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Exclusive interview to Alachua County Today Newspaper

W - Carousel Horses Newtown 2013Gentle Carousel Miniature Horses left their home in the Alachua/High Springs area to spend nearly two weeks in Newtown, Conn., at the request of the town and families to work directly with those most affected by the December tragedy.

NEWTOWN, CONN. – In the quaint New England town of Newtown, Conn., a town small enough that everyone knows everyone, the community came together once again with their financial resources, contacts and hearts to help heal their residents following the killing of 26 adults and children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December.

Then they invited the Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses of High Springs and Alachua to help them.

While a variety of other groups have gone to Newtown in hopes of helping the community deal with the aftermath of the shootings, Gentle Carousel was the only group invited by the town and families to work directly with those most affected by the tragedy.

Following several days of private visits with family members, first responders and others, the group was asked to stay a few days longer to participate in additional community and private events with their horses.

The trip, which was originally planned for 7-10 days, was expanded by a few more days to provide family members of those slain to have more personal time with the Gentle Carousel horses.

“With travel and all, we will be away from Florida a little more than two weeks,” said Debbie Garcia-Bengochea. She also spoke about the warm welcome they received from residents of the small town. “We have been very fortunate,” she said. “Despite the snow and one of the coldest weeks they have had here, these people have warmly welcomed us into their family,” she said.

“The community has been arranging everything for us,” explained Garcia-Bengochea who, with her husband Jorge, founded Gentle Carousel, an all volunteer 501(c)(3) nonprofit charity, in 2002.

“The town loves the horses,” she said. The City of Newtown set up a library visit this past Saturday, Jan. 5 for the tiny horses. And because there had been no prior publicity about the event, the librarian cautioned that many people might not show up as there had been little traffic at the library since the shootings. With scant lead time, the town sent out an email notice that the horses were going to be at the library. More than 600 people with their children showed up. “We had to limit each group allowed into the library at one time to 150,” said Garcia-Bengochea.

They performed a modified version of their usual show with the horses as part of the story and in costumes, “which thoroughly delighted the children,” she said. The children had time after each show to visit with the horses, hug and pet them.

They did four shows that day. “The horses have been really amazing. Magic is at the top of her game. She is so good with the children. The kids have read her book and know about her. For some it’s a dream come true to actually hug the horses.”

This past Monday, the horses and their handlers set up in a large gym, and Sandy Hook families filed in to visit. “We were there for four hours, meeting with those families,” said Garcia-Begochea. Hundreds of people with their children as well as family members who had lost a loved one were there, seeking the comfort that the gentle horses bring.

“In a town as small as this, everyone knew someone who had been killed,” she said. “The kids shared some really intense things about where they were, how they survived and information about their friends who were shot. Everyone’s got a friend, relative, sibling or neighbor who was involved. Everybody is just so affected,” she said sadly.

An area for people to express their heart-felt grief and support for the survivors has attracted signs, children’s toys, flowers, plants, messages and more. “We took the horses to visit the memorial site,” she said. “We have been very careful to be respectful of people’s privacy. Most of our photos do not show the faces of the citizens and children, but do reflect what was going on at the time.”

She also observed that the first responders were all volunteers with families of their own, who are used to accidents and heart attacks. “The last murder they had here was 26 years ago,” she said. “It [the shootings] deeply affected them.”

Newtown representatives raised funds from individuals and groups and also obtained in-kind donations from large corporations including American Airlines, Avis Car Rental and Hampton Inn, among others. “We certainly couldn’t have made this trip without the help of the heated horse ambulances,” said Garcia-Bengochea. “It has been nine degrees here. Florida horses have shorter coats in the winter and could not have stood these temperatures otherwise.”

At the same time Newtown was raising money, local Florida and international donations were received in the High Springs office of Gentle Carousel. “The Lake City Council sent a donation and the people in their office also sent a separate donation to help us make this trip,” she said. Donations from school children in Brazil, the UK, Australia, South Africa and Afghanistan came in. “Our horses are better known internationally than locally,” she said. “The Daily Mail, a large newspaper in the UK, runs stories about us all the time.”

“We have had a tremendous amount of press coverage,” said Garcia-Bengochea. Stories about the trip to Connecticut and what the horses are doing there ran in USA Today on Jan. 8. CNN ran stories about the trip prior to the group’s departure from Florida. “We’ve been featured on CNN Headline News as well,” she said. “

“While we have been in Newtown, children with their allowance money have come up to us to donate to the horses being there,” she said. “It is inspiring. They are very gracious and grateful people in Newtown.”

“Under the worst of circumstances, the people of Newtown, Conn., have shown themselves to be the best of people,” said Garcia-Bengochea.

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W - Waldo pipes DSCF7523

City celebrates start of $5.3 Million wastewater system, new police vehicle

WALDO – The City of Waldo recently hosted community leaders and elected officials from the cities of Waldo and Gainesville, Alachua County and USDA Rural Development as construction started on the city’s wastewater system. The City also celebrated the addition of a new vehicle to police department’s fleet.

The official groundbreaking marks the beginning of a project that will ultimately decommission the city’s aging wastewater treatment plant and construct a new pump station and force main to interconnect to Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) for treatment of the city’s wastewater.

The current treatment plant was constructed in 1985 and serves city residents and commercial users. The facility is permitted through the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) to discharge treated effluent to surface waters through three onsite constructed wetland cells that flow to a natural receiving wetlands which eventually discharges into the Santa Fe River.

The plant was issued a Consent Order by the FDEP due to nutrient, toxicity and surface-water quality issues. To address these environmental issues, the City of Waldo secured a $2.5 million USDA Rural Development Water and Waste Disposal direct loan and a $2.8 milllion grant to design and construct a master pump station and a 10.5 mile pipeline along Waldo Road (SR 24) to the point of connection with Gainesville Regional Utilities at N.E. 39th Avenue.

Waldo Mayor Louie Davis lauded the efforts of GRU, the county, USDA and City of Waldo officials in reaching an agreement despite the complexities involved.

“Getting this many agencies to come to the table and agree wasn’t easy, but I think this project shows that it can be done and as a result, we all benefit,” said Davis.

“We are very proud that this connection will help improve the environmental footprint of Waldo and help improve the conditions of the Santa Fe River,” he said.

USDA Rural Development State Director Richard A. Machek echoed similar sentiments saying, “This project will pay dividends for year to come as the cities of Waldo and Gainesville and Alachua County work together to protect the environment for future generations.”

“This project, and many more like it, demonstrates the critical role USDA Rural Development can play in communities across this country,” Machek said.

In addition to improvements to the town’s centralized wastewater system, residents of Waldo now have an additional police vehicle patrolling their streets. Following the groundbreaking ceremony, a 2013 Chevrolet Tahoe Pursuit Vehicle equipped with rear wheel drive and a police pursuit package was officially put into service at a dedication ceremony. Purchase of the $36,000 vehicle was made possible in part due to a $20,000 USDA Rural Development Community Facilities grant. The $16,000 balance of the purchase price came from the City of Waldo. “Assisting rural communities with essential public safety services is a priority for Rural Development,” said Machek.

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 W - Alachua Hair Salon Wide DSCF7534RTim Manning (Right) reently opened Shear Fusion hair salon on Alachua's Main Street.

ALACHUA - If you’re in Alachua and need a haircut, there’s a new salon creating a lot of buzz.

Owner Tim Manning opened Shear Fusion on Nov. 2. He said he decided to open the salon after finishing cosmetology school.

“I’ve always wanted to have my own business,” he said. “I’m really good at doing hair. It just seemed like the logical thing to do.”

He said he also wanted to save money and avoid a long commute. The salon is located on Alachua’s Main Street.

“It made more sense to open something on my own that’s literally right down the road from where I live,” he said.

Manning said he’s received positive feedback from customers so far.

Alachua resident Diana Felver said she first started visiting Shear Fusion after she found out her hairdresser was relocating. Although Felver said she hasn’t had her hair done at the salon yet, she’s bought hair products from the salon.

“The products we’re getting from them -- I’m like a walking advertisement,” she said. “Everyone’s asking, ‘What did you do to your hair?’”

She said her 19-year-old daughter, Jillian, visited the salon for a haircut and dye and loved it.

“She said it was the best haircut she ever had,” Felver said. “The color is really gorgeous.”

Felver said her daughter enjoyed the salon for the atmosphere as well.

“She said Tim was the most humorous hairdresser she’s ever been to. She said he made her laugh the entire time. It was a really fun experience for her, too.”

Manning said the salons prices are affordable with highlights priced at $65, hair color at $45, women’s haircuts at $25 and men’s haircuts at $10.

Local police officers, firefighters and EMTs receive half-priced haircuts at the salon. Manning said it’s done to show gratitude.

“They’re our local heroes,” he said.

City of Alachua employees receive a 10 percent discount on services at Shear Fusion.

“We want to do something in return for all the people who bolster us up,” he said.

Manning said he hopes to keep the salon on Main Street for a long time. He said he loves the camaraderie local business owners have.

“We’re gonna be here,” he said. “I absolutely love Alachua.”

Manning thinks a small-town salon might make customers feel more at home.

“You get to know the people and you get to know their stories,” he said. “Essentially, you end up with not just customers, but friends all over the place.”

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Zoning and Poe Springs top list

HIGH SPRINGS – High Springs City Manager Edwin Booth is kicking off 2013 by meeting with County Manager Richard Drumm on Thursday, Jan. 3. Booth initiated the meeting before Christmas as a sort of “meet and greet” to get to know one another and begin discussions on some items in common to both governments.

One of the items on Booth’s list is enclaves, which are county areas surrounded by city-zoned properties. “That’s something we need to work on getting cleaned up,” said Booth in an interview the day before his meeting with Drumm.

Another area of mutual concern is Poe Springs. “We are not quite ready to take that over yet, but it certainly seems like they are putting some money into it and it is probably something we should take over at some point,” said Booth.

Concerns about not having a recreation director or department to maintain the spring is one item holding up progress on taking over management of the popular recreational spot. “We need to get that taken care of and in place before we have the responsibility of maintaining the spring,” said Booth, who is expected to bring the High Springs City Commission up-to-date on the joint city-county meeting prior to their next meeting on Thursday, Jan. 10.

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HIGH SPRINGS – High Springs City Manager Edwin Booth is expected to request the City Commission to schedule a public hearing sometime between the Jan. 10 and Jan. 24 regular commission meetings to receive comments and input from citizens regarding their ideas for the use of the old school building.

“In the past,” said Booth, “the Civic Center has acted as the community center.” Suggesting that the refurbished school building might be more centrally located, Booth said he thought the various size rooms might be ideal for meetings and other community events. However, Booth is adamant that the Commission needs to hear how the citizens feel about the use of the building before any decision is made.

Booth said he also looked into the possibility of venting and installing a stove to accommodate cooking classes or other events where food might need to be prepared. “The cost is prohibitive,” he said. “It’s in the $100,000 range, which is way too much for the City to consider.”

Due to a lack of cooking facilities at the school, the elder program will most likely remain at the Civic Center.

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HIGH SPRINGS – A local roadway has become a point of controversy for some in High Springs. In 2010, the High Springs City Commission approved a resolution prohibiting traffic along the roadway behind City Hall. On Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012, the issue was brought before the commission again, in the form of a new resolution, which if approved, would have repealed the 2010 resolution prohibiting traffic along the roadway and would have formally re-opened the road around James Paul Park to vehicular traffic.

The new resolution was prepared by City Attorney Scott Walker, at the direction of the sitting commission prior to the November election, in order to formalize a controversial 3-1 decision to reopen the road which was made during the Oct. 18, 2012 City Commission meeting.

With the failure of the new resolution, the road remains closed and no further action on re-opening it is currently anticipated.

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HAWTHORNE – The Hawthorne Area Historical Society will be hosting their second Annual Hawthorne Heritage Day on Saturday, Jan. 19. The event will be a include antique cars, old-time family activities including candle dipping, rope and corn husk doll making. Great “local” barbeque by Pop Herring and music for singing and dancing will also help celebrate Hawthorne’s history. Special guest Sharon Ferraro of the Old House Network will talk about “Preservation – Opportunity from our Past for our Future at 2 p.m.

Hawthorne Heritage Day will be held at the Hawthorne Museum and Cultural Center located at 7225 S.E. 221 Street in Hawthorne from 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. For further information call 352-318-1265 or 352-494-3790.

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