DADE CITY — Residents along Tommytown's Calle de Milagros consider themselves a tight-knit community. They have a park for gatherings and children's activities, a family clinic with three volunteer doctors and sanctioned festivals, including one on Cinco de Mayo.
And now, they have a community center.
It wasn't easy to raise the money in one of Pasco's poorest communities, but Margarita Romo and her staff at Farmworkers Self-Help collected $70,000 to purchase the building and start the center.
People donated various amounts to the cause, including several anonymous donations, but Romo is proud of raising all the money locally.
"Especially in these economic times … we want to thank them because (this effort) was a walk of faith," she said.
The 2,000-square-foot community center will provide a home for the Dream Team, a youth group created in 1987 to keep kids on a successful path. Romo said the center was previously a pool hall wrought with shady activity, but now it will provide a quiet place to do homework and get tutoring. Kids can also gather to play soccer and other sports with their peers.
Thirty years ago, "Everyone was in the fields working," Romo said. Today she sees more people finishing school and going to college, and the community center will help their efforts.
For the center to survive, however, Romo said the youth must step up and do their part.
"They have to learn how to cherish it and take care of it," she said.
Those allowed inside the center must be a part of the Dream Team or productive young members of the community, she said.
To ensure safety, everyone must empty their pockets before entering and submit to random drug tests from time to time. "Hopefully, (the children) see there is so much fun inside, they will want to go in," she said.
Visitors must also be regular churchgoers at the congregation of their choice.
"We want them (the children) to have everything they need, including spirituality," Romo said. She believes a spiritual foundation can produce young children of virtue, which can help the future leaders of the community.
One of those future leaders is Carlos Segovia, a senior at Pasco High School. He plans to go to college and major in business management. He credits Farmworkers Self-Help with helping get him there.
"They have opened a lot of doors," he said.
Last year, Segovia went with Farmworkers to Tallahassee to see the inner workings of the Capitol and attend various conferences, as well as speak at the University of South Florida at an event for Hispanic youth.
The community center will provide others with the same opportunities, he said.
"It's going to show youth that there is someone here that cares about you," he said. "If you have a goal, they'll push you."
Student like Segovia are determined to make it to college, and Farmworkers is trying to help.
"Right now, we are working on the funding, but we need more donations," said Romo.
Segovia remains confident that things will work out: "If I can't get in through the front door, I'll have to go in through the back, and if that is closed, I'll find a window."
The community center is another step toward improving the conditions in Tommytown. The community sprouted in the 1940s and 1950s as families came to work at the then-booming Lykes Pasco packing plant. By the time the citrus plant closed in 2004, Tommytown was home to the working poor, many of them migrant workers.
Farmworkers Self-Help has spent the past three decades educating and advocating for the community's workers. Its efforts are far-reaching, from breast cancer awareness programs with the Susan G. Komen Foundation to immigration and other legal assistance.
County officials recently completed an overhaul of Tommytown's infrastructure, including 7 miles of paved streets, new sidewalks, sewers and stormwater drainage. The county also knocked down 15 blighted houses.
Romo said the improvements were inspired, in part, by the local youths.
"Our kids invited (County Commissioners to the neighborhood), so that they could walk with us and see where the kids had to live," she said.
Romo hopes all these efforts help shape the future of the community.
"We want people to understand that you can still do something," she said.