Volunteers lead effort to revitalize Azalea Park

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ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. —

A new community-led revitalization effort is about to get underway in an Orange County community where poverty and a high unemployment rate have taken a toll.

Saturday, 100 volunteers from around the southeast will start the transformation at the playground at Azalea Park Baptist School.

The park is ground zero for the new grassroots effort. The brush in the park that can provide cover for criminals will be among the first things to go.

Tim McKinney of United Global OUtreach knows a thing or two about transforming a community.

"We're going to remulch the playground, restain a lot of the wood," McKinney said.

He's already made a visible impact in Bithlo with the community's first medical clinic, improved bus service and a jobs program.

He's turning his attention to Azalea Park.

It's a community I don't think has had adequate priority paid to it.

It's a community where graffiti abounds. The U.S. census bureau says 40 percent of the people are unemployed or out of the workforce, and home ownership is becoming rare.

"The pride of ownership just isn't there anymore," McKinney said.

"The sense of pride and closeness, belongingness in this community is not there," Property Manager Juan Triana said.

Triana welcomes McKinney's efforts to forge partnerships as he did in Bithlo with powerful business leaders and lawmakers to invest in Azalea Park.

"If I'm a visitor driving through the community and I see empty buildings, empty lots, graffiti, I'm turned off. I immediately think crime," Triana said.

"Semoran is known as the gateway to Orlando because it serves as a major thoroughfare to and from the airport.

That gateway is mired with abandoned businesses, a symptom of a deeper problem.

One closed restaurant was left open, anything valuable had already been stripped.

"It has been deterring good families and good businesses," Triana said.

As he builds relationships on behalf of Azalea Park, McKinney plans to forge better relationships inside Azalea Park.

"It's tough to not like each other when you get to know each other," McKinney said.

The hope is that the cleanup Saturday leaves the place with more than new soccer goals and a basketball hoop. The point is to leave it with a sense of pride.