The graduating class of "Eating Smart Being Active”

Two years ago, the Spring Hill Resource Center was located in a 1,100-square-foot former temporary police station near the intersection of Beresford and Adelle avenues in DeLand.

The building was roughly the size of a portable school classroom. Sometimes, the phone lines didn’t work. Tiny windows — which you had to stand to see out of — offered views of the side of a fence, or an adjacent unpaved parking lot and an empty, dilapidated building.

Above, fluorescent lights hummed and flickered, casting mismatched office chairs and furniture in sharp and unflattering relief.

The metal front door — the only functional door — had no window to see who was knocking, and automatically slammed shut, often locking out whoever was outside.

Yet, for all its limitations, the center, which had opened in 2005, was a beacon of hope in Spring Hill, a largely Black neighborhood in Southwest DeLand.

Upward of 1,000 people come to the center each month for assistance. Their needs are as simple as help understanding a water bill, or as dire as help needed to navigate the health care landscape to get diabetes medication.

Resource Center Director Shilretha Dixon always had dreams of what would be possible with a bigger space.

The City of DeLand and the Spring Hill Neighborhood Association, among others, worked hard to build a new facility at least three times larger, complete with a waiting room, a full kitchen and a large conference room. The new Resource Center also has computer rooms, storage areas, a paved patio and more.

Named for a longtime politico and community leader, the Dr. Joyce M. Cusack Resource Center, at 489 W. Mathis Ave., quietly opened its doors more than a year ago. This time, they are glass doors with a camera and buzzer so someone can be buzzed in from the front desk.

A planned grand-opening ceremony in May 2020 was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the lack of fanfare didn’t dampen the spirit to offer help, or keep the community from coming to get it.

Among the many ongoing services provided are educational programs made possible by the new space.

We visited recently on the day of graduation for “Eating Smart Being Active.” The nutrition class was offered by the Volusia County Department of Health in DeLand.

For more than two months, 18 participants gathered for two hours every Wednesday in the spacious conference room to learn about reading food labels, how to control food portions, and to practice some light exercises. Recipes and cooking demonstrations were made possible by the large and well-equipped kitchen attached to the room.

If that sounds boring — it wasn’t. After a fairly competitive round of nutrition bingo, the largely older group of participants stretched, twisted, and threw their hands in the air to the song “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang, booming from a nearby amp.

HAPPY FEET — “Eating Smart Being Active” participants boogie during the recent graduation ceremony for their nutrition class.

This was followed by a Soul Train-esque dance that rotated pairs of classmates into the center of a square formed by tables, to shake, shimmy, and just generally boogie on down to the mostly instrumental song “Tequila.” Much hooting and clapping accompanied.
Cutting a rug was followed by lunch — a surprisingly delicious plate of spinach quiche, baked kale chips and slices of fresh strawberry.

Spinach quiche, baked kale chips and slices of fresh strawberry.

During lunch, participants chatted and laughed while watching a montage of photos taken during their previous classes. The montage was set to “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” the theme song from Dirty Dancing.

Afterward, members of the tightknit group shared what the classes had meant to them.

“I dropped my cholesterol 120 points. I went to the doctor on June 8, and my cholesterol was 287. I went back on June 19, and it was 164. No medication,” Becky Ferguson said, to applause. “Reading those labels and knowing that added stuff. … It was just invaluable.”

According to one participant, the class may have even helped save her life.

“About a year ago, I went to the hospital. … I had heart failure — they thought I wasn’t going to live. They put me in hospice care. I was on hospice care until a week ago,” Felicia Harpe said, emotionally. “I thank God for this class, for Mrs. Dixon, for you guys offering this class. I learned a lot about cooking and eating, and moving and exercise. I learned a lot.”

Brenda Powell said she will miss the Wednesday gatherings.

“This has really brought a lot of delight in my heart and has helped me to be able to be happier, and to move, and I’ve looked forward to every Wednesday. I’m going to be sad too, next Wednesday, not coming,” she said. “I just treasured this, and I treasure all of you.”

Later that day, raised garden beds would be installed outside the Resource Center, for an herb garden. The garden beds were purchased with funds from the same grant that paid for the healthful-eating class — a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program education grant — and the DOH-Volusia officials are planning a gardening class for the fall.

As the group lingered after their graduation ceremony, the many large windows in the conference room revealed the beautiful day outside. The new Resource Center looks out onto Spring Hill Park, and on this summer day, groups of children and adults were in the park, laughing and playing.

Across the street, near the now-demolished old center on Adelle Avenue, the dilapidated building that was once the view from Dixon’s office is freshly painted in bright red, in anticipation of a new crab and seafood restaurant planned by the owners of the nearby Spring Hill BBQ & Soul Food Lounge.

In the room and outside, the motto of Spring Hill — which has sometimes seemed a symbol of broken promises rather than of hope — felt as if it was finally unfurling, ready to bloom, and this day felt like one more step toward “A New Horizon on the Hill.”


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