grow. They’re looking into more aggressively seeking grants and increase fundraising. But they still rely heavily on donations of items so they don’t have to spend money purchasing them.
Cleveland said things like building materials and appliances are some of the big ticket items they’re always looking for. The group also relies heavily on volunteers. Cleveland said even kids can help out. They currently have a 10-year-old working with them. And the group is certified by the state as an approved nonprofit to fulfill volunteer hour requirements for the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship.