Immokalee man dying of AIDS hopes to save home

His proudest moments are stuffed in a bottom drawer.

Immokalee resident Ronnie Delaford, 46, who has AIDS, has lost vision in both eyes. Delaford’s only asset is his home, which is falling apart, infested with bugs and has black mold growing on the walls of two rooms due to a water leak that went unnoticed. He hopes to have the home renovated before he dies so that he can leave it to his children.

Photo by LEXEY SWALL, Bonita Daily News

Immokalee resident Ronnie Delaford, 46, who has AIDS, has lost vision in both eyes. Delaford’s only asset is his home, which is falling apart, infested with bugs and has black mold growing on the walls of two rooms due to a water leak that went unnoticed. He hopes to have the home renovated before he dies so that he can leave it to his children.

They happened nearly 30 years ago.

Page 151, Immokalee High’s 1977 yearbook: Ronnie Delaford “Sweet Man” guard, reads the caption. He wears knee-socks and an afro tamed by a sweatband in the photo.

They’re posted on brittle, yellow newspaper clippings in a navy scrapbook.

“Guard Ronnie Delaford again led the Tribe ... and was one of the few not intimidated by tough Pahokee,” reads one sports story from his high school days. “Speedy Delaford pumped in 22 points on the night,” reads another.

The drawer is arm’s distance from a bed where the 46-year-old spends his days and nights in front of a TV he can’t see.

Ronnie Delaford is blind.

He has AIDS and went off drugs that would sustain his life when he chose Hospice of Naples care instead in his Immokalee home that has plummeted into disrepair.

His Hospice caretakers are organizing community leaders in hopes of overhauling the home before Christmas. Delaford secured $20,000 from a Collier County housing program in July for repairs that just recently started.

Cockroaches move like a drum and bugle corps in formations on the drapes, over the bureau and up unsuspecting visitors’ legs.

Mold blankets walls so thick it feel likes a sheet is pulled over your head when you breathe. Water damage has eaten holes in the ceiling, a chunk of one bedroom wall has collapsed.

Delaford’s 11-year-old son, Ranté, spends weekends there — sharing a bed with his father that the cockroaches don’t get to.

Delaford’s reported income is less than $7,000 a year. His hope is to leave the home in shape for Ranté, his two grown sons and his 8-year-old daughter, Ronshean, who lives with her grandmother in Fort Myers.

He’s made mistakes in his life — not the kind that can be shrugged off with an oops or two, but those that get you locked up for more than a few years.

Immokalee resident Ronnie Delaford, 46, sits in his room last month smoking Newport cigarettes and listening to a television that he can’t see due to his blindness. Delaford contracted HIV more than five years ago went blind from it about one year ago. His home is in disrepair, something he hopes to remedy before he dies so he can leave it to his children.

Photo by LEXEY SWALL, Bonita Daily News

Immokalee resident Ronnie Delaford, 46, sits in his room last month smoking Newport cigarettes and listening to a television that he can’t see due to his blindness. Delaford contracted HIV more than five years ago went blind from it about one year ago. His home is in disrepair, something he hopes to remedy before he dies so he can leave it to his children.

But, in death, he wants to leave good.

“I’ll be there for him — blind, crippled, until the day I die. All I got left is him,” says a bare-chested Delaford, wearing a cross around his neck and sitting in his bed a recent afternoon.

“I just want to make sure Ranté’s got a chance in life.”

- - -

Delaford has a record that doesn’t evoke sympathy.

He was convicted of manslaughter in June 1983 after stabbing and killing a 20-year-old man whose body was found on South First Street in Immokalee.

He was 23. He said the man pulled a gun on him over a woman and he reacted in self-defense.

Mistakes? Yea, he says, “I’ve made a lot of them.”

“My biggest mistake is when I dropped out of college and going to prison and all that. The only thing you can do is ask God to forgive me. When the whole world is against you, God is with you even if it doesn’t feel like that,” he said.

Dropping out of Indian River Community College in Fort Pierce is his what if-I-chose-differently regret. After graduating from high school in 1977, he said he left a community college in Fort Pierce after about six months and returned to Immokalee because he wanted to play football at a college in Ohio.

He was fixing to leave when he was stabbed. The injury sidelined him from sports, he said.

“I said, ‘Forget it. I might of could’ve made it but that I’ll never know,” Delaford said.

Jumar Delaford, 26, the second oldest son of Ronnie Delaford, takes a phone call in the hallway of his father’s Immokalee home last month. One room off of the hallway has black mold growing up the walls on every side due to a water leak that Delaford contends was caused when the county did work on his home and a worker banged a hole in a pipe in the wall. The county disputes the claim, saying an inspection revealed there was an exterior leak in the water line.

Photo by LEXEY SWALL, Bonita Daily News

Jumar Delaford, 26, the second oldest son of Ronnie Delaford, takes a phone call in the hallway of his father’s Immokalee home last month. One room off of the hallway has black mold growing up the walls on every side due to a water leak that Delaford contends was caused when the county did work on his home and a worker banged a hole in a pipe in the wall. The county disputes the claim, saying an inspection revealed there was an exterior leak in the water line.

He was on parole in 1986 when he was locked up again for firing a shotgun through a window, according to newspaper reports. Domestic violence arrests followed and he was court-ordered to take anger management classes, court records show.

“I feel like I went through the worst and that’s what I don’t want him to go through,” Delaford said, talking about the life he hopes for his 11-year-old son. “I messed up. I always mess up.”

He ashes a Newport he smokes in a duct-taped plastic container propped near his bed.

Delaford said he got the disease from unprotected sex and was told he had AIDS more than five years ago.

In Immokalee, 1.4 percent of the population — 19,763 people per the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimate — is living with HIV and AIDS.

That’s more than triple the state rate and six times higher than the overall Collier County rate, per a Daily News analysis of state data and federal population counts.

Ranté, a fifth-grader, knows his father is going to die.

“The doctor said that he had a bad disease,” Ranté says. “That he might die soon, but he’s still alive for four, no five years.”

Sitting next to his father on a dingy, yellow blanket on the bed, Ranté looks to Ronnie for the answer to a conclusion the child hates thinking about.

“Five years,” Ronnie says, to the son who is leaning so close Delaford can’t move his right arm.

The 11-year-old said he feels better when his father is around.

Ranté Delaford, 11, right, lays in bed with his father Ronnie on Friday night at Ronnie’s Immokalee home. Ranté stays with his father on the weekends but lives at a friend’s house during the week. Ranté is aware that his father has AIDS and has helped him for the past five years. Ronnie hopes he can get his home fixed before he dies so that Ranté and his other children will have a nice to call their own.

Photo by LEXEY SWALL, Bonita Daily News

Ranté Delaford, 11, right, lays in bed with his father Ronnie on Friday night at Ronnie’s Immokalee home. Ranté stays with his father on the weekends but lives at a friend’s house during the week. Ranté is aware that his father has AIDS and has helped him for the past five years. Ronnie hopes he can get his home fixed before he dies so that Ranté and his other children will have a nice to call their own.

He sees therapists and has been staying with a family friend during the week. Delaford thinks she can help Ranté with school and wants to lessen the shock of living with someone who is not him when he dies.

“I know he’s going to take it hard. He knows people, but I’m the only one he really knows,” his father says.

Delaford’s son, Jumar, 26, moved back to his father’s home about a year ago after living in Fort Myers to help his dad.

He has taken over head-of-the-household duties like washing dishes, mopping water that floods the house and killing snakes.

When an orange rat snake fell from the ceiling into the living room a recent afternoon, Delaford called to Jumar to kill it. Jumar grabbed a rusted machete in the sideyard, moved the worn couches until he spotted and chopped off the snake’s head.

His other son, Ronnie Jr., 27, is locked up. He was sent to prison for selling drugs in 2002, records show, and is still behind bars for fighting with another inmate, his father said.

The 11-year-old helps his dad find which pills to take. Ranté gets him water to take the pills. He reads him his mail. He’ll take the broom from his dad if he tries to sweep the house. He guides him with his shoulder when they take walks on nice days.

If he tries to get up from bed, his son swings a leg around and him and says, “‘Sit down, old man,’” Delaford says. “He’s just like my best friend. He’s just been with me.”

When the boy is staying with the family friend in Immokalee, he calls every day, many times a day, to check in.

There’s a heap of things Delaford would like to do with his son but no longer can, he says. Fishing, hunting and playing football are among a few.

Football was Delaford’s game. Tailback was his position.

A scrap book with newspaper clippings and old pictures from the days when Ronnie Delaford was a star athlete on the Immokalee High School basketball and football teams was given to him by a teacher when he was a younger man. Delaford, now 46 and suffering from AIDS, is trying to teach his children not to follow the path he took after graduation, which lead him to the ailing health he has now.

Photo by LEXEY SWALL, Bonita Daily News

A scrap book with newspaper clippings and old pictures from the days when Ronnie Delaford was a star athlete on the Immokalee High School basketball and football teams was given to him by a teacher when he was a younger man. Delaford, now 46 and suffering from AIDS, is trying to teach his children not to follow the path he took after graduation, which lead him to the ailing health he has now.

On page 140 of his high school yearbook, Delaford wears No. 21 in a row of boys trying to look like men on the 1977 varsity football team. No one was faster, Delaford says.

This particular night, Immokalee High football is on the minds of the Delafords. Ranté wants to see the team but the game is away.

They’re playing Lely in East Naples.

The match-up jogs Ronnie’s memory of the rivalry. When he was a sophomore, he tells his son, the Indians almost beat Lely but the pigskin bounced off the goal post. They tied.

“I want to go,” mumbles Ranté in a whine about tonight’s game.

“You can’t go. It be thunderin’ and lightnin,’” his father says. “You ain’t going out there.”

A loud thunderclap.

“You don’t hear that?” his father asks.

“No,” Ranté says, flipping through the menu of the TV Guide channel with a remote control and popping cashews in his mouth.

“Yea, you do,” Ronnie says, chuckling.

Another clap turns the television silent. Ronnie inches on the bed toward the TV to turn it on.

“Dad, dad, you can lie down. I’ll do it dad,” he says, and gets up from the bed to click it on.

He lays back down next to his father. They share a pillow.

Delaford keeps his greatest accomplishments in a bottom drawer but proudly displays Ranté’s memories in his bedroom. There’s Ranté in a Little League lineup. A trophy from Ranté’s team winning third place in the 2005 baseball season is nearby.

“He’s got good talent,” his father says of his son who plays catcher but “can do it all.”

Six of the eight photos displayed in his bedroom are of his youngest son.

“I hope he gets his dreams, that he finishes school and go to college and be a Major Leaguer. As long as he don’t be in the jailhouse he’ll be fine,” he said. “I want someone to help him live good.”

- - -

Vivian Agrusa, 42, has been Delaford’s Hospice nurse for about a year. She started making calls to try to improve his housing conditions for Ronnie and his son more than six months ago, she said. Initially, she got little response.

“I don’t know what kind of man Ronnie was when he was younger but I don’t think that’s the kind of place he is in now,” she said.

“If everybody loved their kid that much, this world would be a better place.”

Hospice tries to give peace to people before they die. For Delaford, his ease will come with a better home, Hospice officials say.

When Delaford entered Hospice in July 2004, he had six months to a year to live and has survived beyond the prognosis.

“He’s a younger man and trying to leave a legacy for his family,” said Karen Rollins, Hospice of Naples president and chief operating officer. “We help people have a life closure that’s satisfying to them and sometimes that involves a place.”

He inherited the four-bedroom home built in 1969 from his grandmother who raised him. He has lived there most of his life. It’s his only asset.

- - -

“Hey babe, it’s Viv,” calls Agrusa in her thick Long Island, N.Y., accent into the darkened Breezewood Drive home one recent morning.

She tells Delaford to put on his pants. He’s got visitors. She makes at least once-weekly visits to the Delaford house.

“Hey kiddo, how are you?” she asks.

Delaford sits up in bed and tries to smooth his hair that stands on end.

“I feel a little better. My stomach’s still kinda ...” he trails off and pulls a pill bottle out from inside his pillowcase.

“OK, this is for diarrhea. Were you having diarrhea?” she asks.

Delaford shakes his head “no.”

Vivian roots in the top drawer of his bureau and digs out a pill for nausea.

“I got some water here,” Delaford points to a POWERade container on his dresser and Vivian opens it for him. She tells him to put the pills in different spots so he doesn’t mix them up again.

She was appalled when she stepped into Delaford’s house the first time.

“If I could’ve went there with boots and gloves, I would’ve,” she said, but the problems were too extensive.

How his home got this bad depends on whom you ask.

Delaford blames the damage on an error that stemmed from work done under a Collier County housing rehabilitation program for low-income people run with state money.

With an annual reported income of $7,812, he qualified for $15,000 worth of work in 2001 under the program, county records show. Ranté was living with him full time.

The contractor’s work write-up from 2001 showed they’d replace cabinets, repair walls and ceilings and repair rotted soffits and the underhang of the roof, among a host of other remedies. There were also plans to repair a plumbing leak in the kitchen.

County officials said they did what they could.

“Even though we did work, it wasn’t enough to paint a picture of a beautiful house. It wasn’t perfect. It was a stopgap measure for the health and safety of his son,” said Wendy Klopf, a housing rehabilitation specialist.

A county contractor banged a hole in a pipe in the wall when the work was done and water started flowing “not in leaks, but shoots,” Delaford said, adding he paid someone to weld it shut. The wall in the bedroom started getting soft. It’s now caved in.

He said he called the county when the leaks started and officials didn’t respond, he said. Klopf said she doesn’t remember such calls. But she said it’s possible Delaford could have made them and she told him there was no money. There is no record of complaints in Delaford’s county files.

Homeowners have a one-year warranty for the work under the program, she said, but they’re responsible for maintaining it.

“We have clients in a pipeline and we’re funding them in that order,” she said. “It’s hard to justify why they’re not at the head of the list. ... It’s not that we didn’t want to do the project.”

Hospice officials contacted her about Delaford in spring 2005, she said, and Klopf encouraged them to help Delaford submit an application under a Collier home rehabilitation program for low-income homeowners fueled by federal money.

He was awarded $20,000 of the $270,000 set aside for Collier in July 2005. Part of that will go toward pest control.

Klopf said the county doesn’t believe it was an error made with the 2001 repairs.

After Delaford applied this year, she said an inspection revealed there was an exterior leak in a water line that backed up into the kitchen and a problem with the shut-off valve in the street that caused the water damage.

“It was just an unforeseen circumstance that led to the problem,” she said.

A contractors shortage prevented the county from getting to the project until recently, she said, noting last week that tarpaper went on the roof.

Rick Torres, a housing rehabilitation specialist, said the home got worse because it wasn’t fixed because Delaford wasn’t able to see what was happening in the home over the last year or so.

“He didn’t see what was going on and didn’t jump on it,” he said. “It was probably the worst house I’ve been to” in the two years in the post.

“I wouldn’t want my son living in a house like that either.”

Mary Soucek, a Hospice social services coordinator, organized a Sept. 9 meeting with community leaders and county housing officials to get work on a timeline for the Delaford house. She hopes for a complete overhaul to get done by Christmas and is looking for volunteers.

“There is so much to do and it’s a lot better for everybody to be working together for one objective rather than being territorial,” she said, calling it an Immokalee “extreme home makeover.”

Delaford would like to see it fixed before he dies.

“I don’t care how they do it as long as it’s fixed ... If I fix the house, they won’t have nothing to pay but the lights and water. I want it to be nice and they can keep it nice and continue it on,” he said.

“I hope I live. I might be able to see it.”

© 2005 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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