“Before we could actually hit the streets, I held classes to teach the do’s and the don’ts of doing this type of ministry,” Debbie explained. “We had about 3 months of classes before we even stepped foot on our first march out there.”
With heavy drug activity looming behind both closed doors and opened ones, Chestnut Woods was ripe for the change that Debbie had in mind. A change inspired by a family-first mindset, where neighbors and children alike could feel confident in their safety while enjoying life outside the walls of their homes.
A Step In The Right Direction
The first march was a display in and of itself. Accompanied by 10 Lakeland Police Department cruisers, Boots on the Ground launched in force on September 22, 2014.
“We’re dressed in full camouflage when we go,” Debbie said. “We have on the shirt, the pants, the army boots, we have it all because we’re Boots on the Ground, and we are coming for war. Not this kind of war, but a different war that’s going on. The unseen war.”
Met with nervous glances, the original group of 9 individuals marched on, going up and down the cul de sac sharing their prayers and songs with all those that would listen. However, not everyone was so willing to lend an ear.
Boots on the Ground experienced resistance from the start. Drug deals would happen directly in front of them, unphased by the group’s presence. Some individuals would turn their music up when Debbie and her team approached, while others showed respect and lowered the volume as the group passed.
Their work wasn’t so clear cut. The group would have to deal with another facet of the greater issue at hand: public distrust of law enforcement.
Following in the footsteps of the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Samuel Dubose, a certain sense of unease accompanied Debbie and her team as they walked. They weren’t there to gain trust for just themselves – they needed to restore a relationship between the police and the community at large.
“I guess you could call us somewhat of a bridge builder,” Debbie said, “Trying to build a connection between community and law enforcement. If something happens, and somebody breaks into your house, I would hope you don’t want to try to take matters into your own hands. Who you gonna call? The police. You get in a car accident, who you gonna call? The police.”
Fighting fire with a cool flame, Debbie and her team responded the only way they knew how, with consistency, care, and compassion trumping all. Showing up once a week, every week, Boots on the Ground was letting the community know that they were going to have their voices heard, and that injustice had no home in our city. Their prayers continued, and as they grew in volume, so too did that of the community’s support of their mission. Children would clasp their hands when Debbie and her crew walked by, sometimes joining in on the march themselves.
“There have been times when Lakeland Police was out there, and what was so beautiful was that they’re out there playing catch football with the kids,” Debbie shared. “That’s something that just didn’t happen in Chestnut Woods. There was a time when children could not even play outside, it was just that bad.”
A Leap Forward
In 2019, Chestnut Woods is flourishing. Once in decline, the duplexes that line the street have steadily improved, a joint effort by both residents and landlords alike. The trees and forest area past the end of the cul de sac have been cleared, eliminating a major hotbed for criminal activity to occur. Prosperity hasn’t just been contained to Chestnut Woods, though.