WIMAUMA — Griselda Cruz drew up a new household budget in May once she realized she wasn’t making enough money at her part-time job to pay all the bills, including a $940-a-month mortgage.
Cruz, a 38-year-old mother of two, canceled a number of services. Dropping the internet saved her $90 a month.
“It was not an easy decision because I know it’s important for my family, but we had nowhere to get more money,” said Cruz, 38. “It’s the roof or the street.”
This week, Cruz and her two children, Diana, 13, and Cruz, 14, are linking back up thanks to a program called Wimauma Connects!
A partnership of Enterprising Latinas and the Allegany Franciscan Ministries, the program provides free Wi-Fi connections to the internet for families and small businesses that can’t afford it in this largely Hispanic south Hillsborough County community.
It started last year with the installation of 15 antennas serving nine businesses at first along S.R. 674, Wimauma’s main road. The businesses, in turn, make the free service available to customers and to about 25 neighboring families.
In the latest expansion, Enterprising Latinas got three local institutions to allow the installation of more towers and antennas on their properties — Reddick Elementary School, La Estancia Apartments and The Groves at Wimauma apartments.
The goal, said Enterprising Latinas chief executive Elizabeth Gutierrez, is to provide children and families with high-speed connectivity from West Lake Drive northeast to Vel Street — Wimauma’s most densely populated neighborhoods.
“We live in a world where, without the internet, there is very little that one can do,” Gutiérrez said. “Having the internet is important for us — to do business, find a job and access school.”
The cost of expanding service to the 450 families was about $50,000, said Ileana Cintron, deputy director of Enterprising Latinas. The nonprofit operates one budget of about $700,000 a year, funded three-fourths by private contributions and one-fourth by government grants.
Internet access is especially important during the coronavirus pandemic, enabling children to take advantage of learning opportunities at a time when the future of classroom education is uncertain, said Juan Pipoli, president of Phone-Link FL, which installed the network.
“It is satisfying to work and offer technology within the framework of such an important project for the community of Wimauma,” said Pipoli, a Venezuelan immigrant. “This phase has been more complicated due to the geography of the place but we are happy with the result.”
A ceremony marking the launch of Phase 2 was held Tuesday at Reddick Elementary, 325 West Lake Dr. Attending via the internet were Eileen Coogan with St. Petersburg-based Allegany Franciscan Ministries and Hillsborough County Commissioner Mariella Smith.
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In the United States, at least 6 percent of the population — some 21 million people — lack access to the internet, according to the Switzerland-based nonprofit the World Economic Forum. To fill some of the gaps during the coronavirus pandemic, the Federal Communication Commission started an initiative in mid-March called the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, encouraging internet providers to refrain from cutting off customers who can’t pay their bills. More than 40 companies signed on.
It took the help of a nonprofit initiative to ensure connectivity in Wimauma, a community where more than three in four people are Hispanic and one in three were born outside the United States, according to Census figures.
“It is a great blessing for the Wimauma families in these difficult times,” said Laura Ramos, 40, who came from Mexico and has two teenage daughters.
“With the internet we can know what is happening in the world and what is happening here, in our community.”