Florida Keys

Key West woman is one of three named by governor to Florida Women's Hall of Fame

Elmira Leto
Elmira Leto Miami Herald files

Elmira Leto, founder of the Samuel's House temporary shelter for homeless women and children in Key West, on Friday was named to Florida's Women's Hall of Fame.

Gov. Rick Scott also tapped for inclusion Carol Jenkins Barnett, the president of Lakeland-based Publix Supermarket Charities; and South Florida journalist Helen Aguirre Ferre.

The three were among 10 nominees offered by the 22-member Florida Commission on the Status of Women.

After ministering to female inmates at the Monroe County Detention Center, Leto realized there was a need in the Keys for a place where homeless women could get their lives back together.

She reasoned that those with substance-abuse and mental-health issues, women who lost their jobs and women who were domestic-violence victims can't do it by themselves.

So in August 1999, Leto founded Samuel's House, whose mission is to provide a second chance for troubled women and their children. Now 16 years later, the shelter for homeless women and children has become a key part of Monroe County's social-services safety net.

"I'm ecstatic. I'm honored. I'm sure there are a lot of women out there who deserve this award," Leto said when nominated earlier this month.

Leto was nominated by Sandy Higgs, a member of the Samuel's House advisory board.

Leto will be in rare air. Among Hall of Fame members are 12-time Olympics medal winner Dara Torres, U.S. Rep Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Supreme Court Justice Peggy Quince, music mogul Gloria Estefan, former tennis star Chris Evert, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the first major advocate for preserving the Everglades.

Samuel's House comprises three housing complexes:

▪ The Mary Spottswood Women's Center, a shelter for women and their kids for up to 90 days.

▪ Kathy's Hope, which has 16 bedrooms.

▪ Casa de Meredith, seven two-bedroom apartments and two efficiencies.

"We're all a team here and I can't take all the credit," Leto said. "It's a team with the employees and the community."

For example, when the Monroe County Domestic Abuse Shelter reaches capacity, Samuel's House takes its "overflow. We have a really good rapport" with shelter Chief Executive Officer Venita Garvin.

Besides Leto, Barnett and Ferre, the other nominees for the Florida Women's Hall of Fame were:

▪ Mary Lou Baker from Pinellas County, the second women elected to the Florida House.

▪ Dr. Judith Ann Bense of Pensacola, the University of West Florida's first female president.

▪ Jeanne Bochette of Fort Myers, a promoter of the arts, especially ballet.

▪ Lauren Book of Aventura, an advocate for child sex-abuse victims.

▪ Clara Floyd Gehen of Gainesville, the first woman to graduate from the University of Florida College of Law.

▪ Pam Lorio, a former two-term Tampa mayor.

▪ Frances MacIntyre of Coral Gables, an advocate for preserving historic sites.

The inductees will be enshrined on Jan. 27. This is the 34th Hall of Fame class.