MIAMI — Citizen activist Vanessa Brito has helped thousands of Floridians get the unemployment benefits they are owed.
You may recognize her from First Coast News Facebook group Navigating Florida's Unemployment Maze where she is our official unemployment expert and an irreplaceable resource for people trapped in the system.
She doesn’t get paid for any of it. She's dedicated her time to fighting with the state and for the people.
From Jacksonville to Miami, I brought my cameras down to where she's located to finally meet her in person after more than 2 years.
Brito‘s phone is as busy as the highways around Miami.
Her phone rings and pings almost constantly.
“Let me talk to them first," she says to herself. She scrolls through hundreds of messages she has to respond to.
Brito is a self-proclaimed introvert who every day talks to strangers.
“I’ve never been able to handle any injustice whatsoever," she explains.
Because of that, she helps about 100 people a day navigate Florida’s unemployment system. Brito has a background in public policy, research and political campaigns.
In 2011, she successfully led the campaign to remove Miami’s mayor from office mid term. That’s how many people in Miami recognize her.
“She won’t stop until she gets results," said James Cueva, who is running for office and has recruited Brito to help his campaign.
“Since high school, she has always been out there just helping others," said Diego Gomez, a Navy veteran who met Brito through her help with pandemic assistance.
"It’s just the way she is. She may be shy or reserved. She likes to be in the background but she likes to make things happen," Gomez said.
For about a decade, she disappeared from public view serving as her mother's full-time caretaker as she battled MS.
The same illness that pushed Brito out of politics brought her back to the people in 2020.
“I was in the hospital with my mom actually. I’m sitting there and I’m just so upset. So you’re sitting there in a hospital you’re already frustrated. I couldn’t leave because COVID had already taken over so if you leave you don’t come back. I wasn’t going to leave my mom," Brito explained.
"So while I was bathing in the sink, I was also reading comments from people who were saying that day... I remember it was the day people had a line up to file their applications and I was like no. No. This is unacceptable.”
She remembers seeing videos of the elderly lining up outside in the Florida heat to get pandemic assistance.
Brito stepped in to help because she understands the system having worked in public policy.
She knows what questions to ask. She’s persistent and she’s made a name for herself in politics and as an advocate.
At a time when people were desperate for help, she was one of the only people outside the system who could help and get responses from the state.
“This is not OK anymore. It’s not even a Democrat or a Republican issue. It’s a person a human issue," Brito said passionately.
The system hasn’t changed over these last 2 years, but her life has. Even when her mother was losing her battle to MS, Brito was there to help people.
"(My mom) would always apologize to me and say I’m sorry that you have to change my diaper in the middle of a call with someone who’s not even paying me and doesn’t even know," Brito said crying.
She says her mom was the person in her life who never said no. Now, she replicates that.
Her mother Julia died in March. Brito says helping people is what’s keeping her together.
“I think people deserve better," said Brito.
She has a non-profit called Auxilium, which means help in Latin. It was originally created years ago as a way to help in emergencies overseas or with emergency situation like the Surfside condo collapse.
Brito’s goal is to get grants and funding to be able to perform advocacy work full time.