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Helping hands reach for hearts

Georgia teens in Tommytown to work also find a cultural education and an easy connection with kids.

Published July 24, 2005

TOMMYTOWN - Unlike many of the individuals who journey to Dade City's traditionally migrant community in Tommytown, the area's newest arrivals didn't come from Latin America with the hope of finding work.

They came from Georgia to volunteer.

The 20 teenagers, accompanied by seven church leaders, set up camp July 17 in the community education center - a warehouse-style, concrete block building just off Lock Street. It's a space where Tommytown kids get tutoring after school and take refuge from the afternoon heat during the summer.

From commercial vans, the Georgia teens pulled a collection of air mattresses into the center. Suddenly a small electrical motor hummed as they made beds on the floor. One of the boys set up an iPod with speakers to play music.

Before bed, Pastor Bill Roen of Savannah's Lutheran Church of the Ascension told the teenagers not to expect to "really change anything" in the community over the coming week.

"Expect for them to change you," Roen said.

Work in community inspires pastor to return

Roen was a pastor for seven years at Nativity Lutheran Church in Weeki Wachee. He first started coming to Tommytown with a group from that church to buy shoes twice a year for the neighborhood's children.

He comes back to Tommytown not only because of the need there, he said, but also because the work being done in the community is inspiring.

"You meet certain people in your life you identify as extraordinary in some way," Roen said. "This is an opportunity for the young people to meet someone like that."

For Roen, that person is Margarita Romo, director of Farmworkers Self-Help Inc. and a longtime community activist. Under her leadership, the community's education center, a medical clinic, and a new park have changed the landscape on Lock Street.

Roen said the small community helps the teenagers "see the world in a microcosm."

"It's as close in some ways to a third-world experience as you come," he said. "You have people with a lot of money, conspicuous money and a lot of people desperate, in desperate poverty."

"They all just kind of come together'

Early Monday morning, the group got to work.

Half began painting a house that Romo plans to turn into offices and a meeting center.

The other half hauled heavy cement pavers they'd eventually shape into a long patio to line the covered space where Romo has organized a church service on Sunday mornings in Resurrection Park.

When lunchtime came, the group got their first taste of the Tommytown culture. Homemade tamales, beans and rice bridged any language barriers.

Tuesday afternoon neighborhood kids chased the Georgia teens around Resurrection Park in a shaving cream fight.

The teens ran a baseball clinic and painted everybody's nails, even Roen's. Sixteen-year-old Katie Parks was surprised to learn that some of the Tommytown kids listen to the same music she does: 50 Cent, Tupac and Lil Jon.

But Parks, like many of the teenagers, said that over the week she also noticed differences between the community in Tommytown and the one where she's grown up.

"They're just a very tight community," she said. "It's not like that in Savannah. "They all just kind of come together."

"I'm glad they're raising her here'

The Georgia teens finished off the patio and the house painting. On Thursday they painted a mural in the park. All week, connecting with the kids was easy, they said.

But over the course of their time in Tommytown, they didn't really get to hear the stories of the families that gathered in the park in the evenings, they said.

Some of the teens had taken years of Spanish classes, still none spoke fluently enough to join in on the women's conversations during meals in the park or on the sidelines of soccer games.

But Romo did explain some of the issues the community faces. Like the exploitation that some of the adults experience at work. Like the difficulty many of the neighborhood's kids will have getting to college because they are undocumented immigrants.

"I think it's unfair," said Megan Maner, 16, referring to the difficulties of being able to attend college. It was the first time she'd been told that part of the migrant reality.

Maner got to be close with 3-year-old Daniela Figueroa over the week.

She said if she could speak in Spanish with Daniela's family, she'd tell them they have a wonderful child.

"She's growing up, I believe, in a safe environment," Maner said. "I'm glad they're raising her here."

Emily Vasquez can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6232 or toll-free at 800-333-7505. Her e-mail address is

[Last modified July 24, 2005, 00:22:18]

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