Few Sarasota County residents have roots that run deeper than Sandra Terry’s, and fewer still have blossomed in harsher soil. Her family’s ties to the area date to the 1920s, when her grandmother came to the turpentine camps in Laurel and her grandfather arrived to work on the railroads. Since 1988, Terry has been president of the Laurel Civic Association, an organization whose reach has touched nearly every aspect of the community, from bringing water, drainage and sidewalks to the historical African-American community to assisting struggling families with food and other essentials and, most of all, educating and supporting thousands of children through camps, after-school programs at the Laurel Community Center and field trips. At 71, Terry is still working full-time for the association.
“Schools were segregated when I was a child. The bus had to pick up all the black children [and bus them to Booker], so we left at 6 a.m. and did not get home until
6 at night. But in my household, color never came up. I remember as a girl taking the train to Sarasota—that’s how you got there in those days; you’d wave a handkerchief and the train would stop. I watched my mother on those trips when we had to go in the back door of the doctor’s office or go to a separate window to get our sandwiches. She would never shrink back. It was not so much that we accepted the way things were, but we always knew who we were, and that’s what it takes not to let bullies and bigots affect you.
“Nobody was poorer than we were. But we had everything except money. We always worked. And the environment was so much different then. You could get oysters anytime you wanted, and the fish were so big that people today see pictures of them and say they can’t be real. Even during the Great Depression, my dad said he could always hunt or fish. We never stood in line for a handout.
“The Laurel Civic Association was formed in 1969 to put street lights into the community. We’re celebrating our 50th anniversary this year. Our motto is ‘Shaping Foundations for Successful Lives.’ We’re independent of government and work from grants and donations. We provide health access, food distribution, assistance for energy bills and all sorts of programs for children, including teen empowerment and after-school homework assistance. Our after-school program isn’t daycare. We teach etiquette, financial literacy and work with them on science projects and other school work. And we give them a hot meal every day. We have a big Easter egg hunt; some of these children have never experienced one. And we celebrate every one of their birthdays with a cake, which some of them have never had.
“Everybody assumes that every single child in the world goes home every day to a cooked meal, has their own clean bed to sleep on, their own clean bathroom to bathe in and someone has taught them to brush their teeth and gets up in the morning and fixes them breakfast. Well, hello! Some kids go home and can’t go inside until dark. I’ve seen children who have never used a fork, or who eat standing up because that’s how they have done it. But one thing I’ve learned is that these children are capable of achieving far more than many people think. A mother brought in her son, distraught because the school said being a ditch digger was the best he could hope to become. But this boy was so smart. He graduated from technical school and is now a star employee in the county tech department.
“I always hated people talking about single mothers. All those women whose husbands got killed in Vietnam and they became single mothers, were they bad, too? I ended up being a single mother by choice and my kids turned out all right.
“I worked for 32 years at GTE [now Verizon] in Sarasota, starting as an operator, the third black person hired for that position. Some people call me a perfectionist, but they don’t mean it in a nice way. I have this awful problem of being able to see a need or that something can be improved, and I always have an idea on how to do it.
“I don’t think there is a better place in the world than here. I live in a house across the street from the house in which I was born. I still have the same friends I did when I was in high school at Venice. Maybe I’ve helped to leave this a better place. That’s what I’ve tried my best to do.”