Orlando – They couldn’t be more different the 96-year-old African American woman who loves sitting home, chewing tobacco and watching soap operas and the 48-year-old openly gay activist, who dotes on his beagles and loves working in his yard.
Yet, Elizabeth Smith and Randy Ross sit together on a brand new couch in her renovated Carver Shores home smiling and laughing just before Christmas. Ross led the project, which he called “24 Hours for Mrs. Smith,” to raise money and donations for Smith, who lives on $500 a month.
A friend called Ross when she heard the roof was leaking on Smith’s dilapidated house. The home, where Smith has lived since 1950, was so full of termites, the bathtub had fallen through the floor. Ross said Smith had been bathing in a sink for more than a year.
“It had a blue tarp her church had put over the top,” Ross said. “It had holes in the ceiling, holes in the floor and all her furniture had been eaten by termites.”
Ross began making calls to secure donations. Appliance Direct donated all the appliances, Truly Nolan Pest Control donated fumigation, Rhyne Restorantion donated roofing and Trinity Surfaces donated tiles and carpeting. Ross and other volunteers also secured donations of wood, paint and drywall along with a central heat and air and appliances. Two black sororities at the University of Central Florida, Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta, donated furniture and decorations for the bedroom.
Soon, workers were there tearing it apart.
“We knew it was going to take about 3 months to put the house together and we did delay the [24 Hours for Mrs. Smith] event several times,” Ross said. “We knew we needed time to load everything in. The goal was to have floors, painting, drywall ready for that day.”
Smith moved out temporarily, staying with a relative down the street for about three months.
“She literally lived half a mile from the house and never saw it until the day we brought her home,” Ross said.
Just before Christmas, she returned to a brand new home full of beautiful things and complete with a decorated Christmas tree.
“It’s the nicest gift I could have received,” said Smith, who raised four children in the house and worked cleaning downtown office buildings until she retired.
“It’s really about not sitting around and waiting for things to happen. We desperately need to take ownership,” Ross said. “People sit around and say they want to do something. To me, what separates me from other people is that I ask how can we make it happen?”
Ross has made it his goal to find projects that help people in need.
“I know I am not the only LGBT person working hard in this community,” Ross said. “But as long as I am here, I am going to spend my time building bridges.”
In the coming months, Ross will have his hands full. In November, he was hired by the Orlando Museum of Art to help create and lead the events for its 90th Anniversary in 2014. Plans are coming together for a January kickoff, “Picture Yourself in Art,” traveling photo event, prominent artist exhibits and a 2015 New Year’s Eve Party, a first for the museum. In 2016, Ross said he wants to run for a seat on the Orlando City Council.