Samuel's House founder is one of 10 finalists for induction into the Florida Women's Hall of Fame

After ministering to female inmates at the Monroe County Detention Center, Elmira 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.

Leto's work has resulted in a big honor: She is one of 10 nominees this year to be considered for induction into the Florida Women's Hall of Fame, a program of the Florida Commission on the Status of Women that recognizes significant contributions to improving the lives of women in the Sunshine State.

"I'm ecstatic. I'm honored. I'm sure there are a lot of women out there who deserve this award," Leto said Friday, a day after the nominations were announced.

Leto was nominated by Sandy Higgs, a member of the Samuel's House advisory board. The 22-member Status of Women board whittles the list to 10. Gov. Rick Scott will choose up to three inductees.

If chosen, 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 Marjorie 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. Friday, about 30 people were staying there, Leto said.

  • Kathy's Hope, which has 16 bedrooms. Leto said there were 22 people there Friday.

  • Casa de Meredith, seven two-bedroom apartments and two efficiencies. Friday, it housed 27 people.

"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, the other nominees for the Florida Women's Hall of Fame are:

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

  • Carol Jenkins Barnett of Lakeland, president of Publix Super Market Charities.

  • 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.

  • Helen Aguirre Ferre of Miami Shores, a media political commentator.

  • 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.