A decade after their lives took a dramatic turn, current Wellington residents Ringo and Vernessa Rolle look back and wonder what happened and why.
The Rolle family moved to The Acreage in 1995 as a young married couple with big dreams of raising their family while working toward the American Dream. They both worked. Ringo spent more than 20 years in retail management, first for Kmart as an assistant store manager for 15 years, then as a store manager for Walmart for seven years. Vernessa worked as a hair stylist for 20 years at the old Palm Beach Mall before it closed.
Along the way, they raised three kids, as well as several foster children, in the neighborhood right behind Seminole Ridge High School. Their lives were ideal, and they considered themselves lucky.
“It was beautiful there. We had the only house on the corner of 43rd Road North,” Vernessa recalled. “When we first moved there, other people had only property, and they were beginning to build their homes. Our oldest child was three at the time.”
Because Seminole Ridge High School wasn’t built yet, son Bernardo attended Wellington High School before entering the military. The younger children went to neighborhood schools.
“All the kids went to school there. Our oldest daughter graduated from the new high school,” she said. “My girls stayed right there until they finished. My youngest just graduated, and she now attends Palm Beach State College. She loves it here. That is why we stay here in Wellington. All of her friends are here, and we keep them all together.”
Unfortunately, their idyllic life did not last.
“I got sick, and I had my first surgery in 2007,” Vernessa said. “It was long before that that I started having problems with not feeling well. I was in and out of doctors’ offices. Finally, they had a diagnosis for me. I had to have a hysterectomy due to fibroids. When they went in, they found a tumor they had to remove.”
Several other neighbors reported being sick, and a group of them felt it might have something to do with the water. Vernessa reported that water quality had long been an issue.
With no municipal water, all the properties had their own wells. “We kept changing our well pump, maybe two or three times. It kept breaking,” she said. “Then, we got the entire filtration system with the salt. We did everything we could think of.”
This corresponded to the time that a study was underway into the possibility of a cancer cluster in The Acreage.
“A company came into our community to do a study in 2010. A group came in from New York. They had a town hall meeting at Seminole Ridge High School, and everybody who had been sick had to write their names down. They wanted to know who was affected. That town hall meeting was packed,” she said. “A lady from New York really asked us a lot of questions. All the local leaders were there. So many kids were getting sick or had headaches… Even my own kids started not feeling so well.”
That’s when they made the decision to move — a decision complicated by additional health concerns and a difficult economy that hit the real estate market hard.
“Before we could move, I got sick again, and we had to wait until I healed,” Vernessa said. “Then we had to decide what we were going to do with the house. We had to let the house go. We had too many medical bills. The house went into foreclosure. I just couldn’t care anymore. I had given up. I was mad because we tried everything. We were hoping we could get some help to get through everything.”
Eventually, the house sold through a short sale.
“A man came up in a white Mercedes in 2013 and bought the house,” she explained. “He said that’s what he does for a living. I asked him if we could rent it back from him, because we didn’t want to leave, but he said no. Just like that, we had to leave.”
What exactly happened a decade ago in The Acreage remains a deeply controversial topic and a largely unexplained mystery. Dozens of tests were done with inconclusive results.
It started in 2009 when a parent inquired into what might be causing the cancer of her child, and a full-on cancer study went all the way through 2010 with the entire community involved. In coming together, the community created the Acreage Public Health Information Forum.
Several organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and the Florida Department of Health began an extensive study, testing soil samples, testing well water at homes, testing for radon and more. All the studies were inconclusive. The well water tested was safe to drink.
The Florida Department of Health did determine that there was an elevated rate of pediatric brain cancer in the community in 2010 after finding 13 cases of children developing brain or central nervous system cancers between 1993 and 2008, and eight more diagnosed children with brain cancer before 2009.
Through there remains no conclusive cause, everyone has their own opinion. Vernessa is convinced that her area was used as a dumping ground before they moved there.
“I do believe those who came before us used our area as a dumping ground,” she said. “The land was once used for dumping as the swampland and waterways were all rerouted to add new land for housing.”
Today, Ringo and Vernessa Rolle live in a two-bedroom apartment in Wellington’s Palm Court.
“My son has a family, and he’s in North Carolina. They come to visit during the holidays,” Vernessa said. “My oldest daughter is working now. She has been with us through a lot with our sicknesses.”
But there are still difficulties. Recently, Ringo had to have surgery to remove a tumor from the back part of his mouth.
“They worked really hard to work around his voice box. He has a large hole in the back of his mouth. He has to be very careful when he eats,” Vernessa said. “He is still trying to work when he can, but he just got another infection. We have been going down to Miami to Jackson Memorial Hospital because he’s having trouble with swallowing.”
Some days, Vernessa wishes life could go back to the way it once was.
“We were doing great out there, and we had a home. We were making good money. We had a chance to travel together on vacations, and nobody was sick,” she said. “I haven’t worked in over four years, and I am fighting Social Security for my disability. I wish I remembered what it was like to get a paycheck.”