On The Ground in Wimauma: Ready or not, transformational change is on the way

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Mayberry, N.C., it is not. It is Florida, and Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife are not patrolling the streets. But for some long-time residents, Wimauma is still a safe, friendly place representing a different era.

Juanita Juarez, Center Coordinator for the Redland Christian Migrant Association’s Child Development Center in nearby Balm, is one of those residents. A Chicago native, she migrated to the area with her family of 13. There were gangsters in Chicago, and her family wanted a better life.

“Basically there were a lot of fields around Wimauma. That was good for my family because that’s what we used to do, work in the fields,” Juarez says.

When she was an infant, her family migrated between Marcela Estévez Ancira of RCMAWimauma and Wauchula FL, before eventually buying and settling into virtually a whole block in what is known as the village of Wimauma. It’s an area including the Wimauma Supermarket and Walmart along State Road 674, roughly between State Road 579 and U.S. Highway 301, which residents jokingly call downtown.

Now 44, Juarez regards Wimauma as her hometown. “I’m surrounded by my family,” she says. “My hometown is somewhere I can feel safe. I can feel welcome, that I don’t want to leave. It is part of me.”

She sees Wimauma as a rural, country town, where people are friendly and lend a helping hand.

She’s not alone.

Jackie Brown, a board member of the Wimauma Community Development Corp., recalls growing up in Wimauma in an atmosphere like Mayberry, the fictitious town featured in the long-running 1960s TV show, Andy Griffith, and its spinoff, Mayberry RFD. She moved away, but felt uncomfortable -- like being in "jail behind locked windows'' -- in other places. So she came back.

“Wimauma is still relatively closed off from the rest of the world. It’s still a safe place for me,” she says. “It’s safer than most places.”

She describes Wimauma as a peaceful town, where people talk to you when you visit the Post Office. Or where you can leave your windows open at home, unafraid.

First Prospect Baptist Church choirShe says there is a sense of belonging, whether people are Hispanic, white or black. “We all are Wimauma,” she explains. “I feel like we’re still a family. That’s why I stay.”

Margaret Claritt, a retired schoolteacher who serves on the Wimauma CDC board, also moved away for awhile. But she’s back too. She also compares Wimauma to Mayberry. 

“We have that uniqueness of knowing pretty much everyone in the town,” she says. “In the big city, you’re always watching your back. I felt like Wimauma has always been a safe place to raise your children.”

Wimauma is a community of 6,373, with more than 73 percent of Hispanic background, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Some 35 percent between 2011-2015 were born in foreign countries; some 54.5 percent in that time period lived in their own homes. Median household income in 2011-2015 was $25,717.

Wimauma is located in what has been a rural area of southern Hillsborough County, south of Tampa’s suburban community, Brandon.

How the community began

The story of Wimauma is told in "Migrant Farmworkers In Wimauma Area of Florida, Their Story with Pictures,'' a book by Tony Shuen and Tricia Smith. It was a small citrus-growing community since 1875, but it didn’t have a name until Capt. C.H. Davis decided on a unique one using the first few letters of his three daughters’ names: Willie, Maude and Mary. Capt. Davis arrived in 1902 and helped build the Seaboard Airline Railroad connecting Turkey Creek and Bradenton. He established a post office, the rail depot and town; the community was platted five years later and incorporated into a city in 1925. 

Wimauma functioned as a city until the 1930s. Although its charter was valid for decades, the community couldn’t sustain itself without county support. So the charter was eventually abolished, residents say.

“Wimauma is still a sleepy area at this point. It will grow,” asserts Bryce Bowden, a South Shore commercial real estate associate for Turner Cole Co. in Tampa. “The natural progression is they’re going to span out.”

Between 2011 and 2016, 271 single family and 12 farm labor housing permits were issued for the Wimauma Community Plan Area, records show. Between 2000 and 2005, permits were issued for 165 single family and 108 multifamily apartment units. Commercial permitting was down from six in the plan area between 2000 and 2005 and one between 2011 and 2016.

Transformation is beginning

In the immediate future, Bowden sees a blended community of old and new. “As the demand for housing becomes more and more prevalent, there goes the farming,” he says.

Commercial development will follow "I am the vine you are the branches."housing. “They’re looking for approximately 10,000 rooftops before they move into an area -- and it’s not there yet,” he explains.

U.S. 301 is being widened to six lanes between State Road 64 and Balm Road, a distance of four miles, beginning in the summer, according to the Florida Department of Transportation. The $49 million construction project is slated for completion in Spring 2020.

“301 is going to be the commercial area,” Bowden asserts. “If you’re familiar with Route 60 in Brandon ... that’s what you’re going to see in the next five years.”

In the meantime, the landscape already is changing around Wimauma. “This is pretty much the only direction they can go as far as future development in Hillsborough County,” Bowden says. “That’s where land is available at a reasonable price.”

So Wimauma is a community in transition. But the people of Wimauma are taking charge of their destiny -- in an unusual way. They have begun meeting in the community with others who share their drive for a better life in Wimauma.

Working for systemic change in new ways

Allegany Franciscan Ministries is the “No. 1 mover” in the efforts, says Barbara Mainster, who has been involved with Wimauma since the late 1970s. She stepped down recently as RCMA’s Executive Director. 

“When a group like Allegany is part of he effort, that’s when you get County Commissioners out to listen,” Mainster asserts. “Allegany was an amazing catalyst ... Their involvement brought people to the table.”

Allegany has devoted time and money, more than $1.18 million, to help Wimauma make systemic change. It is expecting to offer support to the community through 2022, as part of its Common Good Initiative launched in 2014. Its goal is to help three Florida communities build safer, healthier places where people can thrive.

“They’re at a tipping point. They’re ready for their voice to be heard,” says Cheri Wright-Jones, Allegany's Regional VP in Tampa Bay. “They [the Wimauma residents] can’t afford to live in ... those new communities.”

She is working with community leaders to fix problems in the areas of healthcare, economic self sufficiency, nutrition, transportation, and more. “We are there as a resource. We’re the one beneath their wings,” she says.

Place-based funding is a new experience for Allegany. “We’re looking to support residents to talk about how are we going to resurface the roads, not fill the potholes,” she says.

Another group partnering in the effort is the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, which has begun acting as a convener to assist the parties in working together. Chuck Tiernan, Director of Community Impact, says this also is a new role for the foundation.

“We really haven’t done this,” Tiernan says. “We’ve been part of other things. We haven’t taken as obvious a leadership role.”

The Community Foundation is also playing a similar role for LEAP, Hillsborough College Access Network.

“I think what everybody agrees on is we’re going to make more progress together,” Tiernan explains.

The Community Foundation is “a bit of a matchmaker,” he explains, connecting philanthropists to good causes in the community.

Staying the course: The Wimauma CDC, RCMA, Beth-El Mission and others

Since 1967, the Wimauma CDC, formerly known as the Wimauma Citizens Improvement League, worked to make a better life for the people of Wimauma. In the early 1970s, it was instrumental in staging sit-ins to promote civil rights, Brown says.

“They felt like they were the forgotten part of south Hillsborough County,” adds Hazel Jackson, another CDC board member.
For decades, RCMA and the Beth-El Mission also have served the people of Wimauma, joining hands with others concerned about the area. 

“RCMA began in a small church in Wimauma, and has expanded there to six child care center sites, one after-school care program site and two charter schools,” recalls Mainster. “Our early partnerships began with the African-American churches, and grew to include the elementary school, which let us use their water for many years.”
“RCMA decided to open a charter school in order to provide a choice to families who wanted their children to continue being proud of their roots, while they were strong citizens in their home country, the USA,” she adds.

RCMA currently employs 215 in the “greater Wimauma area,” she says.

One student at a time

Sun City residents Miles and Barbara Capron are among those who are giving time and money Barbara and Miles Capronto help Wimauma. Miles serves on the Board of Trustees of the Community Foundation. Barbara serves on its South Shore Council, which dispenses funds to the area for the foundation.

Miles Capron, who has been tutoring for at least seven years, volunteers at Wimauma’s Reddick Elementary, working with third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. “I get encouraged about Wimauma, simply because I see young people who want to learn and are eager to learn, and who come to school clean and neat and well-behaved,” he says.

Tutors like Miles Capron are making a difference, one student at a time. “It’s nice to have a smiling face come up to you,” the 75-year-old observes. “They call me Mr. Miles.”

He sees the village of Wimauma “being squeezed from all directions” as building comes to the area. “It brings a whole influx of people in. Secondly, it eliminates a lot of farm field, where the ... community worked,” he explains.

Residents know changes are inevitable. “We know we’re going to change,” Claritt admits. “We just need to see how we are going to do our part.”

“Wimauma was always racially divided,” 54-year-old Brown adds. “We’re still working on some things. We’re working together, now we have the new subdivisions coming in.”

Their new challenge is to reach out to these new residents. “It seems to be a new segregation in place with the newer residents,” she observes. “We have to be careful not to lose our identity.”

To read more stories from the 83 Degrees Media On The Ground storytelling project, follow these links for English and for Spanish.

The 83 Degrees Media On The Ground storytelling project is supported by Allegany Franciscan Ministries.

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Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. Now a wife and mother, Cheryl discovered her love of writing as a child when she became enthralled with Nancy Drew mysteries. She earned her bachelor's degree in Journalism and Sociology from Loyola University in New Orleans. While working at Loyola's Personnel Office, she discovered her passion for helping others find jobs. A Miami native, Cheryl moved to the Temple Terrace area in 1985 to work for the former Tampa Tribune