Community rallies to help blind woman

Formerly homeless widow is now a homeowner

OKEECHOBEE — Although a lot of people talk about doing nice things, it’s not often they put their money where their mouths are, but when Joanne McDuffie learned a blind woman who had just been released from the hospital was going to be evicted from her home, she said, “ Take me to her.”

Lake Okeechobee News/Cathy Womble
Gloria Simms (left) is pictured with her dog Lucky and her new friend Joanne McDuffie in front of the RV Ms. Simms now calls home, thanks to the generosity of the community of Okeechobee. Ms. McDuffie took Ms. Simms into her home for three weeks because she did not want to see her out on the street.

Ms. McDuffie is my mother, and I normally share the interesting stories with her as I write them, so she knew about Gloria Simms before her story ever came out in the paper. On the morning the newspaper hit the stands, Ms. Simms expected to be out on the street. Instead, Mom and I were loading Ms. Simms’ meager belongings into the trunk of my mom’s car and helping her and her little dog, Lucky, move into my mom’s guest room.

Ms. Simms had been evicted from the mobile home where she had lived for the previous five years until her landlord passed away and the trailer was sold to a new owner. According to Ms. Simms, the new owner decided he wanted a pet deposit of $300 per pet, and at that time, she had three pets, two cats and a dog. Because she lives on Social Security Disability Income, she said she could not afford to pay the deposit, and she began to look for a new place to live. But soon after, she became very sick with heart problems and was hospitalized. She ended up in the ICU and then in rehab for a total of two months, and while she was hospitalized, she was served with an eviction notice.

She left the rehab early in order to make it to the court date, she said, and she was given 10 days to get her belongings out of the house. Unfortunately, she was able to get very few of her things, she said, and the rest were just left at the mobile home.

A relative of the owner of the mobile home spoke up on his behalf and said he had tried to find her a new place to stay, but according to Ms. Simms, the places he suggested were in Moore Haven, and because she is blind and does not have transportation, it would be very difficult for her to live there. The relative also mentioned she had 100 days to relocate, but Ms. Simms said she was in the hospital and rehab for 60 of those days and had been trying to find a place before she got sick, and then 10 of the days were after the court hearing. She said her dog is old and does have accidents occasionally, but she cleans it up when it happens.

Ms. Simms said she could not just get rid of her dog because he is old and has accidents sometimes. She loves him, and just because he is old does not mean he is no good to anyone anymore, she said. “I still love him and need him.” After her husband died five years ago, Lucky was the only family she had left, she said.

Mrs. Simms said while she was in the hospital, she had someone go to the house to feed her animals, but no one ever took them out, so by the time she got home, it was a mess in there. “That wasn’t the animals’ fault,” she said. “It was mine, but I was in the hospital, and there was nothing I could do about it.” She ended up finding homes for her two cats, but she just couldn’t part with Lucky.

Mom said Ms. Simms and Lucky stayed with her for three weeks and were good house guests. Lucky does have occasional accidents, just as Ms. Simms said, but usually he goes outside or on newspaper, and when he did have an accident, Ms. Simms cleaned it right up. Ms. Simms also likes to cook and did a lot of the cooking while she was there, so that was kind of nice for Mom.

Last week, Ms. Simms moved out of my mom’s house and into her very own trailer. She has never owned anything before in her life, she said.

After the original story appeared in the paper and online, many people came forward to try to help her. Donna Dean from Lighthouse Refuge helped with collecting the funds. Kelly Adelburg of Okeechobee Urgent Care was instrumental in explaining how to set up a GoFundMe account and then made a large donation to get it started. She also helped get Lucky certified as a service dog. Okeechobee County Commissioner Bryant Culpepper found a 37-foot travel trailer in decent shape and then when enough donations came in, he worked out the details to get her a spot at the Cypress Hut Park, where the park owner, Paul Benko, has been very helpful every step of the way. Gregg Maynard moved the trailer to the park and then was kind enough to get her washing machine out of storage for her.

“I don’t know what I would have done without those three men,” she said. When we went to the tax collector’s office to pay the taxes which came to almost $400, an anonymous donor paid the entire amount on the spot. Even the relative of the former landlord made a large donation toward Ms. Simms’ new home.

“Everyone has been so kind and generous,” she said. “I don’t know how to thank everyone. If they only knew how much it meant to me.”

Originally, a spaghetti fundraiser was planned to help Ms. Simms, but it was canceled after Hurricane Dorian and then was not rescheduled once she moved into her trailer. She does still have a few needs if anyone would like to help. The trailer has very old carpet in it, and the original plan was to remove it and install linoleum, but there were not enough funds for that. She needs a clothesline because her dryer would use too much electricity, and the RV cannot handle it. The trailer has one tiny air conditioning unit in the bedroom, but it does not really cool the living room/kitchen area, so she could use another tiny AC unit if anyone has a spare they don’t need. And finally, she needs some type of small movable shed to put over her washing machine, to protect it from the weather. The GoFundMe account (Gloria Sims-Blind woman left homeless in Okee Fl) is still active if anyone would like to donate to that account.

Ms. Simms is very thankful for all the help she has received. She was disappointed to learn we didn’t have names of all the donors so she could send them all cards. “I want to thank them all,” she said. When the person at the tax office paid the taxes, she started to cry.

Before I wrote the first story, one of her friends said, “She has never had a break in her life.” Finally, Ms. Sims has had a few breaks.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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