Both women witnessed enormous change in their 40 years as Tribal employees, and both have learned to adapt to the changes gracefully.
“Maybe a handful of people have been here that long,” said Motlow, executive assistant to Tribe General Counsel Jim Shore. “There were so few employees, everyone knew each other.”
“You had to be a jack of all trades,” added Fontana, program director of Risk Management and Self-Insurance. “Whatever there was to be done, and if you were standing next to the person who needed it, you got the job.”
Motlow was a young mother in 1973 when she took a job in the Tribe’s Mental Health Department as a peer counselor. During those early days, the Tribe did not have any emergency medical technicians, so Motlow was sent to an EMT class with instructors from Miami-Dade County. She got certified and moved to Big Cypress to help establish emergency medical services in Big Cypress and Brighton.
“I ordered ambulances and supplies for the reservations and hired EMTs,” Motlow said. “We had four on each reservation and they were available 24/7. The nearest hospitals were in Clewiston and Okeechobee, but we also drove patients to Hollywood. We stayed with the patients and then took them back to the rez.”
Later, they had use of helicopters to transport patients.
“We were taught how to handle the patients and what to do,” Motlow said. “It was a slow bubble helicopter and took 40 minutes to get to the hospital.”
She continued to work in medical services, cattle, land use operations and smoke shops for about 13 years. Motlow then became executive assistant to former President Cecil Johns, where she stayed for four years. For the last 24 years, she has worked in the Legal Department.
“Working in legal, I’ve seen a lot of changes in water rights, the Gaming Compact and more,” Motlow said. “It’s always exciting and new. When I look back, all the experience in the Legal Department has been very positive. I really enjoy working here.”
Fontana was a single mother who needed a job when she answered an ad for a purchasing agent with the Tribe in 1973. Her background was in purchasing, but she also learned accounting, payroll, grants and finance.
“I used to go back and forth to Big Cypress with (former Chairman) Howard Tommie to furnish the HUD homes,” Fontana said. “It was a big purchasing project – we got all the supplies from the GSA (U.S. General Services Administration). This was before Alligator Alley was built.”
Later, Fontana got involved with risk management insurance and tried unsuccessfully to get insurance for Tribe employees; even Lloyds of London wouldn’t write the insurance. The Tribe had about 75 to 100 employees by then, so Chairman James E. Billie sent her to a five-week course to learn about insurance.
When she came back, Fontana recommended the Tribe self-insure. They started with workers’ compensation, which worked so well they tried medical self-insurance. The Tribe is still self-insured, but since the beginning of this year, it is administered by United Healthcare.
“Everything I know, I learned from the Tribe,” Fontana said. “It was all on-the-job training. I don’t have a degree.”
Even when Fontana worked in the Chief Financial Officer’s office as assistant controller, she handled risk management. She spent time performing a variety of jobs, including three years as Human Resources director, but she ultimately landed back in Risk Management. Today she has 18 employees and reports directly to Tribe Chief Financial Officer Jim Raker.
“Over the years I monitored the Bingo Hall, helped negotiate the tobacco agreement with Tallahassee, went to Washington, D.C., every year to work on grants,” Fontana said. “I could make a list of 3,000 things I did. I even worked on the menu for senior hot meals, since the nutritionist wasn’t attuned to the Tribe’s culinary customs.”
The women are pleased and proud to have spent their years working for the Tribe. Motlow considers it an honor.
“I always felt like I was serving my people,” Motlow said. “I’m Bear Clan, and our part is to make sure there is unity.”
Although Fontana is not a Tribal member, she feels a very close connection.
“I have no brothers and sisters, so the Tribe is my family,” said Fontana, whose two sons also work for the Tribe. John Fontana is the president of the Hard Rock in Tampa and Vincent Fontana is the storage manager for the Accounting Department in Hollywood.
Motlow and Fontana have been an integral part of the Tribe’s growth and transformation since the ‘70s.
“The first dividend I ever did was for $25 in 1975,” Fontana said. “The dividend was from land leases and I had to type each check.”
“The biggest change has been the ability for families to take care of their children in a mainstream way,” Motlow said. “Music classes, art, dance, sports. They are able to supply these things to the kids now, things I wasn’t able to do because my parents couldn’t afford them. It’s great to see the direction we’re going.”
Building on their strong history with the Tribe, both women are now focused on the future. Motlow would like to see an upper management mentoring program for Tribal members. Fontana would like to see more young people pursue higher education.
“The Tribe pays for education, so parents need to teach young children to aspire to get an education,” Motlow said. “The days are over that a high school diploma is enough to get a job.”
Fontana takes that sentiment a step further.
“Look at what the Tribe is involved in,” she said. “Young people need to get an education to run these programs.”
Full of plans and enthusiasm to continue working on the Tribe’s progress, neither of these dynamic woman plans to retire any time soon.
“My father is in his 80s and still working,” Motlow said. “I hope to do the same. I would like to be here another 40 years.”