NORTH PORT, FL – As a business development manager for CarePatrol in Southwest Florida, Justin Cody Willis is used to working with seniors suffering from dementia. As their health wanes, it’s his job to help them move into assisted living facilities and memory care units.
But Zyggy Szymczak, 87, is a different situation entirely, Willis said. “This is definitely beyond the scope of what I normally do. It’s completely outside the purview of my job.”
It was just a few weeks ago that he met the Polish concert pianist for the first time. Szymczak has lived in Myakka River Park, a mobile-home park at the intersection of U.S. 41 and River Road in North Port, for decades.
In the 1980s, it was considered “a high-end trailer park near the beach,” and was marketed to actresses, musicians and others in the entertainment industry, Willis said. “That’s what this place was sold as…Zyggy retired in this trailer park. He used the last of his savings to buy his trailer and thought this would be his home forever.”
But times have changed, Willis said. “It looks like a war zone…This man came to America to be free and lives in what literally looks like a war zone. His trailer has been condemned and he has nowhere to go.”
The rundown park has a new owner, who plans to redevelop the property. All of its residents, including Szymczak, were told they would have to move.
MQ Development Company, based in Dallas, bought the mobile-home park nearly two years ago. Plans for the property include having it annexed into the city of North Port. Then, they’ll build a strip mall, said Donald Silverman.
“We’re going to clean up the property and we'll add value to the community (by building) restaurants and other things,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be a much bigger plus for that property.”
Most residents started moving out in the spring. There are some holdovers, though, and a group of homeless individuals has been squatting in vacant mobile homes at the park since the summer. Anyone still living on the property — Szymczak included — hasn’t paid rent for months, Silverman added.
Nobody should be living at the trailer park because it’s a health and safety risk, the developer said. “Nobody should be there. It’s not healthy. It’s not a good idea.”
In Szymczak’s case, he has nowhere to go and little money, Willis said. He’s showing early signs of dementia, and often doesn’t seem to understand that he needs to leave his trailer and find a new home.
“He keeps forgetting that he’s being evicted,” Willis said.
He also doesn’t speak much English — he forgets his second language because of dementia — and communicates mostly in Polish, Willis said. When he does speak English, it comes out in bits and pieces, and he usually refers to himself in the third person.
“Zyggy plays for presidents.”
“Zyggy plays for queens.”
“They throw Zyggy out.”
These are the phrases that Willis commonly hears when Szymczak attempts to communicate with him in English.
Wanting to better understand his story, the social worker brought Szymczak to visit his friends at the Olde World Restaurant in North Port. The owners are also Polish, and they helped translate for the aging concert pianist, he said.
Szymczak has lived a storied life, Willis added. He grew up in Warsaw when Poland was still a communist country. His father was even jailed when he was a child. As a pianist, he’s traveled the world, playing for presidents and royalty, as well as “everyday folks,” Willis said.
Despite his health issues, the piano remains the focal point of the 87-year-old’s world. Amidst his run-down surroundings, in the middle of his trailer sits a baby grand piano. He’ll often get up in the middle of the night and play for a few hours, Willis said. And whenever he meets new people, he makes sure to play them a song or two.
Szymczak has no family in the area and nobody to help him, Willis said. His estranged wife and son still live in Poland. They haven’t spoken to him in years.
He came to the United States decades ago, after falling in love with a Warsaw woman and following her to Florida, Willis said. Though they never had a relationship, he’s remained in Sarasota County ever since.
Deciding to help the man himself, Willis has rallied the North Port community to raise the funds needed to move him into a new trailer park. He’s found a trailer that will cost around $20,000. Szymczak’s $711 monthly social security payments will cover his lot rent and other expenses.
Willis has launched a GoFundMe campaign for the pianist and is also planning a concert and benefit dinner Sunday and Monday evening from 5 to 8 p.m. at Olde World Restaurant at 14415 Tamiami Trail in North Port. Szymczak will perform at the events, which call for a suggested donation of $20 per person.
MQ Development Company is also pitching in, promising to donate at least $2,500 to Szymczak’s move.
“We want Zyggy to have a place to go. We want him to have a place that’s better than where he’s been, a secure residence with the assistance he needs,” Silverman said. “We’re on the team. We want to help, and we’d like the community to work on it to get him someplace else.”
The most important thing is making sure he’s “safe long-term,” Willis said. Szymczak wants to remain as independent as possible and has turned down suggestions of assisted living facilities, he added.
Willis imagines finding an active community for the senior.
“The kind of place where he lives on his own, but the neighbors might stop in and check on him every other day or so, and say, ‘Hey Zyggy, how’s it going? Play me a song. Here’s a plate of food,’” he said.
It’s important that the North Port community supports the pianist, as well as other seniors in need, he added.
“It takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to take care of our seniors,” Willis said. “As people are dealing with COVID, we need to make sure we reach out to our elderly neighbors. We never know what people are going through. Just because we’re social distancing doesn’t mean you have to ignore your community.”
Patch did not speak with Zyggy Szymczak for this story because he speaks only Polish.