I have been asked a lot lately about the origins of Pie in the Sky and so, as we are going into our tenth year, I think now is a good time to look back on where we began and where we are now.
In 2006 I was sent to Hastings by The Betty Griffin House to open a rural services center for Hastings and the surrounding areas of Elkton, Spuds, Armstrong and Flagler Estates. Sure, I thought, how hard could that be? Turns out, it was indeed very hard. Spreading the word about domestic violence in a rural community, but someone unknown to that community, did not immediately win me any friends. But after a lot of foot work, innovative thinking and making the right connections, I began to get a foothold. The first year I was there, we had a march during Domestic Violence Awareness Month. There were about 25 of us and we marched around the corner. By the time it was all over, in April of 2009, I held another march, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This time, we had more than 125 people and we marched from the railroad tracks on the north side of Hastings all the way to the library. The program had, quite literally turned a corner and we were now the most successful rural center out of 19 across the state.
So of course, one month later, the program was defunded, for reasons still unknown. During the latter years of the program, I met Jewel and Roosevelt, two African-American men who were part of an unspoken underbelly of Hastings past and present; modern-day slavery. They left to escape sexual abuse by family members of the people who kept them enslaved and thus began a journey that would take me to places I never imagined existed, just 17 miles from the resort town of St. Augustine.
Yes, you read that right. Modern-day slavery in St. Johns County. But it's not who you think it is. An agricultural town, Hastings has long relied on farmworkers to plant and harvest the crops they have been growing since the days of Henry Flagler. The farmworkers have been German POW's, held at the camp during World War II, at the corner of SR 206 and SR 207, immigrants and for the past five decades, African-American, U.S. born, men and women. They are townspeople of Hastings who chose to work in the fields and more often than not, they are homeless, down on their luck folks recruited from homeless shelters with promises of great pay, lavish accommodations, flat screen tv's and short work days. Once they are in the van, those promises quickly fade and they find themselves in debt from day one, loaned money at a 100 percent interest rate, taken to isolated, dilapidated labor camps, far from civilization, charged for every thing they need from food and water to use of the poorly functioning lavatory. They are often beaten or threatened with violence and are subjected to daily denigration. And that is only the beginning.
Yes, before you ask, local authorities are aware of the issue as are local and statewide politicians and most every federal law enforcement agency you could name. And no, with the exception of one case against crew boss Ronald Evans, little has been done to find justice for these disenfranchised men and women. (https://ciw-online.org/blog/2010/04/a_brief_history_of_evil/)