UNIVERSITY AREA —Sarah Combs, executive director and CEO of the University Area Community Development Corporation, grew up on a farm in Colorado.
She learned at an early age the importance of taking full advantage of the land beneath her feet.
With that same mindset, a few years ago Combs, who’s been with the UACDC for five years, first as the program director and then chief operating officer prior to being named to her present position two years ago, began to plot out how a 7-acre plot of property at 13704 N. 20th St. in Tampa could enrich the lives of people living in the neighborhoods surrounding the University of South Florida campus.
The land was donated by Hillsborough County to the nonprofit organization she oversees, one that’s focused on revitalizing a community known for its blight and high rate of poverty and crime.
A vacant building on the property — which was once home to the Police Athletic League of Tampa — was also turned over to the UACDC, headquartered nearby at the University Area Community Center, 14013 N. 22nd St.
Comb’s vision of establishing a community garden have since come to fruition.
There, area residents grow and reap the fruits of their labor, plus learn how to best prepare them for consumption in the on-site building that was transformed into a modern kitchen and classroom.
“When we started the garden and planted vegetables on our own and took them to the neighbors, we found people didn’t want them because they didn’t know how to prepare them,” said Combs. Classes at the facility are open to entire families, including children.
She hopes the endeavor will instill healthier eating habits in a community where high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity are prevalent, as shown in a needs assessment survey. The survey was mailed to residents in May and later hand delivered by staff members, many of whom spoke families who did not initially respond.
Using part of the $55,000 pledged during the UACDC’s September Secret Garden fundraising gala, Combs has even more plans for the complex, known as the Harvest Hope Center.
They include crafting a multi-purpose sports field, building a playground and establishing a tilapia fish farm in the 1-acre fresh-water pond on the site.
“Like the community, the pond has been hidden,” Combs said.
She also hopes to add a parking lot to accommodate area residents who drive to the center.
Furthermore, Rustic Steel Creations in Tampa has agreed to create a sculpture of a caterpillar blossoming into a butterfly, depicting the purpose behind the project.
“Creating the park will show the community we care about them,” she added.
A year’s worth of cooking classes dates and times are posted at the University Area Community Center where there also will be information about adult and youth leagues when the establishment of the sports field gets underway.
UAUCD board chairman Gene Marshall said the Harvest Hope Center and all of its proposed amenities represent the organization’s response to the needs of the community.
“Proper nutrition is crucial in improving the health of the community and providing safe parks for its youth ensures that the children that mostly walk to Mort Elementary are protected during their journey and in after-school recreational endeavors,” he said. “This is our initial effort to extend our programing in the community beyond the community center on (North) 22nd Street and further involve the residents in the revitalization of their environment.”
The UACDC also has launched a Get Moving program at North 22nd Street center that focuses on good nutrition and fitness.
It is open to all ages.To learn more stop by the center, visit www.uacdc.org or call (813) 558-5212.
Joyce McKenzie can be reached at email@example.com.