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Mother prays for girl's savior


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 16, 1998

QUINCY -- In the dirt-floor shacks and migrant labor camps that surround the county seat of rural Gadsden County, Lawton Chiles left his mark.

Lawton Chiles

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It was here he first tried to turn his passionate concern for Florida's children into action. It was here he started Healthy Start, a state program designed to prevent premature births and infant mortality.

While famous people eulogized the governor Tuesday, 33-year-old Patty Gomez said quiet prayers for him. She believes he gave her daughter, Marylu, a fighting chance.

"I had a tiny baby and I didn't know if she was going to be surviving," said Gomez, who was born in Mexico and grew up in a migrant farm workers' camp in the small Gadsden community of Greensboro.

Marylu was premature, weighing just a pound. Through the Healthy Start program, Gomez got medical help, advice on nutrition and breast feeding and other support.

Today, Marylu is a happy 4-year-old. When the governor gave his State of the State address in Tallahassee in 1997, Marylu was the gorgeous toddler holding his hand.

Tuesday morning, as the motorcade carrying Chiles' body headed out from the Panhandle town of Century, Gomez was painstakingly cutting out photocopies of her premature daughter's tiny footprints, each no bigger than the foot of a small doll. She colored each footprint, then glued them to a banner.

As the motorcade passed on U.S. 90 in Quincy, Gomez held up the banner, which said: "'Farewell and Thanks for Caring for Our Children."

In heavily accented English, Gomez praised Chiles.

"People should remember that he help us in our bad sickness," she said. "He was a sweet person, a good person to talk to."

Gomez now works in the Healthy Start program at the Gadsden County Health Department. Since Chiles took office, things have changed there dramatically. Chiles put millions of state dollars into Healthy Start. In Gadsden, the health department hired "resource mothers," ordinary people who visit homes to help pregnant women and new mothers.

"'Here in Gadsden County, Gov. Chiles has done so many things for the young," said Dorothy Shaw, 57, one of the resource mothers.

During Chiles' tenure, Florida's infant mortality rate dropped 26 percent. More pregnant women began getting prenatal care.

"The programs here in Gadsden County have made an immeasurable impact," said Cathy Mellinger, who runs the Gadsden County Healthy Start program. "There's no way the statistics can show the human element. We're saving a lot more babies, and the babies we have are healthier."

As the motorcade passed, there were tears among the Healthy Start workers at the Gadsden Health Department.

They wonder what will happen to these programs now that Chiles is gone.

"'He was at a lunch with us Dec. 2," Mellinger said. "He talked a lot about what he was going to do for women and children and families once he was free of his state duties."

In fact, Chiles' work will continue through a foundation at the University of South Florida, the Lawton and Rhea Chiles Center for Healthy Mothers and Babies, said its director, Delores Jeffers.

One of the center's first projects, Jeffers said, will be a $2-million effort to beef up prenatal care for poor mothers in Tampa.

Since the governor's death, Jeffers said, the phone has been ringing off the wall at the center. People offer sympathy, she said, and then ask something that would have made the governor smile. "They ask how they can help," she said.

People can send donations to the center at 13201 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., Tampa, FL 33612-3805.


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