Haines City community garden

Haines City High School students are among those who enjoy doing their part to upkeep the Oakland Legacy Garden.

HAINES CITY – Once, it was a neglected area that most tried to ignore.

Once a place where childhood memories were made, the pool at the Dolphus Howard Complex had become an eyesore and safety concern. But, as dreams and hard work came together, that disregarded piece of history is now home to a new memory-maker.

In November, the Oakland Legacy Garden became a reality thanks to the City of Haines City, the Northeast Revitalization Committee, Haines City High School and Ridge Community High School students and teachers, the Polk County School Board, volunteers and concerned citizens.

Residents had lived with the unsightliness of the area where the pool once had provided endless hours of fun for them. After it closed, the exterior had become overgrown and the pool bottom filled with algae and debris.

For years, concerned citizens like Janet J. Smith and Ben Graham made it their mission to help in revitalizing the area, requesting that the Polk County School Board, as the property owner, donate it to the city.

Not that far across town, City Manager Deric Feacher had hopes of bringing a community garden to Haines City. Since he came on board in 2016, he’d waited for the proverbial stars to line up to make his dream a reality.

“When I first got here, I began to try to figure out a way to create a community garden, but I knew I had to wait for the right people,” Feacher said. “People just don’t realize all the benefits they (community gardens) provide.”

Enter Jane Waters, who was hired a couple of years ago as the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) Project Manager. She has spent much of her career in positions within the county where she was the conduit for seven other community gardens.

Feacher asked her to make it a priority to facilitate a community garden. That’s when all the stars aligned with the approval of a new Aquatic Center, the old pool area was demolished, and the actual pool was filled in making the realization of a community garden a reality.

“All the elements needed to make a community garden a success were there,” Waters said. “From Keva Harris to Martina White … all these unique people were available. It doesn’t happen like this (all the elements being available), but it did in Haines City.”

Harris and White had a vested interest in the area: Harris is a retired Haines City Police Department captain who now serves as the secretary for Northeast Revitalization. White is a Haines City High algebra teacher who made the garden part of her curriculum.

“You can teach every subject in a garden, whether it’s math, art, sociology, biology, chemistry,” White said. “You can also teach communication, teamwork, perseverance, and lessons like adapting to your surroundings — just like the plants.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, community gardens may offer physical and mental health benefits by providing opportunities to eat healthy fresh fruits and vegetables; engage in physical activity, skill-building, and creating green space; beautify vacant lots; revitalize communities in industrial areas; revive and beautify public parks; create green rooftops; decrease violence in some neighborhoods, and improve social well-being through strengthening social connections.

Waters said the number one thing that makes community gardens challenging is a lack of volunteers — which she says wasn’t a problem here.

The community has embraced the garden, and residents stop by to check on its progress.

Many of those same people were part of the group of about 150 people — including White’s high school students — who worked on “Build Day” to create the garden.

On Jan. 7, the Haines City CRA board members approved plans to give the management of the garden to the Northeast Revitalization group.

The Oakland Legacy Garden is located on Avenue C, behind the Boys & Girls Club.