A cast of characters deep in Florida’s interior help the unseen to see.


“ I struggle with what God wants me to do. Feed the hungry? Clothe the naked? Visit the imprisoned? Is that everybody or only U.S. citizens? ” - Lion Margarita Romo, Dade City Hispanic American Club.

Past District Governor Shirley LePage zips down the narrow street in a brown Kia Sportage. She honks at a blood donation bus that has paused at an intersection and points toward a small gravel parking lot half a block east. The driver nods and puts the bus in gear. Before I can say anything she points at me through her open window and hollers, “I’m coming back for you, stay right there.” I stay.

It’s August in central Florida and the heat is visible, hanging in waves above the pavement. Catalina Morales walks up the front path of the Lions club office, a long ponytail swinging down her back, and holding a bright bouquet of balloons. “Buenos días!” she says, smiling. She’s just come from the Norma Godinez Arts and Education building where they’ve set up the food pantry, and she’s tying balloons on the mailbox to call attention to their health fair.

In a community with as many needs as Dade City, the Lions there try to provide as many services as they can in one stop. For many of the families a day off work is a luxury and it can’t be wasted.

Situated across six stations are a food pantry, diabetic screenings and retinopathy exams for adults, KidSight eye screenings for the kids, a blood donation bus, a mobile medical clinic, and a free lunch.

Past District Governor Shirley LePage assures Eva Caraballo, 22, that the Dade City Lions will get her the eye care she needs. PHOTOS BY ZACK WITTMAN

“Let’s get this girl a screening.”

The stations were originally spaced a few blocks apart in order to control traffic and congestion. However, with the extreme heat, they’ve condensed them all into one location to minimize walking and keep folks in the air conditioning as long as possible. I edge under the shade of a water oak and wait for LePage.

Diane Hankins, club secretary and overall wonder woman walks up holding the hand of a short, athletic-looking girl in a Grateful Dead T-shirt. “Let’s get this girl a screening,” she says.

Eva wears a backwards baseball cap over her short, rust-colored curls. Freckles covering her porcelain features make her look young, but she’s 22. One eye fixes on me as we speak, while the other sits dreamily somewhere a little off to the left.

Catalina Morales ties balloons to a mailbox at the Dade City club’s office to welcome community members to the free health clinic. PHOTOS BY ZACK WITTMAN

She’s legally blind in her left eye from amblyopia (lazy eye) that wasn’t corrected when she was younger, and her right eye is the only thing between her and complete darkness.

“I treat it like my baby,” she says of her right eye.

But she doesn’t have health insurance and the doctor she used to see at Walmart left in June. Her roommate saw in the paper that the Lions were holding this event, so she walked here. She walks everywhere because she doesn’t want to hurt someone by driving. Sometimes in her work as a motel housekeeper she runs into things with her cart.

“I hate doctors,” she tells me as we wait. She can only get the retinopathy exam today. The Lions’ equipment to screen for vision problems won’t work with her eye condition so she’ll need to be referred.

When she was a kid she used to fight the eye doctor. “Looking back now, I wish I didn’t,” she says. Amblyopia is correctible when detected at a young age, and it’s one of the many conditions Lions’ KidSight screens for, helping people like Eva avoid lifelong consequences.

“You’re a citizen?” LePage asks as she gets the paperwork for her referral. The Florida Lions Foundation for the Blind works with a network of doctors who will treat those in financial need. The local clubs who refer patients pay a US$200 co-pay and the foundation pays the remainder. But the foundation doesn’t cover those without legal residency or citizenship documents.

Fortunately for Eva, she is a citizen. But many in Dade City are not.

The Undocumented

As recently as 10 years ago this part of Dade City was known as Tommy Town. Exactly how it got that name isn’t clear, though it’s believed to have been built in the 1940s and ‘50s to provide housing for the migrant population, which at the time was comprised of German POWs. Eventually those POWs were replaced by migrant workers from central America, many of whom are undocumented.

Florida is home to an estimated 656,000 undocumented people. A large portion of them work on the state’s 9.45 million acres of farm land, doing work that nearly no American citizens enlist for.

Farm work is by all accounts grueling, demanding long hours and offering little pay. It’s also dangerous, especially for workers’ eyes.

Exposure to agricultural chemicals, tools, and machinery, plus the long days exposed to ultraviolet light, airborne soil and particulates, pollen, varying levels of humidity, and plant components all contribute to the deterioration of sight in farmworkers. Yet they are very unlikely to ever have an eye screening or receive eye care.

That is, until Lions set up shop in Dade City.

The Granny

LePage is the type of person who doesn’t beat around the bush. She talks about her tough times in life, including being left on a doorstep as an infant, but waves most of it off with an “I’ll tell you later” nonchalance. “Sometimes being broken yourself helps you understand others who are broken,” she says.

She started a club in Dade City in 2009, she says, because she saw the need. She saw the lack of help for people with sight issues. She saw a community that, while rallying, was still a little broken.

When she stopped for directions she was told, “Do you know where you are? Turn around, get out of this area.” There were gangs, drugs, and violence.

But now the streets are sunny and quiet. Small, well-maintained houses have plants on the front porch and hoses out for watering small gardens. There’s a patch of kittens curled up nursing from their mother in the shade of a camphor tree.

Many community members have taken a rare day off of work to attend the Dade City Lions’ free health fair. Araceli, 45, (pictured with her two daughters) is a farmworker who typically works seven days a week. PHOTOS BY ZACK WITTMAN

“It’s safe now,” says LePage. And it’s all because of the hard work of the Lions and an organization called Farmworkers Self Help [FSH].

The Matriarch

Lion Margarita Romo doesn’t look her 80-odd years, even though on the day we sit down to talk she is fighting off a bad cold. She looks vibrant, strong, capable. In 2013 she was named to the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame.

“Broken people can’t fix broken communities,” says Romo.

The daughter of farmworkers, Romo started FSH 37 years ago to give migrant farmworkers a place to find solutions to the problems they faced. She knew farmworkers were strong and weren’t looking for charity. “They were looking for a hand up, not a handout,” she says.

FSH partners with Lions on many of the service projects they do in Dade City, and the community has changed as a result. Community members—many of whom are undocumented farmworkers—now have a place where they and their children can learn self-development and leadership skills, helping them to take control of their lives and destinies.

FSH provides emergency services, such as food and clothing, shelter, medical care, and immigration assistance when needed, and their partnership with Lions has enabled them to provide eyeglasses and surgeries to farmworkers who would otherwise not qualify for aid. While there are other programs in the state that offer low- or no-cost eye care, none do so for non-citizens.

“We’d have to lie,” says Romo. “And people would go blind.”

The Farmworker

Anna Ocasio (not her real name) has seven-year-old twin daughters who are waiting by the face-painting booth to get their eye exams. She has five more children at home. These are her youngest, and until two years ago she could barely see them.

Ocasio had an issue with her corneas and when she was 25 a doctor told her she would need surgery, or she would go blind. But Ocasio is undocumented. She doesn’t have health insurance and doesn’t have the money to pay out of pocket for such a procedure. She grew depressed and was unable to work due to her deteriorating sight. Then, nearly twenty years later, she met Margarita Romo, who sent her to the Lions.

“When you aren’t documented you’re invisible,” says Romo. But the Dade City Lions have made it their specialty to help those in the shadows, and they’ve developed a very small network of people willing to help.

“We’re connectors, navigators. Because of our work, a lot of people are alive.”

Margarita Romo is the person everyone goes to for help in Dade City. PHOTOS BY ZACK WITTMAN

Ocasio had surgery on both her eyes two years ago. Her right eye is “perfect.” The left still has some issues, but she continues to be treated by a doctor through the Lions.

Most importantly, she can see again.

The Benefactor

Bill Cohen’s mother belonged to the PTA and used to translate books into braille in the 1960s. His first real job was as a miniature golf operator when he was 12. He vacuumed the artificial grass and kept track of the balls and putters. He’s been working ever since.

Bill Cohen, from the Tampa North Lions, supports the Dade City Lions when their funds run short. PHOTOS BY ZACK WITTMAN

And he never forgot how his mother volunteered to help the blind. It stuck with him. So when he became successful, he looked for a way to help others and found Lions. Today, Cohen is club treasurer for the Tampa North Lions—and a big benefactor to the Dade City club.

Because they are a club made up almost entirely of farmworkers, the Dade City Lions often don’t have the money to do all the service that needs to be done. “These people work seven days a week,” says LePage. “They don’t have time for fundraisers.” But they do find the time to serve.

So, Cohen steps in. He pays members’ dues, covers co-pays, and finds pet projects to back whenever possible. His favorite was trip to SeaWorld for 60 kids in 2000. “These kids had never been out of their neighborhood,” he says.

Girls peek into the packages at the food pantry, hoping to find their favorite goodies inside. PHOTOS BY ZACK WITTMAN

He helps people other than the Dade City club, of course. Recently he came across a couple, Angel and Frank, married for 22 years and living in an abandoned car in the parking lot of his bingo hall. He organized a fundraiser and got them money for a hotel room. Every day they go to join a group of “labor-ready” workers, hoping to soon land more permanent jobs. They continue to receive the support of Lions in the meantime.

They are grateful for his generosity and ask him how they will ever pay him back. “You’re not going to pay me back,” he says. “You’re going to go help someone else.”

From Beneficiaries to Lions

On the day of the health fair it’s clear how much the Dade City club provides to the community. Dozens of families are crammed into the small office, waiting for screenings. Children eat suckers and adults fill out forms. Those who have come from the food pantry eye the goods in their paper bags. One eight-year-old girl says she hopes there are cookies in there. A woman next to her writes down a recipe for the pumpkin pie filling peeking out of one bag.

Ocasio takes her two girls in for an eye screening. She is there for the services—and also to help out. Wanting to give back to the community that gave so much to her, Ocasio became a Lion after her surgeries. “I’m thankful they saved my vision,” she says.

This is the essence of the Dade City club. They take those who are beneficiaries and turn them into Lions. This has been the plan all along. To fix the broken people so that they may fix their community.

“Everyone should know that farmworkers are the best Lions in the world,” says Romo. “They are true workers.”