Local Lithuanian group helps keep heritage strong
For the last 16 years, Valdimaras “Valdy” Gedvilas and his family have been successfully integrating into American life after they immigrated from their homeland of Lithuania on April 1, 2000.
Gedvilas moved across the Atlantic Ocean from Lithuania with his wife, Jolanta and daughter Lina, while having their youngest daughter, Gabi, after taking their roots in the Fort Myers/Naples area.
Gedvilas has worked at Billy’s Rentals for nearly 16 years as a bike mechanic, working most of his hours at the off-island warehouse.
But even though the Gedvilas family is integrating well into the American lifestyle, the need to keep their Lithuania heritage strong in their lives is an important aspect.
“Unlike other nationalities, Lithuanians here in Florida don’t all live in one or two neighborhoods, we are spread out,” Gedvilas said. “But we still like to be together and be a community.”
That is the reason why a Lithuanian Southwest Florida community group was formed by Danute Balciuniene and her daughter, Inga, over 11 years ago.
The community group enables the adults to pass on the Lithuanian heritage, as well as helping other newcomers integrate into American society.
“We like to be together and we don’t want our kids to forget their heritage,” Gedvilas said.
The 55-year-old Gedvilas said his eldest daughter, Lina, started in America in second grade, graduated from Fort Myers High School and moved on to George Washington University on scholarship.
“She is living the America dream,” a proud Gedvilas said.
Recently, to celebrate the two independence days for Lithuania, a group of 30-40 bikers from the community group, rode the Sanibel bike trails and met at the Bowman’s Beach for dinner and companionship.
“My boss, Billy (Kirkland), was very helpful and supplied the bikes for the day,” Gedvilas said.
This year on Feb. 16, was the Lithuanian’s 98th Independence Day and March 11, it will be 25 years since the country restored their independence from Russia.
The Lithuanian community group has around 200 members, with up to 60-70 attending events at one time. They host a Facebook page at Pietvakariu Floridos Lietuviu Bendruomene.
There are 52 such Lithuanian community groups in the United States, ranging from Chicago to California.
Gedvilas still visits Lithuania, since his mother, brother and sisters still live there.
“But we do not feel separated from Americans, everyone has their heart open to us,” Gedvilas said.
When the community group meets, they enjoy traditional Lithuanian food such mashed potatoes formed with meat, usually pork, inside.
“We have different salads, as well, and white potato salads,” Gedvilas said. “We also enjoy the weather here, because it is much colder in Lithuania.”
With immigration laws being stricter, less Lithuanians move to the U.S., but instead opt to move to the different European countries.
But the ones who do make Southwest Florida home, they have familiar faces to rely on in the Lithuania community group.