TAMPA, Fla. — The Beautifully Unblemished Vitiligo Support Group held its first empowerment seminar, "Loving the Skin You're In" in Tampa on Saturday.

  • Group helps people battling auto-immune disease
  • Spectrum Bay News 9 political analyst one of the keynote speakers
  • LINK: Beautifully Unblemished

Founded by Tonja Johnson of Lakeland, the group has about 90 members from across the state of Florida and seeks to help people battling the auto-immune disease, which causes loss of skin color in blotches. The disease doesn't have a cure.

There are several treatments, including a new clinical trial ForCare Clinical Research in Tampa is offering. 

One of the keynote speakers was Ana Cruz, a Spectrum Bay News 9 political analyst, a well known Floridian lobbyist, and the partner of Tampa Mayor Jane Castor. She shared with the crowd her journey living with vitiligo for more than 40 years. 

"I was really young when it started. I was five. And it started like it does in most people. You start depigmenting on your hands, your fingers around your eyes," explained Cruz. 

She said the auto-immune disease coupled with morbid obesity made for a rough childhood. 

"By the time I was in sixth grade I was 244 pounds with vitiligo. If you can imagine what that was like, it was not easy," Cruz recalled. 

Cruz said her mother, St. Sen. Janet Cruz did what she could to make the road ahead easier. She found out later on in life that her mother would go up to her school and educate her classmates on the disease before they met her. 

"She told kids that I had vitiligo and I'm coming to school tomorrow and it's not contagious. It looks like freckles and that she wanted to answer questions beforehand,” Cruz said. 

In high school she took some pills to treat the disease. They were supposed to return pigment to her skin but instead, she believes they may have sped up depigmentation. Now she said her skin is totally white. 

They don’t have any idea that I have vitiligo because I am completely depigmented. I'll have a little freckle here or there and it's really not a freckle. It's my original pigment," Cruz said. 

She said there weren't support groups like Beautifully Unblemished when she was growing up. She shared her story with its members with hopes it will inspire them to press on, despite the obstacles they may face.