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Center reaches out to Hispanics

Stuck in a Mexican hospital bed with a gunshot wound in his calf, Angel Romo decided he wanted to head to the United States.

The gunshot wound came while fighting alongside Pancho Villa. Romo's enlistment came after a jailing. The stint behind bars came after a fight. Romo wanted out.

After discharge from the hospital, he sneaked into the United States and settled in Chicago. He worked in a candy factory and as an electrician. He went to night school and learned English. He began a relationship with a Polish-American woman and they had children.

During all of this, Romo was here illegally.

Then that woman died during childbirth. Because Romo hadn't married the woman and was undocumented, the government would not recognize him as the father of his children.

Romo was forced to sneak back into Mexico and enter legally so he could adopt his own children.

Romo's story was shared Thursday afternoon by Peggy Sanchez Mills, chief executive officer of the YWCA of Tampa Bay. Romo is her grandfather.

Mills shared the emotional story as she spoke to more than 100 people at the grand opening of the Hispanic Outreach Center in Clearwater, a facility that will offer services to the city's burgeoning Hispanic population.

"That was the gravest _ the gravest _ of injustices," Mills said of her grandfather. "This is the kind of place I wish my granddaddy and grandmother had."

The center, which opens its doors today, sits in an old day care facility at 612 Franklin St., just behind the Clearwater Police Department, which helped pay for the project by kicking in $50,000 in drug seizure money.

It will offer day care for youngsters and before- and after-school programs for older youths.

"There was a real need in Clearwater for a Hispanic child care center," said Vikki Yates, the center's director.

There will be interpreter and victim advocacy services for local Hispanics, along with language classes that not only will teach Hispanics how to speak English, but also will teach any city employees, particularly police officers, to speak Spanish.

The 6,500-square-foot building also will house the department's Hispanic liaison officer, and offer office space to the Mexican Consulate and the government of Hidalgo, the Mexican state where many of Clearwater's immigrants are from.

"Just a few years ago, my staff and I realized there was a significant segment of Clearwater that was overlooked and disenfranchised _ the Hispanic community that was growing by leaps and bounds," police Chief Sid Klein said.

Fatima Rojas said she is pleased to see the center open. The YWCA has helped her schedule doctor appointments and work through a workers' compensation claim in the past. She may bring her 3-year-old daughter to day care at the facility while she works at a hotel on Clearwater Beach.

The facility features several rooms for children, and a large outside playground. Children swung and frolicked on the playground Thursday as the ribbon on the facility was cut.

"Isn't that a beautiful sight to see children on the playground?" Mills asked the crowd at the grand opening.

The center is designed to encourage Clearwater's Hispanic population to use services available to them, whether they are here legally or not.

The most basic service, perhaps, is the protection offered by police. But there historically has been a reluctance among that Hispanic population to report crime to police. In some cases, local Hispanics were robbed, but didn't tell police out of fear they would be deported.

But police and YWCA officials say they aren't interested in deporting those people, nor is it their duty to do so. They want to embrace them, rather than shun them, and help make them into good citizens _ much like Angel Romo two generations ago.

"The word is out in Clearwater that if you don't have a green card, we don't care," police spokesman Wayne Shelor said.

Said Mills: "Anybody who comes to our land is entitled to protection. Every person has that right."

The outreach center is an extension of that, an opportunity for Clearwater's Hispanics to become good citizens.

"Today we are creating a platform of understanding and acceptance for a cultural neighborhood," Klein said.

_ Chris Tisch can be reached at 445-4156 or