Instead of partying over spring break, several students spent their time in locations that spanned the western hemisphere thanks to UCF’s Alternative Break Program.
Also known as APB, the program gives students the opportunity to travel while creating a positive impact on the community. This spring break, March 7 to March 12, students traveled to the Dominican Republic and Guatemala. Some stayed stateside, traveling to Chicago, North Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, and Washington D.C. Work ranged from restoring conservatories to volunteering at orphanages.
However, a great deal of work occurred fewer than 10 miles east of campus in the small community of Bithlo.
The UCF ABP brought in dozens of students from Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, and Millersville University in Millersville, Pennsylvania, to work with UCF students in the community from March 5 to March 13.
Volunteers spent their time at Transformation Village, a parcel of land that houses United Global Outreach, known as UGO, a nonprofit that focuses on the Bithlo transformation effort. Each day, volunteers spent time organizing, cleaning and performing maintenance on the facilities while working with students at charter school Orange County Academy.
“I fell in love with Bithlo,” said Kimberly Batres, a sophomore anthropology major at UCF. “Something people don’t realize is that this area is more than just a trailer park community or a low-income neighborhood. They don’t have access to a clean water supply, and it’s caused so many issues for them.”
Bithlo is a 10-square-mile area home to approximately 8,000 people in dire need of clean water and social change, says Tim McKinney, CEO of UGO.
“There are generational issues here — drug abuse, under-education, homelessness, criminal activity — that we are trying to change,” he said.
Bithlo was established in the early 1900s as a station along a railroad that ran next to what is currently known as County Road 13. It was once a bustling metropolis, McKinney said.
“People were moving to this area for Bithlo, not for Orlando,” he said.
By the 1935 census, Bithlo’s charter had been dissolved, and it owed debts on federal bonds. Between then and the mid-1970s, Bithlo did not fall under the jurisdiction of Orange County, nor did it have a governing body overseeing activity there. This allowed people to establish junkyards and landfills just feet from residents’ back yards, several of which still exist today.
McKinney fears that a landfill once operated by a company called A-Z Recycling is contaminating the surrounding area’s aquifers, which are used for wells by residents.
“There was an ordinance to clean up and remove the landfill, which is bordered by sewer pipes cut in half, more than two decades ago,” he said. “It has yet to be enforced.”
According to Save the Water, a water research and education organization, Bithlo was used for decades as a dumping ground for harmful carcinogenic chemicals that may still be affecting the health and welfare of its citizens via groundwater. As recently as last year, properties in Bithlo tested positive for an industrial solvent called trichloroethylene, which can cause a host of health issues, including liver damage, kidney damage, respiratory damage and cancer.
According to an Orange County water quality fact sheet, from 1988 to 2005, a Circle K off State Road 50 in Bithlo was discharging petroleum into the groundwater supply.
The state and county monitor the contamination and have taken some steps to mitigate its impact, but they haven’t closed down the Circle K, nor have they removed the petroleum tanks that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection deemed of moderate concern to the safety and well-being of surrounding residents.
McKinney believes the complacency of local government officials has gone on long enough. He announced a bid for District 5 County Commissioner in January.
After working with UGO for a week, Melissa Rosario, UCF’s student director for the Alternative Break Program, believes the county carries most of the blame for the lack of action in Bithlo.
“The thing I have realized the most is how much work it takes to liaise with the local government and how many steps there are for getting even the smallest projects done,” Rosario said. “UGO has been held back from doing so many things that could better this community because Orange County isn’t working with them.”
Savannah Parson, a social change major at Juniata College, was most impacted by working with students at the Orange County Academy, which was established for children who would likely not succeed in a public school environment.
Parson was deeply moved by a boy who was paralyzed for several months and undergoes weekly physical therapy to correct the damage done to his nervous system. His parents and teachers do not know what caused his temporary paralysis. He was not provided medical care because his parents were abusing heroin and had no health insurance to pay for treatment.
“It’s just so sad that he had to go through that,” she said.
Parson worked with high school-aged students on a tour of UCF. She hoped to inspire them to go to college and achieve more than what they may have seen at home.
“One student said he loved astronomy for no particular reason,” she said. “That could be his thing, his calling. But if he never has anyone there with a strong interest in astronomy to learn from, he could lose that.”
Parson, who aspires to own a nonprofit dedicated to combating homelessness, said she realized during the week that Bithlo’s situation is not unique.
“There are probably thousands of Bithlos across the United States,” Parson said. “I will be able to continue this type of service in the future, and it could be just outside my own campus.”
Leona Mynes is a contributing writer for the Central Florida Future.