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Strawberry festival helps rebuild an Ocala man’s life

Emma Fleming, 5, poses with her favorite props on Saturday at the Habitat Ocala Strawberry Festival. She said her favorite parts of the festival were the game and face painting from the Kids Zone. (Miguel Molina/WUFT News)
Emma Fleming, 5, poses with her favorite props on Saturday at the Habitat Ocala Strawberry Festival. She said her favorite parts of the festival were the game and face painting from the Kids Zone. (Miguel Molina/WUFT News)

As customers lined up to buy the high-demand strawberries from Plant City farmers, their purchases would be the foundation for someone’s new home and life.

Over 10,000 people attended the ninth annual “Habitat Ocala Strawberry Festival” at the McPherson Complex in Ocala on Saturday. Put on by Habitat for Humanity of Marion County, the event featured a variety of entertainment, foods and experiences for customers of all ages to enjoy.

Joanne Black, development director for Habitat for Humanity of Marion County, said the purpose of the festival is to raise money to build the “Strawberry House,” an affordable home for a low-income family. The organization gathers money through strawberry sales, vendor fees, sponsorships and parking tickets. All the proceeds from the event will go toward the building.

“When you make this donation, your money will go to something that will be standing in 30-plus years,” Black said. “I think that does send a message and I think it makes people feel good about giving back.”

The “Strawberry House” will be a duplex and will be built in Northwest Ocala. Although the house will not be furnished, Habitat will provide a new fridge, washer and stove.

Nicholas Oxenborg, 54, is the individual who will be moving into the duplex. Oxenborg said he was shocked when he found out that he would be living in the house because he did not believe something “that good” could happen to him, especially after his imperfect past.

“I’ve been blessed to be given another chance,” Oxenborg said.

Growing up in Miami, he said he made all of the bad decisions. From smoking to drinking, Oxenborg admits he hung out with the wrong crowd.

As a result, he developed lung cancer five years ago and had to get a tracheostomy shortly after. However, the procedure would help him get cured of cancer and would serve as motivation to better himself. As well, Oxenborg said he joined the Alcoholics Anonymous organization seven years ago and has been sober for three years.

While working to get his life back on track, he said he was introduced to Rob Peters, who works with the Habitat for Humanity of Marion County. Peters mentioned to Oxenborg about how he was eligible to apply for the “Strawberry House” opportunity due to his situation and his low-income salary.

However, in order to be eligible for the duplex, applicants must do several hours of labor work with the organization. Oxenborg said because of his disability, he was not sure he could do it. But with the help of fellow volunteers and Habitat workers, he was able to complete the work.

“These people really help me out and go out of their way to show me how much they appreciate what I do,” Oxenborg said. “Sometimes I feel I do not do enough because they are so nice.”

When he found out that his dream of owning a home would come true, Oxenborg said he was happy to see how his hard work was paying off. He also mentioned how his parents were proud of him for his lifestyle change and how he is thankful for the opportunity that he has been given.

Unfortunately because of his condition, Oxenborg was not able to attend the festival on Saturday. However, he wants people to know that it means to the world to him that people went to the festival to support him and help him get his life back with this house.

“I wish I could have gone and shaken everybody’s hand one by one,” Oxenborg said. “Everybody trying to help me, I mean, it’s just beautiful man.”

Black said the festival or the house would not take place without sponsors.

Tommy Lea, founder of AGM Roofing, was one of the three presenting sponsors for the event. The presenting sponsor level was the highest for the event, with each group having to pay at least $7,500. Lea said he has been doing business with Habitat since 2006 and will be providing the roofing for the upcoming “Strawberry House.” He said the company continues to work with the organization because he loves helping people out.

“I know how it feels to not have a place to call your own,” Lea said. “So we kind of have a soft spot in our heart for people that need a hand up.”

Black also mentioned how the festival would not be possible without volunteers.

One of the volunteers working the event was Jeanice Smith. While selling strawberry flats to customers, she said those in poverty or low-income situations need help just like everyone else and she knows what she is doing is helping those groups out.

The festival also featured an area for children called “Kids Zone.” This place had bounce houses, face painting stations and a petting zoo by Beautiful Creatures Farm to You Revue. Some of the animals that were present were a sheep, a llama and a camel.

Candice Miller, the owner of the petting zoo, said the reason why she decided to work with the festival is that she enjoys contributing to the local community and stands behind what Habitat does as an organization.

Music performances were performed throughout the day by various artists and groups.

Chris Patti, a Frank Sinatra tribute artist, sang through several classic hits, including “My Way.” He said it is wonderful that the festival is trying to provide low-income housing for less fortunate people. But when it came to the crowd, he was blown away.

“I thought the crowd was electrifying and everyone was having a great time,” Patti said.

Besides music, entertainment came in different forms.

BMX Trickstars were constantly leaving their audience in awe after each trick they would land. From flips to no hand moves with the bike, the group amazed people all day long.

Rob Nolli, founder of the stunt show group, said that this is the seventh time the group has done this festival and he is glad to be behind the cause of building a home for Oxenborg.

The strawberry festival also featured an auto show for guests. From Ford to Chevrolet to Lamborghini, almost every car brand was there on full display. Trophies were also given out to people who had the best vehicle in their category.

Festival attendee Katie Robey said she saw this festival as an opportunity to wear her strawberry-themed dress because there are not many occasions where she can wear it without getting weird stares. Robey said she feels happy to be part of an event with such a great cause.

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