Teacher devotes her life to inspiring kids, adults in Wimauma

To read this story in Spanish, please follow this link.

Two decades ago, Ansberto Vallejo couldn’t see a future for himself beyond completing high school. No one in his family had attended college nor did he personally know anyone who had. His days were filled not by dreams and ambitions, but by picking seasonal fruits and vegetables with his parents in the fields, going to school and doing homework. 

All of that changed in his fifth-grade classroom at Wimauma Elementary, where one his teacher’s words struck a chord with him and stuck: “You must be the best version of yourself. Give 100 percent. It doesn’t matter whether you are a laborer, a professor, a lawyer or the president of the republic. You must always be the best that you can be.”
Those inspiring words, which led Vallejo not only to complete his high school education, but also his college education, then a master’s degree, and now are pushing him to complete a doctorate degree, were spoken by Margaret Claritt. She was the sixth-grade teacher who drilled into Vallejo that he could not only have ambitious goals, but that he could also reach them.

“Teacher Claritt was one of the teachers who positively impacted my life. She is one of those teachers who transforms the way you see life, who inspires by example,” Vallejo says.
Fully devoted to education, Claritt taught full-time at Wimauma Elementary for 18 years. She also taught several years at Cypress Creek, Summerfield and Corr elementary schools, bringing her total teaching experience in the area to 38 years. And though she officially retired in 2009, she continues to serve as a role model in the Wimauma community. She now volunteers for several community development organizations, including the Wimauma Community Development Corporation.

“Since it started in 1968, with only a few members in the organization, we have worked to bring progress and change to the community from housing to education, and other needs that need to be addressed,” Claritt says. 

For now, the neighborhood nonprofit partners with other organizations, such as Allegany Franciscan MinistriesChildren’s Board of Hillsborough County and Neighborhood Relations of Hillsborough County. The neighborhood nonprofit is currently focused on three initiatives: education, economic opportunities and after-school activities for the kids.
“There are no after-school activities being offered in Wimauma for middle school students,” Claritt says. “We need summer programs and other cultural enrichment and personal enrichment programs.”

In addition to her volunteer work with the Wimauma CDC, Claritt tutors several elementary schoolers and is currently teaching high school students how to find scholarships and navigate the university application system.

Claritt says she continues to be dedicated to the prosperity of Wimauma and its residents because she loves the town. This is where she grew up, where she studied, where she raised her three children, and where she has planted deep roots. Nevertheless, getting ahead in life proved quite the feat for Claritt.
The road to success showcased her strong character, will and determination -- characteristics she inherited from some of her family members. 

“I have to credit my parents and grandparents because they are responsible for who I am today,” she says. “My great grandmother Martha Wilson was a prosperous woman. Though she had no formal education, she was an entrepreneur, owned lands and real estate. And she was the one who precisely instilled in me the importance of an education.” 

Her grandmother Rosa Henderson was also a businesswoman as the owner of a neighborhood business. Claritt listened to their counsel and mulled it over while she helped her father, a farmworker, pick fruits and vegetables in the fields. 

Because her father owned the field they worked, she never had to miss school as a result of being a farmworker’s child. But Claritt got a taste of backbreaking work by picking strawberries, cucumbers, peppers and oranges. So, when her great grandmother was on her deathbed, Claritt promised her that she would not rest until she obtained a university education. It was that promise that kept her going for years. Even when confronted with racism under the segregated school system of her day, and then under the newly formed integrated education system.

Going around and getting over obstacles
Claritt graduated from East Bay High School, married and moved to Detroit. Her marriage was short-lived and she returned to Wimauma at age 21. She quickly obtained a tutoring position at Wimauma Elementary, which opened doors for her to win a scholarship for higher education. She recalls that going to school as a single mom was very challenging, especially because she didn’t have a car and public transportation in Wimauma was pretty much nonexistent.

She had to find her own way to get from her home in Wimauma to Hillsborough Community College Dale Mabry campus, and back. She managed to get there by asking for lifts from a Wimauma Elementary School teacher who lived in Tampa. But getting back home was a greater challenge. Somehow she always found a way even though there were times when her mother couldn’t pick her up.
For Claritt, the word “limit” doesn’t exist. Her philosophy dictates that when one is determined to do something, one must jump over the limits and obstacles or go around them. It was this philosophy that led Claritt to graduate from the University of South Florida with a teaching degree and to be an integral part in the lives of generations of Wimauma Elementary School students. 

“It was more difficult for her than for other teachers because she lived in the same community in which she taught,” says her daughter Colette Glover-Hannah, the first of three children. Her other children, Darina and Alicia, also grew up in Wimauma. “That oftentimes meant that on her way home she would make many stops at the homes of her students to discuss behavioral problems or academic progress with their parents.”
Claritt knew almost all of her neighbors and had no problem making home visits to discuss with parents how their children were doing in school. 

“That is a marvelous thing that happens when you live in the same community in which you teach,” Glover-Hannah says. “My mother was always having tutoring sessions with the kids in the community. Once I graduated, she started a tutoring program at our church, a program she later brought home. And she accepted no excuse for the child’s absence. If someone didn’t make it, she got in the car (which she owned by that time) and went to look for them,” Glover-Hannah adds. “That is only one example of her commitment to education.”

Seeing potential where others can’t

A commitment for which Adrian Sarmiento, now a Student Success Coach at Shields Middle School in Ruskin, is grateful. For if it had not been for Claritt’s commitment to his education and life in general, his life would have turned out quite differently, he says. 

“I was a quick-tempered, quarreling child -- dreadful,” Sarmiento says. “No one wanted to babysit me, except for my neighbor Magaly. I was demanding and always wanted to get my way.
“I was quite the problem child. But people like teacher Margaret Claritt and teacher Aquilla Morgan did not allow my path to become crooked. They kept me walking straight,” he adds. Emphatic and with a smile, the 37-year-old says that during that period of his life, he only behaved when his father was around. He is grateful for teachers like Claritt and Morgan who saw some potential in him to become someone in life.
“Ms. Claritt saw my attitude and first let me know that I was not going to intimidate her and second, she worked with me, to guide me and put my strong personality to good use,” Sarmiento says. Claritt knew where Sarmiento lived, knew his parents well and made them allies in the education of their child. It was an effort joined by the school principal.
“I had a whole support system -- from the teacher, to the school principal, my parents and siblings. There was no escape,” Sarmiento says. He always observed teacher Claritt and valued her strict disciplinary policy and her way of capturing students’ attention in and out of the classroom. It was about respect. She knew how to manage the group and maintain control. Her expectations led Sarmiento to graduate from Wimauma Elementary and then East Bay High School. Sarmiento always had an inclination toward boxing and pursued the sport in high school. He won state, regional and national championships and was recruited in his last year by Northern Michigan University, which has one of four Olympic training centers nationwide.

All of this was possible because Claritt’s dedication wasn’t limited to the school day from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. She went above and beyond the classroom in her interest for the well-being and future of her students.

Teaching, learning never ends 

Claritt says one of her greatest satisfactions comes from seeing her students’ progress. And not just her students, but also the members of the community. Throughout the years, Claritt has also volunteered to tutor adults in Wimauma. She shared that one summer in which she tutored adults, she was most moved by an 87-year-old man who couldn’t read or write and signed his name on official documents with an X. That summer he learned to sign his name. 

“We took him to the store to cash his paycheck and buy groceries and for the first time he wrote his name,” Claritt says proudly. It is experiences like that one that fill her soul. “Volunteering to tutor adults, children, helping people with their taxes and in some way partaking in the betterment of someone’s life fulfills me.” 

That tenacity and commitment are qualities Vallejo treasures in Claritt. Even after graduating from the University of South Florida with a bachelor’s degree in social work and from the University of Florida with a master’s degree in student counseling and now that he’s pursuing a doctorate degree, his eyes water at the recollection of Claritt and the role she played in his life. 

“When I was a child I never imagined I’d be a supervisor, until Ms. Claritt changed my perspective and caused me to see obstacles as an opportunity to overcome and be better,” says the 40-year-old who now supervises the Hillsborough County Department of Counseling with 35 counselors who help students enroll in a university, find scholarships and financial aid. 

Now married and with three children, Vallejo says Claritt left a permanent imprint in his life. He may have forgotten the details of what he learned about Reading and Social Studies in her class, but he will never forget her strong personality that led her students to believe in themselves, make goals and strive until obtaining them.

“Teacher Margaret Claritt was strict, she had great expectations for her students. She took the time to visit parents in their own homes. She took her students’ education seriously,” Vallejo says.
He was a farmworker child and never imagined Claritt had been too, until she shared her experiences. 

“I also worked in the fields. I also picked strawberries, tomatoes, oranges, and I graduated from college. And if I did it, you can too,” Vallejo still recalls Claritt saying. Though Claritt has played an important role in the development and success of many people throughout the years in her beloved community of Wimuama, she carries herself with admirable humbleness.

“I’m trying to give something back to my community because I’m so grateful to have received my own scholarship to attend college for five years, here,” she says.

Her daughter Glover-Hannah says she admires her mother’s continual sacrificial giving to the community. After her retirement, Claritt had the opportunity to move to another part of Hillsborough County with more accessibility to services, but she deliberately chose to stay in Wimauma. 

“She works tirelessly and still continues to knock on doors to bring people out to meetings. ... One day after being hospitalized, after I picked her up and was driving her home, she asked me to make a stop at one of the neighboring homes so that she could drop off a flyer advertising a community meeting. That is the extent of her dedication for this community,” Glover-Hannah says.

One of Claritt's greatest joys derives from seeing Wimauma students overcome obstacles -- even those who’ve been farmworkers, with limited resources, and who thought they’d never make it to graduation. 

Arising from Wimauma triumphant 

Some of her students include people like Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White; Ansberto Vallejo, Hillsborough County Supervisor for Career and Postsecondary Planning; Adrian Sarmiento, Student Success Coach at Shields Middle School; David Jordan, who with a master’s degree in adult education is a teacher at Thompson Elementary in Ruskin; Dr. Kattron Rhodes, who earned a full scholarship to Duke University and now conducts medical research; Angela Brown, assistant principal at Liberty Middle School. Claritt's daughter Darina Glover Russell is also a teacher who has taught for 24 years. Her youngest daughter Alicia Claritt is an accountant, and many more who have overcome numerous obstacles to fulfill their dreams.

Sarmiento graduated in 2009 -- the same year of Claritt’s retirement -- from the University of South Florida with a bachelor’s degree in history. And as a Success Coach at Shield’s Middle School he follows Claritt’s example in guiding and counseling 100 students who are at-risk of quitting school.

Sarmiento says he continues to be a fighter, but now he fights for the success of his students, for school desertion to diminish and for more kids from Wimauma to attain a higher education. Inside of the classroom, Sarmiento does his best to apply the lessons he learned from Claritt.

“As a teacher, I know understand how beautiful is the ability of managing a class,” he says. “Now, that I’m a teacher I have a greater respect for those who have been my teachers ... for the individualized attention and because they always sought to bring out the best in their students. All students have bad habits and a teacher must help them to leave those bad habits behind and replace them with good habits. ... This is the real lesson. And that is the lesson that as an educator, teacher Claritt practiced,” Sarmiento adds.

Beyond the classroom, Sarmiento looks to make a difference in his community, just as Claritt has done throughout her years in Wimauma.

“That is what happens in Wimauma. Here there are people with determination; young people who regardless of economic circumstances or working conditions are determined to get ahead, to be productive citizens,” says Claritt, who even after retirement returned to Wimauma Elementary as a substitute teacher. Even as she continues working in academics in Wimauma, seeking to see young people triumph in life, Claritt would like to see Wimauma become a place where all residents feel they can enjoy life with educational resources and recreational facilities for children and adults alike.

“There is yet much to be done in Wimauma,” she says. For this reason, Claritt plans to stay in the town and work for the betterment of its inhabitants. 

Spitting image of her mother 

Colette Glover-Hannah grew up in Wimauma under the influence of her mother, Teacher Margaret Claritt. And under the judgmental gaze of close friends who expected her to become successful because her mother was a teacher. From her perspective, being the daughter of a teacher is comparable to being the daughter of a minister or a doctor, always occupied with texts to evaluate, exams to grade and phone calls to make.

“We had no choice but to share our mother with her group of 30 students,” Glover-Hannah says. “They were practically like our other siblings.”

As the daughter of a teacher, Glover-Hannah, along with her sisters Darina and Alicia, learned the value of dedication and the changes that could come about from being committed to a cause. 

“From my mother we also learned the importance of good literacy and of having a book to read,” Glover-Hannah adds. 

Since she was a small child and on occasion had to attend university with her mother because there was no babysitter, she learned that the opportunity to attend university should not be wasted. She recalls how her mother would place her and her siblings in a corner of the classroom with coloring books on those days. So, Glover-Hannah attended university when she grew up and graduated with a degree in journalism and public relations from Florida A&M University. She later became Media Relations Director at USF -- a post she held for 10 years. And in her last five years she rose to the role of VP of the Department of Community Relations.

After obtaining a master’s degree in adult education from the University of South Florida, Glover-Hannah left the university to become a full-time mom to begin another career. It was during that time that her entrepreneurship gene surfaced as an answer to prayer. 

“Five years ago I discovered an unexplored market for shoes for youth in big sizes,” she says. Glover-Hannah discovered this gap in the market when she had trouble finding girly shoes for her own daughter.
“When my daughter was six years old, she already had to wear a woman’s shoe size. Her foot continued to grow until she was 11 years old and by then, we couldn't find any shoes appropriate for her age,” she says. Thus, Hannah’s Shoebox was born with sizes from 5-13 for adolescents.
“The purpose is to fill the need for adolescent style shoes for young girls (with big feet),” Glover-Hannah says. “Hannah’s Shoes is the only store in the country offering shoes for adolescents in big sizes.”

The company has experienced continual growth and now has clients not only in the United States, but also in Canada. In addition, Hannah’s Shoebox partners with nonprofits such as Joshua House, which provides a safe haven for abused, abandoned and neglected children. Hannah’s Shoes is also registered as a provider for Hillsborough County public and private schools. 

“The response has been very positive because we offer a solution to a problem. Just because your daughter has the feet of a woman doesn’t mean she has to look like a woman,” Glover-Hannah says. Some of the shoes are produced locally in the United States and others are produced in South America and Asia.
It is not surprising that Glover-Hannah has become an entrepreneur and followed in the footsteps of her grandmother and great grandmother. The education her mother forged in her also readied her to step out into the world of entrepreneurship and follow her own dreams.

“Dream big and never give up the pursuing goals, day-by-day work to reach that objective,” the daughter of Teacher Claritt says.

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.

To subscribe to our free weekly e-magazine, follow this link.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Imelda Dutton.

Imelda Dutton, a native of the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, is a bilingual journalist with extensive expertise in Spanish communications. For more than two decades, she reported on Latin American issues for Mexican and American media, including El Universal de Mexico. She has also written for and edited Spanish and English publications, including Visión Latina, formerly a weekly publication of The Ledger and The New York Times, and Ágora, a bilingual quarterly military magazine published by U.S. Northern Command. For the past decade she has been a strategic communications consultant for international companies, such as Booz Allen Hamilton and Jacobs Technology; and in 2014, she founded CrossoverComm Inc., her own content development and communications agency. Dutton is currently the Tampa Bay area correspondent for El Sentinel newspaper and enjoys looking for ways to promote diversity and cultural awareness among Americans.