WIMAUMA — Six posters were spread across the front of Hispanic Mission Baptist Church, each one representing one of the most common concerns voiced by Wimauma residents in a nine-month community assessment by the Hispanic Services Council.
Public safety and security. Reliable transportation. Affordable housing. Access to health care. Educational resources. Recreation for children and families.
As volunteers passed out sheets of red stickers at Tuesday evening's Wimauma Community Voices meeting, Elizabeth Gutierrez, director of planning and programs for the Hispanic Services Council, explained the voting protocol. Everyone would receive three red stickers, used to mark which three issues should be addressed first. You can consult with your spouse and your friends, Gutierrez reminded the crowd in Spanish and English, but the voting should be based on your own experience as a Wimauma resident.
The 60 or so audience members had come to take part in the next step in the Puentes de Salud (Bridges to Health) initiative, a three-year program designed to reduce health disparities in a community that often feels forgotten and ignored by the rest of Hillsborough County.
Numerous informal meetings over the last few months had given organizers an idea of what barriers are preventing Wimauma residents from thriving. Now it was up to those same residents to identify specific issues in the community and, just as important, specific solutions they could initiate themselves.
"This is the result of 400 conversations. Some of them happened in focus groups, some of them happened through a survey we did door-to-door," Gutierrez said of Tuesday's meeting. "We had mini-workshops in people's homes and back yards. We had these conversations and we started out talking about healthy eating and healthy habits, but we also talked about what their issues were."
Once everyone had a chance to vote, the line of red dots along the posters' borders indicated that health care, educational resources and transportation were the three most pressing issues on the minds of attendees. They broke into three smaller groups to discuss each of the three topics in greater depth, but during each of the conversations it soon became clear that it was difficult to disentangle one issue from another.
Many of the people concerned by the lack of transportation pointed out that residents without access to cars — and there are many — subsist on unhealthy food because they rely on nearby convenience stores instead of driving to a supermarket with a better selection. Across the room, the group discussing health care access pointed to a lack of transportation as one barrier to getting health care at the Suncoast Community Health Center in Ruskin.
Residents closed the meeting with a few ideas for concrete improvements. The transportation group resolved to push for new streetlights so those who do have to walk can feel safer while doing so. The health group wanted to see a community-based health clinic in Wimauma itself, or at least expanded hours at Suncoast. Similarly, the education group suggested a resource center for students and parents.
"Inherently the community has what it needs to take care of itself, it's just a matter of folks like us giving them the tools and the resources to be able to do it," said Cheri Wright-Jones, the regional vice president for Allegany Franciscan Ministries, one of the organizations funding the initiative. "It's clear from here that they know what needs to be done, and they're willing to do it. We have to help them create those platforms."
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