The Plenty Age and Youth Center was a home in Miami Florida where disabled young folks, the elderly, small kids, and adults lived together in a mutually supportive environment. The Age and Youth Center also provided a base for people earning money to support the Plenty projects in Guatemala.
We believe that old people belong with families who will love and care for them; and it is our experience that they thrive and live longer in an atmosphere of love.
There are also an increasing number of severely disabled young people who end up in nursing homes. Instead of being rehabilitated, they are left to deteriorate, both physically and mentally.
We want to provide an alternative — a community of people of all ages. We would like to get a large hotel on the beach, the main center of the elderly community in Miami. We foresee a time when handicapped people and elderly people in our care could also be helping to direct and administer Plenty operations based in that port city, a gateway to Latin America. There is a lot of work to do down here, where there is so much poverty in the midst of so much wealth.
Lois Latman (circa 1980): The Age and Youth Center started as Stephen’s idea. He told Thomas (Plenty volunteer and himself quadriplegic) and me that there were hotels on Miami Beach where elderly people were staying. Maybe we could buy a hotel and open a center where we could have elderly people and disabled people living in a nice communal scene. We were living on the Florida Farm at that time, so we were in the right location to look into the possibility of doing that. We looked into getting a hotel and talked it up with other people on the Farm who were interested, like Billy and Brenda Longnion who had a baby and a toddler.
Thomas Nash: Billy found a nine-bedroom house for $450 a month. I was able to talk the landlord down. He had been renting it for $1200 a month to older retired guys. The house served a lot of people. At least ten or more people in wheelchairs were there at different times.
Our Older Folks
Thomas Nash: Mother Teresa said South Florida had some of the worst poverty that she knew of. What she meant by that was the severe spiritual and material poverty, manifest and festering in the poor ghettos of the elderly in South Beach, downtown Miami, as well as the huge retirement village ghettos of the elderly rich. This was the spiritual poverty of the old that were left alone to die.
The Plenty Miami Age and Youth Center, a collective of family, children, forgotten elderly, state nursing home escapees, wheelchair users, plus dedicated caregivers, had a strong interface and effect on this tremendous spiritual poverty that surrounded our old nine-bedroom house.
Our Center home-schooled a small number of children and we would have beach outings several times a week. Just the fact of our small group being together, babies, children, elderly, mothers, wheelchairs, drew a lot of attention. Old folks would be drawn to us like moths to a flame because we were a family. It was on one of these beach outings that we met Tilly Ziegler.
As soon as I saw her I knew she was special! She was heading home from the beach and was only carrying a towel instead of the usual lawn chair, umbrella, small cooler, and assortment of beach items that went with the typical elderly woman sunbather. She had noticed our family eating our lunch on blankets in the sand and turned towards our spot to get a better look at us.
Tilly was thin but very muscular and had a certain grace and confidence in her walk. Obviously checking us out, she stopped twenty feet from us, rolled up her towel into a round cylinder shape about a foot wide and laid down snuggling into the sand, putting the towel under her head. I remember thinking, “This is far-out! Not your usual Miami Beach behavior.”
Soon after, we saw Tilly again on the beach and she had lunch with us. Later we invited her over to our center to hang out. We realized that she was very lonely, living all alone at her studio beach apartment, and she was a little spaced out at times.
We grew to love her and she loved us so it was perfect for her to move into our home, giving us an instant grandma. This really helped to round out our new family.
Being of the old European school of naturalists, Tilly brought a lot of knowledge and power to us, along with her great sense of humor, love for children and sheer granny-power. She was full of remedies and had an old black covered, homeopathic medical book, written in German.
Tilly was light years ahead of the holistic health new age. She had recently taught yoga on Miami Beach and although in her mid-eighties, she could kick her foot up higher than her head. Her full body massages were very healing. We had to convince her to sunbathe in the nude in the backyard only, as to not make waves with the neighbors.
John Sharlet: Betsy (Sharlet) took care of Tilly. We had just had a miscarriage and somebody advised Betsy to do something for somebody else, so Betsy took care of Tilly. It started there.
We were living in a tent at the Pool House with the Florida Farm out in Homestead. I had EMT training on the Farm, and I wanted to go volunteer at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Lois said they would prefer that, instead of going to Memorial that I help take care of our guys in wheelchairs, Roberto and Thomas, and eventually Bob Glass as well.
Virginia Gleser: Tilly was an energetic woman in her mid-80s, doing her yoga exercises every day. She didn’t have any teeth so she would make up blended oatmeal and a delicious soup of celery, potatoes, and carrots that she would share with Kristan Levin’s son, Ben and our daughter, Rose, who were two and one years old, respectively.
One lady who visited the Center often was Tilly’s best friend, Sophie. Both Tilly and Sophie had Holocaust stories that were incredibly heart-rending. Tilly had a difficult escape from Europe with her son. It may have been a time she was trying to forget because she never spoke much about it like Sophie did. Sophie’s husband and her sixteen-year-old son went off to town one day and never came back. This took place in the Netherlands right after the Nazis had taken over. She was left with one younger son. Some wealthy people allowed her to stay at their home and be their maid despite the danger they were in for harboring a Jewish person. Once a group of Nazi soldiers came to her house and knocked at the door. She invited them in and was gracious, “Please sit and take some tea with me.” Eventually the Nazis turned around and left the house without taking her. She and her son fled from there. She placed her son with some nuns at a convent in France — a Jewish lady leaving her son with Catholics, but she was grateful to them for the life-saving option. She managed to scrape by and later went back and picked up her son and came to the United States. Her son was very sweet to her. About the time we left Florida, he had invited Sophie to move in with him and his family in Indiana.
John Sharlet: Tilly got fiddling around on her toes with a nail clipper and she went a little bit too far, cut her toe. Her feet were having trouble getting enough blood circulation so the wound gangrened.
Virginia Gleser: When we took Tilly to the hospital, they said, “We need to operate and amputate her leg because the tests show her circulation is healthy only to the upper thigh.” They took off her leg below the knee, reasoning that she might want a prosthesis, but with poor circulation, her wound gangrened again. We had a rotating crew that stayed with her in the hospital throughout the ordeal.
It was a terribly sad situation. Here was Tilly, eighty-seven years old, weakened by the surgery. She’d had tuberculosis during her rough time in Europe. She was unlikely to make it through another surgery and she didn’t want to die under the knife. She had been leery of the whole idea of an operation — then they botched it. She said, “Just take me home.” We called in our good friend Doctor Goldman and he became our advocate. He made it so we could bring Tilly home, which is what she wanted. We were so grateful to Doctor Goldman for addressing her needs correctly. Tilly was able to die the way she wanted, and taught us so much about the process.
Betsy Sharlet had recently had a baby, Lenny. Betsy the baby and Tilly would hang out in the front yard on a mattress under the sweet smelling pink blossoms of the frangipani tree. One day Tilly and Lenny were both asleep on the blanket.
John Sharlet: We lifted the mattress up to carry it into the shade. I felt the burden of carrying change. She got very light. By the time we set her down in the shade, she was gone. She had died.
Virginia Gleser: That afternoon Kristen and I had taken our eleven other kids out to the beach just to let it get quiet and to give Tilly some space. While we were at the beach, an old three-masted schooner sailed out of Miami Harbor. Then it sailed over the horizon. We watched as the last mast disappeared beyond the horizon, then we went home and Tilly was gone. It was very symbolic, as though she had just sailed on. We all felt it. “Oh, that was Tilly leaving.” We got to watch her go. All the kids understood.
We were midwives of dying. Like midwives bringing in babies into life, we were midwives delivering them into death — to take the passage out.
Lois Latman: After we met Tilly we met Maria. She was in her late seventies, almost eighty, a classic bag lady. She couldn’t stay where she had been staying because people had broken in. It was a bad neighborhood and she was afraid to live there and had no place to go. We moved her in.
Linda Rake: Down at the end of the hallway was a little apartment and Maria lived there. She was Canadian. She would put oranges in her soup. Maria was a wild gal. She didn’t need much special care.
Lois Latman: Maria was independent. She didn’t have much money, just a little social security check. She would get all dressed up with big heavy makeup and colorful dresses that went to her ankles. Maria would go out every day with a couple of big shopping bags and come back at the end of the day with bags of stuff she had bought on sale — Dollar Store type of items. She and Tilly were the first two we moved in.
Lois Latman & Thomas Nash: Roberto was a paraplegic from a car wreck in Cuba who had been living in a nursing home and was in the hospital because of bedsores. He talked about the horrors of the nursing home — how some people would purposely get bedsores just to get out of the nursing home. We saw his situation, told him about our Age and Youth Center, and brought him home. Roberto became our front man for the neighborhood.
John Sharlet: At the same time Betsy started taking care of Tilly, I started taking care of Roberto, getting him to become as independent as he could be. Lenny, my son, has many names and one of them is “Roberto.” Roberto is his godfather.
Virginia Gleser: Roberto needed daily care. Many of us took turns treating his bedsores and helping him get out of bed. He went from having given up on life to coming back passionate and strong. He learned how to dress himself and worked hard on building his muscles until he could pull himself up on a bar and swing out of bed into his wheelchair. He even got his drivers license. We fixed him up with a car where he could have hand controls, like Thomas Nash had. He went back to Jackson Memorial Hospital where he would visit the patients in wheelchairs encouraging them with his engaging smile and positive affirmations, saying, “Look. If I can do it — you can do it. You can still have a life after this kind of injury.” He was a real inspiration. The turnaround he did was amazing.
Roberto also would do the Spanish lessons for the kids we were home schooling at the elementary level. The kids would also take Roberto on walks each day around the neighbourhood to the corner store and he would often treat the kids with a goody.
Linda Rake: Handy was an older blind gentleman who came and lived with us for awhile. He and Roberto became fast friends and helped take care of each other. Handy had mobility and Roberto had vision so together they traveled the neighborhood.
Lois Latman: In the same nursing home as Roberto was a guy in his thirties named Buddy. He was wearing tight jeans, kind of a Western shirt, even wearing a cowboy hat. He looked more like someone you would meet in a bar, not someone you would meet in a nursing home. He was a quadriplegic — these days you would never put a quadriplegic in a nursing home because they can live completely independent. We naturally connected with Buddy. When he found out about us he was interested because he wanted to get out of the nursing home in the worst way. He was on about 100 milligrams of Valium a day. We brought him to live with us too. He did a complete detox from the Valium. After getting off Valium he and Louisa, one of our single ladies, decided to be together. Louisa was smitten with Buddy. They got their own apartment and later got married and moved to Louisiana where his relatives lived.
Virginia Gleser: Bob Glass was a parapalegic who also lived with us for a while. He was very sweet and easy to care for. The Center was the kind of place where people could get away from the cold Tennessee winters and Bob came seasonally.
Lois Latman: There was another lady, Suzie, who had run away from a nursing home and somebody found her at a bus depot. She was probably in her seventies.
Suzie was a handful. She stayed in a wheelchair. She had broken her hip and was in pain all the time, even without trying to walk. Suzie had certain coping mechanisms — she would sing and she liked to be close to the water. She liked us to take her over to the Intracoastal Waterway, which was a short walk from where we lived. She liked to sit there and look at the water all day and, if Suzie had her way, all night. She would say, “You can just leave me here by myself. I’m just going to stay. You can come by later, but I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to be in a house. I want to be by the water.” So we would leave her, by herself, near the water and then go back around sunset to get her. One time we went to get her and she had found some wire and wrapped it around the wheels of her wheelchair so we couldn’t move the wheelchair. That was her resistance. She wanted to be left there overnight. Finally Suzie went to the Farm and wound up living next to the road in a van, because she didn’t want to be in a house. She wanted to be under the trees and out in nature all the time. I identified more with her than anybody else we had there. I feel like if I was in that condition and that situation — that is how I would be. I would want to be parked by the water and not go back into the house.
Robert Gleser: We had helped out on the Wisconsin Farm in the winter of ’77-78 — one of the coldest winters on record — thirty degrees below zero every night for fifty-two straight nights — almost two months. After that winter was over and we’d spent the whole summer there I said, “I think I want to go to Florida.”
We were told the Miami Plenty Center really needed people. We thought, “Well, we’ll go to the Plenty Center and see if we can help out.” They’d taken on some elderly folks — Tilly, Roberto, Maria, and some younger men in wheelchairs — a real cast of characters.
They were running low on funds so I immediately went out and worked roofing jobs. Doing the roofing we suddenly had a cash flow. It was just wide open for us to do our thing. Our work crew was “High and Dry Roofers” and we eventually covered the basic budget both for us and for the 40 volunteers in Guatemala. Every week we would send the Plenty Guatemalan project $500. We helped support the Guatemalan project for years. Michael Lee and Michael Cook came through when they were doing the Haiti thing, working with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Then Mother Teresa visited Miami during the chaotic time after the Mariel Boatlift. A vanload of us went to the poor side of town to see her speak in a church. She thanked Miami for its generosity in welcoming the boat people, an emotion that few people felt. But it made everyone have to rethink what “doing unto your neighbor” really meant. We were able to hang out with her and she blessed each of our children, placing her hand on their heads. I guess we were also generous with our tools, when they were stolen from our van while we were in the church. It was a whole Plenty scene.
Linda Rake: Darla Maultsby and her sister, Tana, had a rare genetic condition (epidermolysis bullosa or EB) where they did not form the outer layer of their skin. This made them very fragile and prone to infections. But Darla, being a young single woman, wanted to enjoy the city life that Miami offered and have friends to care for her. She moved into the Age and Youth Center and we enjoyed having her with us.
Linda Rake: When Keith came to live with us his wife Anita had died not long before that. Keith had gone to Guatemala, saw the financial situation, and wanted to help. He moved to Miami with the agreement to support the Guatemalan projects. He was heart broken and needed something to plug into.
Lois Latman: Roberto left, Maria found an apartment. Billy and Brenda had to leave because Brenda was too sick to stay. Thomas was congested all the time, getting pneumonia, and had to go into the hospital. After about a year we left the center. Thomas, Celeste, Melinda Abeles, Peter Grasty, and I took a one-way trip out to California together.