Two local programs joined together to transform the backyard of Kids House of Seminole into a peaceful outdoor haven for all to enjoy
The recent Wildlife Pond and Garden rehabilitation project at Kids House of Seminole proves that, sometimes, when you reach out to the community for help, you receive more than you could have imagined in return.
A year ago, the land behind Kids House, the local children’s advocacy center for victims of abuse or neglect, was less than appealing for anyone to actually walk by or use. Its brick-paved walkways were covered in weeds, the grass areas were in poor condition, and the pond was full of algae and submerged trash, making the water look like a dark and murky swamp. Bonnie Rizzo, executive support manager at Kids House, noticed this neglected area and felt compelled to make a change.
“I wanted it to become a beautiful, calm area to relax and regroup, not only for the children and families we serve, but also for our staff,” she says. “Our clients are here because at least one child in their family has experienced trauma due to abuse. Our investigators, advocates, medical team, and operations staff need to protect themselves from burnout. And the general geographic area is under development, so soon there will be less habitat for the wildlife that is living in this area. It just made sense to provide a kind of sanctuary for people and animals alike.”
Bonnie reached out to Seminole County Public Works Watershed Management and was connected to leaders from several programs. One was the Seminole Education, Restoration & Volunteer (SERV) Program, which is part of the Watershed Management Division. The other program was Florida-Friendly Landscaping, a program of the UF-IFAS Extension in Seminole County. During the past year, these two programs joined together to turn Bonnie’s vision into a reality.
Florida-Friendly Landscaping agent Taryn Sudol led a group of volunteer Master Gardeners from the UF-IFAS Extension to focus on the landscaping needs. And after visiting the land, she decided to bring in the county’s Watershed Management Division, which is when SERV was able to get involved. Throughout the year, both programs brought volunteers to multiple planting events. Taryn and the volunteers revitalized a butterfly garden that also serves as a run-off buffer. And SERV coordinator Elizabeth Stephens and her volunteers worked on the stormwater pond restoration by removing invasive plants and planting hundreds of native aquatic plants along the shoreline.
“I love getting out there and helping with watershed management and am very happy that we have a working relationship,” says Taryn. “It’s been a great experience overall. Kids House is such an important organization and an extra motivation.”
Bonnie says the end result of this project has made an incredible impact on Kids House families, children, and staff. Parents now walk with their children to pick flowers or spot turtles, therapists help children find their sense of wonder again, and even staff use the backyard as a calm place to decompress and take a walk. And the project has had positive effects far beyond the physical limits of Kids House.
“This project benefits water quality, draws birds – some threatened species such as little blue heron and wood storks – and creates food for pollinating insects,” says Bonnie. “And this lovely ecosystem of plants, animals, and water is evolving. At the same time, it’s brought more people to be aware of our mission to end and prevent child abuse. So many people from different parts of the community have contributed in some way.”
The SERV program, which began in 2010, helps restore waterways in all areas of Seminole County through invasive species removal, litter cleanup, storm drain marking, and aquatic planting. From April through June of this year, volunteers planted thousands of native aquatic plants and collected debris along waterways across Seminole County, including locations such as Lake Tuskawilla in Winter Springs, Sweetwater Lakes in Longwood, Lake Monroe in Sanford, Lake Howell in Casselberry, Lake Jesup in Oviedo, and the Little Wekiva River in Longwood. The Kids House project was SERV’s first pond restoration.
For more information on how to volunteer for Florida-Friendly Landscaping or SERV, visi SeminoleCountyFL.gov/SERV or SeminoleCountyFL.gov/FYN
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