Tim McKinney started the nonprofit United Global Outreach, Inc. (UGO) six years ago with the mission to “transform forgotten communities into places in which we’d all want to live.”

UGO focused its efforts on Bithlo, a neglected community in Florida’s East Orange County with a severe lack of infrastructure and many unmet social, health and environmental needs.

“We started looking at all of the things that contribute to a community’s health,” McKinney said. “And we knew that the residents of Bithlo would not be able to bring about some of those things by themselves: clean drinking water, bridges, sidewalks, streetlights, a medical clinic, public transportation.”

McKinney reached out to others in the broader community, like Orlando’s Florida Hospital, to revitalize Bithlo. The hospital is one of nearly 75 partners in the Bithlo Transformation Effort, which received a 2015 AHA NOVA Award. The award honors hospital-led partnerships that improve community health.

“You have these pockets in every community that are often overlooked,” says Verbelee Nielsen-Swanson, the hospital’s vice president of community impact. “Without someone to advocate for them and be a convener and really pull the community around them, they're going to stay stuck.”

Since joining the effort, Florida Hospital has become a lead partner, providing donations, clinical and non-clinical volunteers and leveraging its influence to elevate the importance of what was previously the most ignored community in central Florida. 

“In every community, the hospital is the anchor,” says McKinney. “When Florida Hospital cared, politicians and corporate partners that maybe wouldn’t have cared about a community called Bithlo before are now paying attention. It started a movement.”

McKinney says the usual policies and procedures and red tape don’t have to be a barrier if everyone is focused on doing the right thing for the community, and not just on their own piece of the puzzle.

Currently, bridges are being built, roadwork is in process and efforts are underway to address clean water, landfill issues and affordable housing. And the town’s Transformation Village has evolved to include a private school, library, coffee shop, hair salon, community garden and many other businesses.

Bithlo’s Medical Village will also offer residents their first access to in-town medical care, with plans to house a federally qualified health center, social services, eye clinic and behavioral health counseling. It’s a significant shift from when the Bithlo Transformation Effort started. Historically, Bithlo has had zero access to in-town health care or social services; in 2009, out of a total population of 8,300, there were approximately 4,200 resident visits to the emergency department.

So far the biggest and most immediate impact in the lives of Bithlo residents has been the dental clinic. The project is helping to restore not just a person’s smile but also their dignity and opportunity for employability.

“Solid foundations for health and success are being laid,” says McKinney. “Residents are starting to have normal access to the things that most of us have in our communities, and then they themselves are inspired to move forward in their lives.”

Watch a video about the Bithlo Transformation Effort. And hear McKinney describe how like-minded partners can remove the barriers that get in the way of building a healthier community. 

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