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North Fort Myers neighborhood provides a sisterhood for lesbians

Carefree Community
Sabrina Salovitz
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Kat Heinlein and Sharon Rodgers chat at an intersection in the Carefree Community in North Fort Myers. Rodgers said she knows the names and histories of nearly every person in the community.

In the summer of 1996 Sharon Rodgers was singing at a gay and lesbian club in Tampa when her wife was given a pamphlet by a woman in the crowd. The pamphlet explained that a lesbian couple was developing a retirement community in North Fort Myers.

“We decided to come down and we fell in love with the whole concept,” Rodgers said. “Nothing was done yet and nobody could buy property yet, but it was in motion and the word was spreading.”

The pamphlets led back to Gina Razete and Cathy Groene, who just months before had been living in Arizona at an RV park created by the group RVing Women. The pair enjoyed living in that kind of environment, surrounded by other women, but they wanted to get out of Arizona. They decided to try to build something similar in Florida.

The couple settled in North Fort Myers in 1994 and bought 50 acres of vacant land. At first they were going to turn it into an RV park, but they eventually decided to create a community of 278 manufactured homes.

“I look back and think ‘oh my god’ because I'm not really a risk taker,” Groene said. “I feel like something else was driving this whole thing: a higher power, I don't know, but something kept us going and staying on the path.”

Razete and Groene advertised the neighborhood themselves, traveling all over the Northeast and Midwest to speak to people and hand out pamphlets. They sold the first lot in January of 1997, and by 2001 they had sold them all.

“I just had confidence from the beginning,” Groene said. “I thought ‘this is something that is desperately needed and if you build it, they will come.’”

Carefree Community is known in the area as a lesbian neighborhood, and a significant number of residents are lesbians. However, it isn’t limited to gay women. People of all backgrounds are welcome.

The community is full to this day, with a long waiting list for people who want to buy property when a lot becomes available. Rodgers has lived at Carefree since 1997, and she is just one of many current residents who were a part of the first group to buy lots in the community. Razete and Groene still live there.

“I don't know of any developer that lives in the community that they created,” Razete said. “But it worked, and 25 years we've lived here.”

Carefree is a bustling community. Neighbors meet up to chat at the tennis courts or walk their dogs together. There is a private clubhouse for women over 21, and the place hosts events and activities. Rodgers likes to attend the book signings, where authors from the community read from their new publications.

Some residents said they consider the gated community to be safe.

Living at Carefree is like being at camp, according to Razete. She says she’s had the opportunity to rediscover pursuits she had forgotten about. She also says that Carefree is the only neighborhood of its kind in the area, but that others want to replicate its success.

“There has been a lot of talk about making other neighborhoods,” Razete said. “We get calls a lot from other people wanting to pick our brain or find out how to do this.”

The community is a sisterhood, according to Sharon Rodgers. There are activities and the clubhouse. But she said above all else there is a strong sense of love and connection that brings together the population of about 500 residents.

“If something happened to anyone here, even if it wasn't somebody you associated with, or somebody you didn't care to be around, everybody would step up and help,” Rodgers said. “That's been the case since the very beginning, and I was just so attracted to that.”

Rodgers says that there are still the usual spats between neighbors and general frustrations with the administrative board that runs the place, but at the end of the day everyone is there for one another, and that’s what she thinks makes Carefree a special place.

“Cathy and I put in the infrastructure, the bricks and mortar kind of thing, but the people who came here, they're the ones who brought the heart,” Razete said. “It's an amazing place.”