They came to Temple B'Nai Israel on Sunday, drawn by a beacon one woman casts as an environmental warrior.
Bonded by a quest for the truth, Cheryl Jozsa and Emerald Cromwell were among the 800 who attended an annual event staged by the Women of Temple B'Nai Israel. It's aptly titled Truth.Humanity.Justice — all tenets that mark the work of famed activist Erin Brockovich.
Jozsa and Cromwell have longed to meet Brockovich. They hope to follow her path.
For nearly 14 years, Jozsa has pursued her belief that the former site of Bradenton Bayshore High School is the site of a disease cluster. Jozsa, a Bayshore alum, suffers from an autoimmune disease and lost her sister, Terri, who also attended the high school, to a rare form of leukemia.
She's identified hundreds of students and faculty associated with the school who have been diagnosed with cancer and other diseases. The Florida Department of Health is investigating. However, the Manatee County School District says the soil has repeatedly tested negative for contaminants.
Cromwell fears a similar cluster may have plagued her alma mater, Boca Ciega High School. She's recovering from adrenal cancer, a one in a million cancer, and worries others who attended or live near the school also may be suffering because of contaminants in the old school's environment. She attended Boca Ciega from 1989-93 and has started the Boca Ciega High School Cancer Awareness Page on Facebook.
It's easy to understand why both women, who got together after a University West of Florida professor helped connect the two, wanted to meet Brockovich.
Brockovich lists television host, best-selling author, consultant and inspirational speaker on her resume. But it's the role she played in successfully building a legal case against Pacific Gas & Electric Company in 1993 that continues to make her a household name. The utility giant was forced to pay out the largest toxic tort injury settlement in US history: $333 million in damages to more than 600 Hinkley, Calif., residents.
Her remarkable story, chronicled in the Academy Award winning movie Erin Brockovich, makes her an admired hero.
Now she wants others to be heroes.
"I have to tell you I don't want to and cannot do this alone," Brockovich said before her speech. "I really think we're having a watershed moment where we're waking up and realizing Superman is not coming. As individuals and as communities, we can rise up, address and become aware of issues happening in our own back yard."
Since the successful suit and the movie, Brockovich continues to advocate for people who have suffered because of environmental contamination, bad medical devices and pharmaceuticals.
Yet what really makes her light up are the stories about how others have taken it upon themselves to spur investigations and bring about positive change. She beams when talking about the residents of Hannibal, Mo., who are successfully fighting against contamination in their water.
During a pre-speech reception, she's positive and encouraging when she meets Jozsa and Cromwell. She tells them to email her, but she also pushes them to maintain their own efforts and keep fighting.
"She said, 'I cannot expect investigations to happen without prompting," Cromwell said. "That the power in numbers can make a difference. Be persistent, be loud."
Moments later, Cromwell and Jozsa are anything but loud. Just minutes after meeting Brockovich, Cromwell learned her friend and former Boca Ciega classmate, Shannon Bossert Jager, had died of the same rare cancer that afflicted her: adrenal cancer.
Cromwell's tears flowed with grief, sadness and fear. But Jozsa was there to comfort her, and she doesn't see that as a coincidence.
"It's amazing how Emerald and I have bonded," Jozsa said. "It feels as though Emerald is a sister, rather than someone I met over a cancer cluster. My heart broke for her."
Buoyed by Brockovich's encouragement, both women have promised to continue seeking the truth. It won't be easy. As Brockovich's community map indicates (communityhealthbook.com), concerns about contaminated water exist throughout the nation. Yet today, Jozsa and Cromwell are undaunted.
"I'm going to mobilize like Erin said," Cromwell said. "I started asking friends for help and have had many responses from old friends too.
"I promised Shannon I would do this. My determination has just grown."
Maybe someday, Jozsa and Cromwell will be beacons.
That's all I'm saying.