MEET CALI ROBERTS: FIERCE, KIND & PASSIONATE

Cali Roberts is executive director of WomanKind, which aims to provide as many mammograms as possible to Keys women for Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. CRICKET DESMARAIS/Keys Weekly

At first glance, Cali Roberts’ office at the corner of Truman and Eisenhower looks like most other nonprofit executive director offices: endless reports, grant applications, To Do lists as long as the 7 Mile Bridge. Hers are immaculately organized, that day’s splayed out neatly on her desk with Post-It notes. There is vibrant art on the wall and, in the corner, a cardboard cutout of “The Fearless Girl” — the bronze statue that faces off the Charging Bull bronze statue in New York City in honor of International Women’s Day. On the shelves — the smiling faces of Roberts’ daughters, husband and friends, a pink candle that’s either a squashed rose or a praying Virgin Mary, and a 6-inch, white sperm statue next to what you now realize is no squashed rose. All apropos for someone who runs a Key West family planning and medical health center that sees more than 6,000 visits a year from women, men and teens for family planning, gynecological, and primary care needs.

Long before she took the helm as WomanKind’s director, Roberts came to the Keys in 1992 while on honeymoon at Little Palm Island. Her world circled back to that same place six years later, but sadly, without her husband, who died of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. This time, Roberts was an intern for the head chef, whom she’d met at cooking school in New York City. Four days into the job, she met her current husband Brian. The two are Big Piners and have been for over two decades.

“I love the small town community. I love the people who live here full-time, our snowbirds, and the sense of ‘We’re all in this together’ that bridges the typical divides between classes,” she says. “And I love my commute across the ocean every day — although 10 miles shorter wouldn’t hurt.”

The drive to WomanKind in Key West started in December 2007. In 2017 she became the executive director, adding to the 100% dedication initiated by the women who founded it two decades ago. Roberts now oversees a board-certified OB/GYN medical director, two nurse practitioners, and their former medical director, who now volunteers, and an administrative team for which Roberts is grateful.

“There are countless instances when staffers have gone far above their call of duty to get patients the care they need,” she says. “It’s inspiring and lovely and it keeps my spirit refreshed after so many years on the job.”

Womankind’s list of on-site services is long — a pharmacy, ultrasounds, EKGs, lab testing, cryotherapy, colposcopy, LEEPs, IUD and Nexplanon birth control, and confidential family planning visits to teens through a Monroe County Health Department partnership — all with financial assistance if needed. They also provide preventive care — yearly visits, routine testing, a good relationship with a trusted practitioner.

Without it, health wanes, disease progresses, prevention is postponed, outcomes suffer and costs are higher, she says.

“Many women, I mean a lot of women, put their health care, especially preventive care, behind the needs of their kids, their husbands, their obligations,” she says.“We can’t take care of everyone and everything if we are not taking care of ourselves first. It’s not selfish; it’s necessary.”

Womankind helps raise funds to help remove any additional roadblocks for women to get the health care they need. BraZaar, the annual decorated bra auction fundraiser on Saturday, Oct. 8 at Key West Theater, is one such event — “a very light-hearted evening addressing a very sober situation,” says Roberts. Emcees Erin McKenna and Womankind’s “Finance Director etc.” Chase Hurst engage the crowd as they ooh and ahh over handmade, decorated and adorned bras and their ensembles up for auction and modeled by local women. Proceeds help cover breast health care education, preventive visits, testing and patient coordination services in partnership with Zonta, a women’s service organization that provides eligible Womankind patients with a free mammogram screening.

“Breast cancer affects one in eight women in their lifetime,” says Roberts. “For the 50% of our patients who are uninsured, a cancer diagnosis is more than a dire health condition — it can mean financial ruin. The stress that comes with that is not conducive to healing.”  

This year’s theme for the BraZaar, “Chin Up! Shoulders Back! A Seriously Uplifting Event Celebrating Women with Grit” honors historical women — including local female leaders — who have fought the tough fights, opened doors and lifted ceilings so women can be where they are today.  

“There is much talk in the news about restricting women’s rights … even nonsense about limiting access to birth control,” she says. “If that’s a fight we’re facing, let’s reflect on the great accomplishments of our foremothers and become energized for future battles.”

Quick Q & A with Cali Roberts:

What’s something you’d like to learn? That list is ridiculously long: carpentry, electrical work, gardening, how to install solar panels, how to speak Spanish and Haitian Creole, how to ballroom dance, how to play the piano. I better have a very long retirement.

What are you reading now? “A Separate Peace.” I am going back and reading all the required summer reading I was assigned in high school. I didn’t appreciate it then, but we were assigned great books: “1984,” “Animal Farm,” “Lord of the Flies,” “Brave New World,” “Catcher in the Rye,” etc. These books are now on banned-book lists when my very religious, very conservative, Catholic high school forced us to read them in the 1980s.

 What’s your superpower? My husband says I can empathize with anyone. I agree, but I find it more of a hindrance than superpower.

Words to live by? A college professor taught “Question Authority,” and I’ve followed that faithfully. It leads me to make decisions I am confident and comfortable defending when questioned.
Secret Dream? I always wanted to open a chain of women-owned auto-repair shops with female mechanics who would talk respectfully to female clients and teach them about their cars so they could make informed repair decisions, without feeling subjugated or taken advantage of. If I think about it, I guess I’ve swapped automobiles for women’s bodies.

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