Greater Naples Leadership Class XVI gathered at St. Monica’s Church on Immokalee Road in preparation for their 45 minute trek to Immokalee, a rural town 45 minutes east of Naples.  As the bus departed, the group was asked to take in the landscape as they traveled to their destination.  Along the way, they saw acres of farmland used to grow tomatoes, melons, potatoes and other crops.

The group arrived at their first destination of the day, CHS Healthcare’s Marion E. Fether Medical Center.  CHS Healthcare (now Healthcare Network of Southwest Florida) is a private, nonprofit “safety net” healthcare provider in Collier County.  Its Marion Fether Medical Center provides comprehensive healthcare services for the citizens of Immokalee.

The day’s presentations were kicked off by lively descriptions of Life in Immokalee by author and Immokalee historian Carlene Thissen.  Frank Massey, long-time Immokalee resident, provided details about growing up as an African American in this rural agricultural town during segregation.  These vivid descriptions provided by the presenters set the landscape for the panels yet to come.

The next panel entitled Resources for Youth provided insight and knowledge regarding the many challenges facing the children of Immokalee.  Megan McCarthy, Marianne Kearns and Barbara Mainster (from Guadalupe Center, Pace Center for Girls and RCMA respectively) shared details of how their nonprofit organizations help youth in the area overcome adversity.

Next on the agenda was a discussion entitled Agriculture in Immokalee.  In a rarely seen occurrence, a national produce company representative presented side by side with a representative from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).  Toby Purse, CFO of Lipman Companies, provided the details of how his company provides produce to our nation while managing the employment of a largely migrant workforce.  Gerardo Reyes-Chavez of CIW described the efforts his organization has put forth to insure proper treatment of farm workers.  Together, they described the significant strides the industry has made in workforce related issues.

After a quick tour of the Healthcare Network’s state of the art facilities, the group traveled to Lake Trafford Marina, located on the shore of the largest fresh water lake south of Lake Okeechobee.   Here the class was treated to an authentic Mexican Lunch and Airboat Rides all courtesy of the Healthcare Network of Southwest Florida.  On the boat ride, the class saw wildlife such as birds, deer and of course alligators.

The final destination of the day was the Immokalee Technical Center (iTech), a vocational learning center for high school students and adults.  After a tour of iTech, Immokalee businessman and GNL member Bob Juster (IX) teamed with Penny Phillipi of the Collier County CRA to describe Industry in Immokalee.  Providing a current perspective as well as a vision for the future, the duo painted a clear picture of the economic potential for the area.

Finishing off the day was Dr. Bill Kuzbyt, Healthcare Network of Southwest Florida, and Sister Maureen Kelleher of the Legal Aid Society.  They described the many Healthcare and Legal Challenges facing the residents of Immokalee and spoke about how their organizations provide services for those in need.

The class used the travel time back to Naples to deliberate the many challenges facing the people of Immokalee including poverty, immigration and healthcare.  This was balanced with tales of the brighter side of Immokalee such as its cultural charms and abundance of natural resources.  All in all the day brought forward some insightful perspectives on this integral part of Collier County.

Bill Franz

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