Sandy and Ervin Higgs live for their grandsons, 19-year old Troy Kevin Montero and 15-year old Erik Vinson. This time of year is especially trying on the family. Eleven years ago, the boys’ mother, an obsessed boyfriend took Sandy and Ervin’s daughter, from them. She was trying to end their relationship and he didn’t want her to go. Her sons were three and eight-years old.
“You think this is something that happens somewhere else, to someone else, not ever in your own backyard, never to you. You learn to survive, but the pain never goes away.”
Another occurrence gave Higgs a focus that year. 1999 marked the first board meeting for Samuel’s House, a halfway home for women and children located on Truman and Eisenhower Drive in Key West. Sandy recalls outpouring support from the community. They wanted to know what they could do. A fund was established, and over $17,000 came in to support Samuel’s House. The CEO Elmira Leto possesses what her friends and colleagues call a “steadfast dedication” to support women and children.
“Elmira will do whatever it takes to provide support for women, and women with children,” reports Higgs. “She walks the walks, she lives the creed. She provides the very care that she knows the women are in need of.”
According to Samuel’s House’s director, Kim Gordon, the home has several facets. Women can come and stay with their children for 90 days in the shelter. Often times, these women have lost their home from the uncertain economic state of our economy or are coping with a substance abuse problem. Support services exist inside the walls of Samuel’s House that also train them for new opportunities such as securing a job and molding these females faced with hardships into contributing members of our community.
Gordon is pleased to report, “85 percent leave employed. Remember some arrive with four, five, or six children. If you’re on the streets and you have a family, the children will be sent to foster care. By law, parents are required to provide a safe home.
Some sleep in their cars behind bridges. This allows a mother to stay with her children until they find employment. Some arrive pregnant and come right before their babies are due.”
Since October 2009, 162 women and children have been housed in this facility. Since October 1999, over 4,300 women and children have found a safe haven at Samuel’s House.
Due to parameters for receiving state funding, they can only stay for 90 days, which often isn’t long enough, particularly for a woman battling addiction.
Board member Nolie Carbonell is a mother and grandmother and points out their situation can be very sad.
“There are babies there all the time. Sometimes there will be seven babies in the house. This is different from the Wesley House because at the Wesley House, they don’t live there.”
Kathy had a problem with alcohol. She cycled through Samuel’s House several times and could not survive on her own. She was found on a dingy out on Stock Island dead from alcohol poisoning. After that incident, Elmira made a promise this would never happen to another woman again.
“She was a firewoman,” notes Nolie. “She’d go through the program and get out on her own, and get back into the same thing. She never got clean. She really, really tried and couldn’t do it on her own.”
In response, Elmira established, “Kathy’s Hope,” a 16-single room occupancy building complete with a common living, dining, and kitchen area. Each bedroom has its own private bath women can share with their children. Elmira though, wanted the mothers to have their own space.
“This is how Casa de Meredith was found. Elmira applied for a grant. The state has supported her. This will provide additional housing for women,” says Sandy. “This isn’t a shelter. This is long-term housing for families.”
After the 90 days are up at Samuel’s House, the women now have a new place to seek solace.
Building a safe and secure life is often a struggle that lasts longer than 90 days. Sandy, describing Meredith as a fun, loving, and caring daughter who would enter a room and command attention, does not wish her circumstance on any other mother, family, or child. The home she envisions, will create an avenue of escape Meredith wasn’t afforded.
“The fact that out of this tremendous tragedy has come this wonderful, safe environment for women and women with children is wonderful. Our motto is ‘what we could not do for ourselves, we have tried to do for others.’ This will allow more women to be able to feel safe and loved no matter what has happened to them. Which is a joyful experience.”
The grand opening for Casa de Meredith is December 14. One of the rooms will allow for the father or husband to stay. The only place in the Samuel’s House family, which will take the man in as part of the family. Meredith’s birthday is December 12.
Key West Men in Paradise
The Casa de Meredith Fundraiser You Don’t Want to Miss
To raise money for the Case de Meredith the community is rallying and nearly two dozen men are planning their wardrobes for an event you don’t want to miss, Men in Paradise. Held at Beachside Marriot 21 men will strut their stuff in their own selections for poolside, casual and formal wear. The organizers and models selected are people who loved and knew Meredith and or her family. Including her son’s other grandmother, her sister Mindy, Christine Boros, Helen Garcia, Frankie Hernandez, and Violet Montero to name a few. The money raised will provide the needed funds for the impact fees the grant did not cover. The male models are very involved in the community through their professions, philanthropically or both. This will be Sandy, Kim, Elmira, Violet, and event chair Mona Santiago’s culmination of months of planning. The event is to take place poolside on Saturday, November 13.
Cocktail hour starts at 11: 30 am, and lunch is at noon! Cost is $35 per person, and seating is limited. RSVP 294-0717. Bring a wad of dollar bills. Votes will be cast Aqua Idol-style for the Men in Paradise!
Men in Paradise
Jeffrey S. Holm
Howard (Dan) Messenger
In memory of Meredith Higgs. Photo courtesy: Higgs family collection.