By Michael E. Miller
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Never mind her wheelchair, her bruised hip from a recent fall while doing laundry, or the 60-minute trip from her government-subsidized apartment down in Homestead -- 80-odd-year-old Margaret Weedman (she insists on "21-plus and holding") arrives fifteen minutes early for her committee meeting at the Human Services Coalition, 260 NE Seventeenth Terr.
Wearing ribbed, off-white leggings, Velcro sneakers, a pastel-checked shirt, and a hospital-ID bracelet (from a stay at Jackson Memorial Hospital earlier in the week), Weedman comes on slowly -- pushing herself along with one foot while controlling the wheelchair with bony hands.... She creaks down the long hall to the table in the committee room. Oversize plastic-frame glasses dominate her almost translucent face. She balances a large blue bag full of paperwork in her lap.
She painfully hauls herself up to a corner of the conference table, takes a thick, felt-tipped pen from her bulging bag, and begins to highlight the relevant portions of the morning's agenda for the Cross-Disability Transportation Issues Committee, a grassroots organization supported by the Human Services Coalition that was born about a year ago out of the concerns of passengers dissatisfied with the Special Transportation System (STS), the county's shared-ride, door-to-door mobile service for the disabled. Seemingly oblivious to the casual chatter around her, she purses her lips in concentration, carefully annotating the margins of the agenda in a neat, slanted hand.
"Something needs to be done," Weedman remarks, explaining what she sees as flaws in the current system of transporting disabled people. Drivers often don't speak English, ignore repeated requests to turn down their radios, and often are late. "If I want to go to a meeting, I have to sit for an hour and a half to wait for transportation. They may or may not come within the next hour. Then if they finally come, they may keep me onboard for another two and a half hours [while picking up other passengers] And ... then I'm late."
Margaret isn't in charge, nor is she the most vocal participant at this Saturday's transportation committee meeting. Instead she serves as a sort of watchdog, meticulously taking notes and trying to maintain proper parliamentary procedure. When a woman sitting across from her launches into a rambling personal narrative, Weedman speaks up for the first time. "Hush, dear. We need to stick to the agenda," she says firmly, following a strict personal protocol honed over 30 years of participation in Miami-Dade social-service agencies. (Currently she sits on eighteen separate committees.)
Her voice is distinctive and utterly without malice. She articulates quietly, placing equal stress on each syllable, with the faintest, lilting hint of a British accent -- and she only speaks when she has to, later expressing disdain for chatty people who talk out of "self-importance or [because they] love the sound of their own voices." Indeed she is rather reticent during the rest of the three-hour meeting, as fellow committee members (led by Human Services Coalition's Jonathan Fried) collaborate on a sort of wish list for a new transportation contract: It includes a smaller window of time to wait for rides, a more reliable system to log complaints, and a living wage for drivers.
The half-dozen committee members finally disband without any sort of resolution. Weedman is hoping the county will agree to assume a supervisory role in the transportation service, as opposed to letting a brokerage company called Advanced Transportation Solutions (which is made up of five service providers) do its own monitoring. She thinks they're doing an awful job.
"The county has to do what's right here," she says.
But after a recent county commission meeting, the last of the year, Weedman was sorely disappointed. The commission decided not to monitor the contract, saying it would not be able to arrange personnel before the April 26, 2002, date for the transfer of the contract to the new broker. Margaret complains she was not even given the opportunity to make her case. She says she would have described the county's contract for disability transportation in detail, arguing that local government has the legal responsibility to do the monitoring. "It shouldn't have gone like that," she says now. "The chair of the commission [Gwen Margolis] pulled a fast one. She cut me short and then closed [me off.] It was very unfair."
To make matters worse, one of Margaret's wheelchair tires has deflated, so she's feeling besieged. She has to borrow a fresh chair, somewhere.
Despite these frustrations and chronic bad health -- she's a diabetic, and was born with a hole in her heart -- Weedman continues to believe that her brand of quiet, dogged involvement, a kind of Depression-era perseverance and fortitude, can make a difference to those around her: "I'm like an English bulldog," she vows. "I get my teeth into something and I just can't let go. Sometimes I get the feeling I'm the only one [on these committees] to stop and see if people really mean what they say.... When you believe in what you're doing, you've just got to speak up."
It's a philosophy she's followed since she moved to Homestead with her former husband from Groton, Connecticut, in 1971. Soon after settling in Florida, Weedman discovered he was cheating on her, secretly meeting girls at the Homestead Holiday Inn. "I was alone, and it was very painful," she recalls. "I had no family to protect me." Weedman had left her only real family -- the grandmother who had taught her "love of the Bible, the Golden Rule, and Rudyard Kipling's If" -- behind in England when she moved to the States at age twenty.