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The legacy of Tampa’s Club 15: helping people in need

The nonprofit closed a year before the pandemic, but some of their former members are trying to keep its example alive.
Borja Magro, left, Bellita Canasí, who was president of Club 15 for many years, center, and Lourdes Suárez-Solar, right, catch up while enjoying Cuban Cortadito together at Canasi’s dining room table in her Tampa home recently.
Borja Magro, left, Bellita Canasí, who was president of Club 15 for many years, center, and Lourdes Suárez-Solar, right, catch up while enjoying Cuban Cortadito together at Canasi’s dining room table in her Tampa home recently. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Apr. 27|Updated May 1

TAMPA - Bellita Canasí remembers the Black and White charity galas that Club 15 held every year to raise money for low-income Tampa families.

The gala was a unique attraction. One year they had a 1920s theme. There was live music, a variety show and a champagne toast. Most guests dressed in vintage garb. Women wore pearls and fur coats; men donned tuxedos and bow ties.

But Club 15, which had 150 Hispanic members, all women, started to lose many of its aging leaders and couldn’t recruit younger people to its cause. After helping people for five decades, the nonprofit shut down in 2018.

But the desire some of its former members have to help families is still alive.

One of them is Canasí, the last president of Club 15.

At 93, she has joined with four of her best friends — all former members of Club 15 — to organize a brunch at the end of the year to collect funds and toys for kids.

“The will to help is in each one of us,” said Canasí.

Canasí arrived from Cuba in 1961 on one of the Freedom Flights, escaping communism with her late husband Manuel and their two sons, Simón and Manuel Jr. Her family initially settled in Ybor City. Without close relatives, they had to start from scratch.

Before Canasí decided to become a member of Club 15 in the late 1990s, she worked at the Asturian Center Hospital as a nursing assistant for a decade and St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa for 20 years. In 2008, she was elected Hispanic Woman of the Year by the Tampa Hispanic Heritage Committee.

She held leadership positions in local groups such as Casa Cuba and the Cuban Civic Club to close gaps, promote integration and open new doors to opportunities. Club 15 was not an exception.

A few years ago she pushed to bring in new members to Club 15. But it wasn’t easy.

“Many young people feel they don’t have time and no one wants to take on so much responsibility,” she said.

Bellita Canasí, who was president of Club 15 for many years, left, and  Borja Magro, right, find a photograph of the board of directors of the nonprofit in an old album while sharing together at Canasi’s dining room table in her Tampa home recently.
Bellita Canasí, who was president of Club 15 for many years, left, and Borja Magro, right, find a photograph of the board of directors of the nonprofit in an old album while sharing together at Canasi’s dining room table in her Tampa home recently. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Club 15 first took shape in the summer of 1964 when a group of Cuban women formed a team of volunteers to send clothing and food to Miami.

During those years, Cuban exiles were preparing to fight against Fidel Castro. They failed to topple the communist regime, but the women continued meeting to organize charity activities in Tampa.

In 1970, Club 15 officially became a not-for-profit in Florida and elected a board of directors. The name was given in honor of the first Cuban members, 15 in total, who started the group.

Their fundraising activities bought toys, clothes and food that were later delivered to poor families. The assistance also included helping to pay rent and bills.

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“We helped eight or 10 families a month and we visited them to find out what needs they had,” said Canasí.

The group also donated gift bags and non-perishable food and kept track of people who needed help.

“It was a wonderful job and we were always very excited to do something new,” said Borja Magro, 75, former treasurer of the group. “We met once a month to prepare our agenda and socialize. It was like a different world.”

Club 15 supported charities such as Francis House, Judeo-Christian Health Clinic, Shriners Hospitals for Children and the American Cancer Society. It also hosted popular events. One of them was the Black and White Gala, an annual party attended by more than 250 people. Another important activity was the celebration of Mother’s Day to raise funds for the USF Latino Scholarship.

“We really miss the social work we did,” said Lourdes Suárez-Solar, 79, who was in charge of contacting those in need at Club 15. “It was hard, and sometimes very emotional, but it was worth it.”

The last recipient of the scholarship supported by Club 15 was María Camila Fernández, 22. Fernández was legally brought by her parents from Colombia when she was 3.

The Latino Scholarship and Club 15 helped pay her way through USF with $1,000 per semester. Before closing, Club 15 fully honored its payment commitment to the USF program.

Former Club 15 president Bellita Canasí, left, and María Camila Fernández, the last recipient of the scholarship supported by Club 15.
Former Club 15 president Bellita Canasí, left, and María Camila Fernández, the last recipient of the scholarship supported by Club 15. [ Courtesy of María Camila Fernández ]

“Club 15 played a very important role for students like me and I’ll always be very grateful,” said Fernández. “Without their support it would have been difficult to continue my studies without worries.”

In 2021 Fernández received a bachelor’s degree in health science. She has successfully finished a four-year degree in three years, so Fernández donated her last year of scholarship funds to support a minority student.

“Club 15 was my inspiration and it was the right thing to do,” she said.

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