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Celebrating Local Diversity

Matt Simon


In her 30 years as a high school English teacher in Clearwater, Florida, Sandra Rooks found students weren’t learning enough about the rich African-American culture of their city and county.

“I taught thousands of kids from all ethnic backgrounds,” says Rooks. “When they looked in their textbooks or went on field trips to local historic sites and exhibits, too often they saw images of people who did not resemble them. To me, that wasn’t right.”

Rooks set out to paint a fuller cultural picture of Gulf-coastal Pinellas County. She teamed up with fellow teacher Randolph Lightfoot to offer a course on 125 years of the county’s Black history, a period that saw hundreds of families settle in the area to work in industries ranging from citrus-growing to sponge-diving. As interest grew, Rooks and Lightfoot expanded their venture beyond the classroom. The result was the grand opening, in 2002, of the Pinellas County African American History Museum.

“The response from the community was tremendous, even before we officially opened any of our exhibits.” says Rooks, who serves as executive director of the museum. In partnership with other cultural organizations, the museum launched an annual statewide African American Heritage Celebration in Clearwater that now draws up to 10,000 visitors each year.

Rooks retired from teaching in 2002 to devote herself to the museum, and has authored three books on Pinellas County African-American history. Last year, she received NEA’s H. Councill Trenholm Memorial Award for human and civil rights in recognition of her accomplishments.

“I was so excited and honored by that award,” says Rooks. “We all feel that this museum is the achievement of a lifetime.”

Helping Out around the World

For Jane Duncan, retirement meant running off to join the Peace Corps.

After teaching seventh- and eighth-grade English and social studies for 35 years at Washington Middle School in Missoula, Montana, Duncan retired in January 2004. Later that year she was on her Peace Corps assignment in Aranos, Namibia, near the Kalahari Desert, at J.R. Camm Senior Primary School.

“I ended up putting a library in a fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-grade school,” she says. To do so, she asked friends and family for donations, hoping to collect 50 to100 books. But her daughter drummed up more support through an wish list and a Web site, and within three months, Duncan had received 300 books and $1,200 in donations.

The kindness did not diminish over time. Over the year she received more than 2,000 books, $1,500, and two sets of encyclopedias. The library opened in spring 2005.

Her two-year Peace Corps commitment ended, but Duncan continued her social justice work. In 2006 she went to Haiti for two weeks and helped out at a clinic for the poor. Currently, Duncan works at the YMCA's Battered Women’s program answering the crisis line and speaking about her travels at local schools.

—Nadine Simpson


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