Patricia Jeudy was about 12 years old when her church burned down overnight.
“My best friend, who lived right beside it, called me to tell me about the fire,” said Patricia, now 17. “But it didn’t hit me until the next morning, when I was walking on the street and saw the ashes on the road.”
It was a hard blow for many families when a mysterious fire destroyed a century-old church and playground in Florida City in 2010. Kids like Jeudy would spend every day after school in the youth development programs through Branches, formerly called the South Florida Urban Ministries.
After five years, dozens of volunteers gathered to assemble a brand-new playground in a space near the new Trish and Dan Bell Family Branches Center, which opened at the end of 2014.
“Florida City has really been great to us,” said Kim Torres, director of student services.
Torres kept the youth programs running in portable classrooms and a tent on the site of the wreckage during the five years it took to raise $3 million to build the new 11,000 square-foot building.
Originally from Virginia, Torres moved down to Florida City as a volunteer in the disaster relief efforts after Hurricane Andrew hit. She founded the Branches program, which eventually merged with urban ministries, and never left.
Her husband, Raymundo Torres, who also works at Branches, led the volunteer effort to assemble the playground in late May. Volunteers included members from Wells Fargo, St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, Molina Healthcare and a few inmates from the Homestead Correctional Institute.
Families with children in the program also volunteered in the effort to complete the missing piece to make the Branches center whole again.
Jeudy, who has continued participating in Branches, worked as a volunteer. She helped carry bucketfuls of mulch to fill the playground at the end of May, just in time for the summer camp session.
“By finishing the playground precisely five years after the fire, we feel like we have begun a new chapter of our history creating community and opportunity for generations of families in Florida City,” Brent McLaughlin, executive director of Branches, said in an e-mail. “A playground truly punctuates our efforts and brings hope and joy to the families who come to enjoy this special gift of recreation.”
For the first time in years, kids have a space to play, climb, swing and slide down from with the new playground. With the new facility, the center was able to increase enrollment for the first time in years, and offer more activities with the new amenities.
“Branches is about the idea of reaching out and being rooted in a community,” Torres said. “Everyday we offer a place of hope.”