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The village in Florida that raised a fatherless family

COMMUNITY
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After a husband and dad in the community died, people showed up unexpectedly to care for his widow and children.

The year was 1957 in the small town of Wauchula, Florida, a place where the economy largely depended on the land, where farmers worked in orange groves and sold cucumbers, tomatoes, and many other types of produce. Patricia, affectionately called Pat, was just one year old. As she later learned, her father was playing in a rec league baseball game, when unexpectedly he began tripping multiple times. Years after, it became clear that this was one of the first signs of ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Officially diagnosed two years later, he was eventually confined to a wheelchair and could no longer work as a welder as he had done for many years. He died on January 20, 1960, when Pat was just four years old.

With five girls between the ages of 17 and 4, Pat’s mother, Helen, was suddenly left not only without her husband of 16 years, but without a father for her kids and an income to live on.  She had nothing but the house and an old car. Yet, as Pat grew older, and her mother remained at home to take care of the girls, Pat became increasingly aware that many people in the community had adopted her family as their own.

It began with a family friend, who cared for Pat during the funeral, while all the affairs were put in order. Sometime later, Pat learned that a gentleman of means in the community had told the local grocer that whenever Mrs. Williams came in to get food for the family, he would take care of the bill. Although Pat’s father was Southern Baptist, she and her sisters had been raised Catholic and attended St. Michael’s Church. Yet even prior to his death, parishioners from both churches in town provided all sorts of supplies that would continue for years to come.  

In this deep Southern town, there was clear division between white folk and black folk, and one of the areas in which those of color resided was the known as “The Quarters.” Shortly after Pat’s father died, an African-American gentleman from this area showed up at the door with vegetables from his garden. Week after week, he would come with a delivery of fresh food, and every time Mrs. Williams attempted to pay him, he refused to take any money. One day, Pat heard him decline the payment, and tell her mother that “Zeke [Mr. Williams] was the only one who treated me equal.” Both had played together on an integrated, recreational baseball team at a time when segregation still ruled the land.

Despite her and her sisters being left without a father and an income, Pat “never remembered wanting for anything,” except for her Daddy. In addition to raising her family, Pat’s mother continued to bowl in leagues on Tuesday and Wednesday morning, as a constant means of activity and stress relief. She eventually passed away in 1991.

As the five girls grew older, their bond only grew stronger. But as Pat recalled, one thought kept coming back to her when she thought of those early days of hardship: In the midst of their heartache, that little community of Wauchula, Florida — later to be known infamously as the site of “switched at birth” — had “enveloped” them and taken them as their own.  It was a legacy of love that would live on in Pat and her sisters, and a sense of civic responsibility and caring that influences her even today, including her work with the aquatic services at Easterseals Rehabilitation Center.  

So often in life, we may feel disconnected from others in our sorrow and our pain. Yet we are never alone, nor far from each other no matter what we perceive the distance to be. Those we love may leave us too soon, and those we reject might be the angel at our doorstep helping us to carry on when our loved ones are gone. As Pat found out, you just never know who you’ll come to depend on. Villagers can emerge from all sorts of places, and very often it’s not just a child they raise, but an entire brood. As Abraham Lincoln said in his first inaugural address: We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.

Together we are one.

Read more: What an entire neighborhood did to communicate with a 2-year-old girl

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