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This story of one woman is the tale of many

By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2002

We're a generous community here in Tampa Bay.

We're a generous community here in Tampa Bay.

Just how generous I learned late last week. I wrote about a dispute between the park owners and residents over rent and fee increases at a mobile home park in New Port Richey.

To illustrate the impact this might have, I talked to 81-year old Fay Smith, who is already living on the edge financially. I intended her to be just one example of what the increases could really cost.

I was swamped with calls. People weren't interested in the dispute at Hacienda Village, the mobile home park where Mrs. Smith lives. They wanted to help Mrs. Smith.

A dozen readers or more offered to send her money. One woman said Mrs. Smith reminded her of her mother, who was so strapped she couldn't even afford a pound of coffee and wouldn't tell her kids about it. Another woman offered her $100 a month for the rest of her life. Somebody else took up a collection in her office. This woman was even going to send clothes.

Two men called. One offered to move in with her and pay rent. The other wanted Mrs. Smith, a widow less than a year, to move in and take care of him.

I didn't intend to take attention away from the mobile home park's problem. On the other hand, I should have anticipated the reaction. The story of an elderly woman, alone and near destitute -- who wouldn't be moved?

Mrs. Smith isn't accustomed to being center stage. She does not see herself as special. When I explained what had happened, how so many people wanted to send money, she answered emphatically.

"I found out today there could be 50 people or more in the park who are as bad or worse off than me. I couldn't accept money."

"No," she said. "I want a job."

This may shock you. It certainly shocked me at first. That money could have bought a lot of groceries, paid off some worrisome bills.

But Mrs. Smith wasn't being destructive or ungrateful. Pride and character were talking. She simply wants to remain in charge of her life as long as she can. She would rather be in control than have the peace of mind that the money would have offered.

Readers often call me and say kind things about my work. I appreciate it, but they miss the shortcomings I see. Like this one: I didn't write that much about the elderly. The stories were sad, predictable, it seemed. But mostly, they hit too close: What if I were to end up near broke in old age? The stories were too frightening: Death lurked in every last line. Maybe you've heard the expression that embodies this: Old age is no place for sissies.

Fay Smith caught me up short. She is not a sissy. She looks life straight in the eye. She taught me to look again at the lives of people I would, for reasons of my own, look away from.

She is working now. She volunteers one afternoon a week at a senior center, helping people who I guess she thinks are worse off than she.

She also has an application pending for a place in a job training program run by the AARP. What job training a person who has worked all her life needs is a mystery to me. Still, Mrs. Smith is looking forward to getting some word on her application in December.

I did some further checking and discovered it is not beyond all possibility that Mrs. Smith and her 500 neighbors at Hacienda Village could get some relief from the increases planned by the park owners.

State law gives the mobile homeowners a chance to mediate their differences with the park owners -- a process that often ends in compromise.

To the people who would help Fay Smith, I hope you understand. She is a strong woman.

Think of her as representative of so many others, who need as much, who make so little noise they're invisible, but who through age and circumstance may not be quite so strong. You cam help them through donations to your church, to United Way, to Meals on Wheels. A thousand possibilities exist. Just ask around.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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