By Darryl Owens (Orlando Sentinel)
It wasn't long after native New Yorker Sandra Fatmi moved to Pine Hills that she realized her adopted home wasn't running on all cylinders.
Two years ago, she turned to Google for ways to tune up her embattled community just west of Orlando.
Fatmi was surprised to discover that what she had in mind lay right under her nose. More precisely, 10 miles south in Tangelo Park, where a successful businessman's desire to give back helped give hundreds hope in a community gripped with crime and poor prospects.
So Fatmi called the architect of the Tangelo Park Project for guidance. Speaking to hotelier Harris Rosen confirmed her gut feeling.
In February, with Tangelo as the guide, Fatmi and others launched the nonprofit United Foundation of Central Florida Inc. to shepherd Pine Hills' version of prevention through early intervention.
It's said imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. For Pine Hills, which has long battled high crime, low expectations and governmental indifference, imitation may be the surest way to save its soul.
"We have an interest in Pine Hills not being called 'Crime Hills' anymore and to continue on a positive path," says Fatmi, 47, a former banker-turned-event-management entrepreneur.
Yeah, yeah, I hear ya. Yet another effort to revitalize Pine Hills. Pastors have labored to rally the community flock against violence, while splintered efforts at mentoring have chipped away at the problem.
Turnarounds like this need periodic infusions of verve to bolster persistence. Fatmi abounds with verve. More important, she owns the good sense not to waste time drawing up a new reclamation plan when a winning blueprint exists.
"Our dream goal has always been to see this program replicated," Rosen lamented at a recent Tangelo Park Program board meeting. "We haven't been very successful in having it replicated."
What an inexplicable shame.
Back in 1993, Tangelo Park was a largely African-American neighborhood beset by crime and low expectations. But Rosen's promise to cover every Tangelo Park student's college tuition drove a muscular private-public community partnership, buoyed by church, school and civic involvement.
All toddlers received preschool. Moms and dads received parenting classes or vocational training. As a result, crime plunged, and the neighborhood has become more neighborly. Preschool programs benefited more than 647 tots. And the capper: 300 students have earned scholarships.
Fatmi is not alone in her excitement at the prospect of duplicating those results.
"Replication of Mr. Rosen's Tangelo Park project is an admirable goal that will require long-term commitment of resources including quality home day care and college scholarships," says Orange County Schools Superintendent Barbara Jenkins, who has spoken with Fatmi. "We welcome the efforts of community members demonstrating they care about the success of our students."
Pine Hills, with more than 64,000 residents, dwarfs Tangelo Park. Thus, the foundation plans a modest start. It's targeted the three-school zone of Rolling Hills Elementary, Meadowbrook Middle School and Evans High school as ground zero. The foundation will track kids' ascent through the system from preschool to college.
Like Rosen, Fatmi's instincts are on target.
As the Urban Child Institute notes, "Genes provide a blueprint for the brain, but a child's environment and experiences carry out the construction."
The effort already boasts one leg of Rosen's strategy: a neighborhood mecca with Evans Community School, which melds social and health services and scholarship.
But the foundation lacks a fat wallet. Rosen so far has invested $10.2 million in Tangelo Park. He hasn't promised a financial stake in Tangelo 2.0.
At least not yet.
To fill the war chest, the foundation hosts a fundraising gala Saturday at Rosen Plaza Hotel, at which Rosen will speak (for more information, visit unitedfoundationcf.org). Proceeds will fund a planned January incursion into preschools to gauge their quality and stoke parental enthusiasm.
"I am aware of some of the failed attempts and efforts," Fatmi says, "but I'm determined to find the tools to push this through."
In the midst of wearying revival, success can look a long way off. Hopefully, Fatmi will remember she only need look 10 miles down the road to see that a community that commits to rolling up its sleeves can make life-altering change happen.