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Officials get eye to eye with poverty during tour of Pasco's poorest communities

LACOOCHEE

The tour guide pointed out the sights as the air-conditioned bus bumped along rutted roads. Look at the old lumber mill site, where the company pulled out and so did prosperity. See the porch where an old man sits all day and drinks, the football field with no benches for the players. And that tiny shed in front of the run-down home? "That little bitty old shed," he said, "has got somebody living in it." Inside the bus, the passengers shook their heads.

The tour guide was Ronnie Deese, the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative official helping spearhead the effort to revitalize the power company's poorest service area — and Pasco County's poorest community.

And the passengers were mostly federal and local officials, who are looking for the money to make something happen in a community that has heard a lot of talk in the past but seldom seen improvement.

Half of Lacoochee residents live in poverty. Nearly all — 97 percent — of children at Lacoochee Elementary School qualify for free and reduced lunch.

"Can we as a society, we who sit on this bus and are better off, can we simply afford to turn our backs to these conditions and let them continue?" asked Deese.

Officials called Wednesday's meeting, organized primarily by residents and Withlacoochee, a "historic" event. The reason? They'd never before had that many people gather to talk about Lacoochee and Trilby, its somewhat better off sister community across U.S. 301.

Almost a dozen federal agencies sent representatives for the Wednesday meeting at the electric cooperative's Dade City office. County and school officials, and state Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, attended along with leaders of various social service agencies.

No one from the federal government promised any money. Instead, they told the locals about U.S. Department of Agriculture grants and loans they could get to bring water and sewer to residents and to the former mill site. They talked about clean-up grants from the Environmental Protection Agency and worker training grants from the U.S. Department of Labor.

But before they talked grants and loans, they took the tour.

Past the unpaved county road where someone keeps putting up a fence to block it, past the woman sitting cross-legged on her porch, smoking. Past the sprawling tree — what everyone calls "the tree of knowledge" — where people gather during work hours and late at night. Past a garden of sunflowers, protected by a white fence.

"What you're seeing is a mixture of people who are trying," said Deese, "and those who have given up."

The bus stopped near Charlie Crawford's home.

"I had a friend tell me they were coming," said Crawford, 70, who used to raise hogs on a lot across the road. "I didn't know they were going to stop in front of my house."

Next to his clapboard home, where three baby kittens of unknown origin danced near his feet ("Ma'am," he declared, "I do not have a cat.") is a small shed with a tarp door. That's where his 33-year-old daughter sleeps. She comes over to his house to eat, bathe and help take care of his ailing wife.

He said he hoped the officials on the bus could lure jobs for the younger people. But he said he liked his home and rural neighborhood. "I like everything like it is," he said. "I just need to get my yard clean."

The bus stopped again, in a lot where a health clinic once stood. Altamese Wrispus, 81, climbed aboard and told officials how, when she was a little girl in Lacoochee, she fell from a tree and hurt her leg. A local doctor fixed her wounds and let the family pay in installments.

Now, 70 years later, there are fewer nearby health care options for the community's poor. Her daughter, Evelynn, told officials the area needs a health center, with parking and lighting and "beautiful shrubbery."

"We don't want you to hand it to us," she said. "We want you to help us help ourselves."

On to Trilby, where a group of Boy Scouts stood in front of the Methodist Church and waved welcome signs. And to Mount Olive AME church, where community activist Roger Kaminski climbed aboard to reiterate what the area needs: Water and sewer. Sidewalks. Streetlights.

Don't let people complain that someone will only shoot out the streetlights, he said. "The excuse that that's just Lacoochee," he said, "we've heard that long enough."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Officials get eye to eye with poverty during tour of Pasco's poorest communities 07/28/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 28, 2010 9:03pm]
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