It’s a project two years in the making, and Thursday, students from University of Central Florida’s Engineers Without Borders club revealed their work to an east Orange County school audience.

They’ve built an aquaponics system (a system that raises both fish and hydroponic plants) on the campus of Orange County Academy, a private school for at-risk kids, in Bithlo. The project will benefit both the school and larger community.

“[It’s] something that is educational, fun and useful for the kids,” said Mathew Coalson, a junior engineering major at UCF.

The system is comprised of five tanks, which will be filled with fish; their waste fertilizes plants that will feed a “food desert”-- an area that lacks access to fresh produce -- while engaging students at the same time.

“I want them to have the opportunities and the opportunities are going to come from their excitement,” said Coalson. “I really think that everyone deserves an equal chance to be successful in life.”

Yet, in the broader sense, Bithlo faces many hardships that have gone on for years. From non-drinkable water and unsafe housing, to generational poverty and a lack of infrastructure, the community has struggled to overcome pervasive negative stigmas.

“Historically, Bithlo is a community that’s really been ignored and overlooked,” explained Timothy McKinney. “I mean, these are things that shouldn’t be happening in Orange County. And along with about 90 other partners, we’ve said it’s not going to happen anymore.”

A student at Orange County Academy learns how an aquaponics system works. (Julie Gargotta, Staff)

As the CEO of United Global Outreach, McKinney is working to help move Bithlo forward. Though he’s never lived in in the community, he’s made improving life for residents there his personal crusade.

“A few years ago, I just decided to pick a community in Orange County, where I grew up, and try to make a difference,” he said.

And he's championing big changes, using Orange County Academy’s campus as a ground zero. It will be the nucleus of a future town center he’s calling, “Transformation Village.” Right now, a well is being built on the corner of the two-acre campus.

“We’ll be able to open the well up and offer it to the community and say, ‘You don’t have to purchase bottled water anymore. You can come to Transformation Village and this will be a community well,’” McKinney said.

The village will eventually add a coffee shop, library, hair dresser and community center.

“All of the elements that would be in place in a normal town center,” he explained.

There will also be a community laundry, so residents who face water-quality issues can, “pick up their laundry, clean and fresh,” he said.

Down the road, FDOT has poured millions of dollars into road and bridge improvement projects, including upgrading the State Road 50 bridge over the Econ River.

While change takes time, for McKinney, and others, it’s worth the work.

“We need to move this thing forward, so no longer is Bithlo looked at in a negative light, but it’s actually the most hopeful and promising community in Orange County,” he said.