Editorís note: Each month, the Tampa Bay Times selects a letter of the month. Several of the winners recently visited with us and learned more about the editorial board and the Times. Reprinted below are the winning letters from November 2016 through October. Letís keep the conversation going and the letters flowing in 2018.
Work hard, achieve dreams
I am an immigrant. I moved to the United States over 30 years ago when I was 5. Iíve been here so long that I donít even remember my first language. English, my second language, is now my only language. From when I arrived and even after all these years, some people donít see me as American.
Since first grade, people bullied me because I looked and sounded different. I met my best friend to this day when I was 8 years old. He sat behind me in class and one day I gave him a slap bracelet for "never making fun of me," and weíve been best friends ever since. He marched to the beat of his own drummer and didnít participate in the bullying.
I never remember anything being easy for my family. We didnít have much. No car, no A/C in the summer, and a roof that leaked every time it rained. The only promise made was the harder you work, the more you can achieve. You can make your dreams come true if youíre willing to work for it; you can be anything you want to be. This is my America.
When I was 16, I was diagnosed with cancer. I went through over a year of chemo and radiation. When I entered remission and became an adult, I was surprised to find that my insurance wouldnít cover my cancer checkups. Scans that I needed to make sure it was gone cost thousands but were not covered due to a pre-existing condition. Worse, if the cancer ever returned, my insurance wouldnít help with the hundreds of thousands of dollars it costs for these treatments. Then my America changed. She told me that she wouldnít let me down if I got sick again; sheíd have my back if I wanted to fight.
My dad died shortly after my 18th birthday and I wasnít able to pursue college. My brother was 15 and my sister was 4. I wasnít sure what to do and almost gave up. I wasnít ready to be an adult or help support a family. Then I remembered Americaís promise. If I couldnít go to school, Iíd work multiple jobs, 90-plus hours a week. I still remember falling asleep after 15-hour shifts, dreaming I could be anything I wanted to be. I worked as hard as I could at every opportunity and job, and kept setting higher goals.
In another country, I could not aspire to where I am today. Racism and inequality exist everywhere, but in America the best friend you didnít know you had may be sitting right behind you, already watching your back. I owe everything I am today to the opportunities America gave me, for taking a chance on me when I literally had nothing, little hope and all the odds against me. Iím proud to be a U.S. citizen.
Rabindranath Sawh, Tampa
Independent press is vital
We need the news media to function in our democratic society as never before. The incoming Donald Trump administrationís penchant for stonewalling, misinformation, allegations of "fact" based on no evidence, outright lying, and blatant flouting of fundamental principles such as conflict of interest laws has continued from the campaign to the transition unabated.
The alt-right engine of the Trump forces has clearly outlined a strategy of keeping us all in the dark about who they are and what they are doing. And who will stem this tide? Democrats seem disorganized and feckless. With the Trump victory, Republicans, if any ever had a shred of integrity, have allowed that to fade into a fog of political expediency.
Print and electronic news agencies can look forward to constant battles, being reviled and labeled "Lugenpresse" and being shamelessly manipulated. I hope they do not grow weary in the fight.
Think Germany, circa 1933. Not that we will recreate the Third Reich, but within a few years we may wake up to find that we have become a country that none of us recognizes, a society that repulses most of us, and a political reality that all of us are powerless to change.
Jonathan K. Jaberg, Largo
Insult to schools not helpful
I have read the inaugural address and Iím trying to digest the words and the promises and come to grips with the next four years. However, as a teacher, Iím indignant at this phrase: "an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge." "Flush with cash"? Really? Thatís not any public school in Florida that I know of. And the teachers who work so hard under adverse conditions of generational poverty, lack of parental involvement, low pay and little respect are accused of depriving their charges of knowledge? They teach their hearts out every day while acting as parent, counselor, nurse, social worker and friend at the same time.
The public school system needs a lot of things, but insults are not one of them. I hope the new administration will address school issues from a better perspective than this one.
Joan Smith, Hudson
Election Day as a holiday
I was disturbed by a recent news story suggesting that the Monday after the Super Bowl be declared a national holiday because so many people call in sick and millions of dollars are lost in worker productivity that day anyway.
I suggest that if we are to declare a new national holiday, it should be Election Day instead. We have lost much more than money by our cavalier treatment of our civic responsibilities and our dereliction in teaching people how the government works. Civics holds a higher priority than the Super Bowl as the foundation of the very society that makes that sporting event possible.
Making Election Day a national holiday would shine a spotlight on what it really means to be American, not just on dollars lost from a late night of partying and a sporting event.
Betsy Clement, Dunedin
Insurance made affordable
I would like to share my experience. In spite of maintaining a very healthy lifestyle, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer 14 years ago at the age of 45. I had surgery and they found a few malignant tumors. I survived. I had insurance through my work and some savings, so I was able to pay for my medical attention.
Two years ago I resigned from my job. I was happy to discover I was able to get health insurance since the Affordable Care Act forced the insurance companies to waive my pre-existing condition, and I did not have to pay an exorbitant premium because I was a cancer survivor. With the new GOP-proposed health care plan, my subsidies will be reduced from $10,000 to $4,000. I cannot afford that. I will lose the insurance.
Millions of Americans, I think, share my circumstance and will lose coverage so the GOP can give tax breaks to the wealthy.
I urge Congress to say no to repeal/replace of the ACA. Health care should be a right at birth and not a privilege. This is not a crazy idea: Any other developed country in the world recognizes this fact.
Martha Guzman, Wimauma
The costs of development
While St. Petersburg is going through an economic boom of sorts and property values downtown are rising, there is a social disease that is getting out of control: substance abuse.
Alcoholism is not a new problem in our city. Jack Kerouac drank himself to death here while spouting anti-Semitic, McCarthyist politics. But the recent economic boom has given rise to a disturbingly large number of new bars and seemingly little else. Art galleries that were truly dedicated to supporting local arts have been shuttered due to rising rents and lack of support from the city.
As with any burgeoning bar scene, there are other undesirable elements that come along with the alcohol. You create a thriving bar scene and you also create a thriving drug market. They unfortunately go hand in hand. You have a large number of people getting intoxicated every night, and people will see that as an opportunity to generate money in all forms.
I am sick of seeing our city held up to be a beautiful, shining example of an artistic community while I see people of my generation (I am a millennial, I suppose) succumb to drug addiction and alcoholism. We are running the risk of creating an epidemic for the sake of rising property values and economic growth for a small subset of our population. And letís be honest: A lot of property developers donít even live locally.
This isnít even touching the fact that there are large sections of our population who are shut out from this economic growth due to racial divisions that still exist in this city. I canít see these things continue to happen and sit by idly doing nothing, but I am essentially powerless.
David Brinkmann, St. Petersburg
Work on medical pot
There are two words we as parents need to hear: special session. From the outside looking in at the Florida Legislature, you see failure and shortsightedness. The hard part is to imagine what the lawmakers must see from the inside looking out, considering that 71 percent of Florida voters approved the medical marijuana amendment and we still donít have access.
It is sad for me as a mother, it is sad for my family, but most importantly it is sad for my son. Gabe had his first seizure at 6 months old. He was diagnosed with a type of epilepsy that causes tonic seizures. Since then, we have tried everything to relieve him, from every "cocktail" available to shots to extensive diet changes, and have come up with nothing.
Floridians with epilepsy, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and other debilitating diseases who could use medical marijuana to treat their pain are still suffering because our legislators couldnít come to an agreement. The Florida Department of Health now is tasked with coming up with rules governing the production and distribution of medical marijuana by July 3, with implementation by October.
A better solution is for the Legislature to come back for a special session as soon as possible to pass proper legislation that meets the will of the voters and brings relief to the tens of thousands of Florida patients who could benefit from medical cannabis.
Brandi Costa, Tampa
Use colleges for job training
Reports indicate that two major things are holding back the Tampa Bay area: (1) a lack of skilled workers and (2) an abundance of people making low wages. As a former adjunct faculty member at Hillsborough Community College and the University of South Florida, I think that there is a solution that fills both requirements. I taught regular classes at both HCC and USF. I also taught in USFís Continuing Educationís division. HCC has the Institute for Corporate and Continuing Education. I encourage employers large and small to work with both colleges. From what I understand, they can work with companies to create classes dedicated especially to their needs. These can be basic classes, with training in math, English and IT skills; from there, classes can be built to meet companiesí needs.
In 1999, my employer could not find enough people to suit our IT needs. USF provided the computers and classroom and we provided the instructor. Bottom line: (1) we provided employable skills to students at a reduced price and (2) we were able to find the most capable people without hiring them to see how they would perform.
Companies could work with Pinellas and Hillsborough county governments to find those in concentrated areas of poverty. They could team up with USF, HCC, St. Petersburg College and potential employers to find the most qualified applicants. These governments could also talk to the hiring personnel about getting the costs of the classes shared by all.
I have seen these classes work. I have witnessed the careers of my past students open up as a result of the topics that I taught. This could be a win-win for all.
Tom Craig, Riverview
Cost of family breakdowns
Your editorial correctly says that "educating these children (in the five struggling elementary schools) is hard." But I couldnít help but notice the link between this article and the one a few pages back (U.S. fertility rate reaches a record low) that stated that "69.7 percent of black babies and 52.5 percent of Hispanic (babies)" are born to single mothers.
The economic challenges of single moms, regardless of race, are well documented. On balance, these mothers earn significantly less, are less educated and are more challenged to provide appropriate and stable child care. Iím sure that many of the "overextended parents who work multiple jobs and unconventional hours to keep the electricity on and food on the table" are single mothers trying to beat very long odds. If we donít at least recognize the social cost of our changing family structure, it wonít matter how much money we throw at the problem.
Scott Stolz, Tarpon Springs
Unpopular and protected
Defending free speech is hard. It means that speech and actions that are offensive and hateful are protected. From the speech of Richard Spencer to the multimillion-dollar athletes sitting out the national anthem to the offensive racist and misogynistic rap lyrics and the burning of the United States flag, as abhorrent and hateful as these words and actions are, they are all protected under the First Amendment.
It is easy to defend words and actions that are popular, but a truly free democracy requires the protection of all speech or our country becomes nothing more than an authoritarian state. As one has seen over the past week, once-acceptable statues, markers, street and school names are no longer acceptable. Next time it will be different statues, markers, street and school names. So for those who think this purging is a good thing, then when it happens again to historical figures that are venerated today but not in the future, remember that you thought it was a great idea when it affected others.
One can protest, ignore and or boycott the speech and actions that are hateful and offensive. Violent protest, however, is not acceptable regardless of the views of the protagonist.
Anne Kraus-Keenan, Spring Hill
Do better at shelters
My wife and I volunteered at a hurricane shelter in Hillsborough County starting the evening of Friday, Sept. 8, and into the late morning of Saturday, when the shelter reached capacity. Our zone had not been evacuated and we were in a position to help, so we did what we could. I can only inadequately express how impressed I was with the people there to help. The principal and her staff did all they could to convert their school into a makeshift home for 500 or so people. Volunteers gave their time, energy, love and caring to help people find some security. And to the Tampa Police Department who eventually showed up, took charge and brought order to the shelter, you have my eternal gratitude.
From a more critical lens, we were disappointed. My wife was emailed late Friday and asked to volunteer due to her connection to USF. When she arrived, the night before the shelter was supposed to open, it was chaotic. People were waiting to get in and some had already been let in 12 hours before the shelter officially opened. Some had special needs and had to be redirected to another shelter. Others had come with nothing and found that the shelter had very little to offer other than a roof, walls and food for a few days. No cots. No blankets. No snacks. And most importantly, no clear order.
The principal and her staff did what they could, but the volunteers were put in charge of registering people who showed up. They had virtually no training but were suddenly told they were responsible for an entire shelter. After my wife described the situation, I showed up the next morning hoping to help. I saw firsthand the lack of organization. There were five or six volunteers along with the school staff. We were told to register people as they arrived. We had them fill out two forms, neither of which we had read before we started handing them out.
As I helped, I learned. I asked questions. I was told ó and I donít know how true this is ó that the Red Cross was going to send at least one person to staff each shelter, someone with training and experience. Those trained Red Cross employees never showed. Why? I donít know.
I was also told the shelter was not the responsibility of the Red Cross but of Hillsborough County. Again, I believe that is true, but I donít know. If it is, I am wondering why the county didnít have trained volunteers in place.
I understand that hurricanes are chaotic. I donít mean to take anything away from the efforts of all those who helped. I write this because I was surprised at the lack of organization. If the Red Cross isnít in a position to help, government officials should be. Without straying too deeply into politics, I think the government has to take responsibility for emergency preparedness and not rely on a charitable organization that may or may not show up.
Weíre all still reeling from Irma, and we were spared what could have been a much worse storm. But this is also the time to reflect on what went right and what went wrong. Having shelters was right. Not having trained people to staff the shelters was wrong.
Ryan Cragun, Tampa
Classes start too early
In Pinellas County, the high school start time is 7:05 a.m. This is just plain wrong. There is good evidence that adolescents need eight to nine hours of sleep and evidence that their circadian rhythm for sleep is different. This entire scenario is further complicated by eight months of daylight saving time, when 7:05 a.m. is really 6:05 a.m.
I have worked in health centers in some of our high schools for the past 20 years and have witnessed firsthand the negative effects of the early start time. Students do not eat breakfast because they have to get up so early and rush to catch their bus. Students in the magnet programs may be more negatively impacted because they may travel long distances. Students arrive at school tired and hungry.
Studies have shown that in areas where start times are later students use this time to get more sleep. Academic performance improves, absentee rates and bad behavior rates decrease.
Three times while I was chair of the School Health Advisory Board, we petitioned the School Board to change the start time for high school students. No action was taken. The reason repeatedly given was budget and availability of buses. We now see that the Hillsborough County School Board has accepted the fact that the early start time is not in the best interest of educating our youth. They have come up with a plan to change the start time to 8:30 a.m. and say it will save money. It is time for our School Board to act in the best interest of the students.
David A. Cimino, M.D., St. Petersburg