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Our Town: Alachua: A Community Family

Cleather H. Hathcock, Sr. Community Center
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By Ali Robertson

Our TownCynthia Reed rests on one of the wooden rocking chairs that line the porch. The square of paper she holds reminds her she is number 47. That’s fairly close to her average spot in the line, she says.

After all, by the time she drops her grandson at school and drives from High Springs to Alachua County, residents have already started to gather for the weekly Gainesville Harvest and Walmart Food-Clothes Giveaway.

Behind the closed doors of the Cleather H. Hathcock, Sr. Community Center, the regular volunteers and helpers from Walmart greet each other with hugs and smiles. The setup process seems almost second nature to some of the 20 volunteers who unload and unpack the donated food every Tuesday before 9 a.m.

They pile up cartons of milk in between boxes of potato chips and packets of pasta sauce. Loaves of bread are laid under the bingo board that sits in the corner of the main room.

When the doors finally open, 100 people file in and out in groups of five. The stacks of cakes, cookies and cereal boxes quickly disappear. Plastic bags packed, the people of Alachua leave with confidence, knowing they can provide for their families during the week ahead.

While the food and products the center gives away are not always considered expensive, Reed said they may be for those on a strict budget.

She knows she’s not alone – her family welcomes the support the community center offers. So does her neighbor across the street with seven grandchildren. And Reatha Peterson, the director of the community center, needs this safe haven because it is where she discovered a new purpose to her life when she began helping others six years ago.

“I know without it, people would suffer. In some ways smaller than others,” Reed said. “It kind of like becomes a part of you that you depend on. Where else are we going? There is nowhere else, not that I know of. We definitely need the center and what it does.”

Three generations of people from Alachua County can be found at the community center on any given day.

On Jan. 17, the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day event brought together the young, the old, the gospel choirs, the theater groups and the city hall leaders in the center’s most important celebration. In rainy weather that threatened the event, the people of Alachua gathered to learn about the power of togetherness.

Togetherness. A word Reed uses to describe relationships at the community center.

She may not know everybody’s name, but she knows the faces playing bingo on weekdays or relaxing on the wooden swings.

She knows the close-knit volunteers who show up every week.

And she knows Peterson, a friend and self-proclaimed problem solver with one rule: when she helps somebody at the center, it’s between her and that person only. She never advertises somebody’s personal life or struggles.

The residents of Alachua say Sunday is church day. But Tuesday, as Reed tells it, is all about the community.

“Everybody down here is family,” she said. “Not blood family. It’s a community family. That’s the way I like to think about it.”

The directors of the center estimated that since it’s opening in January of 2005, the number of people using the community center has doubled. In their eyes, it grows daily.

Through food giveaways, youth events and the annual fashion show starring Alachua residents, the center provides an outlet for members of the community. It’s a place to go where Reed said she always feels welcome.

Like others, she makes a point to remember the people who have helped create this growing tradition.

“It shows how much we appreciate the city of Alachua letting us, me and anybody else, have these kind of programs,” she said.

Although Reed said she knows change is inevitable, she worries. She said altering the community center would be devastating to the people of Alachua and the foundation it has provided.

“We hope it continues, and then maybe it will get bigger and we can do more,” Reed said. “I think that will keep the city and the community growing and alive.”

As much as Reed would like to see growth for the community center, her small-town Alachua roots are still deeply planted.

“Give me the rural country area because there are so many things you can do out here that you cannot do in the city,” Reed said. “See, we live. They exist in the city. But we live out in the rural areas.”

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