FOCUS: Thankful to Jimmy Carter and for growing up on Boulevard

A Cuban refugee breaks down in 1980 after making it to Key West in the Mariel Boatlift. Photo via U.S. Library of Congress.

By Patty Thumann

NORCROSS, Ga.  |  In 1980, President Jimmy Carter opened the United States for Cubans who wanted to flee under political asylum. My father was a ham radio operator and was able to communicate in secret with an old family friend in the United States on helping to get to this country.


One night I was whisked away as I was told we were going to Canada. I knew people from Canada and felt we would be safe. In Cuba at that time, we were told that Americans were “gusanos” (maggots) and were bad people, and would kill you, etc. It was enough to really scare a young child.

We went to the encampment where Cubans were being processed called the “Mosquito” in the city of Mariel. We were served cold scrambled eggs in a box we were served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  I’m not sure if it was when I was a teenager or young adult that I stopped being able to smell and taste those meals. We caught the Mariel Lift Boat. Thousands of refugees died in the overflowing boats.

We came to the States through Key West. It was then, as we were being processed, I learned we were really in the USA. We lived in the Fort Lauderdale area for two years, and then my dad got a job in Gwinnett County and moved when I was nine years old. I’ve been in Gwinnett most of my life and consider myself a Gwinnettian! I met my husband Brian in 1995 and we have a soon-to-be 19-year-old son.

In 2017, I wanted to get involved with helping our community in case of major emergencies and use skills I learned through scuba diving. I became a member of the Medical Reserve Corps, which is a non-profit organization assisting Gwinnett emergency management and more specifically Gwinnett Health Department in upscaling emergency responses. In 2020, I was instrumental in helping lead volunteers in over 17,000 hours of assistance to the Covid 19 response.

This gave me a taste for community involvement and the desire to do more. I became a member of the Southwest Gwinnett Chamber and later was asked to serve on the board, which I still do. I later got involved with Good Samaritan Health Center of Gwinnett, which offers health and dental care to those who do not have insurance, with 70 percent of their patients being Hispanic. They were looking for more representation of their patients, and I was added to their board.

In 2023, my husband and I launched the Thumann Foundation through the Community Foundation for Northeast Georgia to specifically focus on children’s healthcare, nutrition, safety, and education. I can proudly say that in its first year, we awarded six grants to area nonprofit organizations working in this mission. I am now a member of the Gwinnett Leadership Program….class of 2024. (Best class ever.)

Earlier this year, Gateway85 had a special event commemorating the naming of Jimmy Carter Boulevard in Norcross. As I was sitting in the audience listening to the President’s grandson, I realized that if it was not for President Carter, our family would probably not have had the opportunity of the American Dream. Sitting there I realized that my first job at 13 and 14 was right down the street on Jimmy Carter Boulevard and that my husband and I both grew up off this street.  And here I was honoring the legacy of all the humanitarian work of Jimmy Carter. It was a full-circle moment.