In Florida, blind children 6-to-13 years old are not eligible for state assistance. It’s a coverage gap that’s been in place for years. A Tallahassee girl is trying to close the loophole by lobbying state lawmakers.
Lobbyists are usually characterized as men and women in suits, stalking the so-called “Gucci Gulch” of the Florida capitol building during legislative session. Sometimes they’re vilified. Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, recently railed against them during a heated fight over whether to expand Medicaid.
“All the Gucci-loafing, shoe-wearing special interest powers that be – they’re sitting in that hallway. Every single one of them wants Medicaid expansion, none of them want the other stuff,” Corcoran said.
But other times, lobbyists are praised for championing a cause.
Nine-year-old Paloma Rambana is in the latter category. Rambana took an intermission from snack time at her summer camp to talk about how she got started lobbying for what she calls Paloma’s Dream with an organization that educates visually impaired people.
“We got a message from the Florida Lighthouse asking if I would like to lobby for children in Florida,” Paloma said. “And we said yes!”
Paloma pushed the legislators to fund services to help visually impaired kids in her age range. Governor Rick Scott approved $1 million for the effort. The money will help to subsidize the cost of technology needed for classroom use, as well as communication skill classes by the Department of Education’s Division of Blind Services Program, or DBS. Half of the dollars will recur, meaning some funding will always be available. However, Paloma’s ultimate goal is to raise $8 million funding for all 921 kids like her who fall in the coverage gap.
“It’s special because they don’t have funding and I was trying to make a difference,” Paloma said.
“She and her family have remained in communication with our group, and are very attached to the issue as we strive to obtain more funding next year to grow those programs,” says Kim Foster, the executive director of the Florida Association of Agencies Serving the Blind.
Foster says Paloma is passionate about getting all kids the resources they need to see and communicate more effectively. And Foster notes the age group in question wasn’t deliberately left without funding. She says lawmakers funded such programs in pieces, not as a whole-- leaving the gap Paloma wants to close.
“I don’t think that anyone consciously left out this group, I think it just is something that wasn’t funded yet,” Foster said. “But it’s a growing need.”
State Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, chairs the Vision Caucus he started with the Florida Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired. He met with Paloma in the Capitol as part of her lobbying efforts, and says Paloma’s message had meaning to it.
“She had a well-developed message that explains what part the vision organizations can play in collaboration with school systems,” Baxley said.
Paloma expects to return to the legislature next session to lobby for more visually impaired kids like her.