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Groundbreaking paves way for Immokalee medical and public safety building

Dignitaries symbolically break the ground at the site of the future Immokalee medical and public safety building April 26. From left are Derek Koger, Dr. Vandhana Kiswani-Barley, Brighton Councilman Larry Howard, Hollywood Councilman Chris Osceola, Chairman Marcellus W. Osceola Jr., Nancy Motlow, President Mitchell Cypress, Immokalee Council liaison Ray Garza, Immokalee Board liaison Ralph Sanchez and Big Cypress Councilwoman Mariann Billie. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

IMMOKALEE — A groundbreaking ceremony for a medical and public safety building on the Immokalee Reservation featured current and past tribal leaders as well as one of the founding mothers of the reservation.

Since the early days of the reservation, which was established in 1989, Nancy Motlow worked to bring a medical clinic to Immokalee. For decades, the idea of building a clinic on the Immokalee Reservation was seen as a game changer for residents so they wouldn’t have to travel to other reservations or towns for primary health care.

The days of a clinic being housed in trailers, which has been in effect since 2006, will soon be over. The dirt lifted by Motlow and officials in the April 26 ceremony will make way for a 41,000-square foot building that will house the clinic, Center for Behavioral Health and public safety departments on 9.7 acres on Seminole Crossing Trail.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Big Cypress Councilwoman Mariann Billie told the audience. “Elaine Aguilar and Nancy Motlow had a big part in this community and I appreciate all they’ve done. They made this happen. The Immokalee ladies gave me the motivation to do what I’m doing today.”

“Our Elders were about our age when they wanted to start things here,” said Immokalee Council liaison Ray Garza. “Nancy planted a seed and it has grown to what Immokalee is today. Thank you to all the past and today’s Council; you all had a vision of what we need to serve our people. This is a big accomplishment for this community.”

Garza recalled traveling with his family as a child to the Big Cypress Reservation to see a doctor in a small building near where the Ahfachkee School is today. Perhaps his most memorable takeaway from those visits is that the doctor flew to the reservation in his own airplane.

“Today is a great day for Immokalee,” said Immokalee Board liaison Ralph Sanchez. “We used to load up my Aunt Nancy’s station wagon and go to Big Cypress to see a doctor. Nancy [Motlow], Elaine [Aguilar] and Ethel [Frank] all had a vision for this community. Immokalee, we are moving on up.”

Motlow, with her son Gary McInturff at her side, made remarks in Elaponke and English.

“We lived in a camp that had a water pump in the center,” Motlow said. “We’d go to pump water and that was our meeting place.”

Aguilar’s daughter Michelle Ford told the standing-room-only crowd at the groundbreaking that she remembers when her mother started working as a liaison for the Board and Council when she was in middle school.

“I’m proud to be here to represent my mother Elaine,” Ford said. “This would have been a dream come true for her. Her wish list for the community was health care, senior care, day care and a police department. It’s been 16 years since the current clinic opened. There used to be a doctor here once a month; now five days a week is the reality. I know that my mom and the others who passed on are smiling so proudly today.”

Chairman Marcellus W. Osceola Jr. recognized the collaboration between Council and the Board to get this, and other projects, done for the Immokalee community.

“This had to happen because the community deserved something better,” Chairman Osceola said. “We don’t want to leave anyone behind; all tribal members are equal, we are all family. It’s because of our ancestors that we are able to do this. I hope the ones who come after us will keep building for our community and our families continue to grow.”

Hollywood Councilman Chris Osceola has seen three clinics go up during his years serving on Council. He said he is glad the effort has been made to replace the older buildings on the reservations.

“Now that we have these services in our own backyards, we don’t have to go to outside facilities,” said Brighton Councilman Larry Howard. “Immokalee, the fruits of the labor of your community are here today. Hollywood [Reservation] may not be big, but we packed a lot of stuff in there. We hope we’ll do the same here and take advantage of every little piece of property for our people so we can build more and more.”

Brighton Board Rep. Helene Buster, a former nurse, was happy to see a health center being built.

“We have a Creator who has blessed us and given us the knowledge we need to ask the right questions and make the right decisions,” Rep. Buster said. “This community has always been ‘little’ Immokalee, but now we have this and a gas station going up. We’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.”

President Mitchell Cypress acknowledged former Chairman James Billie, who was in attendance, for being instrumental in getting the project done.

“It takes teamwork to get things done,” President Cypress said. “Whatever we accomplish as a tribe, we have to be a team with leaders and departments working together. I’m happy to be here today and I hope I won’t be the first patient.”

Former Chairman Billie, who is Councilwoman Billie’s father, was given a microphone to speak to the audience. He recalled the first trip he took on his motorcycle in his youth, which was to Immokalee.

“There were chickees everywhere on that small piece of land,” Billie said. “After we saw some money from bingo, we started buying land in Immokalee and a few years later, wanted to put it into trust.”

Billie selected Motlow and Frank as liaisons between the tribe and Bill Ott, who was Eastern area director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the time.

“I didn’t realize these two ladies would be the two most influential people in putting the land into trust,” Billie said.

During a trip to Washington, D.C., to see Ott, Billie asked Motlow and Frank to meet with Ott.

“The next time he came down here, this land was in trust,” Billie said. “I don’t know what those ladies did, but they must have cornered Ott into putting it in trust.”

The medical and public safety building is scheduled to open in late 2023. Until then, those services will continue to be available in the existing trailers.

“I can’t wait to see you all at the ribbon cutting in about 18 months,” said Tribal Community Development executive director Derek Koger.

Gary McInturff and his mother Nancy Motlow applaud with other attendees at the groundbreaking ceremony April 26 in Immokalee. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
From left, Brighton Councilman Larry Howard, Immokalee Council liaison Ray Garza, Chairman Marcellus W. Osceola Jr., Immokalee Board liaison Ralph Sanchez and Hollywood Councilman Chris Osceola at the Immokalee construction site after the official groundbreaking. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
From left, former Chairman James Billie, President Mitchell Cypress, former Big Cypress Councilman David Cypress and Immokalee “founding mother” Nancy Motlow enjoy the groundbreaking ceremony. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
From left, Big Cypress Board Rep. Nadine Bowers, Big Cypress Councilwoman Mariann Billie, Immokalee Board liaison Ralph
Sanchez, Immokalee resident Nancy Motlow and Brighton Board Rep. Helene Buster gather after the groundbreaking. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
A rendering of the medical and public safety building to be built in Immokalee. (Courtesy TCD)
Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at