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Silhouettes profiles Joan Rixom

By: William March

Printed May 29, 2015

England, says Joan Rixom, “is a small island.”
When she was growing up in Newcastle, a mining and shipbuilding town in the northeast of England, the island seemed to offer limited opportunity for young people.
Elderly people and neglected kids in Tampa can be grateful she felt that way.
It’s the reason Rixom ended up in Tampa, where she has become one of the foremost workers in two crucial programs that depend solely on volunteers to help some of the most vulnerable people in society.
Rixom has put her career skills as a nurse and nurse educator to work as a “long-term care ombudsman,” one of a corps of volunteers who check to make sure nursing homes and other long-term care facilities are taking proper care of their residents.
Without them, many nursing home residents who lack attentive family members would have no independent person checking on their welfare.
She’s also a volunteer in the state guardian ad litem program, which provides court advocates for children who are under state supervision because of family abuse or neglect.
The guardians are needed because in a typical case involving child abuse, neglect, foster care or state custody, the state agency and the parents may have lawyers, but there’s no one in the legal system whose sole job is to speak for the welfare of the child.
Last month, the state Department of Elder Affairs announced that after eight years in the long-term care program, Rixom had been named Ombudsman of the Year.
“All should admire her stamina and commitment to others,” said Lynn Penley, manager of the program for West Central Florida.
Rixom, 77, and her husband Roger live part time in Apollo Beach and part time in one of several houses they’ve renovated in Ybor City. Both are retired after long careers.
Today, she devotes around 20 hours a week to her demanding volunteer tasks, which involve a lot of driving, walking and working with bureaucrats, at an age when most people think mostly about taking it easy.
She doesn’t seem eager to talk about her motivations or feelings about the work.
When she retired, she said, she realized that if she weren’t volunteering, “I’d have to do housework.”
“I’m not good at it, and I don’t like doing things I’m not good at.”
But in a conversation in their tiny 5th Avenue house, both speaking in accents from their native England, Roger is a bit more forthcoming.
“She’s always been a carekeeper of some kind, from when she was growing up with a younger sibling to raising children to being a nurse,” he said.
“I feel immense pride in what she’s done, but I’m not surprised.”
Rixom was born just before the outbreak of World War II, to a father who was a blue-collar worker in Newcastle’s mining and shipbuilding industries and a mother who worked occasionally as a maid.
Like many English children, she didn’t see much of her father until the war was over – he was in the army, mostly in Europe. She started helping take care of her younger brother at an early age.
She knew from early in life that she would be a nurse.
“I don’t remember ever giving a thought to why or how,” she said. “I just knew it was what I wanted. I was one of the lucky ones who knew what I wanted to do.”
She got married young, at least by today’s standards, and not long after she started her nursing career in England, she and her husband moved to Toronto, where he found better job opportunities.
They ended up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where she trained for a specialty as an intensive care nurse, and then moved into nursing education. Eventually she became director of a three-year “diploma program” for training nurses, now phased out and replaced by bachelor’s degree programs.
She and her husband then moved to Atlanta, where she headed a hospital’s continuing-education department for nurses.
That’s also where her first marriage ended, and she met Roger, another émigré Brit and a member of a circle of friends with connections to the old country.
He had had an even more cosmopolitan career, working for the chemical company Unilever in Liverpool, South Africa and Germany.
He’s the same age as the world’s most famous Liverpudlian, as they’re called, Paul McCartney.
“No, I never met him,” he says without being asked when a reporter mentions the Beatles, and managed to miss to grow up without ever even hearing the Beatles play in their hometown – it’s a big town.
Joan and Roger have now been married for 28 years, have five children from their previous marriages and a dozen grandkids – “a wonderful blended family” who all enjoy each other’s company, she said.
Her ombudsman work involves visiting facilities where her clients live to check on complaints by residents or their families. Her caseload includes 15 local facilities.
As a guardian ad litem, she handles the cases of six children.
As a veteran and unusually skilled volunteer, she’s also a field trainer for other new volunteers.
“We find out if the residents are satisfied with the care they’re getting, that they’re being treated well, they’re in a secure area, they’re happy with the meals they get,” she said.
The complaints often involve cleanliness, lack of privacy, food or finances. Ombudsmen also check on such issues as discharges and evictions and medication administration.
In some cases, an ombudsman must get permission from the state to initiate an investigation, which can involve questioning staff and checking records. It’s not like a law enforcement investigation – ombudsmen don’t have subpoena power and depend on cooperation from the administration of the home.
“We try to work cooperatively with the administration,” she said. “For the most part they work cooperatively because they also want their residents to be happy.”
In rare cases – it’s happened to Rixom only once in eight years – when the ombudsman doesn’t get the necessary cooperation or results, they can refer the matter to the state Agency for Health Care Administration, which regulates and licenses long-term care facilities with the force of law.
The ombudsman program is run by the state Department of Elder Affairs, which recognized Rixom as ombudsman of the year.
According to its figures, there are 321 volunteers statewide in the program, who completed 6,077 facility assessments, traveling more than 360,000 miles to do so, and worked an estimated 91,790 unpaid hours.
If that sounds like a lot, there are 679 nursing homes in Florida with 83,129 beds and about 73,000 residents, plus 3,042 licensed assisted living facilities with 85,000 beds, according to the Florida Health Care Association, a trade group.
Nearly 60 percent of those residents don’t receive visits from family members and friends, according to the Department of Elder Affairs web site.
“It’s shocking,” Rixom said. “It’s like they were dumped.”
The need for more volunteers, she said, is always pressing – “People burn out, or move away.”
She got into the work, she said, because, “We saw an advert.”
“I tried it and liked it. I could use my background. It’s very rewarding.
The need for volunteers is so great, and the rewards so satisfying, that retiree volunteers like Rixom tend to want to remain in the job for a long time.
Occasionally, a volunteer will try to work too long, she said, and the director of the program will have to “ease them out.”
How long does she want to remain?
“That’s a good question,” she responded. “The best answer is, as long as I’m capable of doing a good job. I want somebody to tell me if I’m not.”
Rixom discusses her work professionally, giving concise, direct answers to questions. Even at 77, she’s clearly a long way from being eased out.
“That’s why I usually don’t discuss my age.”

Silhouettes profile of Father Carlos Rojas

Silhouettes (Originally published May 1, 2015)
by: Tiffany Razzano

Father Carlos Rojas

In his late teens, Father Carlos Rojas found divine inspiration in the most unlikely place: the movie “Braveheart.”

More specifically, this inspiration originated from the film’s tagline: “Every man dies. Not every man really lives.” Every time he glanced at the DVD box, the words seemed to jump off the packaging to speak directly to him.

“This was really the start of my own personal, spiritual journey,” said Rojas, now 38. “I was living in this world, but I was longing for something more. I was looking for something that would help me feel less empty and wanting more.”

The phrase didn’t leave his mind and forced him to think about his own path.

“I wanted to do something I could do the rest of my life and not just make money, but be happy and fulfilled with it,” he said. “Because of that movie I kept asking myself, what’s going to be that thing that I do with the rest of my life so that I live life to the fullest? Little by little, I landed on priesthood.”

He’d grown up in a Catholic household in Puerto Rico. His father was a deacon at their church and he attended Mass on a regular basis.

“So I was raised in a Catholic environment,” he said. “It was very sheltered in many ways.”

At 15, his family relocated to Tampa and he was enrolled at Chamberlain High School. This was an eye-opening experience for Rojas.

“I came to the United States from this little island and things were huge to me,” he said. “I was learning about different cultures and people for the first time.”

He graduated from high school in the mid-1990s and attended the University of South Florida.
But he was uncertain about what he wanted to do with this life, and switched majors several times.

He loved the social aspect of college though. He joined the fraternity Sigma Lambda Beta, becoming president of the group, and also became involved with student government on campus.

In the evenings he taught Latin dance in Ybor City, merengue and salsa, enjoying the nightlife as many of the local college students do.

During college, Rojas also rarely went to Mass. “If I went five times that would be a lot,” he said.

He added, “It’s not the typical setting for a guy who was called to priesthood. But it was during my college years that I felt the Lord calling me. Through his gentle persistence, he eventually reached me.”

In 1998, he began attending St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami.

“I felt the calling,” he said.

There he finished his bachelor’s degree in philosophy. Because of the credits he’d already accrued at USF, he could have finished the degree in just under two years. But he enjoyed the environment so much that he dragged it out an extra year to write a 50-page thesis about Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.”

It wasn’t all about academics for him, the pull was about spiritual fellowship as well.

“It’s a place where men come together wanting to learn how to serve God,” Rojas said.

From there he headed to St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach. There he earned two masters degrees, one in divinity, the other in the arts.

On May 20, 2006, he was ordained a priest.

His first assignment was to St. Clement Catholic Church in Plant City. Its members were predominantly Mexican migrant farm workers.

“It was a whole different world,” he said. “I learned about their life and the injustices they suffer.” He even spent two weeks living in a migrant camp.

“I tried to pick strawberries,” Rojas said. “I lasted 35 minutes. I’m pretty athletic and I don’t know how they do it. I guess they do it out of the love they have for their families and their willingness to make sacrifices for them.”

He remained at St. Clement for four years. During that time, he helped to transform the church’s annual celebration of the Festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe into a large-scale community event.

He was instrumental in moving the festival from the church to the Plant City Stadium, where they held a 5 a.m. mass on the feast day, Dec. 12, with a full mariachi band, and also brought in vendors and carnival rides.

Nearly 5,000 people attended the event that first year.

“It had a pretty powerful impact on the people,” Rojas said.

He spent a year at Our Lady of the Rosary in Land O’Lakes before being called up to serve Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon, the largest church in the diocese, where he spent two years.

From there, he was abruptly called up to serve the migrant community again, this time at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission in Wimauma.

He was brought in not long after the pastor, who had previously served the church, was injured in a Sun City bicycling accident.

“He went flying over the handles,” Rojas said. “He hit the concrete head first. It was a mess.”

The priest survived, which Rojas “attribute[s] to the prayers of the people. But he was in no position to lead the mission and do the work a pastor needs to do.”

So Rojas took over the church leadership. During the Lenten season, he led a campaign where parishioners spruced up the church – painting the building, installing new signage, planting flowers and foliage.

“It looks so beautiful now,” he said. “It was quite the masterpiece.”

By then, he’d become known as “the troubleshooter of the diocese.”

So one year ago, he was called in to lead St. Joseph Catholic Church in West Tampa.

Rojas had his work cut out for him. He was called to take over for Father Vladimir Dziadek, who hanged himself last May after being confronted about embezzling church funds.

It would be a tough job. “To be a parish and to have gone through the scandals and challenges they have gone through, of course their spirit was broken,” he said.

He organized a similar program to the one he spearheaded in Wimauma and rallied parishioners during the Lenten season to clean up the church grounds.

But he looked for other ways to bring the parish community together. From the beginning, he noted the diverse cultures represented at St. Joseph. When a group asked to celebrate the feast day for Our Lady Madonna de la Rocha – the patron saint of Italians, he agreed.

Rojas added, “It was a hit. It was just amazing. There were a lot of Italians who hadn’t been to church in a long time who came out to church that day.”

It snowballed from there.

Since then, aside from the Easter season and the Feast of St. Joseph, each month the church has recognized a feast day celebrated by a different cultural or ethnic group – Cubans, Guatemalans, Puerto Ricans.

Even during its annual March Feast, these different groups set up booths serving their native foods and celebrating their cultures.

“We have a place where cultures and religion are celebrated and supported,” Rojas said. “[The March carnival] highlighted not just the beauty of each culture, but our unity as a community.”
On July 19, the Colombian culture will be celebrated at the 11:30 a.m. Spanish Mass. Costa Ricans will celebrate their patron saint on Aug. 2, while Bolivians get center stage on Aug. 3.

Incredibly, because of this, he’s watched his parishioners rally together to overcome “their grief, sorrow and pain.”

“We’re good,” Rojas said. “We’re moving forward. Christ has not abandoned us.”

Charter School Explosion: On the Fringe of Legal?
(Part 7 of 7)

By Patricia W. Hall

This is the last of our series of seven articles regarding Charter schools and their changing relationship to our community.

As we complete the series of seven articles in La Gaceta today, the study of charter schools by the League of Women Voters of Florida gives direction regarding education principles. Public education is required by the Florida Constitution and recognized as a paramount duty of the state. The constitution establishes local school boards who are accountable to the electorate and are audited for compliance to statute and rule. They should be the sole agency with authority to contract with charter schools to complement the public school system within a district. They should have oversight and enforcement authority and be held responsible for meeting the needs of the students residing within their districts. Read the rest of this entry »

Charter School Explosion: Accountable to Whom?
(Part 6 of 7)

By Patricia W. Hall

This is the sixth in a series of seven articles regarding Charter schools and their changing relationship to our community.

The scariest thing about the charter school industry is the move toward for-profit management, possible influence peddling in Florida government and the lack of transparency. The “Wild West” business model doesn’t work for education. Ample warnings exist in large cities like New Orleans, Chicago and Philadelphia about where this privatization issue is headed. The issues of profit are trumping the public good. Recently at the National Convention of the League of Women Voters (LWV) of the United States, I met the president of the Louisiana LWV. Shocking as this sounds, by September of 2014, ALL public schools in New Orleans will be charter schools! Read the rest of this entry »

Charter School Explosion: Following The Money
(Part 5 of 7)

By Patricia W. Hall

This is the fifth in a series of seven articles regarding Charter schools and their changing relationship to our community.

Although charter schools must, by Florida law, be overseen by a non-profit board of directors, there are many ways in which for-profit organizations have begun to highjack the charter school movement. For-profit management companies frequently provide everything from back office operations, including payroll, contracting with vendors for food services, textbooks, etc., to hiring principals and teachers and curriculum control. So what was sold to parents and children as a local public education innovation now looks more like national charter-chains, the “Walmart-ization” of public education. According to education expert Diane Ravitch, “nearly half of all charter school students are enrolled in a charter chain school” in the United States. Read the rest of this entry »

Charter School Explosion: Doing It Better
(Part 4 of 7)

By Patricia W. Hall

This is the fourth in a series of seven articles regarding Charter schools and their changing relationship to our community.

This week’s article focuses on three of the 42 charter schools in Hillsborough County that the League of Women Voters of Florida Statewide Study included in its final consensus report. Our Hillsborough League, after analyzing all the data available to us, chose to highlight Learning Gate, Pepin and Brooks DeBartolo as good examples of the original mission of charters as incubators of public school innovation. These schools, while extremely diverse in goals, curriculum and student bodies, all emphasize the unique skills and strengths of students by creating inspiring learning experiences to the benefit of all children who attend. Read the rest of this entry »

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