It is like any other dinner meet-up among trusted friends.
Lost in conversation and laughter just minutes after arriving, Charurut Somboonwit and Delia Sanchez contemplate the world fusion menu at Café Dufrain
on Harbour Island in Tampa. When they're not discussing the merits of corn pudding or smoked salmon, the two ladies are giggling and trading barbs.
"Are you gonna behave?" teases Sanchez.
"Well, I'll try," Somboonwit shoots back.
"Don't try too hard because I know it's hard for you," Sanchez says with a laugh. Somboonwit beams at her across the table and laughs.
For onlookers, their relationship seems unusual. How can two people from such different cultural backgrounds, languages and traditions and with an age difference spanning about 50 years get along so well? For Somboonwit and Sanchez, it's simple: Each connects in a way that transcends any perceived differences to fulfill a critical role in the other's life.Making Connections Matter
The two women met three years ago at the introduction of mutual friend Jack Levine, a longtime child advocate who previously served as president of Voices for Florida's Children. Levine had worked for years with vocal leaders for children's rights across the state including Sanchez, founder of Tampa's Head Start
program and a well-known, iconic figure in the Tampa Bay region for her leadership on educational issues and in the local Hispanic community.
While attending a Leadership Florida
gathering in Tallahassee, Levine met Somboonwit, who hails from Thailand and is a board-certified physician in Internal Medicine and Infectious diseases with USF Health
"From the first moment I met Charurut, literally with camera in hand, she was this kindred spirit," says Levine, also an avid photographer. "There's something special about her ability within her medical profession and in her personal life to make people feel so comfortable and connected."
He scheduled a dinner between Somboonwit, Sanchez and Sanchez's son, Frank, who now serves as Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade in the U.S. Commerce Department.
"I knew almost from minute one or two that these women were going to be friends," Levine says. He points out that they had barriers to overcome beyond age – including culture and language – but they soon adapted to each other and quickly got beyond any differences.
The two women reflect on that first encounter three years ago.
"Immediately, I loved her," says Somboonwit, who goes by "Sam'' or "Dr. Sam'' to patients who struggle to pronounce her name. "She was very sharp, witty and kind, and reminded me of my mom but older."
Adds Sanchez: "I thought Sam was beautiful. I told Jack it was your shoes that impressed me most when I first met you," Sanchez teases her younger friend. "I look at Sam's shoes every time she comes to see what she's wearing."Respecting Value Of Immigrants
Now in her mid-80s, Sanchez makes it clear that she has never forgotten where she came from. The daughter of Spanish immigrants who arrived in Ybor City where she grew up, she worked hard to earn a college degree in an era when it was not often achieved by women nor encouraged.
Education has always been a major focus of her platform in whatever role she's served – social worker, educator, child advocate and philanthropist. In her conversations with Somboonwit, Sanchez still speaks with that same fire and passion as she shares stories and urges her friend to do whatever makes her happy.
"I always tell people you don't say 'no' to anything. You're gonna have an experience and just go with it. But just do whatever you have to do to get where you need to go," Sanchez says.
As an assistant professor at USF Health, Somboonwit has multiple responsibilities such as teaching medical students, seeing patients, gathering research and serving as an adviser for the Hillsborough County health department, reviewing its program for HIV/AIDS, STDs, immunizations and more. She admits she's been mostly focused on career, and with all of her family back home in Thailand, she relies on the strong bonds of friendship here to help her feel a part of the community.
"Delia really makes me feel like I belong here," Somboonwit says. "I see how much a lot of people look up to her just for being who she is, and I tell her how much I appreciate that I have her to learn from."Spanning Four Generations
In the past few years, Levine has shifted his professional attention to the state's multigenerational population by establishing 4Generations Institute
. Through the Institute, Levine identifies intergenerational programs, public policy changes and collaborative environments that would allow for mentoring and nurturing opportunities and support communication and interaction between generations.
"It's based on my need to create this conversation which I think is slowly and sadly being lost – generations understanding each other," Levine says. He points to programs such as the Guardian Ad Litem
program as an example where volunteers can work through an organization and leverage their time with another generational member in a way that both parties benefit from the relationship.
"My experience has taught me that relationships deepen when you get to the next level of understanding each other. In Delia and Charurut's case, it not only connects generations but also connects cultures," he says.
Through words of encouragement and advice or a gentle hand or strong shoulder, the two women are always there for each other, even during times as basic as going out to dinner.
Somboonwit carefully helps Sanchez navigate her way among the tables and chairs to the restrooms at the back of the restaurant – gingerly and gently, with no sign of impatience. She simply waits for her friend to take each step and offers an outstretched arm when she needs it.
"Sam's brought another part to my life that I've enjoyed very much," says Sanchez. "It is nice to have a daughter that I didn't have."
She chuckles at the suggestion her only son might be jealous. "Luckily, Frank likes her, too," she says with a sly smile.
Somboonwit smiles at her mentor as she envelops her hands within her grasp. "It's very difficult to be of a different culture and be by yourself. Delia's been like both of my parents combined. She has so much energy! I'm really lucky and grateful for her," she says.Chris Kuhn is a freelance writer who lives and works in the 'burbs of Tampa with her husband and her assistant, a 12-year-old dachshund-Chihuahua. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.