It’s not much to look at these days, but the one-story, blue-green home on Armstrong Road represents a sizable step forward for a group of women who have worked for years to help their community and others in southwest St. Johns County.
“We’d been planning on purchasing it for two or three years,” Kathryn Taylor said Wednesday morning while standing in front of the home that sits just east of the bike trail that traces the old rail line that used to run through the Armstrong community.
“But we didn’t have the money,” her friend Malinda Peeples said as if finishing her thought.
The two women are officers of the SEA Community Help Resource Center, an organization that works to help the children, needy and migrant farm workers of the string of communities — Spuds, Elkton, Armstrong — along State Road 207.
Although designated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization only a few years back, the group, in one form or another, has existed for decades.
Now that they have scrounged together enough money — they also got some donations from various organizations — to purchase the home, they are trying to raise funds to convert the site to a community center so they can move out of the old trailer they use in the parking lot of the First Baptist Church further down the road.
That’s the mission, in part, of this weekends’s 6th Annual SEA Rails to Trails Festival.
Featuring live music, food and films about the Gullah Geechee heritage that runs deep in the community, the festival proceeds (it’s free, but vendors pay a fee to put up their booths) go toward helping the resource center.
Walking from the house toward the bike and foot trail that gives the festival its name, Peeples, who serves as the group’s executive director, talked a little about what the trail, and the new trailhead facility, mean for the community.
A part of the East Coast Greenway trail, the St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop and the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, the trail — which features historic markers of the old town’s post office, train depot and area turpentine camp — brings a good deal of bike traffic through the predominantly black community.
That traffic, Peeples hopes, can someday revitalize the local economy, at least a bit.
“Maybe a little vegetable stand or a barbecue stand,” she said, pointing to the spot where a spur leaves the trail and heads to the trailhead parking lot that, along with adjacent Armstrong Park will be at the center of the festival. “That’s a possibility for later on.”
Following the spur, Peeples and Taylor pointed out where the vendor booths will be set up this weekend and where the live music will be.
“It’s getting better every year,” Peeples said, adding that she hopes this time they can top the roughly 1,000 people who showed up last year.
“This year we are offering more of the Gullah Geechee heritage,” Taylor, the group’s financial manager, said as she pointed where they will have a tent set up for viewing various films from the Mende Film Festival about the cultural group.
Peeples, whose shoes and jeans showed signs that she had already mowed the grass in front of the blue home that morning, said she would be working around park’s open field in the days leading up to the festival, hanging Christmas lights along the fence and other chores.
As the two women prepared to get to the day’s work, they paused for a few moments near the trailhead picnic shelter to talk a little more about what the resource center does for the communities and other neighbors in the area.
They listed off a number of the items, including a summer lunch program that ensures school children get their midday meal when school is out of session, as well as arranging for visits from St. Vincent’s Mobile Health Outreach bus. They also maintain a food pantry and a clothing closet for the migrant workers and others in need, and just got done helping coordinate a visit from the United Way and staff and students from St. Johns Technical High School who cooked a Thanksgiving dinner.
It’s all work both women said they love doing as a way of giving back to their community.
“Do we get paid?,” Taylor said people sometimes ask her.
“Yeah. By God,” she answers them.