Friends and family gather at Florence Jelks' home in Immokalee to remember her legacy. Seen here, Florence's friends and family watch a YouTube video that Florence narrated about her own life as a young child in Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island. The Wall of Fame behind them contains hundreds of family photos former students had given to Florence over the years. (Submitted photo/Travis Anderson)
In 2015, the Boca Grande Historical Society honored Florence and her contribution to southwest Florida. In an article posted on their Facebook page, Florence recalled how much of her success early in life was due in part to Mrs. Louise Crowninshield who not only provided food for the school cafeteria and educational materials, but she also sent Florence and her two sisters to college. That help didn’t end there as Mrs. Crowninshield also paid for Florence’s school books and clothes. Eventually, Florence received a House of Representatives Scholarship to attend FAMU and later received her undergraduate and graduate degrees. After finishing her education, Florence worked as a school counselor at Immokalee high school before become a principal at Pinecrest Elementary School and Bethune Elementary School. She was also instrumental in the growth of RCMA in Immokalee. “Florence was an ally for RCMA and remained that way until the end,” said Barbara Mainster, former executive director at RCMA. Barbara went on to say that back when kindergarten was only offered in half-day sessions, some parents worried about their kids and what would happen to them for the other half of the day. Florence contacted the RCMA and through a partnership with Guadalupe Catholic Church, day care services were provided for the portion of the day that the kindergarten students were not in class. This eased the burden on parents in Immokalee. Jeremiah Primus, former principal at Immokalee High School, said that Florence was his mentor. “She guided me to help me become aware of what the Immokalee community was all about. She was a very close friend, talented, and humble, and always willing to help those less fortunate in the community. She was a hero to so many.” Jeremiah’s remarks are similar to so many in the community who knew Florence. “She was a good professional coach, my mentor, and my friend,” said Shelley Lieb. Shelley went on to say that Florence hired her at Bethune before they both ended up working at Pinecrest Elementary School. Shelley said, “There is no one that could ever fill her shoes.” James Garvin, Jr. held back tears as he explained the influence Florence had on his life. He said, “She was my everything. She found me when I was 14. She was the one responsible for getting me off to college all because she saw promise in a young man. We have been like mother and son since day one.” James later wrote a book titled Legacy of a Common Man: The Walk Was Uphill, in which he speaks about Florence’s contribution to his life. James’ wife, Lana said, “She got me through so much as a wonderful and loving mother-in-law.” Arnita James remembered how Florence was a positive influence in her life when she needed her the most. “She walked me through all of the steps needed to take care of my mother. When my mother died she took me aside and said that she was going to adopt me.” Arnita went on to recall how active Florence was later in life. “Even though she walked around this house on a breathing tube, she could talk forever and would not let you say one word. That’s how I learned to listen. For having breathing problems, she sure had the longest breath!” Arnita said, “She made you feel like a queen when you talked to her.” Stephen Newbold said that she did so much for him and his family. “I sent her prayers every month,” he added. Carolyn Ryals recalled that “Florence loved everyone and everyone loved her.” Florence’s goddaughter Pamela James, former Principal at Pinecrest Elementary School said that Florence was the reason she went to college and graduated from FAMU with her graduate degree. “She had been my mentor and she gave everyone what they needed. She always made everyone feel important.” Jannette Washington called Florence a “trailblazer for the Immokalee community.” “I thank everyone for sharing her with us. Everyone called her mother. She fought for the people of Immokalee. She was a warrior on the battlefield for Immokalee.” Jannette said. For others, Florence was a figure of respect and honor. Dodie Canova shared her remarks on Facebook by saying, “She taught us how to carry ourselves, how to say yes ma’am and thank you. She loved every child and called us all her babies no matter how old we grew to be.” Florence’s only biological child, Shevalia Scurry was thankful that the community has rallied around the family. She remarked at how her mother was a team player and capable of rallying everyone around her. “That stuck with all of us in life” Shevalia said. Although Florence departed this world just after Hurricane Irma passed through Immokalee. Her family and friends will forever be able to hear Florence’s voice. Little to anyone’s knowledge, Florence’s account of her life was captured in a YouTube video created by Kaylie Stokes during a 2016 interview in which Kaylie interviewed Florence as part of her own undergraduate thesis at New College of Florida. “We didn’t know how rich we were, I tell my sisters all the time we grew up as little rich girls because we had all the swimming we had to do. We had the beaches on one side. Charlotte Harbor bay was on one side and then we had the Gulf of Mexico. I can remember going on the back porch one morning looking out across the bay wondering what in the world was beyond all of that water over there. And now, someday I would like to go across it and see what was waiting. How little did I know, I probably would have been better off staying right where I was.” “Love you much” is how Florence Jelks ended just about every conversation she had. In honor of Florence’s life and contribution to so many, it’s only fitting that her family and friends wanted to say “love you much” to everyone who loved Florence.
Florence Jelks, a local educational icon from Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island, came from a very meager beginning as she and her family lived in a four-room home without a bathroom.