Possible sale of property prompts Wholesome Church in Wimauma to launch Go Fund Me campaign

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In danger of losing the church building he’s rented for five years, a Wimauma pastor is appealing to the public to raise $235,000 to buy the property along U.S. Highway 301 -- and prevent it from being torn down for a subdivision of new homes.

Lead Pastor Carlos Irizarry of Wimauma’s Wholesome Church is seeking the money to purchase the land and buildings he’s been leasing on a month-to-month basis from a nearby church.

“We’re all praying. We’re all fasting.  ... We’re not stopping. We’re not getting fear,” he says.

The property owned by River of Life Christian Center in Riverview is valued at $1.5 million. Pastor Irizarry asserts the property is best used to serve the people with programs like his church runs.

“Apparently the owners of the property received a pretty decent offer to purchase the building,” he explains. “The new potential owners plan to knock down the building and build homes.”

An email and telephone messages left by 83 Degrees for the property owner, River of Life Christian Center of Riverview, received no response.

“At this point of time, it’s the property of River of Life. It would be only fair to talk to them. I really can’t disclose anything,” says Wesley Wolk, a real estate agent with Southern Compass Realty of Tampa.

Choosing the best route

A Feb. 3 letter from River of Life Lead Pastor Johnny Honaker notes River of Life “expressed at the inception of the very first lease agreement” its intent to sell. 

“It has been an honor to partner with Wholesome Church for the past five years. It was our sincere hope that Wholesome Church would be in a place to purchase the property,” he states.

He indicates River of Life “waited patiently for you to seek out funding from different sources when the initial funding did not materialize.” “We felt that we had gone over and beyond to ensure that Wholesome Church would not be displaced in the transition,” he states.

Pastor Honaker offers Wholesome the right to purchase the property for $725,000 plus $10,000 in escrow to a title company.

“It is my thought that River of Life Christian Center and its governing body have exhausted all efforts by waiting extensively throughout this process,” it says.

If Wholesome doesn’t exercise its right to purchase, it will be forced to vacate by March 31, the letter states. “... it is our prayer that you are able to secure the financing, but if God chooses to take another route, we wish you all the best in your kingdom endeavors,” he concludes.

This week, the landowner agreed to give Wholesome Church until April 30 to counter the purchase offer.

A paramedic and registered nurse, Irizarry wants to raise $200,000+ and finance the balance of the asking price. He says he has support from nonprofit organizations that can assist him, after he owns the property.

In the meantime, he doesn’t have a backup plan. “If this does not come through ... I feel that we gave all the effort,” he says. “God someday will say you did everything you could, everything you were asked to do. I have to be at peace with that.”

The church, which usually draws about 75 for Sunday services, is located on east side of U.S. Highway between Big Bend Road and State Road 674. It is an area being developed with new homes.

A dream for the future

Wimauma is a largely rural community in south Hillsborough County best known for its migrant farmworker population. Almost 80 percent of residents are Hispanic though most landowners are multi-generational African-American or white.

Housing developments, mostly walled communities catering to northern retirees, are marching south from Brandon and east from Apollo Beach, threatening the traditional rural lifestyle.

Wholesome Community Ministries, which is centrally located and serves mostly lower-income Hispanics, had planned to open a preschool, New Generation Academy, this spring. It already is operating The Lucca Wellness Center to provide affordable healthcare through health fairs and clinics. 

According to its 2016 business plan, the ministries planned to erect several buildings on site including health and youth centers, a preschool/administration building, kitchen hall, multipurpose building and thrift shop.

Wholesome’s goal was to raise revenue through the New Generation Academy and the support of government and charitable organizations. “With the growth in Wimauma as a result of the South Shore development, we anticipate having the opportunity to offer preschool services to new residents at market rates,” the plan says. “The profit from this will allow us to retain quality teachers and staff and offer discounted tuition and scholarship assistance to those Wimauma families who cannot afford it.”

The report notes half of the community’s residents have less than a high school education -- and less than 10 percent of parents enroll their children in preschool.

“It is widely documented that participation in a quality early learning program can boost a child’s chances of receiving a high school diploma and going on to earn a college degree,” the report continues. “Currently there are few preschool services in Wimauma for children hampered by language barriers, disabilities and other disadvantages. These children often start public school one or more levels behind.” 

Matt Spence, VP of Community Impact for Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, who has been working with Pastor Irizarry and others to address the educational needs of Wimauma, called Pastor Irizarry a “great partner.” 

“Whenever anyone [of our partners] has a challenge or setback, it’s something that we hate to see,” he says.

Wholesome has scheduled a “huge yard sale” from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 18 at the church and will be selling “whatever people donate,” he says. It also is accepting donations through the Wholesome Church website and through its “Save the Dome” Go Fund Me campaign.  

The dome refers to the church’s dome-shaped building.

Wholesome Community Ministries has served Wimauma, Ruskin and the South Shore area of Hillsborough County for seven years with health fairs, back-to-school events, computer mentorship programs, English classes and more, the solicitation notes.

To read more stories from the 83 Degrees Media On The Ground storytelling project, follow these links for English and for Spanish.

The 83 Degrees Media On The Ground storytelling project is supported by Allegany Franciscan Ministries.

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Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. Now a wife and mother, Cheryl discovered her love of writing as a child when she became enthralled with Nancy Drew mysteries. She earned her bachelor's degree in Journalism and Sociology from Loyola University in New Orleans. While working at Loyola's Personnel Office, she discovered her passion for helping others find jobs. A Miami native, Cheryl moved to the Temple Terrace area in 1985 to work for the former Tampa Tribune