Tallahassee Headquarters located at:
117 South Gadsden Street,
Tallahassee, Florida 32301
Copyright © SalterMitchell PR 2021. All rights reserved.
Josie Tamayo has never been afraid to be “the first.” Inspired by her mother’s legal career in Cuba, Tamayo grew up in rural Georgia to become the only Hispanic woman to graduate from her law school class.
Tamayo’s passion for helping others drew her to a career in public service, where she charted a course from state attorneys' offices to the Second Circuit Court bench to serving as counsel for six of Florida’s state agencies.
Today, Tamayo’s current role as CEO of VolunteerFlorida reflects her years of passionate community service: a pathway that she now gets to help others walk.
Heidi Otway: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian podcast, featuring the Sunshine State's brightest leaders talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and its millions of weekly visitors. I'm Heidi Otway, president of SalterMitchell PR. In today's episode, I talked to Josie Tamayo, the CEO of Volunteer Florida. In our conversation, we discussed Josie's experience growing up as a Cuban immigrant in rural Georgia, breaking barriers as a Hispanic woman in the legal field, and the opportunities for Floridians to serve their communities.
Josie, I am so excited to have you today on the Fluent in Floridian podcast. Welcome to the show.
Josie Tamayo: Thank you for having me, and quite an honor to be here and be able to chat with you and share a story.
Heidi Otway: Yeah. So, I want to start at the beginning and talk about how you made your way to Florida. Tell us about that experience that you had as a young child moving to Florida.
Josie Tamayo: Well, I was originally born in Santiago de Cuba. My parents both met there and were married there. And when I was a little bit over three, Fidel Castro obviously took over the country of Cuba. And at the age of three, my parents, my brother who was 18 months, and I came to the United States. And a long, let's say arduous time before we got here, strewn with difficult memories of watching militia men in my home with my parents.
And I tell this story because I speak at the naturalization ceremony services, and I talk about how coming to this country and what I live every day is really the American dream. And the visions of people searching my parents' bags, and my parents... My mother is 88 years old, still with us. My father unfortunately passed away when he was 73. But my parents had to sew their diplomas, my father was a graduate of the medical school, my mother a graduate of the law school, had to sew their diplomas in their bags in order to ensure that they could have a life. And they made a decision very early on that they were going to seek liberty for their family and raise their family, but always with the hope of one day returning to Cuba, which is their entire life and their entire... And still had relatives.
So, I vividly remember being separated. My father was separated from my mother at the airport. The militia men or the army men were questioning my father as to where he was going, and my parents had made a decision that if they were separated, my mother was to get on the plane with myself, my brother. And I remember watching my mother hug my grandmother, a vivid memory at the age of three, that you normally see, this hug. And then watching them search our bags and rip open stuffed animals that my brother had, was given to him, in search of jewelry and possessions and so forth.
So, they left with two bags, and I remember being separated. We were separated, and we got on the plane. I was there with my mother. And all of a sudden, and I tell this story, and it's amazing, I see my father is the last person that comes on the plane. And I saw them hug each other, and then soon thereafter of course we landed in Miami. And it is a memory that I will never forget as long as I live, because I knew at that point, and you don't realize it until later, what that moment meant to them. And that moment meant that they were now free, and they would be able to live a life separate than what they had been living in Cuba with their children. And so, very, very interesting beginnings, and everyone has different stories of how they immigrated to the United States from Cuba, but always very thankful for the opportunity.
And then they were separated when they arrived, of course, you go through immigration, they were separated. My father was held for almost eight days as they questioned him. Of course, you're coming from that country. And my grandfather had left before us and bought a house, and 17 of us, Heidi, lived in this house, which is now known as Liberty City, and there were 17 of us in the house with two bedrooms, and we lived in the downstairs part, sort of a pseudo-basement of the house. And my father, my mother, my brother and I, that's where we lived. And it's an amazing story of which brings one great humility and great thanks for [inaudible 00:05:13] one lives every day.
Heidi Otway: Yeah. So, you migrated to Miami. You lived in a home with 17 of your family members. How long were you living in that situation, and how did you move forward?
Josie Tamayo: We lived there until my father passed his medical boards, because he had to pass the medical boards in order for my father to practice medicine. So my father pumped gas at the Amoco gas station and studied for his boards at night. And to the day he passed, he only bought Amoco gas.
Heidi Otway: Amoco.
Josie Tamayo: Because it was the first... Believe it or not, I tell that story and people are like, "No, no." My dad was very, very loyal. He was very loyal to the T. And so he was given the opportunity to do a residency in Newport News, Virginia. So we went from Miami to Newport News, Virginia,
Heidi Otway: Talk about a transition.
Josie Tamayo: Talk about a transition. First time I had seen snow, of course. And my father worked in the hospital there, the Naval Hospital there, which is amazing. And then from Newport News, Virginia, we went back because he had to do several residencies in orthopedics, we went back to Miami. After that, we then moved to Cincinnati, where he did his residency at Good Samaritan Hospital and Children's Orthopedics, and then went back to Miami. My third brother was born during a hurricane.
Heidi Otway: Which hurricane?
Josie Tamayo: He was born in 1964 in the middle of a hurricane.
Heidi Otway: Oh my goodness.
Josie Tamayo: And then my sister was born... Actually, it's reverse. My sister was born in 1966 in Cincinnati, Ohio at Good Samaritan Hospital.
Heidi Otway: Yeah.
Josie Tamayo: And then we went back to Miami again, where my father did part of his residency at Mount Sinai Hospital down in Miami.
Heidi Otway: Yeah. I'm from Miami, so I know. Yeah.
Josie Tamayo: There you go. And Miami to us was really a second home. We would spend our summers there. All my cousins were there, and so forth. And so my father, once he had finished his residencies, my mom and dad had made a decision, because back then those individuals that emigrated from Cuba that were lawyers could attend law school. But they made a decision that my mother was going to say, "Let's get you through what you need to get through." They decided as that. And she never went back to be able to go back to law school to be a practicing lawyer in the United States. But that of course has never stopped her from really being a practicing lawyer, without really a law degree, but she's a fabulous woman.
Anyway. And so we went... My father was on his way to an interview in West Virginia, and got snowed in in the Atlanta Airport. And as a result of that, called a dear friend of his to say, "Hey, I'm in Georgia, I thought I'd call you." And his dear classmate and dear friend, fraternity brother from Cuba, said, "What are you doing in Atlanta?" He says, "I'm on my way to an interview for an orthopedic surgeon position in Charlottesville, West Virginia." And he says, "Well, I think we have an opening for one here in Milledgeville, Georgia." And he said, "Really?" And so, boom, his wife goes up there, picks up my mom and dad, he interviews him, and he's interviewed, and the next thing we know, we are moving to Milledgeville, Georgia.
Heidi Otway: Okay. I don't even know where that is. Tell me.
Josie Tamayo: Milledgeville... I laugh. Milledgeville, Georgia is right in the middle part of Georgia, and it is known for various things. It was the capital of Georgia during the Civil War, and then they moved the capital. The actual Capitol Building is still there. There's a military college, there's a college for women there, very similar to FSU, Georgia College is now Georgia State University. And we moved there, had never ever thought of living there, and it's right in the middle part of Georgia, and it is a beautiful little town, and there were about 40 Cuban families that lived there.
Heidi Otway: Yeah, I was going to ask you. What was that like?
Josie Tamayo: And the doctors were able to practice under the supervision as foreign medical graduates, were able to practice under the supervision of licensed physicians. And my father was hired to work in the Jones Hospital, the orthopedic hospital, and we were done. We moved there. And that is where my mother still lives. That is where my father is, as I call it, up in Heaven, but watching over us, and my brother still lives there. So I'm a Georgia girl that ended up in Florida.
Heidi Otway: So tell me, how old were you when your family settled in Milledgeville?
Josie Tamayo: Entered into the fourth grade.
Heidi Otway: Fourth grade.
Josie Tamayo: Fourth grade. Yes. Fourth grade.
Heidi Otway: Wow. So you've moved a lot in that time period.
Josie Tamayo: We did. Learned many things through that time period, but always together. Always, as my father would say, faith, family, and country are what matters to us. And always treating people with respect and humility, which is... And that's what I've grown up with my entire life. And of course sharing your culture, because there's a lot of things about different cultures that, especially in Georgia, they had never really met individuals from Cuba.
So, my father made it [inaudible 00:11:05] to teach individuals about Cuban history. And I tell people that we cook barbecue, but we cook it a little differently. We use garlic and all types of things, and we don't necessarily... It's funny, great story. When we arrived in Milledgeville and we went to church on Sunday, and we went across the street to eat, and this was when you had motels. We didn't even have a Holiday Inn. And we went across the street to have breakfast before we went to mass at the Catholic church. And we were ordering something, and my father looks at the lady who's taking care of us, and she looked like Flo with the orange hair and so forth, and he has a little bit of an accent. He says, "I would like to have..." He orders for us, "and I would like to have a grit." And that's exactly how he said it.
And this lady looked at him and she said, "So, y'all not from here, are you?" In that very Southern drawl accent. And my father looked at me and says, "Oh my goodness, have I offended her in some way?" Because he thought he had offended her. So she turned around, went into the kitchen and brought out a bowl of grits, and she said, "Sweetheart, what you want are grits, not a grit." And he's like, "Oh, wow. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes." From there on in, we knew that we had to learn a whole different language about being in the South, and their traditions were a little bit different, but not too far from... Very much founded in faith and family and so forth.
So, that's one of the [inaudible 00:12:44] stories. So I tell people, I'm a Cuban grit. I'm a Cuban girl raised in the South. And I really do say that, and they go, "What does that mean?" And I go, "I'm a Cuban grit. Girl raised in the South."
Heidi Otway: Raised in the south. Yeah.
Josie Tamayo: That's it.
Heidi Otway: I love that.
Josie Tamayo: And that's how we ended up in... That's really what I consider my hometown, is Milledgeville, Georgia. And people never, ever assume that, though.
Heidi Otway: The Fluent in Floridian podcast is brought to you by SalterMitchell PR, a communications consultancy focused on helping good causes win. We provide strategic insight and guidance to organizations seeking to make an impact in the nation's third most populous state. Learn more at smprflorida.com. Now back to our interview with Josie Tamayo.
So, let's fast forward to college. What inspired you to go to law school?
Josie Tamayo: What inspired me to go to law school was the history that had come from my family. Not only was my mother a lawyer, but I had seen what had happened to the country that I came from. And there were two things when I wanted to go to college that I thought I wanted to be. One was a doctor, and one was a lawyer. But I remember that the passion to be a lawyer to me was, how can I help people? How can I help preserve? How can I help those that don't have what I have? And so when I was in high school, I would sit in the local courtrooms in the local courthouse and watch hearings.
Heidi Otway: Really?
Yes. And I'm told from a very early age that that's really what I wanted to do. So, being the oldest of four, and somewhat opinionated as I was, and being a responsible... It was a natural gravitation. I thought the law was fascinating. And I'm a lover of history. Civics was my favorite class. American government was my favorite class in high school. And it just gravitated. My father, I think was... We have a lot of doctors in our family, so it was either a pediatrician or a lawyer, all of which were great. But I opted for going to law school, because it was really what I felt inside was part of the passion that I had, part of that drive that I've had that was instilled in me when I was very young.
Heidi Otway: Yeah. So when you got into your career, is it safe to say that you were the first of many positions that probably weren't traditionally given to women, or women from different countries or backgrounds?
Josie Tamayo: Yes. It was interesting. And I looked at it in this way. I mean, I was... Oh my goodness. When I started, I started as an assistant state attorney, both in Sarasota, and when I graduated from law school, I was the only Hispanic woman in my law school class at Georgia State University. There were not... I'm trying to think. In law school, yes, I was the Hispanic woman in my class. And then the reason I got my job in Sarasota was because I spoke Spanish and I was Cuban, which was very helpful to me.
And then I progressed in different positions through the state attorney's office, and obviously part of that was because I spoke Spanish and I was able to assist in translation and different things. And I worked harder than just about everyone. Everyone thought, "Oh, it's because you speak Spanish," and it was no, because I was not going to let anybody outwork me, because I knew I could do it. So, in state government, unbelievably so, I was given the opportunity to, and the reason I came to Tallahassee was, to work for the Department of Children and Families. And I was the first Hispanic woman to be appointed to that position. Also at, I believe, all the other agencies that I worked for, which were six. And then I was eventually appointed to the bench here in the Second Judicial Circuit. [inaudible 00:17:03]
Heidi Otway: Was that a first?
Josie Tamayo: That was the first Hispanic woman ever appointed to that bench.
Heidi Otway: Look at you, knocking down, breaking down barriers and doors.
Josie Tamayo: Yeah, it's breaking... Well, I'm a firm believer that if you work hard, and other people see that their dreams can come true, because my dream came true. One day, I said very early on, one day maybe I will get the honor and privilege to serve as a member of the judiciary. And to me, I waited until I had gathered sufficient amount of experience in my mind, and then I put myself into the ring.
And so when I received the appointment, it was one of the most exciting days in my life, because not only was I able to share it with obviously my husband and my son, but you understand, you come full circle when you come as an immigrant to this country, and you know that what you're here for [inaudible 00:18:08] as I said, this country was, in my father and my parents' minds, the greatest country because of its democratic principles. And to now be appointed to be part of the judiciary of this great nation, in the trial bench here in Tallahassee, where we brought up our son, was just an honor, to see where you started and with hard work where you ended up. And to me, it was... I think I cried for the first 20 minutes, and then I couldn't say anything, until I could say something. And then I was able to go to my son's American government class in the fifth grade and tell them that it was announced.
Heidi Otway: Oh my God, you just gave me goosebumps.
Josie Tamayo: I had been appointed. And to tell them how important it was for them to never give up on their dreams, that if you worked hard enough, it may not be exactly the timing, but that your dream does come true. And then you never know, the good Lord always has other places you need to be.
Heidi Otway: So, you've moved on and you now are in another place.
Josie Tamayo: I am in another place.
Heidi Otway: Leading Volunteer Florida.
Josie Tamayo: I am.
Heidi Otway: How did that happen? [inaudible 00:19:30]
Josie Tamayo: [inaudible 00:19:30] Well, you know, Heidi, I think in the different positions that I've held, one tackles issues and thinks about how you... I've always had a motto that you have to have... I call it my three P's. You have to have a passion for what you do. You have to have a purpose of what you do, most importantly. And you have to learn how to persevere. And life, the good Lord throws all types of obstacles in your way. And He did, but I was able... You overcome them every day. It's not like I've solved it.
But I received a call that if... I received a call, I was at the Agency for Healthcare Administration, and they said, "Would you be interested in leading Volunteer Florida?" And I was like, "Volunteer Florida? Really? Oh my gosh." And I thought to myself, what an opportunity. And once you get a call like that from Governor DeSantis's staff, you don't say, "Oh yeah, by the way, no." I thought, oh my God, how fascinating. Something new, something I had not done. And I had seen, of course, their great work in the state, and I thought, "Wow, what an honor it would be to be able to lead that organization."
And I went full bore. I said, "Absolutely, I would love to." And of course you interview, and thank God the governor gave me this... The opportunity to serve in this capacity was given to me by Governor DeSantis in August of 2022, and again, when he was of course reelected. And it has been a path... It's just wonderful. I call it you pay it forward. In life, you do many things, but now you get to talk about volunteerism, you get to talk about our national service programs, you really talk about how you can make your communities better.
And volunteerism to me, one of the things that we do, of the many things that we do, is what I call it the 365-day a year opportunity to change someone's life. And so when I was given that opportunity, I jumped on it. And little did I know that volunteering as a child, as a kid with my mother, doing Meals on Wheels, would bring me full circle to where I am today. So, the good Lord had a spot for me, and He said, "And this is where I want you to serve." And I'm a true servant of where I am and what I do, so I'm very honored, extremely honored to be there.
Heidi Otway: Yeah. So, for everyone that's listening, I want you all to know that Josie has the biggest smile on her face right now talking about this position, and it would be wonderful for you to share with our listeners, how can they get involved as volunteers through your organization or within their local community?
Josie Tamayo: One of the things that we do, and obviously we work a lot with our nonprofit partners, and one of the many things that we do is obviously, and I'll say this to you, people volunteer and they don't know that they're volunteering. So when you're at a church helping, you're volunteering. So, we have an ability for anyone to register either not-for-profits and also local charities and governmental entities, and it's called Volunteer Connect. It's a free, free, free, how many times, free platform.
Heidi Otway: Free.
Josie Tamayo: It's the state's platform to register not only organizations, but also for individuals who are looking to volunteer in their communities. And one of the things that I tell people all the time is, someone thinks that they don't have... One of the many things, we had a study done from the University of Florida, it is on our website, it's called The Nature of Volunteerism. And a lot of people volunteer, 67% of individuals volunteer. Why? Because someone asks them to volunteer, or a family member asks them to volunteer.
And so what I would say is, find an organization, like an organization that helps children, veterans. We have many organizations here in Leon County. Special Olympics is one of our partners. We have 720 individual partners that are on Volunteer Connect. We are in 58 of 67 counties, we have organizations. So register there, or if not, ask where are the organizations in your communities, and why?
Let me say this. Quick story. I volunteer, our office as a group, we volunteer and we do all types of projects. And recently I was helping out in Special Olympics, the Special Olympic athletes that we have throughout Florida. And in fact, Special Olympics is a partner of ours, and in fact, the head of Special Olympics Florida, she's the vice chair of our commission, Sherry Wheelock. I said, "I would love to volunteer with Special Olympics in this area, in the Leon area, where I went." And they said, "Well, they're having an event for..." The athletes were practicing golf. Not golf, I'm sorry. Bowling. And I'm thinking, and everyone says, "Well, you don't bowl." And I said, "I'm not bowling. I'm just there to cheer them on. I'm a good cheerleader." I was a cheerleader, by the way. I was a cheerleader. I was a cheerleader.
Heidi Otway: Not surprised. Not surprised.
Josie Tamayo: That's not a surprise. [inaudible 00:25:17] Anyway. And I show up in the morning, I get there, my husband goes, "Well, we're going to be late." And I go, "We are going to be late." He goes, "Yeah, I'm coming with you." I said, "Awesome. Great. I'm bringing a volunteer." Well, guess what? Hook, line, and sinker. My husband's been volunteering with Special Olympics ever since. And so it's that moment where you get to meet people that need your assistance, or you bring a smile to their face, and once you see them, once you see people and you help, you can really never forget that, I think. And that's why I talk about the fact that volunteering is a 365-day opportunity.
And of course, we have volunteers that are amazing volunteers, and we work with what we call the volunteer organizations, activated in disasters that come in and help us when we have hurricanes and disasters throughout Florida. And we've seen that. We've now unfortunately had Ian, and now Idalia come to our shores. But all of that, as I call it, is all of that, we help, we coordinate that, we help people. And I just tell people, just get involved. You could be doing a lot of things in your life. Give back part of your life to someone, because it will change their lives, and it will change your life as well.
Heidi Otway: Josie, thank you so much for being a guest on our Fluent in Floridian podcast. This has been a delightful conversation.
Josie Tamayo: And thank you for having me. And I just have to say, I thank the governor and the first lady for the opportunity, and whatever we can do, if you want to volunteer, just call us. We'll make sure we find an organization for you.
Heidi Otway: Thanks for listening to the Fluent in Floridian podcast, brought to you by SalterMitchell PR. If you need help telling your Florida story, SalterMitchell has you covered by offering issues management, crisis communications, creative services, and media relations. You can learn more about us at smprflorida.com. You can also listen to all of our podcast episodes at fluentinfloridian.com, or by searching for the show using your favorite podcast app.
Be notified when new episodes of the Fluent in Floridian Podcast are released and receive public relations, communications and marketing expertise from SalterMitchell PR.
SalterMitchell PR helps good causes win. We are a full service communications consultancy providing strategic insight and guidance to organizations seeking to make an impact in the nation's third most populous state. We know Florida. We understand the diverse landscape of Florida. We are fluent in Floridian.
Tallahassee Headquarters located at:
117 South Gadsden Street,
Tallahassee, Florida 32301
Copyright © SalterMitchell PR 2021. All rights reserved.