Ashley Rhodes-Courter and her husband Erick Smith have are rehabbing an historic property at 5695 78th Ave. N., where they grow vegetables that are donated throughout the community and teach children about sustainable living.
PINELLAS PARK – For the past 1 1/2 years, the Foundation for Sustainable Families has slowly been working to rehab the property of an historic 78th Avenue home.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” said Ashley Rhodes-Courter, who founded the nonprofit organization with her husband, Erick Smith. “But it’s a start.”
There’s a world of difference between the acre lot – “a piece of old Florida” – now and when the foundation decided to move in, she added. But it’s taken a significant amount of work. There was trash throughout the yard, which was overgrown to the point “where you couldn’t even see in the back. It was pure jungle,” she said.
Now, they’ve cleared enough space to make room for two large garden beds. They’ve also done work to an old carriage house – which will become a chicken coop – and have cleared out trash and brush around a sugar mill that hasn’t been used in decades. They haven’t even had a chance to touch the main home much, yet.
They’ve been growing vegetables on the property for about a year now, and over the past few months have been inviting groups of students from local schools and other organizations to learn about sustainable living and growing their own food.
“This is a hidden little gem,” Rhodes-Courter said. “This is such a beautiful place and it’s great to see young people come here to learn and say, ‘I didn’t know this was here.’”
All food grown on the property gets donated to homeless shelters, group homes, “anyone in need,” she added.
Down the road, they plan to add therapy animals, and offer a donation boutique for individuals in need of clothing, a food pantry, a free library, public art projects and the space to work with other community partners to offer any number of direct services to people in need.
“It will be like a one-stop shop for philanthropy,” she said.
The couple found the property through a family friend, Monty Chancey, whose parents owned the home and died in recent years. Though they currently rent the space, they’re in discussion to purchase the property. Rhodes-Courter and Smith are funding the project with their life savings.
They hope the rehabilitation to the home and property, and the direct services offered by the foundation will honor Chancey’s parents and their family legacy.
The idea of legacy is important to Rhodes-Courter, who spent 10 years in foster care before being adopted at age 12. Now married with three boys of her own – the oldest adopted – she wants to pass these values on to her own children.
“Family history and history and legacies, these are things I value and want to instill in my own children,” she said. “
Born in North Carolina, she came to the Tampa Bay area where foster families raised her. A family from Crystal River eventually adopted her from The Children’s Home in Tampa.
Her own experiences within the foster care system have influenced her path in life. After studying at Eckerd College, she went on to the University of Southern California to earn a master’s degree in social work. She currently runs a practice, Sustainable Family Services, in St. Petersburg where she works with “high risk, high conflict” clients.
A New York Times bestselling author, she’s shared her experiences with the world through two books, “Three Little Words” (2008) and “Three More Words” (2015), both released by Simon & Schuster.
Eventually, she hopes to marry her practice with the Foundation for Sustainable Families, and dreams of operating both out of the property, which is located at 5695 78th Ave. N.
In the meantime, she and her husband continue to work the land and foster partnerships with organizations that can provide much-needed services to the community.
This summer, the foundation will be working with Pinellas County Schools to offer free summer meals to any child under age 18 in need Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to noon. Various activities and enrichment programs will follow lunch for the children from noon to 1 p.m.
“We’re looking to do more engagement,” Rhodes-Courter said. “We just want people to know we’re here and know what services we can offer. We’re always looking for volunteers – rehab the house, harvest the vegetables, clear the property – and we encourage teachers to contact us for educational opportunities.”