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ALACHUA ‒ Toys for Tots is a program familiar to many, but its beginnings may not be as well known. Toys for Tors is run by the United States Marine Corps Reserve. The program began in 1947 and was so successful in its inaugural year, that in 1948 Toys for Tots was launched as a national campaign. The program continued to grow nationally with Marine reservists, often in their dress blue uniforms. In order to make the program more efficient, the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation was created in 1991.

During October, November and December of each year, the Toys for Tots program collects new, unwrapped toys and distributes those toys as Christmas gifts to needy children in the community. However, in 2020 with the pandemic, economic downturn and high unemployment, there is unprecedented need for the program.

“Because of the economic situation we have seen a 20 percent increase in requests for toys this year, and we have also seen a decrease in drop off of gifts in stores, especially the bigger chains. People are staying home due to pandemic, which has also led to more people doing online shopping instead of going to stores.” said Dennis Wait, Toys for Tots director of the Alachua and Tri County area.

“We have also seen an increase in individuals giving gifts and more people volunteering. We even had two young sisters, London and Layla Walker, ages seven and eight, raise $650 to buy toys for the annual drive,” Wait said. “We usually give out 20,000 toys to more than 3,000 kids throughout Alachua, Gilchrist, Dixie and Levy counties and we are still short of that mark at present, but next week is usually our biggest week so we are hoping the donations will rise.”

Wait served 20 years in the Marines, retiring as a major. He first became involved with Toys for Tots in Salt Lake City, Utah while still on active duty and pursuing a college degree in Sociology and Education. Upon retiring from the Marines, he became a teacher, relocating to the Gainesville area. He now teaches junior ROTC at Gainesville High School, during the day and from October to December spends much of his free time directing the local Toys for Tots program.

“We operate 100 percent on donations, service partners, and volunteers, all of which are comprised of local residents, businesses, and other organizations from within our community. But we also require help from the local community itself. We thrive solely on donations of toys, services and monetary gifts.

“Toys for Tots is a top-rated charity with over 97 percent of your monetary donations going to our mission of providing toys, books, and other gifts to less fortunate children,” Wait explained.

Monetary donations can be made online at the Toys for Tots local website: https://newberry-fl.toysfortots.org . The website also provides a list of local drop off sites for toy donations, a link to volunteer and the application for families to apply for assistance. Any toy donations should be new toys in the original package but unwrapped. Marine reservists and volunteers go to each drop off point to collect the toys.

For families in need of assistance for their children at Christmas, the website has an application form for them to fill out. “We have them apply so we can verify their address and need. We want to make sure that the toys go to kids that otherwise might not have a Christmas present,” Wait said. “Once we approve the application, the family is notified and can come to the new Alachua County Fairgrounds on Northwest 53rd Avenue near the Humane Society for pick up on Dec. 19 and 20.”

Wait says that each child will get a primary gift, three smaller gifts and stocking stuffers. For families, there are board games or sports equipment to help create family interaction as well as presents for the kids.

For those that would like to donate a toy or funds to help make a child's Christmas better, all drop off points listed on the website will continue to collect toys until the Dec. 18 deadline.

“It’s all about bringing joy and happiness to kids and helping families share the holiday together,” Wait said.

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ALACHUA ‒ Christmas is a special holiday, a time of sharing and celebration, bringing families and communities together. Towns often hold special events and celebrations, bringing together large gatherings of the community, with the emphasis often on the children. One of the annual traditions is a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in the town square.

In Alachua, it has been an annual event that involved the entire downtown Main Street with a tree lighting, speeches, tables of treats provided by the City and the merchants, music. But the most important aspect is a visit from Santa, arriving in a white carriage rolling down Main Street with a police motorcycle escort as excited children line the curb and parents take photos with their cell phones.

In the carriage is Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus and two elves. Stopping by the tree, Santa would count down the tree lighting, then ride up to Alan Hitchcock Theater Park, where he took his seat in a special chair for the children to get a chance to tell him their Christmas wish list.

The year 2020 is different, and adjustments were made due to the pandemic. The City of Alachua, determined not to cancel the event and disappoint area children, opted instead to limit activity based on social distancing and safety guidelines. The goals of making it fun for the children and maintaining that magical feel that Christmas means to kids were foremost. Activities were limited to the Skinner Field park where the City’s Christmas tree is located. However, while no activities stretched down Main Street it was still colorfully lit for Christmas.

The entrance to the park was a lit gateway with a welcoming “Merry Christmas” on an arch over the doorway. Inside the park was the giant tree, waiting to be lit up and several tables manned by masked City employees and community groups giving out cookies and treats, all individually wrapped for safety and a photo booth supplied by Walgreens for free family photos.

This year there was no live music at the park or on Main Street as in previous years, but recorded Christmas music filled the air. There were fewer speakers this year with only Alachua Communication Director Mike DaRoza and City Manager Adam Boukari speaking briefly and introducing Alachua City Commissioners.

Before long, as in years past, with sirens wailing and lights flashing, Santa's white carriage came to Skinner Field and kids lined the curb for a chance to see him. As always, he led the countdown for the tree to be illuminated. But this year, due to Covid, there was no long line of excited youngsters waiting to sit on his lap. Before driving away, Santa also told the parents to keep their kids safe and stay informed.

The event created the magical feel of Christmas and a winter wonderland celebration as “snow” fell from the sky. Children thrilled to the surprise snowfall, which originated from a tree branch supporting a machine producing soapsuds that drifted to the ground. Though the event was smaller than previous years, it was a success, especially for providing a community-wide Christmas celebration for the children.

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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ While the COVID-19 pandemic has changed many aspects of lives, traditions and socialization, people yearn for a sense of normalcy and that includes long-standing traditions. One of those traditions in High Springs is the Christmas tree lighting ceremony, and this year the tradition continued, albeit with changes to match the times.

Located in the large field by Railroad Road and the new Farmers Market Pavilion, the tree lighting is sponsored by the High Springs Chamber of Commerce.

Last year, the park was filled with a record crowd of families bringing their children to watch the Christmas tree lighting and a chance to meet Santa Claus. Various business members of the Chamber and local churches provided booths distributing candy, popcorn, cookies and other treats to the children. Another booth was set up to help children make Christmas ornaments. People dressed as Christmas characters roamed the crowd interacting with the children and posing for photos.

This year, much of that was missing, but was replaced by other activities. All the hands-on booths for face painting, gift design, card making and other activities for the children were gone due to social distancing. All treats at the booths were individually wrapped to avoid cross contact. While children still got to visit with Santa, they sat next to him, with Santa wearing a face shield and the kids in required masks.

But other traditions continued. Santa still arrived by fire truck with a police escort and all lights flashing and sirens wailing. The High Springs Lions Club brought their Polar Express train over to offer free rides to the children. With the “train cars” only seating one child in open air and distanced apart, that tradition was able to continue. Booths still sold Christmas items and gifts for the children and Christmas music filled the air as the Christmas tree glowed at the end of the field near Main Street. Under the new pavilion, the farmers market brought additional vendors selling food, produce, deserts and art to the people attending the tree lighting.

“The Chamber wanted to keep the traditional tree lighting alive, but we were also concerned about pulling it off safely during the pandemic,” said Chamber of Commerce Communications Director Tina Corbett. “We had the largest crowd ever last year, with many coming from neighboring towns and we wanted to keep it more local and smaller this year for safety's sake. We didn't advertise it as much so we could keep it local for the High Springs community.

“We also spread things out a lot more and shortened the time of the overall event,” Corbett said. “It was a success with people still attending but a smaller crowd who respected the safety guidelines in this uncertain time of the virus. Everyone enjoyed the event and there was still that festive Christmas atmosphere.”

Even in light of COVID-19, the spirit of Christmas remained strong at the tree lighting ceremony as it was a time to spread good will to others.

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GAINESVILLE ‒ The Greater Gainesville Chamber of Commerce hosted their 2020 Business Awards before a limited crowd of guests at the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and numerous others via live stream.

The event, hosted by Vicki Guy and Jason Hurst, honored winners from 12 different categories for their excellence in the Greater Gainesville Community.

“2020 has been a year like no other and it is beautiful to see how our business community has not only persevered, but in many cases thrived,” Greater Gainesville Chamber President & CEO Eric Godet said. “Today we recognize not just our finalists and award winners, but some of the incredible businesses and people that have shown what it means to be true leaders and community supporters.”

Honorees are as follows:

Tech Company of the Year: SharpSpring

Human Life Sciences Company of the Year: Ology Bioservices

New Company of the Year: True North

Small Nonprofit of the Year: The Education Foundation

Large Nonprofit of the Year: Bread of the Mighty Food Bank

Diversity & Inclusion Award: Ology Bioservices

Commitment to the Environment Award: Solar Impact

Large Business of the Year: Scorpio

Small Business of the Year: Student Maid

Leading Women’s Business: Celebrate Primary Care

Employer of the Year: Infotech

Community Involvement Award: Florida Credit Union

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NEWBERRY ‒ The city of Newberry welcomed over 1,000 visitors on Nov. 21 in celebration of the fourteenth annual Fall Festival.

The event offered arts, crafts, food, and live music to kick off the beginning of the holiday season. With more than 30 vendors, there was an abundance of creativity, visual displays, and gifts for guests of all ages. 

Activities ranged from train and camel rides, which were favorites with children, to community-based blood supplier Life South, which offered complimentary gift bags, to-go souvenirs, and treats to attendees over the age of 18 who made donations.

The beautiful weather combined with the variety of vendors present at the festival made for the perfect November outing for the Newberry community. 

One local vendor from High Springs stole the hearts of residents as she used her booth to promote a higher cause. Karen Miner, 2019 Community Impact Award Winner, offered new children’s products, coupons, and information for her Just Between Friends (JBF) children’s consignment sale that will be held at Easton-Newberry this December.

The JBF franchise offers pop-up consignment sales providing local families a safe marketplace to sell their gently used children’s items to other families in the community. “We currently have around 450 families in Alachua County that sell with us and over 5,000 shoppers from all over the state through each event, partnering with local charities for eligible donations at the end of each sale—one of our largest partners being Foster Florida,” said Miner. Foster Florida is a non-profit organization that offers care and resources to foster families and children.

Once a JBF sale is finished, families are provided the option to come back and collect their products or have the non-purchased items donated to a charity where it will be properly handled and donated to a family in need.

Miner said that this year alone, the JBF franchise has donated over 67,000 in-kind donations to local charities across the country, with one sale still to take place in Newberry December 10-13 at the Easton-Newberry Sports Complex. The sale will include gently loved books, toys, and clothing for children sized newborn through teen, and more.

In addition to activities and vendors, families and friends at the festival enjoyed themselves as they indulged in various cuisines offered by food trucks also present at the event. Each truck properly provided hand sanitizer and socially distanced tables for snacking.

The 14th annual Newberry Fall Festival was a success despite COVID-19. Event coordinator Joy Glanzer explained that the festival encouraged proper social distancing guidelines with numerous signs placed throughout the festival encouraging visitors to be safe, wash their hands, and “mask-up” when within six feet.

The festival was sponsored by the Space Walk of Gainesville, Glanzer Reality, Newberry Liquor, and Kiss 105.3.

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GAINESVILLE - Gainesville Fire Rescue's (GFR) Chief Jeffrey Lane has been awarded the prestigious Chief Harlin R. McEwen Public Safety Broadband Communications Award for his outstanding leadership and contributions to advancing broadband communications for public safety personnel across the nation.

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) announced the award today at its quarterly Board meeting. The award was created in honor of Chief (ret.) Harlin R. McEwen, who was a driving force in the establishment of FirstNet, the nationwide public safety broadband network, and was the founding chair of the FirstNet Authority’s Public Safety Advisory Committee.

“I am extremely honored to receive the Chief Harlin McEwen Award,” said Chief Lane. “Public safety has a lifesaving mission and deserves the very best tools and capabilities available to help them serve and protect their communities. I am proud to have worked with the brave women and men of public safety over the last 30 years. Their stories and dedicated service inspire me to advocate for the best broadband communication tools that meet their needs and keep them safe and secure.”

The FirstNet Authority established the Harlin McEwen Award in 2017 to recognize the spirit of service, commitment, and dedication of the nation’s first responders. The award is given to an individual who has contributed to the advancement of broadband communications used for daily public safety operations and responses to incidents and emergencies of all types and sizes.

“Chief Lane is a leader in the field of public safety communications and an innovator when it comes to using mobile broadband to enhance public safety operations,” said FirstNet Authority Board Chair Tip Osterthaler. “The chief’s vision and ability to work across jurisdictions and disciplines illustrate the ultimate spirit of the Harlin McEwen Award.”

FirstNet Authority Board Vice Chair Chief Richard Carrizzo said, “The FirstNet Authority honors Chief Lane for his service to the community and his dedication to advancing broadband communications for public safety in Florida and throughout the country. Congratulations to Chief Lane for an accomplished career in the fire service and for receiving the Harlin McEwen Award.”

Chief Lane began his career with GFR in 1990, achieving every rank in the fire service with specialties as a Communication Officer, Hazardous Materials Technician, Paramedic, Incident Commander, and Fire Inspector. He was named Chief of GFR in 2015 and led several key efforts to enhance and innovate Gainesville’s public safety communications landscape. This included spearheading a multi-jurisdictional effort(link is external) to evaluate wireless broadband providers in the Gainesville and Alachua County area. Because of Chief Lane’s efforts, the city has implemented a seamless, city-wide integrated communications system that benefits various agencies and the communities in which they serve.

Chief Lane has held numerous leadership positions throughout his career, including as president of the Gainesville Professional Firefighters from 1998 to 2011 and member of the Multi-Agency Radio Board and State Advisory Boards for the University of Florida, Santa Fe College, and Florida State Fire College. He has also received many awards and honors, including being named Officer of the Year in 2008.

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NEWBERRY ‒ The City of Newberry is purchasing property that could potentially be used to expand the City’s cemetery. City Commissioners voted to acquire two and a half acres of land adjacent to the City’s cemetery to be used “for a municipal purpose.” Listed property owners are M.J. and Ellen Coleman. The land is located on Southwest 15th Avenue, Newberry and is listed as Parcel #02538-004-000. The land is currently vacant with zoning listed as Agriculture.

City Manager Mike New presented this item to Commissioners and explained that this past summer, Kevin Coleman, acting on behalf of Ellen Coleman, contacted the City to inquire whether the property might be of interest to Newberry due to its proximity to the City’s cemetery.

After evaluating the request and the parcel’s location, the property was appraised as of Aug. 31, 2020, at a value of $35,000 by Applied Economics Group.

The City determined that the parcel is ideally located to support expansion of the City cemetery and also offers opportunities for other uses that could be beneficial to the City including future roadway expansion or as part of the stormwater facilities.

The property owner will accept the $35,000 appraised value for the property. However, the FY 2020-21 budget doesn’t include funding for this property, but did include $50,000 in contingency funds when the budget was approved. Since that time, the Commission directed $17,000 in contingency funds to go toward the cost of the lawsuit against the County. The remaining $33,000 in the contingency fund could be used to purchase the property. Should the Commission wish to use those funds, New said he could find another $2,000 from the approved General Fund.

New said the City could fund the purchase out of the FY 2021-22 budget, but he had the impression that Coleman wanted to sell the property soon.

New offered three options for Commission consideration. The first was to authorize him to execute a land purchase agreement to acquire the property from Ellen Coleman for $35,000. The second was to authorize him to execute all documents necessary to convey the land from the owner to the City and the third was to direct what source of funds should be used to acquire the property.

Initially, Commissioner Rick Coleman determined that even though he was related to the seller, he didn’t believe there would be a conflict of interest and said he intended to vote on the issue. However, as the discussion included the possibility of the City eventually deciding to extend Southwest 15th Avenue to County Road 337, he realized that if that were to occur, it would be a benefit to him and his immediate family. After discussing it with the City Attorney, Commissioner Coleman decided to abstain from voting on the issue in an abundance of caution.

Also not voting on the measure was Commissioner Paul Norfleet who had technical difficulties entering the meeting virtually.

However, a quorum remained. Commissioner Tim Marden made a motion, which was seconded by Commissioner Monty Farnsworth to use the money from the Contingency Fund and obtain the balance needed from the General Fund to purchase the property.

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