WIMAUMA — For the better part of a decade, Rosa Felix and her sister, Alma Reyes, watched their father struggle in his wheelchair to navigate the dilapidated road that runs in front of his house.
Occasionally, they made telephone calls, to no avail, urging Hillsborough County officials to do something about the roads in their neighborhood. As years rolled by, the mostly privately-owned roads and makeshift drainage in the area continued to deteriorate.
Then, three years ago, 20 or so families living off U.S. 301 between Willow and River roads pooled their scant resources and paid for a layer of asphalt. But rains washed away the pavement within a couple of years.
Wimauma, tucked deep in the county’s agricultural belt not far from the Manatee County line, long has endured as an isolated farm community struggling with deep poverty. For years, people here have lived their lives, rarely speaking out.
Lately, though, they are finding their voice and asking for help.
About 65 Wimauma area residents last year began meeting regularly at Wholesome Community Ministries to discuss health care disparities and other matters. The church teams with the Hispanic Services Council and it’s Bridge to Health program to host the meetings.
It has made a difference, said Pastor Carlos Irizarry. Residents are eager to learn the system, how government works and where they can go for answers. The meetings have helped unite and embolden the Wimauma community, he said.
The residents’ first outcry came during a recent Hillsborough Planning Commission meeting at the Ruskin Branch Library. It involved the dilapidated private roads that residents have no money to repair. Hillsborough officials have told them the county doesn’t take over ownership and maintenance of roads that don’t meet its standards. And out here there is no money for that.
Still, Felix and dozens of other Hispanic families from Wimauma attended the planning commission meeting, which in itself was a step forward. Felix got up her nerve and stood to speak.
“What are you going to do about the roads in Wimauma?” she said in Spanish.
Later, she recalled the moment: “To see all that the county is working on and fixing near U.S. 301 and Big Bend Road, but nothing from State Road 674 south. That got me,” Felix said. “It’s not even in the plan.”
“All they want is for the county to commit to working with the residents of Wimauma to find them some solutions,” said Amparo Nunez, who heads the Bridge to Health program for the Hispanic Services Council. They even are willing to partner with the county, providing some of the equipment and labor, she said.
“I think we didn’t have that (sense of empowerment) before Amparo came in and started supporting us as a community,” said Nancy Perez, who has lived in Wimauma for a decade. “We didn’t have the benefits or didn’t know about the programs that could help us as a community.
“I think it is definitely time for the county to step up for Wimauma,” Perez said.
They thought they had made some progress when William Hand, with the county Public Works Department, came out and met with residents in August. When he saw there were two disabled children in the area, they said, he told them the county might be able to help with the dirt roads on a one-time basis.
But they haven’t heard back from him, they say.
That is not because the county isn’t listening, said Public Works Director John Lyons. He said he is working to possibly restart a dirt road program that was eliminated during the recession.
“There was a dirt road program at one time where we were going in to upgrade the quality of the roads to make them passable, but that took a hit with the funding drop,” Lyons said. “We are at the point now where we are going to re-assess the dirt road program and submit something to the administration,” probably within a couple of months.
“Maybe it’s time to hit the reset button on this,” Lyons said. But, he warned, “There are way more needs than there are funds available.”
Meanwhile, Pedro Para, principal planner with the Planning Commission, has set up a Jan. 14 meeting to discuss major transportation projects and job-bolstering efforts being considered in the South Shore area. He said part of that meeting will be devoted to Wimauma residents who want to voice their concerns about community issues. The meeting will take place at 6 p.m. at Wholesome Community Ministries, 16110 U.S. 301, Wimauma.
“They come with hope, thinking that eventually somebody is going to do something for them and their roads,” Irizarry said. “At least we feel it’s a start. It’s a start.”