People love LaBelle.
They don’t love the limitations on shopping and entertainment so they find themselves traveling elsewhere for these things.
For some folks, though, these shortcomings are compounded by a lack of transportation.
For instance, residents at Palmetto Ranch often have some form of disability. Add limited transportation and they struggle just to manage their everyday life.
Brenda Hill is 66 years old. She has multiple physical challenges and has been a resident of Palmetto Ranch for the past six years.
Brenda has lived in LaBelle most of her life, off and on. Her parents, Marie and John Chezem, owned a used furniture store on Fort Thompson Ave. in the ‘60s. Over the years she has driven a truck, worked in Animal Control for the City of LaBelle, done landscaping maintenance and many other jobs, but her health is affected now by a back injury
Although her physical mobility is limited, she uses a motorized scooter to get around - even riding it around on sidewalks to stores and appointments in town.
Brenda’s friend and neighbor, Johnny Marshall, has also lived at Palmetto Ranch for about six years. He’s kind of the “go-to” guy for many of the residents. He gladly helps them by bringing them food from the food pantry when they can’t get there themselves. He piles it in his “tricked out” three-wheel bicycle rigged up with a radio, speakers and basket. He’s even got a little trailer for hauling small loads - not just for himself. He’s quick to offer help for those who need it.
He has volunteered to work at many food pantries and even traveled to Haiti to help distribute food. While there he managed to rig up a pump so people had much better access to clean water. You can see around the neighborhood where he has built cement and wooden ramps to make it easier for those with wheelchairs or scooters to get in and out of their apartments.
Sue Nick also has health issues. She does have a car and can drive, but it’s difficult for her so she relies on her scooter for most small trips. She has taken to accompanying Brenda on little jaunts into town. Once in town they can enjoy a little shopping or just plain people watching. They check out the shops and head to the library, toodling along on their scooters.
It’s not an easy way to get around but it works and good company is part of the fun. Sidewalks and traffic are some of their biggest problems. These days, many of the sidewalks they use are in pretty good shape, thanks to the City of LaBelle and Superintendent of Public Works Michael Boyle. However, some obstacles just stop you cold on a scooter or bike or pushing a baby stroller.
There is about a quarter mile of sidewalk missing along SR 80, just before you get to the new Walmart - a quarter mile that prevents Brenda and other folks like her from being able to safely make it to and from Walmart. Even if she tried to take her scooter across the uneven, overgrown grassy space, there’s about a four inch difference from the sidewalk down to the ground that she can’t navigate on her scooter.
“Mr. Johnny” will brave the traffic sometimes and ride his bike on the roadway, but it’s dangerous.
The lack of sidewalks on parts of Cowboy Way also deprive folks who rely on scooters or bikes for access to the shopping destinations that are so important for them.
“It’s disheartening,” Brenda said, adding that Mike Boyle, Superintendent of Public Works for the City of LaBelle, has been a big help in expanding access for people in her situation. She is forever grateful but, at the same time, being able to get to Walmart would make life much simpler and comfortable for her many other like her. Of course, she and her neighbors love going to the other LaBelle stores, but Walmart carries a lot of things they can’t get elsewhere. For instance, Brenda is a great seamstress and loves to make her own clothes, but she needs a place to buy fabric and sewing items.
According to a Hendry County spokesperson, county staff has informed the Heartland Regional Transportation Planning Organization (HRTPO) of this need and FDOT has a resurfacing project scheduled in the area for upcoming years. That sidewalk could be included in the resurfacing project to eliminate this pedestrian gap.
The section will be included in Hendry County’s annual list of road-related projects submitted to FDOT.
In the meantime, Brenda, Sue, Mr. Johnny and their friends are pleased that they can get to many of LaBelle’s stores and that so many drivers and residents are helpful and courteous, but they feel they really need the access a simple sidewalk would give them.
“I would be ever so grateful if someone would step up to the plate and complete this sidewalk for this stretch of the road and access to Walmart,” Brenda said.