Williston’s Touch-a-Truck Event boosts small-town morale

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It took Stan Berry seven years to rebuild a Navy N2S airplane after finding it in pieces in Oklahoma and driving them in a U-Haul to Fort Lauderdale.

On Saturday, the retired Broward County Sherrif’s Department pilot showed off the reassembled, functional airplane at the City of Williston’s second annual Miles of Smiles Touch-a-Truck event. 

The event, which the Williston Chamber of Commerce hosted, united residents of the city and the surrounding areas excited to explore the various trucks, airplanes and race cars brought in by members of the community.

Jason Whistler, who attended the event with his wife, sister, 14-year old nephew and 10-year-old son, has lived in Levy Count since 1987. Whistler said his family had been looking forward to the event for several weeks. 

“It’s events like this that really bring our neighbors together,” he said.  

Kurt Richardson, president of the chamber and co-creator of Miles of Smiles, said he hoped the event would get people outside, increase community involvement and boost tourism in Levy County. 

Residents have driven from as far as Pasco County to partake in the event, Richardson said.  

Konrad Kasiski (right) drove himself and brother Karl (left) to first place at the children’s car race. Kasiski says he accounts his win to his Huffy Torex ATV being the fastest car in the race. (Anna Guber/WUFT News)

While in its first year in 2021, the event brought in 2,000 people, Richardson said. He hoped for 3,000 to 3,500 participants. 

Kayla Martin said she came up with the idea for Touch-a-Truck when she attended a similar event in Gainesville with her 3-year-old son. 

“My initial goal was to create a family fun event for kids in our area because there just aren’t enough of them as it stands,” Martin said. “We’re a big farm and trade community, so an event like this is really representative of the people who live here.”

Carolyn Ten Broeck, the chamber’s executive director, said she hoped the event would raise money to pay off debts that the city faced, following the chamber’s attempt to host Wings Over Williston, while remaining affordable for attendees. Miles of Smiles was one event that made it possible for the chamber to pay off those debts by October 2021. 

Residents who attended the event were charged a $5 fee. However, those with children under 5 years old could have the fee waived by bringing in a non-perishable food item to donate to the local food pantry, Ten Broeck said.  

Amid the pandemic, the Touch-a-Truck has provided residents an opportunity to feel normal again, Mayor Jerry Robinson said. 

“Parents have a chance to bring their kids out and provide them with an opportunity to interact with these trucks up close,” he said. “It’s like Disneyland for these kids.”

Justin Merando attended the event on Saturday with his wife and two daughters. He has been a member of the Williston community for the past year. 

“Williston is a very close community,” Merando said. “A lot of people want to see it grow with things to do like the event we’re at today.”

Events like Miles of Smiles, Merando said, highlight the importance of jobs that are often undervalued, yet greatly impact the area. 

“These are the jobs that people don’t always realize are so important, and the jobs and businesses represented here are pillars of making our community liveable,” he said.

Williston is a community unlike any other, said Sgt. Dave Johnson, who has been with the Williston Police Department since 2009.

“This is one of the only places in the world where you can be in a restaurant and you’ll see people paying for each other’s meals just because they have that kind of heart and they look out for each other,” Johnson said. 

Smiles of Miles represents that same level of care experienced throughout Williston and the Levy County community, he said. 

“We’re doing for others, and that’s what it’s all about,” Johnson said. “And with the kids involved, it’s about their features, their joy, and giving them some insight into what they want to do in life.”

In addition to exploring various vehicles, children who attended the event were able to participate in a battery-powered car race. 

Konrad Kasiski, 5, won first place, driving his Huffy Torex ATV alongside his 3-year-old brother Karl. 

Having this event was what everyone involved needed to push through the pandemic, airport manager Benton Stegall said.

“The entire community and surrounding areas really just needed a boost of morale coming out of the pandemic,” he said. “And with Smiles of Miles, we were able to get it.”

About Anna Guber

Anna is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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