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Pasco activist Isa Blanford dies at 53

LACOOCHEE — She had always been behind the scenes, putting together health fairs and school supply drives for children who lived in the housing projects of east Pasco.

But in 2003, when tragedy struck this poverty-plagued town, Isa Blanford took center stage as a leader.

"I know something has to happen, and unless someone brings all the experts together, nothing will happen and this tragedy will have been for naught," she said in the weeks after a local teenager fatally shot sheriff's Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison. "Something has to change."

Ms. Blanford, a planner for the Housing Authority, brought together nonprofit leaders and residents to talk about ways to help create a more positive atmosphere for children, instead of the one often defined by drug dealers. Among her dreams: a community center.

A mother of four grown children, Ms. Blanford retired a couple of years ago after battling numerous health problems. She died earlier this month (Jan. 2, 2012) at age 53.

"This remarkable woman is loved and will be missed dearly by her family, friends, community and thousands of hearts that she touched in her short life with us," family members wrote in her obituary on Jan. 7.

"She was a wonderful, giving woman," said Richard Riley, an activist in nearby Trilby. "She was always helping people in the area."

Ms. Blanford's empathy for the poor stemmed from her own life.

She recalled a childhood ruined by a family member who molested her. By 14, she was pregnant. She said it caused her to abuse Valium, behave promiscuously and choke her own daughter in a fit of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The experience, which she publicly admitted for the first time in 2002, served as the inspiration for the Wall of Shame, where Ms. Blanford posted names and photos of registered sexual predators so that her residents, most of whom had no access to the online list published by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, could screen boyfriends or babysitters.

"A secret that's no longer a secret can't hurt you," she said at the time.

Ms. Blanford also held public housing residents accountable, rewarding good choices with household items.

At Ms. Blanford's Merit Store, they could buy cleaning supplies, toiletries and even furniture with credits earned by attending adult education or parenting classes. That freed up money for parents to pay for such things as their kids' school field trips.

"It's not a handout; it's a hand-up," she said. "The most important message here is that everything in life is earned."

When the 2004 hurricanes battered the area, Ms. Blanford opened her apartment to a young couple left homeless.

"This lady right here, she's an angel sent from heaven," 17-year-old Ana Rose Mendoza told the Times.

Whenever someone did the right thing, Ms. Blanford was there to cheer. Once, two boys playing outside found a wallet containing no identification and $15. They turned it in.

The Sheriff's Office rewarded their honesty with a limo ride and dinner at Outback Steakhouse.

"It shows the other kids in the community that it's good to do the right thing," Ms. Blanford said. "They led by example."

And when someone made a poor choice, Ms. Blanford expected them to pay the price. Even when it came to her own family.

In 2009 she wept as she testified for the prosecution in her daughter's armed robbery trial. The mother's positive identification of the masked person in the adult video store's surveillance video as 24-year-old Victoria Rivera resulted in a 15-year prison sentence.

"I love you," she said quietly to her daughter she left the witness stand.

Ms. Blanford spent her later years living in Zephyrhills. She had a Facebook account but rarely posted. Most posts talked about how she enjoyed seeing her family.

On her last status on March 18 she wrote: "Perseverance, determination and great friends make my life so grand."

In 2008, a nonprofit group called the Lacoochee Area Redevelopment Corp., led by executives from the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative, formed to build a community center. So far, more than $900,000 has raised toward its estimated cost of $1.2 million.

"She won't be here to see it, but we're close to realizing that dream," said cooperative spokesman David Lambert. "It's going to happen."

In Isa Blanford's own words:

"It's so sad. What you don't want to happen is have people say, 'See? We spent all this money and see what happened.' But it's an isolated incident; it doesn't reflect the whole community," — October 2005, when three kids playing with matches set fire to a playground built by a nonprofit group.

"I truly believe that a place like this would be welcome in every community. You're praising God. What better thing to do on a Saturday night?" — on the opening of a Christian coffeehouse in Lacoochee in July 2005.

"A lot of the news about Lacoochee is not positive. But you can't judge a community by one or two people. There are good people, hard-working people in this area." — July 2004, the first anniversary of Ms. Blanford's community group.

"Just because your 6-year-old has a smart little mouth doesn't mean he can take care of himself." — on the importance of supervising children at all times.

"The demand is overwhelming, but we don't want any child sitting in the back of the class, embarrassed because he or she doesn't have the supplies they need." — just before a school supply drive in August 2001.

Pasco activist Isa Blanford dies at 53 01/13/12 [Last modified: Friday, January 13, 2012 8:57pm]
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