This article is sponsored by Nestle

The University Area Community Development Center (UACDC) is a beacon of light in the University Area Community, a Tampa neighborhood plagued by problems like poverty and crime. The UACDC is working to change that, by providing a wide range of services for children and adults. Executive Director and CEO Sarah Combs is proud of her work at the Center, she took some time to describe how it’s empowering University Area Community residents and transforming this economically challenged part of Tampa.

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How would you describe UACDC and its mission?

UACDC is a change agent fostering collaborations with community partners to address the needs of residents, families and businesses so they can create a home in University Area Community where they can safely grow and prosper for years to come.

How did you get involved with UACDC and how long have you worked there?

I was specifically recruited to learn more about the UACDC, while I was working as the Area Director for Best Buddies of Tampa Bay. I agreed to take a tour of the UACDC—more out of curiosity, as I never knew that a center existed in the University Area Community—but after I toured the center and community I was hooked. I left my position of nearly five years with Best Buddies and went to work for the UACDC as the Director of Programs, then was promoted to the COO role and then CEO last year. I have been with the UACDC for over five years and love every minute of it!

What are some of UACDC’s most important projects?

One of our most important projects is the development of our Harvest Hope Park, which is a 7-acre stretch of land in the heart of the community. Over the last two years we have been implementing our vision one piece at a time and hope that by the end of 2016 we can officially open the Harvest Hope Park.

So far we have successfully implemented an 18-bed organic community garden, a teaching kitchen and educational classroom and have started on our tilapia fish farm at our 1-acre fresh water pond. The pieces that we are currently working on are, the implementation of a multi-purpose sports field where youth and adult sports leagues and active play can take place, a playground in conjunction with Kaboom so that youth have a safe place to play, a steel art sculpture created by youth that represents our community and a walking/fitness trail around the entire property.

Photo Courtesy of Sarah Combs

What needs are the Center addressing that are unique to the Tampa area?

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We have created a model, unlike any other model that I have seen, at the Harvest Hope Park. We have created an organic garden, a teaching kitchen and a tilapia fish farm in the heart of the community in an effort to launch a health and wellness program for the community. Health and wellness is and should be the foundation for everyone and we believe that regardless of your socioeconomic status, you should have access to health and wellness.

Our vision is to focus on the families that live in this community by providing activities for active play and family bonding opportunities to strengthen those ties. The idea is that a family, or a son/month or father/daughter, could go fishing at the tilapia fish farm and catch a fish, then go to the garden and pick fresh vegetables then either go home or go to the harvest hope kitchen and cook a healthy and nutritious meal that was grown from the heart of their community.

What do you like best about your job?

A few things, the ability to make positive change in the community by going back to the basics and focusing on the individual needs, while including the family unit. To see the passion and determination in my staff, knowing that they are connected to the mission and will do whatever it takes to succeed for this community. Lastly to wake up each and every morning knowing my purpose and understanding how blessed I am to be able to do the work that I am doing for the community that I am serving.

Are there any special challenges? How do you hope to overcome them?

The University Area Community has all kinds of special challenges; we literally have third world conditions in our community that is only miles away from anchor institutions that are thriving. Poverty, crime, housing, education and jobs are all issues that plague this community but because there has been a lack of awareness; there has also been a lack of resolution.

We plan to overcome this challenge by giving this community a voice and partnering with like-minded organizations, businesses, funders and donors that want to invest in this community because they believe that a community can be more than their circumstances and that we can Make It Happen. We have a strategic plan that ties into our business metrics dashboard to show our partners the way to succeed and we are confident that we can make a difference, one family, one house, one block at a time.

What are you most proud of in the organization’s accomplishments?

I am most proud of the shift that the organization has made in our programming and services. We have went from a cookie cutter services approach to a holistic, individualized approach and the results that we are seeing are telling us that this innovative way of thinking and doing business is working.

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Barbara Nefer is a freelance writer covering all things Orlando Her work can be found on Examiner.com.