LAKELAND – Beverly Marek was busy creating cozy bowls on her sewing machine. Cozies are designed to keep people from burning their hands while holding hot microwaveable food bowls.
Former homeless people, now residents of Gospel Village is one of several micro-entrepreneurs busy doing things or working around the complex along East Lemon Street.
âI love it. I’ve been here almost eight months,â explained Marek, who occasionally sells her designs to Catapult Lakeland between her cancer treatments. She does so despite health issues that keep her busy. a full time job.
Marek had learned to sew at the Repurpose Art Studio in the Parker Street area across town.
âI don’t have a family,â she said of life at Gospel Village. “I told them they were my family.”
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The Lakeland-based organization was designed by Brian Seeley, Executive Director of Gospel, Inc.
Seeley said he was inspired by his religious beliefs to serve the chronically homeless on a mission trip to New Zealand. The Long Island, New York native eventually moved to Lakeland and attended Southeastern University, became a licensed mental health counselor, and never lost his calling.
He worked for eight years setting up for-profit businesses including landscaping, real estate rental and Christmas tree installation companies. He started the non-profit organization Gospel, Inc. in 2011 and worked on the launch of the new complex for the homeless who often cannot transition to full-time employment due to a disability, but are acquiring skills and other beneficial attributes to give meaning to their lives.
âThey end up losing sense of purpose and the job opportunity gives them a sense of purpose,â Seeley said.
He explained that Gospel Village was based on another nonprofit community in Austin, Texas called Mobile Loaves and Fishes. Here in Lakeland, Seeley hopes the young Gospel Village will become a model of service to the chronically homeless in Lakeland and the rest of Polk County.
During the tour, he highlighted an architect’s renderings of 24 apartments for additional permanent supportive housing that may be under construction soon, he said.
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The purchase of the property for the Gospel Village property was funded primarily by a $ 1 million community development grant from the Polk County Commission. Private donations of $ 400,000 were also used to purchase the land in February, when work began to beautify, renovate and plan for new housing.
There are currently around 40 people in similar circumstances to Marek’s in the 1.7 acre complex of trailers, cottages, outdoor spaces, vegetable gardens and a shared pantry – called the community refrigerator. .
GiveWell Community Foundation provides ongoing support grants to Gospel, Inc. Seeley is hoping one day for up to 150 housing units in the village. It plans a three-day fundraiser in November to expand current and new services.
The world of philanthropy beyond the borders of Polk County is starting to notice the innovative and potentially scalable project.
Gospel Inc. was one of three organizations in Central Florida to receive $ 5,000 in seed capital to continue implementing the nonprofit organization’s innovative ideas to address economic disparities in the community. , according to a September 16 press release from the Lake Nona-based GuideWell Innovation Center announcing the award.
The local organization was selected from a group of 12 regional innovators across Central Florida. In addition to the regional award, they qualified for the GuideWell Growing Resilient Communities Challenge, which puts Gospel Inc. in the race for a possible grand prize of $ 40,000 for the best of Florida. The winner is expected to be announced on October 27.
According to the GuideWell statement, the resort provides “a safe gathering place where local homeless people, community leaders and other key stakeholders can advocate for positive change.”
“A small thriving community now sits in Lakeland, where former homeless residents find a sense of belonging and purpose after facing various economic and personal challenges,” the statement said.
In addition to entrepreneurial skills, the group offers residents health and well-being clinics organized regularly in the village.
The grand prize will be competitive as Family Promise in Cocoa and the Poverty Solutions Group in Orlando were also named Central Florida finalists.
Family Promise of Brevard provides access to safe, affordable housing and essential resources that will help residents achieve self-sufficiency and lasting independence, according to the GuideWell release.
Poverty Solutions Group strives to reduce poverty, offering 24 hours of training, mentoring and support to help cohorts of circle leaders. Residents with incomes below the federal poverty line are making their own plans for economic stability, the statement said.
âWe want to congratulate all of the nominees for demonstrating their passion and willingness to innovate, collaborate and drive change for the people and communities of Central Florida,â said Kirstie McCool, Executive Director of GuideWell Innovation, in the press release. âThis challenge is designed to empower local residents to help revive their communities and create long-term economic prosperity, which in turn can lead to healthier and stronger communities. “
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The statement cites a September 2020 report from the Urban Institute titled Creating Places of Opportunity for All, which explains that there is a direct correlation between the economic prosperity of a person’s neighborhood and their health.
GuideWell launched the statewide challenge to entrepreneurs, nonprofits, innovators and organizations in July to advance community entrepreneurship, financial literature, as well as access to educational resources. , legal and health.
In total, three other regional virtual pitch events were scheduled to take place statewide in addition to the already licensed Gospel Inc. event. There are therefore finalists from each region competing for the grand prize of the Growing Resilient Communities challenge.
Like the regional pitch competitions, this year’s national event will also be held virtually. All contest entrants will also have the unique opportunity to attend the GuideWell Growing Resilient Communities Virtual Town Hall event on Thursday, October 28, an invitation-only collaborative meeting, bringing together experts and stakeholders from across the state. and nationwide to focus on improving economic disparities in Florida communities.
GuideWell Mutual Holding Corp. is a non-profit organization and the parent company of a family of healthcare companies. In Florida, the GuideWell organization includes Florida Blue, Florida’s Blue Cross and Blue Shield plan, and the GuideWell Innovation Center based on Lake Nona. GuideWell and its affiliates serve more than 45 million people in 45 states.