Historic Orange Grove’s Fate Undecided

By on December 21st, 2014 | Last updated: December 19, 2014 at 5:46 pm
Although the grove is currently closed to visitors, signs and maps still stand to display the historic site.

Although the grove is currently closed to visitors, signs and maps still stand to mark the historic site despite its unclear future. Taylor Trache / WUFT News

The historic Carney Island orange grove, tucked away next to Marion County’s Lake Weir, may soon disappear if no one takes on the grove’s upkeep and responsibilities.

Carney Island has seen many different caretakers in its lifetime. Eighty-three-year-old War Veteran Kenneth Brown Sr., has lived by the orange grove long enough to see most of its history.

“What, 83, 84? Well about that time anyway it froze… got down to about 10-11 degrees. One year the trees froze off real bad, and we pruned them,” Brown said. “Everybody pruned them all off, and about thirteen months later, in January, the roots died.”

Brown and his son, Ken, saw Carney Island in some of its best moments, and in some of its worst. Since the freeze, they said Carney Island hasn’t been the same.

“It’s not the whole Carney Island like it used to be, but the groves are still up there,” he said.

In the past, Carney Island was an agricultural site, and a home to the Timucuan American Indian tribe since the 1600s.

Gina Peebles, Marion County Parks and Recreation Director, said it became a grove a couple of hundreds of years later.

“Back in 1875 Captain John L. Carney and his brother, E.L. Carney, bought the grove, and they developed the 25-acre orange grove, which later grew in size,” she said. “They were also responsible for developing different kinds of citrus including the Parson Brown. In 1894, there was a freeze that wiped out the trees around the lake.”

The Carney Island grove was later purchased by the Coca-Cola Co., using the citrus for their Minute Maid Juice division in 1990. Coke later sold Carney Island back to the county, when the Marion County Sheriffs Office agreed to maintain it.

Sgt. David Hurst has been with the sheriff’s office for 29 years, and he became familiar with the grove when the agency picked it up in 2008.

“At one time, there were so many trash trees, and by trash trees I mean not orange trees, more like oak trees. There was just a lot of foreign trees to the grove that were in there,” Hurst said. “It was head high, literally between the rows, and we went in and did a lot of work in there, and it’s a lot better than what it was six years ago.”

A year ago, the sheriff’s office backed out of caring for the grove. Now, Marion County is trying to figure what to do with this historic site. At one point the Department of Corrections expressed an interest in maintaining it, but backed out due to the daunting workload, according to Hurst.

“We were challenged with resources and personnel,” he said. “We were always struggling late in the season to get down to Carney Island and get it picked. So when someone else was interested, since we had adequate fruit here (the University of Florida’s research farm), we decided to back off so nothing would go to waste and share it; we would let someone else use it.”

Peebles said that so far the county is just letting the grove grow wild, but it has some agritourism ideas for its future.

“People from other places, they don’t have orange trees, so you could come here, learn about them, maybe pick one, juice it; do a you-pick kind of thing so it’s kind of a fun family experience,” she said.

However, with a year of no one taking care of it, Carney Island has become organic, and the county has talked about removing the historic orange trees and the smell their orange blossoms produce.

“Well, at some point it’s just gonna grow wild, and the county will have to make a decision at some point that we want to do something with that grove,” she said. “Or just take out the orange trees and plant it with something native to the area.”

However, she thinks the trees and their aromatic presence will be missed.

After living next to the grove for so long, Brown said he would remember how the area surrounding the log house he built in 1964 would smell like oranges.

As of now, Peebles said there have been some interested caretakers that have come and gone, and it’s just a matter of time until a decision, which the Marion County Board of Commissioners have an open mind about, is made.

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Clinic Offers Health Care For Pets Every Tuesday

By on December 20th, 2014 | Last updated: December 19, 2014 at 4:27 pm


Larneice Williams brings her 6-year-old Chihuahua, Mr. King, to the St. Francis Pet Care  every other Tuesday to get his routinely checkup and food. Mr. King is considered a regular at the clinic.

Larneice Williams brings her 6-year-old Chihuahua, Mr. King, to the St. Francis Pet Care every other Tuesday to get his routine checkup and food. Mr. King is considered a regular at the clinic. Sabrina Alvarez / WUFT News

Every other Tuesday Mr. King is carried into a clinic wrapped in his mother’s warm arms to receive the health care he needs.

Twice a month, the chihuahua is pampered like royalty at the St. Francis House Pet Care Clinic — for free.

He is oblivious to the fact that his owner, Larneice Williams, is unemployed, disabled and lacks the economic means to provide him with health insurance.

St. Francis House Pet Care Clinic provides homeless, low-income and recently unemployed pet owners in Alachua County with free primary, non-emergency veterinary care for their companions.

One of the co-founders of the pet clinic and the University of Florida’s outgoing First Lady, Chris Machen said she has seen a difference in many pets as soon as they walk through the clinic’s doors.

“As soon as we start to feed them good food, within several weeks they have gained weight and their fur is better,” Machen said.

The majority of the pet food the clinic gives away to homeless or needy animals is donated from a manufacturer in Tampa. However, with colder weather approaching, food and medicine are not the only items these homeless pets will need.

Homeless shelters do not allow pets inside unless they are registered as service dogs, forcing pet owners and their pets to have to stay outside and endure all kinds of weather.

However, Machen said the clinic is collecting blankets, jackets and similar clothing to keep the homeless and their pets warm.

Dale Kaplan-Stein, a veterinarian and co-founder of the St. Francis House Pet Care Clinic, said she has never heard of any other place that provides this type of care for needy pets.

“This is the only program that I know of in the country,” she said. “I would like to be disproven because I would like to know there are more places where care like this is given to pets who otherwise wouldn’t get it.”

Kaplan-Stein said over the past nine years, she has noticed a trend in the lack of health care education in pet owners.  

“When I asked them what is the average life of their pets, dogs in this case, most of them would say three years,” Kaplan-Stein said. “They were surprised to learn that dogs can live to 15 years.”

Kaplan-Stein said this is mainly because they do not have access to professionals who can educate them on how to take care of their animals.

One of the clinic’s primary goals is to educate people through counseling on the importance of nutrition, daily care, and the monthly necessities pets require.

Williams said she started coming to the St. Francis House Pet Care Clinic seven years ago. Before Mr. King, she had a dog named Laila, who she would bring into the clinic after she became unemployed. She said she is thankful for the St. Francis House Pet Care Clinic staff, who are lending a hand during a her financial difficulties.

“As long as I was able to work and take care of her, I did,” Williams said. “You know, it’s really expensive. So when you find someone that can do the same thing when you don’t have your job anymore and you are disabled…I am grateful.”

“He gets his shots, paws clipped, love and care every time he comes here. If he needs medication, they make sure he has it,” she said. “This whole team here loves Mr. King, and Mr. King loves them too.”

St. Francis House Pet Care Clinic provides medical care to animals every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to noon. The clinic is located at 501 SE 2nd St.  You can contact them at 352-372-4959 or at www.stfrancispetcare.org.

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University of Florida’s QB Treon Harris Cited For Driving Without License

By on December 19th, 2014 | Last updated: December 19, 2014 at 3:33 pm
Treon Harris, University of Florida freshman quarterback.

Treon Harris, University of Florida freshman quarterback. Tim Casey / Courtesy of the University of Florida Athletic Association

Three University of Florida football players were pulled over on UF’s campus while driving above the speed limit Saturday. While stopped officers observed the scent of marijuana and upon further search found two separate bags containing a total of 3.1 grams of the drug.

Freshman quarterback Treon Harris has been charged with second-degree misdemeanor for driving without a valid driver’s license.

“We are aware of the incident and are dealing with it internally and their bowl status hasn’t changed,” said Steve McLain, University Athletic Association spokesperson.

According the police report the first bag of marijuana, containing 1.2 grams, was found in the back of the passenger seat in a net storage pocket. The second bag, containing 1.9 grams, was found between the driver’s seat and the middle console. UF Police Department spokesman, Brad Barber, said ownership of the marijuana could not be determined so all three students were referred to UF’s student conduct and conflict resolution. In cases like this, probation and substance abuse education ordered by the dean of student’s office would be the most likely outcome, said UF spokesperson Steve Orlando.

At 11:29 p.m. on Saturday Dec. 13 UFPD officer Geoffrey Anderson noticed the car was traveling 10 mph above UF’s 20 mph speed limit.

Huntley Johnson, who represented Harris earlier this year in a sexual battery accusation that was later dropped, said he encouraged Harris to get a license and expects the charges to be dropped once he does. Johnson said he is not representing Harris in any other matters at the moment.

Harris’ passengers included freshman cornerback Jalen Tabor and freshman defensive back J.C. Jackson. E’mani Cain is the registered owner of the 2010 silver Infinity Harris was driving, Barber said. Cain was not in the car during the incident.

Harris told Anderson he did not have driver’s license and never has, according to Barber.

Once the citation was issued and the group was dismissed, Tabor, who has a license, drove the car.

When Anderson noticed the scent of marijuana he asked to search the car. Harris and his passengers agreed.

As a result of the incident, Harris was cited with a drivers license violation, which is categorized as a criminal traffic citation, and is expected in court for an arraignment on Jan. 15, 2015.

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Gator Stompin’ Looking To Get Back On Track With Payback Program

By on December 19th, 2014 | Last updated: December 19, 2014 at 10:46 am
One of the two Thrift 5 stores owned by Pledge 5 in Gainesville. Pledge 5 budgeted the 2014 Gator Stompin' event off projected attendance increases and revenue from the thrift stores, but was unable to meet the expected numbers.

One of the two Thrift 5 stores owned by Pledge 5, in Gainesville. Pledge 5 budgeted the 2014 Gator Stompin’ event off projected attendance increases and revenue from the thrift stores, but was unable to meet expected numbers.                 Jay Martin / WUFT News

After ending last year’s event more than $100,000 in debt, Gainesville’s biggest bar crawl is pushing forward in hopes of getting back on track.

Tickets for Gator Stompin’, the annual Gainesville bar crawl that draws thousands of attendees out to bounce between the participating bars, restaurants and clubs throughout Gainesville, recently went on sale for the April 2015 event despite 2014’s setbacks.

Jason Bowman, the director of Gator Stompin’ and founder of the Gainesville nonprofit Pledge 5 Foundation, planned and budgeted for last year’s event based on rising attendance rates and sales from the two Thrift 5 stores. Instead of the expected 20 percent increase in attendance, the event grew by only two percent.

After the nearly 7,000 attendees cleared out of about 80 participating Gainesville venues and rapper Waka Flocka and Grammy-nominated DJ Wolfgang Gartner finished the Gator Stompin’ concert at Bo Diddley Plaza, Bowman and Pledge 5 found themselves owing close to 30 businesses a combined total between $100,000 and $150,000.

“We overspent last year,” Bowman said. “We’ve had tremendous growth and it was still the biggest Gator Stompin’ in history, it just didn’t grow at the rate we expected it to.”

With debtors and lawsuits closing in on Pledge 5 over the missing funds, Bowman considered his options, ranging from equity crowd funding to shutting down entirely. Ultimately, he decided to carry on Gator Stompin’ with more caution and control.

“I think someone slightly more grounded or slightly more pessimistic probably would’ve shut down the company after the losses with revenue,” Bowman said. “If we didn’t move forward with Gator Stompin’, then it would just be one less revenue source to pay people back the debt.”

Bowman formed a steering committee comprised of management from five of the venues owed some of the largest amounts of money, and the Gator Stompin 2014 payback program was created. Any business still owed money by Pledge 5 can enter the program by signing on for Gator Stompin’ 2015 in advance, thus guaranteeing the event will be held. In return, ticket sales are expected to repay the businesses any money owed, with interest when possible according to Bowman, and an advance payment for Gator Stompin’ 2015.

The five businesses in the steering committee include Tall Paul’s, Vellos Brickstreet Grill, Sweet Mel’s, 101 Management Group, and Lillian’s.

Melinda Crawford, the owner of Sweet Mel’s and one of the five committee members is pleased with how plans have progressed thus far.

“Those of us that are on the committee are all on board and we’re excited about it,” Crawford said. “Things happen, and sometimes there is an oversight here or there, so it’s great that we have many more eyes looking over it.”

Along with the steering committee, Bowman also created a Gator Stompin’ bank account, completely separate from Pledge 5. The committee has access to the account and hired an accounting firm to write and distribute the money.

Bowman said about ten venues have already signed on for the payback program and more than $10,000 has been raised from ticket sales. Venues not wishing to participate in the payback program will still receive the money owed; it just won’t come from the initial ticket sales, according to Bowman.

Bowman wasn’t able to elaborate fully on the status of the lawsuits he was facing, but did say that no judgments have been made and the people who have brought lawsuits against Pledge 5 have been flexible enough to allow for future payment plans.

“Jason is being very open and transparent about everything so far,” Crawford said. “He’s got a great mind and a lot of knowledge on how to get things going.”

With the new committee on board and venues beginning to return, now Pledge 5 and Gator Stompin’ hope sponsors will do the same.

“We did lose a lot of sponsors because businesses have to be weary of their brand, and I understand that,” Bowman said. “As the public sees everything getting righted, I think the sponsors will come back.”

Gainesville Self Storage, a 2014 sponsor of Gator Stompin’, will continue to sponsor the event, according to Carol Freitag, manager of the Gainesville Self Storage located off I-75.

“Jason has been in touch with me and we’ve talked about a few things and I feel comfortable going forward,” Freitag said. “We all go over our budgets every now and then in our personal lives and we learn from our mistakes, so we can only hope that they do the same.”

Bowman is looking to further stabilize Pledge 5’s financial situation by negotiating its way into a bigger space for the Main Street thrift store and establishing a car dealership program that allows people to purchase cars through volunteering.

“Being more cautious and more conservative with our business decisions will come through the committee and we’re trying to be a more robust company by installing new revenue streams,” Bowman said. “If Gator Stompin’ doesn’t pay off our debt, we’ll be able to take care of it.”

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Local Organization Fills Christmas Spirit “One Belly At A Time”

By on December 19th, 2014 | Last updated: December 19, 2014 at 10:43 am
Rozie Smith, a volunteer with Food4Kids Backpack program works together with fellow volunteer, Brantley Mason, to put together a canned food box at the organization’s warehouse as the holiday season approaches

Rozie Smith, a volunteer with Food4Kids Backpack program works together with fellow volunteer, Brantley Mason, to put together a canned food box at the organization’s warehouse as the holiday season approaches.                                              Jennifer Chow/WUFT News

Four years ago, Jennifer Moore decided to bring cupcakes and pizza to her daughter, Alyssa’s, third-grade class for her birthday party.

She said she was shocked to see that a few of Alyssa’s classmates seemed more excited about the supply of food than the festivities.

“Her birthday happened to fall on a Monday that year,” said Moore, CEO and founder of Food4Kids Backpack Program Inc. of North Florida. “A couple of students stood out to me because they seemed beyond normal ‘hungry’ for lunch time. A few of the kids in her class seemed more focused that day on the availability of the food rather than the small celebration. It was then that my eyes were opened to what hungry children look like in our country.”

Moore said she remembered mentioning this apparent hunger to the teacher as she watched a few students scarf down slices of pizza. That’s when the teacher explained that this is the usual behavior for a Monday morning following the weekends for some kids who might not be getting meals outside of school hours.

Moore felt compelled to do something.

She co-founded and launched the Food4Kids Backpack Program of North Florida in 2011 , a year after successfully implementing the program in Myra Terwilliger Elementary School. The program is a non-profit organization that gives students who experience food insecurity at home rolling backpacks filled with food. The students receive the rolling backpacks, which are particularly convenient for the elementary kids who can’t carry heavy loads, on Fridays for the weekend.

Food4Kids, which is 100 percent volunteer-run, is now working with 22 schools in Alachua County at elementary, middle and high-school levels.

Moore said that it is sustained with the support the program receives from the community. And although the volunteers might not be able to eradicate world hunger, they’re able to help the local demand for it by being able to “impact one hungry child, one belly at a time,”  especially during the holidays.

Volunteers with Food4Kids backpack program work diligently in the organization’s warehouse to fill the winter break boxes going out to students in need during the holiday break.

Volunteers with Food4Kids backpack program work in the organization’s warehouse to fill the winter break boxes going out to students in need during the holiday break.          Jennifer Chow/WUFT News.

Rozie Smith, a retired nurse practitioner and volunteer with the backpack program, said she searched for a community organization to volunteer with after retirement.

“This organization caught my heart,” Smith said. “Feeding hungry children in our own community, what’s more special than that?”

As the holiday season approaches, the organization is attempting to ease hunger by equipping students with boxes of large-quantity items of food to be split into several meals like; large boxes of cereal, oatmeal and one pound bags of rice, on oppose to a box of macaroni and cheese that is traditionally placed in the weekend backpacks.

“Because the schools are closed for two weeks, all the children in the Food4Kids program are receiving a box of food through the winter break food program, which is a program started by the school board,” said Rachel Alty, a volunteer for the program. “So we are collaborating together, and they’re using our warehouse space as we collect and fill boxes.”

Alty, who also helps with the donation coordination for Food4Kids, said its partnership with the Alachua County School Board exhibits “a wonderful community effort.” This is the third year the Alachua County School Board has chosen Food4Kids as a partner.

Food4kids also provides boxes for students in need during Thanksgiving, spring break and once each month during summer break.

Kelley Kostamo, partnership specialist with Alachua County Public Schools, explained how need is determined.

“More than half of the students in Alachua county public schools are on free and reduced lunch, so we’re talking about just under 15,000 students who are potentially at risk of going hungry over the weekend or over breaks,” she said. “We are just really serving the hungriest kids, and we let our schools determine who (beyond the backpack kids) gets the boxes to take home because they see them everyday…”

She explained that although Food4kids currently provides 150 backpacks for students to take home on weekends, it is aiming to provide another 650 boxes for families during this winter break’s.

“You’re trying to buy gifts, wrap up your end-of-the-year expenses, pay off your bills, and so we didn’t want for people to have to choose between not enough food and gifts,” Kostamo said. “We are trying to help as many families as we can.”

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Prisoner Labor Saves Taxpayer Money

By on December 19th, 2014 | Last updated: December 19, 2014 at 10:02 am
Inmate labor saved taxpayers more than $9 million in 2013. The stoves project was just a small piece of a large statewide operation.

Inmate labor saved taxpayers more than $9 million in 2013. The stoves project was just a small piece of a large statewide operation.

Picture prisoners building their own enclosures. It is an interesting concept, but it didn’t have to stop there. One man in the Marion County Jail system saw an interesting opportunity, where both the current prisoners and the prison system can benefit.

Officer Ken Baggett runs a prisoner work program for specialized tasks, anything from construction to metal refurbishing, which allows prisoners to receive six days off their sentence for every 30 days in his program.

Baggett’s program is also responsible for facilitating much of the infrastructure of the Marion County Jail.  Hundreds of construction related tasks around the jail have been completed using prisoner labor. Much of the concrete, fencing, security additions, such as razor wire, and even a greenhouse for the prison were all done through Baggett’s program.

The County uses Baggett’s program to build new additions to the jail. Everything from building a half-court basketball court for the employees to “the peanut-butter cage” has been built by prisoner labor.

“We had a problem with the prisoners stealing sugar and other items that could be used as currency,” Baggett said. “So we had to get a little creative.”

Baggett’s program built a cage around all the high value theft items like sugar, salt, peanut-butter, etc. and built a special lock that was used on all the gates around the prison, so there would be less theft.

“Since we built it, the thefts of these items went down to zero,” Baggett said.

Baggett’s program also saved taxpayers approximately $24,000 by fixing two stoves in the Marion County Jail. The two stoves were responsible for cooking about 700 meals daily.

Baggett said the bottom of the stoves were rusting due to the moisture build up from mopping. After first glance, it was decided that the stoves would cost over $12,000 a piece to replace.

“After I took a look at it, I figured we could get a group together to see if we couldn’t fix it ourselves,” Baggett said.

Adding up the materials, prisoner labor and time it took to complete the task,  each stove cost about $400 to repair.

In order for these prisoners to work under officer Baggett, they must meet certain criteria. They can not be a sex-offender or convicted of a violent crime. If they meet these criteria, they must still be hand-picked by officer Baggett.

“It is a very successful program,” he said. “I only see maybe one out of 20 of the prisoners in my program again, unless it’s when I’m in civilian clothes.”

Baggett said the prisoners he picks don’t have to have specialized skills so much as a willingness to work. Many of the needed skills are taught to the prisoners on the job in order to give them a skill when they return to the workforce.

David DeNyke, 39, was the head prisoner on the job to rebuild the bottom of the prison stoves. DeNyke, now a former prisoner of the Marion County Jail,  was in Baggett’s program for the majority of his sentence.

Outside the jail DeNyke was a landscaper and had no experience working with metal or mechanics but was taught on the job in the program.

“It wasn’t exactly the place I wanted to learn all these things,” he said before he was released, while he was still a prisoner. “But if anything, it will help me get back on my feet when I get out and the program overall has helped me approach things more level headed.”

DeNyke’s newly learned skills and his willingness to work made him very valuable in multiple projects, such as the stoves, The Mobile Jail Cell and “Jail on Wheels” that Marion County constructed to educated the public and multiple contracting jobs around the jail.

This program isn’t just about getting prisoners to work, Baggett said. “It’s about teaching a skill and rewarding motivation.”

He said there hasn’t been many problems with attitudes and misbehavior, but there are always some circumstances.

“You’re always going to have people with bad attitudes, and it’s only natural to have some disputes among inmates,” he said. “But overall, since I pick the inmates, I already have a pretty good idea of who I will have to keep an eye on.”

John Townsend, owner of Marion Metal Woks, said the work on the stoves was a good use of prisoner labor.

“It doesn’t bother me that we didn’t get a chance to do the job,” he said. “We couldn’t have done it for nearly as cheap as $400 a stove.”

Townsend has done many jobs around the state of Florida for prisons that required steel labor. In his experience, work programs like this work well for prisoners because it teaches them new skills.

“Lots of times  [prisoners] would be right there beside us helping with the steel in the prison,” he said.

Townsend  said he is more likely to hire an inmate who has been a part of some sort of work program while in jail. Inmates who are part of these programs show that they can complete tasks in a timely fashion and are willing to work.

“One of the prisoners that worked beside us on one of the jobs came in and asked for an application,” he said. “I told them to hire him on the spot.”


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Operation Santa Seeks Benefactors

By on December 18th, 2014 | Last updated: December 18, 2014 at 7:47 pm

Charlotte Whitten loves Christmas.

For the 7-year-old, the holiday represents giving and sharing, and celebrating the birth of  Jesus. It means going to aunt Jane’s house, eating food and playing with her cousins – but most importantly, eating.

Last year, Charlotte wrote and mailed a letter to Santa on a plain, white sheet of paper. With a pencil, she drew a line down the middle of the page, splitting it into two sections: “Charlotte’s list” and “Liam’s list.”

She said Liam, her 5-year-old brother, always asked for “things that are not even on this planet yet,” like time machines. Charlotte’s requests for Barbies and dollhouses were more realistic — more “on this planet.” She even dedicated a line of her letter to ask Santa for a tablet computer for her father, Niles Whitten.

“I hope I still get it,” joked Whitten, a Gainesville attorney.

The freckled and frocked second-grader will write to Santa again, but this time she’ll do it through the Gainesville Post Office’s new program: Operation Santa Claus.

This is the first year the Gainesville Post Office is participating in the program. Operation Santa Claus, commonly shortened to Operation Santa, allows benefactors nationwide to adopt a “Dear Santa” letter and grant those gifts.

The program started in 1912 when Postmaster Gen. Frank Hitchcock authorized local postmasters to “allow postal employees and citizens to respond to letters from needy children,” according to the program’s blog.

Families lacking basic needs typically submit letters asking for clothing, money to pay bills, and often times, a simple meal. Some families, like the Whittens, simply write letters for the enjoyment of receiving a response.

Gainesville Postmaster Matthew Connelly implemented the city’s Operation Santa in mid-November with the help of his secretary, Theresa Hill. Connelly said Gainesville was the perfect place to implement the program.

“I know how charitable the postal service employees can be, and I’m learning how charitable Gainesville can be,” he said. “ When you put those two things together, it’s a no-brainer to bring a program like this to the Gainesville area.”

The only participating Florida locations are the Gainesville and Orlando post offices. A total of 18 post offices nationwide participate in Operation Santa.

“I think that says a lot about Gainesville,” Connelly said. Connelly and Hill began to receive letters from around the country on Dec. 2. In order to qualify for adoption by a benefactor, each letter had to be addressed to Operation Santa specifically.

“Once I read the first letter, my heart bled for them,” Hill, who doubles as head Elf to Connelly and his staff and Santa Claus to her readers, said.

 The Gainesville Post Office has received 145 Operation Santa Claus. Each letter must be addressed specifically to the program in order to qualify for adoption by a potential benefactor.

The Gainesville Post Office has received 145 Operation Santa Claus. Each letter must be addressed specifically to the program in order to qualify for adoption by a potential benefactor. / Tanima Mehrotra

She dedicates three to four hours a day sifting through and typing out personalized responses to each message. She answered 200 general letters to Santa this month.

A green binder filled with 145 Operation Santa requests sits on her wooden desk next to a light-up plastic snowman.

Hill said most of the adults who submit letters are hospitalized, unemployed or trying to fulfill basic duties, like paying the electricity bill.

She highlighted one man, paralyzed from the waist down, who asked Santa for a wheelchair this year.

The post office is currently working toward granting him his wish. Kids write on behalf of their parents and siblings, grandparents write on behalf of their grandchildren, and mothers write on behalf of themselves, each penning his or her Christmas wish list in a different way.

Small children often promise Santa cookies and carrots for his reindeer in exchange for toys and trinkets. One boy expresses his desire to be a good brother in large cursive scrawled in green crayon.

A 5-year-old with autism simply thanks St. Nicholas for the ability to dress himself, signing his gratitude with a smiley face. Connelly and Hill are accepting gifts from Operation Santa benefactors to match requests from those in need until Monday.

He said the majority of donors are U.S. Army veterans because they have endured hardships.

“They understand what it’s like to suffer to come home to a good Christmas meal and have family around you,” he said. “They probably understand that better than the rest of us.” So far, only one Gainesville local has adopted a letter.

The remaining benefactors ship their gifts through online and phone services. Last Christmas, Charlotte wished for a dollhouse and a jack-in-the-box. She didn’t get the dollhouse.

Whitten said writing letters to Santa impact his children by “creating childhood memories of Christmas.”

His daughter remembers to write hers every year. “’Hi, Santa. My name is Charlotte,’” she said, sucking on a purple lollipop. “I’ve been good this year.”

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Angel Tree Shines Light On Migrant Families

By on December 18th, 2014 | Last updated: December 18, 2014 at 4:15 pm

A Christmas tree angel will bless the Lopez family during the holidays.

The Lopez family is among 300 migrant families in Alachua County, and 12 other surrounding counties looking forward to seeing their children’s faces light up with joy on Christmas Day at the sight of little angel notes hanging from St. Augustine Catholic Church’s Christmas tree.

“I am so happy and thankful that there are people that want to help and make it possible for me every year to give my four kids a happy Christmas,” said Cristina Lopez.

Every year, the St. Augustine Catholic Church, the American Heritage Girls troop and the Alachua Multi-County Migrant Education program, a part of the Alachua County school board, come together to sponsor the Angel Tree charity project.

The Angel Tree is set up during Thanksgiving and stands tall until Christmas Day.

Kelly Quintana, American Heritage Girls troop leader and volunteer at the church, said each angel has a note on it describing the needs of a migrant family during the holiday season.

“Our church is extremely generous,” Quintana said. “Yesterday I went and picked up another car load of wonderful gifts for the migrant families, and these are heaters, work boots for the men, work shirts, and toys for the kids, diapers, and formula.” 

Quintana said the Alachua County Multi-County Migrant Education program works with these families one-on-one throughout the year, and knows the best way to distribute the donated gifts collected by the church.

For at least 15 years the Angel Tree charity project has sponsored low-income, temporary or seasonal agriculture families. A lot of them cannot afford to buy a Christmas tree, let alone gifts for their children.

“This year, I didn’t have the money to buy a Christmas tree for my kids,” Lopez said. “It was very hard for me to explain to them why. They’re too young to understand my economic problems, but thanks to charities like these I can tell them Santa is coming.”

Natalie Norris, a supervisor for the Alachua County Multi-County Migrant Education program, said these migrant families have to meet certain requirements in order to be eligible for the charity program.

“They have to have made a move across county state lines in order to seek or obtain work in agriculture, and their children would have had to move with them,” Norris said.

Norris also said that because the migrant families are a highly mobile population, their education and lifestyle is often interrupted three to four times during the school year due to temporary and/or seasonal crops.

The church is collecting Christmas gifts until Sunday, Dec. 21. In addition, they collect donations throughout the year, such as household items as well as supermarket gift cards for migrant families.

Mrs. Lopez said the holidays are always a difficult time for her and her family, but every year she is thankful that they are blessed by an angel.

“It’s nice to know that there are a lot of nice people in this world, who are willing to help people like me, going through hard times.”


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Police Departments Look to Advance with Cameras

By on December 16th, 2014 | Last updated: December 16, 2014 at 6:56 pm
An example of the VIEVU body cameras worn by Ocala police officers. Photo courtesy of VIEVU®.

An example of the VIEVU body cameras worn by Ocala police officers, which are usually worn on the center of an officer’s uniform. Photo courtesy of VIEVU®.

Police departments across the nation are making headlines for adding a new piece of equipment to their officers’ uniforms: tiny, wearable video cameras.

Accountability and transparency are common themes in what is now a national discussion, fueled by the grand jury verdicts given in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases in Ferguson and New York.

Some area police departments like the idea of wearable video cameras, but have been limited by funding, storage and privacy concerns.

Ocala Police Department, however, is at the forefront of the initiative.

OPD spokeswoman Sgt. Angy Scroble said specialized units, such as school resource officers, were outfitted with the cameras as early as 2009.

“Body cams were not new to our department,” Scroble said. “There were already at least 20 out there.”

Ocala City Council approved about $130,000 to fund the purchase of 130 body-worn cameras in September. Scroble said the department ended up receiving 135, enough to equip all of its sworn officers.

Each officer is trained on how and when to use to the cameras, which are usually worn in the center of the officer’s uniform. For shorter individuals like Scroble, who is 5 feet 1 inch tall, the camera may not capture the best footage, and that’s when the audio prevails.

Programming each camera into the system can be a timely process—so far, out of the 135 cameras bought, 37 units are assigned to OPD officers.

The cost, which can range from $500 to $1,000 a piece, is one factor hindering other local departments from following suit.

Gainesville Police Department has been researching the cameras for a couple of years now, spokesman Officer Ben Tobias said, but the department has 300 sworn officers, almost double that of Ocala.

“Just the initial outlay is going to be very large number,” Tobias said.

A little less than half of GPD’s patrol cars are equipped with “dash cams,” or in-car cameras that are activated when emergency lights go on.

“We are increasing those as much as we can financially,” he said.

OPD has dash cams in their marked patrol cars as well.

Tobias points to storage space as another concern. Video evidence must be digitally stored for a certain amount of time according to state law.

“Nobody has really thought about—for an agency of our size—there’s a huge cost with maintaining this data,” Tobias said. “It has to be stored somewhere.”

Lake City Police Department finds itself in a similar situation, although the agency is much smaller.

The department has adopted in-car cameras and Taser cameras, which are attached to the bottom of a Taser, through grant funding, said department spokesman Officer Craig Strickland.

The car cameras have often been useful when civilians file a complaint against an officer, Strickland said. The police chief then sits down with the civilian and, together, they go over the video recording.

Then there are are gray areas concerning an individual’s right to privacy, Strickland said. For example, if the body cameras were to record 24/7, capturing trivial tasks such as coffee runs, the extra footage is not only unnecessary, but may also intrude on law-abiding civilians who come into contact with the officer. He also mentioned certain types of incidents, such as sexual battery, that would have to be dealt with carefully.

OPD’s officers are instructed to turn the cameras on during work-related incidents, Scroble said.

Speculation as to whether the cameras have an effect on officer and civilian interaction led to the first empirical study done in Rialto, California. Half of the officers in Rialto’s police department were randomly assigned cameras each week for a year. Findings showed a significant decline in complaints filed against officers, and a more than 50 percent decline in how often officers used force.

The University of South Florida started another 12-month study in March, involving 100 officers from the Orlando Police Department. Fifty officers are now wearing cameras, while the other 50 are in a control group.

Regardless of the study outcome, funding and data storage are primary concerns for Orlando’s 743-member department, said Master Police Officer Brian Cechowski.

Aside from the current barriers, local departments acknowledge the advantages of using the technology, and will continue researching their options.

“It’s a benefit to the public because if there’s any question about what actually happened, it would show the first-person view,” GPD’s Tobias said.

The move toward video technology is a natural one, OPD’s Scroble said.

“We’re going to do our best to keep up and make sure that if we need to have another mode of accountability, then we’re going to do it.”

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Alachua County Receives Florida’s 36th State Forest

By on December 16th, 2014 | Last updated: December 16, 2014 at 4:43 pm
Newnans Lake, shown here near 7400 E. University Ave., in Gainesville, Fla.

Newnans Lake, shown here near 7400 E. University Ave., in Gainesville, Fla. Michelle Champalanne/WUFT News

Alachua County is receiving a new state forest.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam and the Florida Forest Service recently announed plans to unveil the state’s 36th forest: Newnans Lake State Forest.

The 1,000-plus acres of diverse land west of Newnans Lake in Gainesville will provide bicycle and hiking trails for the public in spring 2015.

“The Florida Forest Service is excited to provide yet another opportunity for residents to enjoy Florida’s great outdoors,” Putnam said in a press release. “Newnans Lake State Forest will be a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and families to discover the many benefits our natural resources have to offer.”

The last state forest added to North Central Florida, Indian Lake State Forest in Marion County, was acquired in 2006 after four years of finalizing a $76-million deal through a partnership with the state’s Florida Forever program, Nature Conservancy and the Marion County Commission.

Newnans Lake State Forest will be the seventh forest in the Waccasassa Foresty Center field unit consisting of Alachua, Putnam, Gilchrist, Marion and Levy counties.

The Florida Forest Service will open the 36th state forest next year. Newnans Lake State Forest will house over 1,000 acres of land just west of Newnans Lake in Gainesville.

The Florida Forest Service will open the 36th state forest next year. Newnans Lake State Forest will house over 1,000 acres of land just west of Newnans Lake in Gainesville. Michelle Champalanne/WUFT News

The forest was previously owned by the Florida Department of Corrections. The property housed a former correctional institution on-site, said Erin Gillespie, press secretary for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

That building portion of the correctional institution was sold to the City of Gainesville in 2013 for about $1.4 million, where it was rehabilitated this past summer as a homeless center, Grace Marketplace.

The remaining land’s lease was transferred from the Florida Department of Corrections to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Because the transaction was between state agencies, Gillespie said the Florida Forest Service received the land at no cost.

Rick Dolan, operations administrator for the Waccasassa Foresty Center of the Florida Forest Service, said the process for obtaining the land was fairly smooth.

John Pricher, executive director of Visit Gainesville, said, “The main calling card for our area, in terms of leisure, is the nature around us.”

Gainesville’s abundance of hiking, horse and bicycle trails in such close proximity to one another makes the city enticing for visitors, he said.

The state forest will offer new trails for hikers and bicyclists as well as act as a future site for Operation Outdoor Freedom events. Florida’s wounded veterans will be able to participate in outdoor activities such as hunting wild turkey and fishing on state property.

“It provides them a setting in which they can relax and participate with other veterans while sharing similar stories,” said David Hunt, assistant state program coordinator for Operation Outdoor Freedom.

In addition to recreational uses, the Florida Forest Service will also manage timber resources and plant over 100 acres of longleaf pine trees, Dolan said. Although construction and reforestation efforts have yet to begin on-site, the forest will be open to the public by next spring.

Dolan said the Florida Forest Service is working on developing a 10-year plan for the state forest that outlines the management direction the forest will follow.

“Any opportunity to manage and conserve the lands is a good opportunity for everybody,” he said.

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