When attention to the U.S. Bill of Rights emerged at a Collier County Commission meeting recently, it had company its promoters may not have been aware of.
Both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution have local champions for years. These advocates don’t seek legislation, but an understanding and appreciation of the words that cemented us as a nation. The Fourth of July is a special day for them both:
Putting the Constitution in kids’ hands
The Florida governor’s recent mandate to teach civics in Florida schools is so far behind the fervor of Joseph Cofield, it’s not even in second place.
That — and third and fourth places — also should go to the Army veteran and former teacher, whose passion is to get a copy of our nation’s Constitution into every fifth-grader’s hands.
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Cofield just celebrated a milestone. He was finally able to distribute copies for every fifth-grader in Florida’s public school districts via his nonprofit, constitutionforthepeople.org.
It has been a seven-year mission for the Naples man, whose unusual strategy included biking 21 miles and running six in every county of the state. It was his research, he said, to get to know locals and school officials.
Twenty-seven miles? Cofield can explain.
“That 21 plus six is 27, for the 27, for the 27 amendments.”
Cofield wants significance in his numbers: A test at the back of his Constitution book also has 27 questions.
It has not been a particularly easy mission. Cofield’s walking and running tour of the state met resistance. Some districts initially turned him down, he said. Others protested they couldn’t afford it. Cofield saw that to get community political support he needed to show up and start talking.
“I have learned if you try to make an appointment, these people have gatekeepers whose job is to make sure you do not get to see the people you want to talk to,” he said, with a sly grin.
Other times the acceptance was there; the resources weren’t. During the pandemic, most of Cofield’s own extra resources were stretched to bring his story to school districts and get buy-in at $1 a book. Printing them, he said, costs $5 apiece. He recalled a social studies coordinator from Gainesvillle who made the five-hour drive to pick up the books for his district when neither he nor Cofield had money for shipping.
The usual fundraisers — coffee mugs, jars of homemade mango jam from his wife, Margit, donation stands in front of hardware and grocery stores — will never totally pay for the half-size, 48-page booklets. But Cofield keeps them in his trunk, ready with his star-spangled tie for a presentation at nearly a moment’s notice.
His project has slowly built traction. He parlayed a $5,000 donation challenge from John R. Wood Properties into four times that amount. The Rotary Club of Naples Bay has founded a golf ball drop, which has a $1,000 prize and three $300 prizes for its limited $25-per-ball rounds. Its Third Annual Constitutional Ball Drop is set for August this year.
He’s also had Bill McKinney, of SCORE, at his side to weather the intricacies of becoming a 501(c)(3) corporation.
“This is an ongoing project,” McKinney explained. “It’s to be sustained. These books he’s giving out, he gives to the teachers to give to the students to take home. They’re not lying in the schools to use for next year. Every year they get a new batch, which is a huge amount of books and a huge amount of money.”
“It’s powerful when a person knows it’s for me. It’s not for John, Joe or anybody else,” Cofield said. You’re going to put your name in that book, and it can go on and on. Some of these kids are going to give it to their kids one day.”
Estero revisits history that brought us here
Almost everyone knows the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
But if you know that the Declaration went on to unroll a list of 27 specific grievances shaping this powerful statement, chances are good you live in Estero. The Estero Historical Society has held a community reading of the entire Declaration of Independence for 20 years.
Even during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 there was a virtual reading. But it didn’t have the costumed re-enactors to heighten the revolutionary fervor. Students who brought gleanings of American Revolution history weren’t invited to read them.
And there were none of its time-honored refreshments: cold water and slices of watermelon, shared in front of the society’s cottage at 9200 Corkscrew Palms Blvd.
This year, there will be no reading at all. Roslyn Gula, vice-president of the society, attributes it to the uncertainty about conditions in July — whether social distancing requirements would restrict it, how willing people might be to participate at close range.
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“And this is a close-participation event,” she declared. Volunteers with parsed copies line up to read a sentence, and readers range from children to city officials to firefighters and re-enactors.
The event will return next year, she pledged: “We’ve already started talking to some re-enactors.”
The reading of the Declaration serves two purposes. It lays out the indignities — and in fact, atrocities — that drove American colonists to secede.
It also brings together people of the village for a more traditional observance of the nation’s founding.
“The people of Estero have been, and I find they still are — even with the new people who move in — very small-town oriented. And people who are small-town oriented are very patriotic,” Gula explained.
“They have that feeling for our holidays and how they’re celebrated, and they want to bring their history back.”
Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com. Reach her at 239-213-6091.