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L-R: Milton Lewis Young Marines, Gainesville, Fla., Zach Nanke, Janquil Hunt, Timothy Hawkins and Jade Santos. The group assisted Alachua County Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2811 with decorating the graves of fallen servicemembers Nov. 4 in honor of Veterans Day./ Photo by MICHAEL P. MAUER

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ALACHUA COUNTY ‒ In solemn remembrance for those who’ve fallen, members of Alachua County Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2811 and its auxiliary spent the early hours of Nov. 4 decorating the graves of former servicemembers in preparation for Veterans Day. By reverently placing small United States flags near each headstone, they’ve shared in a custom that has a special meaning to those who’ve dedicated themselves to helping local veterans.

Before noon, approximately 2,300 flags were placed in six local cemeteries. Among those decorated were Forest Meadow East Cemetery and Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Designated a Florida Heritage Site, the latter is the final resting place of Marine Lance Cpl. Vernon T. Carter, Jr. – Gainesville’s first Vietnam War casualty.

In less than two weeks, the flags will be collected. And the mission of the VFW post will go on.

Alachua County Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2811 has maintained a proud tradition of upholding the VFW’s motto – honoring the dead by helping the living. Although more than a routine day for the veterans of VFW Post 2811and its auxiliary, the graveside tributes are just one of many benevolent works done to support those who served in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Space Force and Coast Guard.

“We’re not just here for veterans on Veterans Day,” said VFW Post 2811 Commander Chester Lundy. “We’re here to help all veterans, at all times.”

Formed nearly 125 years ago by those who deployed to Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and China, the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States has a proud tradition of service. Its work in advocating for the welfare of veterans and their families has been endorsed by a perpetual congressional charter, and its lobbying efforts helped form the United States Department of Veterans Affairs and the Veterans Health Administration.

For nearly a century, VFW Post 2811’s good work has also been recognized. Several times over its history, Alachua County VFW Post 2811 has been selected as an All-State Post. It earned this honor largely on the strength of its community service.

To be selected as an All-State Post, Commander Lundy and the other VFW Post 2811 members had to accomplish a long list of service-oriented goals outlined by the VFW Department of Florida.

Such good works include supporting student scholarship programs, helping hospitalized veterans, and participating in fund raising to assist the VFW’s network of service officers. Through its world-wide network of service officers and individual posts, the VFW directly assists veterans in filing benefit claims, as well as promoting awareness for veterans’ preference in government employment and educational opportunities.

Also, magazines, periodicals, podcasts and social media messages produced by the VFW on the state and national levels regularly inform members about the myriad of services and benefits available to eligible veterans. Former servicemembers in the VFW receive steady, up-to-date information not only about current benefits, but legislative efforts by veterans service organizations to help those in its ranks.

All of these services are provided free of cost—regardless if veterans can qualify for full VFW membership or not.

“We’d like people to get past thinking that we’re a smoke-filled bar,” said Lundy, a Marine veteran of Operation Desert Storm. “We’re a service organization that helps veterans and their families.”

The building VFW Post 2811 meets in does serve a vital purpose. Money raised by the VFW post through its canteen and social hall funds veterans’ programs. This fills an important niche. Not all veterans who need support have their necessities completely met by the government.

Many of the local homeless veterans and other residents at local veterans’ centers are indigent, and what little financial support they have by way of pension or government benefits are utilized to help finance their care. All the monies raised above operational costs from bingos and other such games of chance conducted by the Gainesville VFW post goes to help fellow veterans.

An example of this would be the post food and clothing drives that directly help local and hospitalized veterans. Additionally, VFW Post 2811 funds monthly picnics and other activities for low-income veterans who are living at the Sunshine Inn, Gainesville.

“We’re on a mission here,” said Avery Owen, VFW Post 2811 quartermaster. “Much like we did on active duty, we’re supporting each other.”

The quartermaster added that those in the VFW who attend meetings and are active in their posts are not only able to learn about benefits and programs, but speak with veterans who’ve applied for and have taken advantage of them.

“Veterans talk to each other,” said Owen, who retired as a master sergeant with the 3rd Bn, 20th Special Forces Group of the Florida Army National Guard. “We also watch out for each other. That camaraderie runs deep, and doesn’t end after one leaves the military.”  

Some of the post’s programs over the years have been unique and literally homegrown. For instance, VFW Post 2811 collaborated last year with the local nonprofit, Grow Gainesville. The resulting initiative established a gardening therapy program for combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition to fellow veterans, the post’s outreach efforts also extend to youth programs. Community groups VFW Post 2811 has worked with over the years include Scouting, the Young Marines and the local Eastside and Gainesville High School Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. Also, the student-focused VFW Voice of Democracy and Patriot’s Pen programs that potentially award thousands in college and university scholarships are supported.

From its initial chartered membership of a few veterans mustered in May 21, 1933, the post’s roster has swollen to more than several times that amount. But despite its visibility in the community and focus on service, finding new members has been a problem.

Much of this, said Lundy, is because of misconceptions some in the community have about the VFW.

“This isn’t a club,” the Marine said. “This is a service organization. Veterans who need help or those who want to help veterans should join.”

Those interested in VFW Post 2811 and its activities can call 352-376-7660.

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Michael P. Mauer is a life member of VFW Post 2811. He served as an Army photojournalist during Operation Desert Storm and was awarded the Joint Service Commendation Medal by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf for his actions during the war. This year, Mauer won the Grand Award for top feature article in the VFW National Publications Contest.

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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ On Nov. 2, High Springs Police Chief Antoine Sheppard issued a press release, which was featured on the High Springs Police Department’s Facebook page. It was a message to High Springs residents about a video circulating on YouTube involving High Springs police officers’ handling of a trespass service call with what he described as a “well-known First Amendment auditor with thousands of followers nationwide.”

Sheppard explained, “These followers, a vocal minority, inundated our office and other City staff with vulgar hate speech and messages, phone calls, and emails. Many of these foreign constituents are unreasonable and extremists who live outside of our state, and they do not support any form of law enforcement.”

In addressing the incident in question, Sheppard went on to state the following, “On Sept. 28, 2023, HSPD patrol officers responded to a local children’s daycare center concerning a disturbance between a citizen and the daycare employees. Reportedly, the citizen kept walking near the daycare where children were present, and a verbal altercation began. The auditor started video recording the incident and was subsequently issued a trespass warning from the property.

Initially, the auditor praised the agency on how the matter was conducted but later found a discrepancy with a statement by HSPD officers that he was recording children at the daycare. The citizen also had displeasure with another officer being captured on body camera after the service call, saying, ‘What a Whacko.’”

In Sheppard’s press release he stated that the matter was corrected and cured immediately. “The property owner was contacted and updated on the accurate sequence of events, and the property owner reaffirmed the trespass. There was no intent to deceive the property owner on the recording of children, just miscommunication during the transaction of the service call. The accused officer is a veteran police officer with an exemplary record with our agency.

“The secondary officer was counseled and reminded to deactivate her body-worn camera system after the service call. The officer’s statement was inadvertently captured on video footage and limited to her opinion and shared with her colleagues in a private setting and not directly to any member of the public. The statement was not egregious or derogatory.”

Sheppard went on to say, “Afterward, I verbally apologized to the citizens on behalf of the agency for the oversight, and I reinterned the continuous training that we have incorporated within our agency to recognize the First Amendment Rights of our citizens.”

Sheppard finalized his press release, “In closing, I am so grateful to live and work in a community that is pro-law enforcement, and what I mean by that is community-based law enforcement that is transparent and held accountable by a balanced approach. We are not perfect, but we strive for perfection, and we will continue to serve selflessly.”

The press release was signed by Chief Antoine Sheppard – High Springs Police Dept.

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NEWBERRY – The Newberry Planning and Zoning Board met on Nov. 6 to consider four issues. All four items received unanimous approval and are being recommended to the City Commission for consideration at the Nov. 27 Regular City Commission meeting.

The Planning and Zoning Board conducted a legislative public hearing to consider an application by I S Property Holdings, LLC to amend 0.28 +/- acres from Residential Low Density to Commercial on a site formally known as the Cold Storage property, located at Northwest 254th Street and Northwest 1st Avenue. Although the property was zoned Residential, it has been used as Commercial property. This request is to formalize the Future Land Use Plan Map to coincide with the property’s actual use.

There was no mention of what the owner intends to do with the property, but the change is being requested at this time because the owner told the City they would like to begin development.

The Board also conducted three quasi-judicial public hearings, including a request to rezone the City Hall and Cold Storage properties from Residential, Single-Family (RSF-2) and Commercial, Central Business District (C-CBD) to Public Facilities (PF) and Commercial, Central Business District (C-CBD) on the 1.93 +/- acre site. The property is located at 25440 West Newberry Road and 98 Northwest 254 Street.

Newberry Principal Planner Jean-Paul Perez said the intent was to align the zoning districts with their existing uses. As the Cold Storage property was to be rezoned, it seemed reasonable to rezone the entire block at the same time. Board members agreed and unanimously authorized approval of the request.

In other business, Tanglewood Planned Development received approval for a preliminary plat for Phase 1, which includes 106 of the 636 detached single-family homes that are part of this subdivision. It will also include an amenity center and a future commercial area, which will eventually come back to the Board for consideration as a separate site plan.

“The preliminary plat includes a condition which has already been incorporated into the resolution,” said Newberry Principal Planner Jean-Paul Perez. “The developer is to work with the City Manager or their designee to mutually agree upon the best route and timing for connection of the 12-inch potable water main line to the water tower site.”

Details such as the intersections and on-street parking will be provided in the construction plan phase, which is the next step. After that a final Plat will be presented to the Board, followed by Site Development, which will include earthwork and infrastructure. Following that, Lot Development would be presented to show the homes, buildings and structures on the property. Following that, Phase 2 would begin.

Upon questioning about an open area behind the Commercial area and the proposed homes by Board member Naim Erched, Walker Owen said that was the area where Duke Energy’s transmission lines run through the property and that it would be developed as walking trails and related amenities.

Erched also requested information about trees on the property and the number of homes that would be built in a year. Developer Gary Weisman said trees in the vegetative buffer would remain, but trees where the homes would be built would be removed. He also said he expected that they would construct 40 – 60 homes in a year, depending on the market.

Concern was also raised about children in the subdivision being sent to different schools. Perez said he would send a request to their contact at the Alachua County School Board requesting that all the children in the 106 homes be sent to the same school.

The Board also gave approval for the Preliminary Plat for Magnolia Acres Subdivision, 79.3 +/- acres located south of Southwest 15th Avenue and east of Southwest 266th Street. The project site is for 15 single-family lots that range from five to seven and a-half-acres in size. Plans call for gated community with a homeowners’ association and a 40-foot vegetative buffer.

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ALACHUA ‒ Rolling in with the fall weather, the City of Alachua Recreation and Culture Department has a surplus of exciting events this coming weekend.

Come one, come all to the tournaments held Nov. 11 and 12 at Hal Brady and Legacy Multipurpose Center fields.

ACTFOR soccer tournaments start on Nov. 11 with championship games on Nov. 12. Have fun, bring coats and blankets for cold early morning games. Along with soccer, football games are being held at Hal Brady fields on the Nov. 11. Other games going on this week include 399 sports volleyball games also taking place at Hal Brady this week.

And while you’re enjoying the games, check out the concession stand treats. This past weekend’s spectators said concession stand treats were the best they’ve ever had.

Parents won’t want to forget that 399 sports youth basketball sign ups have already started with a deadline of Dec. 7. Along with sports, Dance About is being held at the Hal Brady gym on Monday, Nov. 13, and is open to grades K-8th going from 4 p.m. – 6 p.m. There is a student performance opportunity at the Nutcracker on Nov. 18 at 2 p.m. Get into the holiday spirit with Dance About!

Meanwhile, Legacy Park Multipurpose Center is hosting Just Between Friends Nov. 9 -11. Offering a children’s sale filled with clothes, shoes, toys, and more, the non-ticketed public sale begins Nov. 11.

In between soccer, football, volleyball and dance, enjoy the fall season and Alachua’s charming downtown as the City of Alachua holds a Music Festival on Main Street on Nov. 11 and then the Alachua Business League’s Main Street Fall Festival kicks off on Nov. 12 at 11 a.m.

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ALACHUA COUNTY ‒ For its upcoming anniversary, Camp Crystal Lake is inviting families to participate in some of the same activities that Alachua County Public School students and other young people have enjoyed for decades.

On both Saturday, Nov. 18 and Saturday, Dec. 9 from 12:30 to 5:30 p.m., families can celebrate the Camp’s 75th anniversary with fishing, archery, hayrides, arts and crafts and other activities. They’ll also have an opportunity to try out the Camp’s ropes course. Visitors are invited to bring copies of pictures or any camp memorabilia for a ‘Decades Meet-Up’ in the Rec Hall. A closing ceremony will be held at 5 p.m.

The event is free for everyone, and light snacks and drinks will be also available at no charge. Visitors can purchase 75th Anniversary t-shirts at the celebration, with proceeds funding scholarships for the summer program. Donations for the fund will also be accepted.

To help the Camp staff prepare for the event, anyone interested in attending is asked to register at:

https://forms.gle/WqB4mfjkkML49Zo36

Since 1948, the Camp has served generations of Alachua County Public School students through its outdoor educational programs and its more traditional summer camp. It’s owned and operated by Alachua County Public Schools and is located on 140 wooded acres in Starke.

During the school year, 2nd- and 5th -grade students visit the camp for lessons on science, the environment and team building. During the summer, Camp Crystal provides a traditional camp experience for 2nd- through 9th-graders.

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GAINESVILLE, FL – This year, the Hippodrome Theatre is doubling the festive fun with not one but two cherished holiday shows that promise to delight audiences of all ages.

 Back by popular demand, "The Ultimate Christmas Show (abridged)" is a rollercoaster of a holiday ride that will have you rolling in the isles. Join in the festive slapstick fun with our three brave souls as they try to celebrate ALL our cherished holiday traditions - at the same time!

 "The Ultimate Christmas Show (abridged)" will make your spirits bright, whether you joyfully embrace the upcoming season or get dragged into it kicking and screaming.” —Broadway World

 Brought down the house with gales of laughter. – Theatre Mirror

 Prepare to have the time of your life with "The Ultimate Christmas Show (abridged)," on stage from November 24 through December 23, 2023.

 For those seeking a heartwarming and timeless holiday classic, look no further than "A Christmas Carol." This enchanting production captures the essence of the season, combining storytelling, song, and dance to bring Scrooge's redemption to life. Join us in celebrating this cherished annual family and community event that has captivated audiences of all ages.

 This holiday season, from November 25 to December 3, we have a special treat for families. When you generously donate 1-2 hygienic products (such as shampoo, soap, conditioner, razors, shaving cream, feminine care products, etc.) or make a cash donation to support GRACE Marketplace at the Hippodrome, you'll receive a complimentary child/youth ticket with the purchase of one adult ticket for "A Christmas Carol." To take advantage of this offer, please call the box office at (352) 375-4477 to make your purchase.

 "A Christmas Carol" runs from November 25 to December 23, 2023. 

 Don't miss the opportunity to create cherished memories and spread holiday joy this season with the Hippodrome Theatre's double dose of holiday magic. Tickets for both shows are available now and can be purchased through our website at www.thehipp.org or at the Hippodrome Box Office 352 375 4477.

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Former Florida Representative Joe Harding in the Florida House Chamber

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Former Republican state lawmaker Joe Harding of Ocala, the sponsor of Florida's controversial law limiting discussions of gender and sexuality in public schools, was sentenced to four months in prison on charges of defrauding the government of $150,000 in pandemic aid.

Judge Allen Winsor sentenced Harding in U.S. District Court in Gainesville on Thursday. Harding’s family and friends wept throughout the proceedings. One spectator wept audibly after his sentence was read.

Harding’s brother, Pastor Daniel Harding, told the judge that his brother was a committed family man and pious Christian who taught kids softball instead of advancing his business interests.

“I ask for mercy,” he said.

Tallahassee political consultant Brett Doster said that Harding received advice to frame his prosecution as political persecution, but that he decided to be honest and take responsibility instead. Harding, who resigned from the Legislature, repaid the $150,000.

Winsor said that it was a difficult and sad case, and that Harding received a tremendous amount of family and community support. Prosecutor Justin Keen said he has no reasons to doubt any of the positive aspects of Harding’s character described in court.

Harding declined to answer questions as he left the courthouse.

When he is released from prison, Harding will be required to serve two years of supervised release and pay a $300 fine. He was ordered to turn himself into custody by noon Jan. 29.

Harding resigned from office in December shortly after being indicted on two counts each of wire fraud, money laundering, and making false statements. Had he been convicted on all counts, Harding could have faced up to 70 years in prison. 

Harding initially pleaded not guilty to all charges, but as part of a plea deal with prosecutors, he ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of each charge, cutting the maximum prison sentence to 35 years.

Despite serving just over a single two-year term in the Florida House from 2020-2022, Harding gained notoriety for being the sponsor of the Parental Rights in Education Act, a bill derided by critics as the ‘Don’t Say Gay Bill,’ which banned discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools from kindergarten through third grade. The law was later expanded to cover fourth through 12th grades. 

According to court records, Harding defrauded the federal government through loan applications with the federal government’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program for two companies he owned that were inactive. He applied for a loan for both companies, but only one was approved.

Prosecutors said Harding used part of the money to pay his credit card balance. Some funds were shifted to the bank account of an oil company owned by his brother-in-law, Patrick Walsh. In January, Walsh was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison for defrauding the federal government of $7.8 million in COVID-19 loans, some of which was used to purchase an island in the Gulf of Mexico. 

During the sentencing, Keen noted it was Walsh who initially advised Harding to file the fraudulent applications as he had himself done. Winsor said he didn’t know if this case would’ve happened if Harding had a different brother-in-law.

Both men admitted to falsifying the number of employees, gross revenue and status of the businesses in their loan applications. Walsh’s younger brother, Tampa businessman Caleb Walsh, faced scrutiny from federal investigators during the summer over his own COVID-19 loans totaling $4.3 million.

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TALLAHASSEE — Today, Governor Ron DeSantis announced that the first mission has arrived from Israel with evacuees who were unable to return home due to commercial flight cancellations. Florida partnered with Project Dynamo to bring nearly 300 evacuees home from Israel, including more than 270 to Tampa and seven to Orlando this afternoon. Once the plane landed in Tampa, evacuees were able to access resources from multiple state agencies. Additionally, the Governor is sending medical supplies, hygiene products, clothing and children’s toys to Israel to help impacted Israelis.   
  
“Just a few days ago, I signed an Executive Order to allow Florida to carry out logistical, rescue and evacuation operations to bring Floridians back home and provide important supplies to our valued ally, Israel,” said Governor Ron DeSantis. “I am proud of how quickly we have been able to activate resources and do what the federal government could not — get Floridians and other Americans back home, reunited with their families, free of charge.”
 
 
“Following last week’s unprovoked and heinous attacks by Hamas, Governor Ron DeSantis took immediate action to help Floridians in Israel,” said Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nuñez. “Our administration will continue to work to safely bring Floridians home and support the people of Israel as they fight back to defend themselves.”
 
“Israel mourns its more than 1400 murdered and 150 hostages in the devastating unprovoked terror attack perpetrated by Hamas," said Consul General of Israel to Florida, Maor Elbaz-Starinsky. "We have gone to war to eradicate Hamas and its allies and to uphold our values of freedom, humanity and the sanctity of life. The support we are receiving from Governor DeSantis, the First Lady, FDEM Executive Director Kevin Guthrie, Florida Commerce Secretary Alex Kelly, FDLE Commissioner Mark Glass and his entire administration and the state is overwhelming. We are very grateful for the special flights and supplies.”
 
“We have a dedicated team of volunteers who work tirelessly to ensure the well-being of Americans caught in crisis situations all over the world,” said Bryan Stern, Project Dynamo CEO and Founder. “It’s truly heart-wrenching to watch the destruction unfolding in Israel. We're so grateful to Governor DeSantis for partnering with us on this mission, to save every American in need." 
  
On October 12, 2023, Governor DeSantis signed Executive Order 23-208 to allow the State of Florida to carry out logistical, rescue and evacuation operations to keep its residents safe. Specifically, this order enables the Florida Division of Emergency Management to bring Floridians home and transport necessary supplies to Israel.
  
The Florida Division of Emergency Management will lead efforts for additional flights which will take more supplies to Israel and continue to bring Floridians back home.
  
The Governor has also surged law enforcement resources upon request to prevent violence at demonstrations and protect Jewish schools and synagogues. The Governor directed FDLE and FHP to work with the Attorney General’s Office and issue memos to law enforcement and Florida universities reminding them of their responsibility to protect the Jewish community from threats and unlawful harassment. Florida will not tolerate hate or violence towards the Jewish community. 
  
If you or someone you know is a Florida citizen who is unable to leave Israel due to the current situation, visit FloridaDisaster.Org/Israel to fill out the form.

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U.S. Senator Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) office will host in-person and virtual Mobile Office Hours next week to assist constituents with federal casework issues in their respective local communities. These office hours offer constituents who do not live close to one of Senator Rubio’s eight regional offices a more convenient way to receive federal casework assistance.

 In-person Mobile Office Hours

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Miami-Dade County

10:00am – 12:00pm EDT

Stephen P. Clark Government Center

111 NW 1st St.

Miami, FL 33128

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Baker County

9:00am – 10:00am EDT

Baker County Administration Building

55 North 3rd St.

Macclenny, FL 32063

 

Union County

11:00am – 12:00pm EDT

Lake Butler City Hall

200 SW 1st St.

Lake Butler, FL 32054

 

Alachua County

1:00pm – 2:30pm EDT

Alachua Branch Library

14913 NW 140th St.

Alachua, FL 32615

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Pinellas County

10:30am – 12:00pm EDT

Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce

1 N. Pinellas Ave.

Tarpon Springs, FL 34689

 

Seminole County

1:00pm – 3:00pm EDT

Seminole County Legal Aid Society’s Veteran’s Clinic

Seminole County Public Library - Jean Rhein Central Branch

215 N Oxford Rd.

Casselberry, FL 32707

 

Friday, October 20, 2023

Lake County

1:00pm – 3:00pm EDT

Mount Dora City Hall

510 N. Baker St.

Mount Dora, FL 32757

 

Pasco County

2:00pm – 3:30pm EDT

Hugh Embry Library

14215 4th St.

Dade City, FL 33523

  

Virtual Mobile Office Hours

 Tuesday, October 17, 2023

St. Johns County

10:00am – 11:30am EDT

LAKE MARY, Fla. – Florida homeowners and renters in 8 counties who had uninsured losses caused by Hurricane Idalia have until Nov. 29, 2023, to apply for FEMA disaster assistance.

At the request of the State of Florida, FEMA extended the Individual Assistance application deadline 30 days. FEMA may be able to help with temporary lodging, basic home repair costs or other disaster-caused needs.

Homeowners and renters in Charlotte, Citrus, Columbia, Dixie, Gilchrist, Hamilton, Hernando, Hillsborough, Jefferson, Lafayette, Levy, Madison, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Sarasota, Suwannee and Taylor counties may apply.

Call toll-free 800-621-3362, go online to DisasterAssistance.gov, download the FEMA App for mobile devices or visit a Disaster Recovery Center. The telephone line is open every day from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET. Help is available in most languages. If you use a relay service such as VRS, captioned telephone service or others, give FEMA your number for that service. To view an accessible video on how to apply visit Three Ways to Apply for FEMA Disaster Assistance - YouTube.

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Discounts available for three months, from Oct. 14, 2023, through Jan. 13, 2024 

TALLAHASSEE Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on Oct. 13, 2023,announced the Great Outdoors Initiative to encourage Floridians to go outdoors and explore Florida’s natural resources, including our award-winning state parks, vast recreation areas, and world-renowned waterways. As part of the Great Outdoors Initiative, Governor DeSantis signed Executive Order 23-209 (The Great Outdoors Initiative) directing the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to provide a significant 50 percent discount on annual state park passes and FWC Gold Sportsman hunting and fishing licenses. The Governor fully supports Floridians in enjoying our state’s natural resources and the activities that have become family traditions such as hunting and fishing. To learn more about the initiative and to purchase a pass or license, click here

Beginning Oct. 14, 2023, and extending three months through Jan. 13, 2024, DEP will temporarily offer Florida State Parks annual passes for families and individuals at a 50 percent discount, while FWC will be discounting its annual resident Gold Sportsman license, five-year Gold Sportsman license and Lifetime Sportsman license by 50 percent. 

“Florida is home to some of the best state parks, waterways and recreational lands in the country, and I encourage all Floridians to get outdoors, experience our extraordinary natural resources and enjoy our fundamental right to hunt and fish,” said Governor Ron DeSantis. “And we are now making it more affordable for families to get outside and enjoy these wonders by offering state park passes and fishing and hunting licenses at sharply discounted rates.”

“Governor DeSantis’ promotion of conservative resource stewardship is unparalleled,” said Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Shawn Hamilton. “It is because of this leadership that we can get outside and still experience the real Florida firsthand. I encourage all Floridians to get outdoors and take advantage of this incredible opportunity.”

“Florida remains one of the country’s top destinations for world-class fishing and unique hunting opportunities,” said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Chairman Rodney Barreto. “I encourage families to take advantage of this incredible offer with a discounted license and enjoy the abundant hunting and fishing recreational opportunities our state offers.”

Governor DeSantis is a strong supporter of every Floridian's right to hunt, fish and enjoy the great outdoors, as has been a tradition for generations of Florida families. Earlier this year, the Legislature passed House Joint Resolution 1157, which proposed an amendment to Article 1 of the Florida Constitution to guarantee the right to hunt and fish in Florida. This amendment will be included on the 2024 General Election Ballot for Floridians.

With 175 award-winning state parks, trails and historic sites spanning nearly 800,000 acres and 100 miles of sandy beaches, Florida is the only four-time winner of the Gold Medal honoring the nation’s best park system. Florida State Parks provided an economic benefit to Florida last fiscal year of over $3.6 billion while supporting more than 50,000 jobs.

Florida State Parks Annual Passes will have a 50 percent discount and will be available at the following rates:

  • Family Annual Pass - $60, plus tax.
  • Individual Annual Pass - $30, plus tax.

Florida is the Fishing Capital of the World, and FWC offers freshwater and saltwater fishing licenses for experiencing the best of coastal and inland fishing options, along with unique hunting opportunities.  

The following FWC Gold Sportsman licenses, which include the saltwater fishing, freshwater fishing, hunting privileges and all associated permits, will also be discounted by 50 percent and will be available at the following rates, plus applicable fees:

  • Annual Gold Sportsman - $50.75.
  • Five-year Gold Sportsman - $247.75.
  • Lifetime Sportsman License
    • Age 4 or younger - $201.50.
    • Ages 5–12 - $351.50.
    • Ages 13 and older - $501.50.

To learn more about the Great Outdoors Initiative or to purchase your annual park pass and gold sportsman licenses, click here. 

Governor DeSantis also declared October to be Florida Greenways and Trails Month. DEP’s Office of Greenways and Trails coordinates a statewide system of greenways and trails over 9,600 miles long, allowing residents and visitors access to hiking, biking and equestrian recreational opportunities on multi-use and off-road surfaces. To find greenways and trails near you, visit: FloridaDEP.gov/OGT.  

To find a park near you, visit: www.FloridaStateParks.org.

To find more information on fishing and hunting licenses in Florida, visit: MyFWC.com/license/recreational

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~17,145 fatal doses of Fentanyl recovered~

ORLANDO, Fla.- Last week, Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) troopers from the Criminal Interdiction Unit (CIU), in collaboration with the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation (MBI), arrested four individuals in Orange County, FL, following an investigation that resulted in the seizure of Heroin (10.28 grams), Cocaine (6.4 grams) and 34.29 grams of Fentanyl-equivalent to 17,145 fatal doses.

On September 14, 2023, while on patrol in the early hours, FHP CIU observed a grey Kia driving in a residential area without headlights, failing to yield to a stop sign at an intersection. After conducting a traffic stop, troopers discovered the driver, Michael Ramos, 27, of Orlando, had a suspended license, and the passenger, Reina Mary Mora, 28, of Orlando, inadvertently exposed contraband within her purse when providing her ID to troopers.

Following a K-9 deployment, troopers were alerted to the further presence of narcotics within the vehicle, which, upon recovery, was discovered to be a white powdery substance that tested positive for Fentanyl.

Before transporting Ramos and Mora to the Orange County Detention Center, troopers received information leading them to a known Fentanyl dealer in Orlando. After arranging to meet the individual to order additional narcotics to sell, Ramos and FHP CIU members drove north of the original traffic stop to meet with the dealer.

Upon arrival, FHP identified Jose Luis Colon Melendez, 37, of Orlando, and Josue Joel Gomez, 40, of Longwood, wearing orange and yellow construction vests, driving without headlights. FHP conducted a traffic stop, and a K-9 alerted to narcotics in the vehicle. Before being transported to the Orange County Detention Center, Melendez agreed to speak with law enforcement and provided consent to enter his apartment and turn over all his narcotics to troopers.

The individuals arrested in connection to this investigation and the charges are as follows:

Reina Mary Mora

  • Possession of a Controlled Substance without a Prescription
  • Felony Drug Paraphernalia

Michael Ramos

  • Possession of a Controlled Substance without a Prescription
  • Felony Drug Paraphernalia

Jose Luis Colon Melendez

  • Possession of a Controlled Substance (Heroin)
  • Possession of a Controlled Substance (Cocaine)
  • Possession of a Controlled Substance (Fentanyl)
  • Possession of Heroin with intent to sell
  • Possession of Cocaine with intent to sell
  • Possession of Fentanyl with intent to sell
  • Felony drug Paraphernalia

Josue Joel Gomez

  • Possession of a Controlled Substance (Heroin)
  • Possession of a Controlled Substance (Cocaine)
  • Possession of a Controlled Substance (Fentanyl)
  • Possession of Heroin with intent to sell
  • Possession of Cocaine with intent to sell
  • Possession of Fentanyl with intent to sell
  • Felony drug Paraphernalia

After transport to Orange County Detention Center, upon fingerprinting Melendez, it was discovered that he had an active warrant out of Pennsylvania for a parole violation related to the sale of Heroin; he had absconded from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections since 2015. This investigation remains active, and additional charges are pending.

Total Recovered:

  • Fentanyl 34.29 grams
  • Heroin 10.28 grams
  • Cocaine 6.4 grams

Individuals actively viewing a crime or criminal activity should dial *FHP (*347) or 911. If you have information or would like to provide an anonymous tip about a crime or about criminal activity from anywhere in the state dial **TIPS (8477). Dialing **TIPS from any cellphone will automatically route the caller to the Crime Stoppers office in the region where the call is generated.

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The Editorial Board of Alachua County Today has rarely taken to endorsing candidates in local political races; however, there are times when it becomes necessary. Such is the case in the City of High Springs commission races scheduled for Nov. 7, 2023. Up for consideration are four candidates in two races. In Seat 1, electors in High Springs will have the opportunity to select between the incumbent, Ross Ambrose, and Andrew Miller. In Seat 2, voters will consider incumbent, Gloria James, and Steven Tapanes.

For many years, the City of High Springs experienced considerable political tumult, so much so that it created harsh divisions within the community. Over the last few election cycles, voters have managed to regain control of their commission, placing on the dais community-minded, non-partisan commissioners who have been focused on moving High Springs forward, into a more fiscally sound and responsible direction.

Tax increases are rarely, if ever, welcomed by the taxpayers, but tax increases are sometimes necessary. The City of High Springs, like every other small town, is feeling the financial pinch of inflation. We all feel the financial pinch of inflation. Without an increase in taxes this year, the City of High Springs would be setting itself up for financial straits in the years to come. Simply put, the City has to pay someone to fix water pipes, respond to emergencies, put out fires, and maintain the City’s infrastructure. That is to say nothing of the business of running the City. There is no doubt that there are some, including former commissioners, who want to sow divisions, but these efforts are not productive for the citizens.

Some candidates, and one commissioner, who is not up for election this cycle, have criticized the incumbent commissioners for approval of the FY 2023-24 budget, which did include an increase in the millage rate. It’s easy for one commissioner to sit by and criticize, without solution, a budget which she knows will pass while she avoids the political hit by voting against it.

To be sure, there is always work to be done on tightening the belt on government, reducing waste, and finding new and innovative ways to deliver governance and the services the citizens have come to appreciate and expect. The City of High Springs does not exist in a vacuum however, and for that reason, there are simply some economic conditions the City cannot avoid.

It is because of the work done by commissioners like Ross Ambrose and Gloria James that the City has reached a state of stability, a posture that is allowing the City to get its legs underneath it. After years of political disarray and infighting, the City is finally beginning to make headway on projects that hold great promise for the City of High Springs and its residents.

This is not the time to pull the rug out from underneath the commission and management. Instead, voters should reelect Gloria James and Ross Ambrose while encouraging them to seek common ground on budget issues, attempt to increase efficiency, and hold themselves and management accountable.

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I am writing in support of Ross Ambrose for High Springs City Commission. First let me say that I have nothing negative to say about his opponent, and I’m grateful that we have wonderful people willing to serve our great little town. That said, I have plenty of positive reasons to support Ross in this election.

I have known Ross for at 15 years as a neighbor and friend in town. Ross showed his commitment to this town for years by serving on city boards before he ever ran for office. He has always taken anything he does seriously and professionally and that goes for the City Commission as well.

Ross makes it his business to understand every issue and the effects of city, county and state law on the issue, and how everything works together. When he makes a decision one way or the other on anything, I expect that he has researched it thoroughly. I feel like I don’t have to understand everything little thing that comes before the city, because he literally does that hard job for us. He has run a successful business for 10 years and he understands fiscal responsibility as well as investment and looking at the big picture to prepare us for the future. 

Perhaps the biggest reason I support Mr. Ambrose is that he is truthful, even when the truth is not what I want to hear. My example is that I emailed him about the proposed Bridlewood subdivision, coming out strongly against it. Like many in High Springs, I love our small town, and the surrounding open spaces. I don’t want the town to be swamped with traffic and see the beauty around us turn into South Florida-style crowding and sprawl. I want to protect the springs at all costs. I would be very happy to see zero new large-scale subdivisions here.

Ross took the time to email me back and carefully explain how the property that was Tillman Acres/proposed Bridlewood was zoned for crazy-dense zoning many years ago, and that the City can’t undo that and could be subject to a lawsuit if we tried. He was hoping to get the most palatable deal out of a bad situation.

He also told me about several other subdivisions: one along U.S.441, one adjacent to Bailey Estates, where the City had refused to allow an up-zoning to higher density for all the same reasons I state above.

I believe Mr. Ambrose wants to preserve the unique character of High Springs, but is also realistic in knowing you have to play the hand you were dealt.

I went to a candidate forum and one of the other candidates said High Springs needs better infrastructure before any new development is allowed. That sounds great but isn’t always possible, for reasons like the one above and the need to find funding for said infrastructure. I know that Ross Ambrose leaves no stone unturned in looking for funding sources aside from local tax revenue. The effort he puts into this job is Herculean.

Frankly I think we are extremely lucky to have such a dedicated, knowledgeable and hard-working commissioner. 

Stacey Breheny

High Springs, Florida

An election will be held in High Springs on Nov. 7. There are two seats up for election. Since this is an odd-numbered year, the turnout will be poor. Every registered voter in the city needs to read up on the candidates; do the research to see what each is for, and vote.

Things have been running smoothly in the city for some time. Voting for someone merely because they are new is not a good idea.

Ross Ambrose and Gloria James do their homework, are knowledgeable and make decisions for all of High Springs. They are not driven by politics but by what they think is best for the city. For the good of the city, let’s keep them doing what they’ve done so well. Just remember that you need to vote.

Thomas R. Weller

High Springs, Florida

This letter is to express my support for Steve Tapanes and Andrew Miller for City of High Springs Commissioner.

I have watched several of the commissioner’s meetings on line and have noticed on several occasions that although the audience is jammed with people who are concerned about certain issues, that their concerns seldom make a difference in the decisions made because the decisions appear to have been made prior to the meetings.

I would like to see new blood on the board of commissioners as I feel the incumbents get in a rut and although they claim to have the best interests of the citizens in mind some of them don’t seem to be listening. The newer members seem to be the ones listening.

Steve and Andrew both have businesses in High Springs and I feel their freshness would more closely represent the majority of citizens’ current views.

It’s time for a change, time for the younger generation to have a say in what happens for High Springs’ future. Vote Steve Tapanes and Andrew Miller.

Leah Currier

High Springs, Florida

The High Springs Chamber of Commerce would like to send a special thank you to all our volunteers and local businesses who gave their time, talents, and treasures to bring our community together for the annual Fall Festival.

Please support these businesses and tell them thank you the next time you see them. Decades on Main & Renee;

Oliver & Dahlman; Thompson Flower Shop; The Birds Nest; High Springs Church of God; LifeSpring Church; Plantation Oaks Assisted Living & Memory Care; Dawn Cross, Photography; McDonald's in Alachua; Ronald McDonald House; Hardee's in High Springs; Hillary Cowart the Magic Man; Line Dancing Debbie; Bryan's Ace Hardware in High Springs; Winn-Dixie in High Springs; Fort White Garden & Produce; Jennifer Lee & Caleb Henderson, The Perfect Home; Troop 69, Boy Scouts; Willard's Restaurant & Lounge; BlueStar Grill; Nancy's Bake Shop; Chantels' Cakery; Station Bakery & Café; Tom & Sue Weller, Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe; High Springs Police Department; Aunt Lydia Springs, Cake; Louanne Rigano, Cake; Vella Miller, Ballon; Don Decker, Trains; Museum for being open during the Fall Festival hours

There are so many who came together to make this year's Fall Festival one our community will cherish for years to come.

I love our quaint little town with all its southern charm.

Sharon Decker

High Springs Chamber of Commerce

This letter is in support of Ross Ambrose and Gloria James’ re-election for High Springs City Commission.

Over the many years that we’ve known both Ross and Gloria, we’ve witnessed firsthand their dedication to the City of High Springs. They’ve served not only as commissioners but have been active in many service organizations. They are strong leaders in our community, and we need for them to continue to serve as City Commissioners.

We encourage you to vote for Gloria James and Ross Ambrose on Nov. 7.

Scott and Lynn Jamison

High Springs, Fla.

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Nearly two years after a father killed his young sons, burned the family's vacation home and fatally shot himself, Florida's Legislature is nearing passage of a new law that would shield details of autopsies of children.  Sponsored in the House by Rep. Charles “Chuck” Clemons, R-Newberry, and Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, the effort in Tallahassee is on behalf of the boys' surviving mother, 44-year-old Minde O'Sullivan of Gainesville. She said she never wanted to learn details of her sons' murders that were described in media coverage in the case that drew public interest across Florida. The bills would also ban release of photographs, audio or video in all cases when a minor is killed by anyone, not just in domestic violence crimes. The Senate has already passed a version of the bill. The House is expected to vote on the bill Thursday.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Nearly two years after both her sons were killed by her estranged husband, a surviving mother is picking up the pieces of her life to move forward as untold storylines about the murders are just emerging.

Minde O'Sullivan, 44, of Gainesville said her new marriage to the University of Florida baseball coach, Kevin O’Sullivan, and a non-profit foundation she created in honor of her boys, Rex Reinhart, 14, and Brody Reinhart, 11, have given her a new purpose in life. 

Meanwhile, her sons’ legacy may be legislation – “The Rex and Brody Act” – that is so far sailing through the state Legislature. One bill passed the Senate 39-0 earlier this month, and the House is expected to vote Thursday on another, after it passed unanimously through three committee votes. Similar efforts failed in Tallahassee last year.

The bills would ban the public release of autopsy reports for minors killed by domestic violence – and also ban release of photographs, audio or video, such as police body camera recordings or in reports by child abuse investigators, in cases when a minor is killed, no matter the circumstances.

Minde O’Sullivan’s estranged husband, Paul Otto Reinhart, 46, fatally shot the couple’s sons in May 2021 at the family’s waterfront vacation home in western Florida then set the house on fire and killed himself. The family, which ran a lucrative medical device sales company, was prominent in the region’s social and political circles.

The boys’ autopsies, which were released publicly, revealed that their father had shot both sons before he shot himself and set the fire – even though Minde O’Sullivan had initially assured a 911 dispatcher that her husband did not own any guns during the frantic hours when authorities were still searching for her missing family. Sheriff’s investigators also believed Paul Reinhart didn’t have a gun, based on their review of recent firearms transactions. But detectives later found two 9mm Glock pistols in the burned home in Suwannee.

“I was unaware he bought one two weeks prior,” she said in a recent interview. “I had no idea that he was capable of doing anything like this, or else I never would have left my children with him.”

Court and investigative records showed that the murders happened after Reinhart learned about an extramarital affair, the two traded angry texts about her wishing her husband dead and he made moves to withhold the family’s millions of dollars from her.

“You changed your life insurance policies so I don’t get any f***ing money,” Minde O’Sullivan told Reinhart in a conversation that Reinhart apparently recorded, according to a sheriff’s office report. She later said during a deposition in a related court dispute with Reinhart’s family that she had been unaware of Reinhart’s efforts to change his $4 million in life insurance policies.

When the boys’ autopsies were made public under Florida’s public records law, in August 2021, investigators had not yet released any details about how the boys had died three months earlier. Most media coverage then focused on the disclosure that Reinhart had shot the boys, without graphic descriptions. A local television station went further, detailing in a brief news article published on its website how many times and where on their bodies each boy was shot. Photographs and videos taken during autopsies are already blocked from public view under existing Florida law.

Minde O’Sullivan made clear to lawmakers she did not want to learn details of her sons’ tragic deaths – in a case that generated public interest across Florida – because it would be too upsetting.

The proposed law would have kept details secret. A surviving parent or spouse who was not involved in their child’s death could review an autopsy report. The legislation said such reports contain “highly sensitive descriptions of the deceased” and “could result in trauma, sorrow, humiliation, or emotional injury to the immediate family and minor friends of the deceased, as well as injury to the memory of the deceased.”

The bills would also ban release of photographs, audio or video in all cases when a minor is killed by anyone, not just in domestic violence crimes. The ban would cover accidents, such as car or boat crashes or cases when a child falls off an amusement park ride. It would cover killings even by police or sheriff’s deputies and even if there were questions about whether they acted lawfully in such cases. It would also cover evidence of deaths of children in cases that may have been handled or mishandled by government regulators, such as Florida's Department of Children and Families. 

That provision – which was not in the version of the bill that failed last year – was added last month by the House Judiciary Committee, saying it worried that release of recordings of killings may encourage others.

The bills were sponsored by two Alachua County lawmakers: Rep. Charles “Chuck” Clemons, R-Newberry, and Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville.

Clemons said he supports Florida’s public records law, sometimes known as the Sunshine Law, because it shines a light on government programs and activities. “What I’m asking you to do today, with this bill, is to put into the shade the gory photographs, the descriptions, the videos, etc…of minors who have been murdered,” he told lawmakers on the judiciary committee last month. 

Minde O’Sullivan pleaded with lawmakers to draft a bill so no surviving parent has to undergo the same hurt ever again, Clemons said. This year, the Senate version passed on April 11, Minde O’Sullivan’s birthday. When the Senate voted, she broke into tears in the Capitol as her mother, Tammy Prince, put her arm around her to comfort her.

“This was just the biggest birthday gift that I could ever imagine,” Minde O’Sullivan said. “It was so emotional.”

Clemons said he looks forward to Gov. Ron DeSantis signing the law once it passes the full Legislature, as is expected on Thursday. He said it would have prevented young friends of Rex and Brody learning graphic details online about the deaths of the boys. DeSantis is widely expected to sign the measures into law.

“Think about the psychological impact and the hurt it has not only for those young boys but for the surviving parents, the grandparents, the friends, the close-knit community – it's all out there and it's out there forever,” Clemons said.

Under the bill, a judge who finds good cause could disclose autopsy reports in certain cases. The court would have to evaluate the intrusion into the family’s right to privacy and consider whether there is similar information available in other public records.

While Minde O’Sullivan attended legislative hearings in Tallahassee, she also founded and focused her efforts on the Rex & Brody Foundation. The charity honors her sons, who were avid baseball players, to support youth and school baseball teams. Brody regularly served as the unofficial batboy for the University of Florida baseball team. She married baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan on Sept. 24. The two were friends for years and began dating after the murders.

Some details about Reinhart’s actions – and interactions with Minde O’Sullivan – ahead of the murders have not been previously reported.

Eight days before the murders, Reinhart filed paperwork to change two life insurance policies to keep his wife from collecting money after his death. At the time, the couple was separated and intended to divorce. The policies were worth $2 million each and permitted full payouts even in a case of suicide.

The changes by Reinhart named his sons as primary beneficiaries and one of his brothers, Konrad Reinhart of Gainesville, a secondary beneficiary if the boys died. After the murders, Minde O’Sullivan settled a federal lawsuit with Konrad Reinhart last summer over the $4 million. Court records did not specify how the money was divided.

Separately, Paul Reinhart also updated his will 15 days before the murders to prevent his wife from receiving any assets after their 19 years of marriage. He named his brother, in place of his wife, the beneficiary of a retirement account worth more than $600,000.

Two days before the murders, Paul Reinhart began moving large sums of money from the family’s bank accounts: He transferred $299,000 from his business account to a personal account controlled by himself and Konrad Reinhart. He moved $100,000 out of Brody’s account and $100,000 from Rex’s and transferred it to the same account controlled by him and his brother, according to court records. 

The same day, Paul Reinhart used his phone to search: “selfish and having an affair” and “how to break someone psychologically, mentally and emotionally,” according to the final Dixie County Sheriff’s Office report. 

“The thing that is so upsetting is that it was planned out weeks before,” Minde O’Sullivan said in an interview. “It wasn't like he just snapped on a whim. He was still walking around with a smile on his face while he was planning all of this.”

The morning of the murders, Paul Reinhart emailed her a message that read, “You got your wish and you can keep the millions.” Attached to the email was an audio recording Reinhart made of the two arguing. 

In the recording, Paul Reinhart said, “Honestly wish I were dead.” Minde O’Sullivan responded: “Yes, I do. I do, but you know what sucks? Is you changed your life insurance policies so I don’t get any f***ing money,” according to the sheriff’s office report.

As part of their bitter family legal fights over the estate, Konrad Reinhart accused Minde O’Sullivan of a role in Paul Reinhart’s violence. The sides settled their probate fight in July, according to court records.

“Paul told me that she told him… to go kill yourself multiple times, and Paul said, ‘Are you serious?’” Konrad Reinhart said in a deposition. “And she said, ‘Yes,’ and then she got angry because the life insurance was changed into the boys’ name, and that’s all she was concerned about was the money.”

Minde O’Sullivan’s charity, which raised $82,222 last year, pays for baseball facility improvements and sponsors local teams to compete in national tournaments. Its next major fundraiser is Sept. 23 at UF’s football stadium. 

Minde O’Sullivan said the charity gives her a purpose, staying involved with youth baseball. She still attends high school games, she said, and stays in contact with her sons’ teammates.

“I wake up every single morning and think, ‘This is not real, this didn’t happen,’” she said. “But you have choices to make: You either get up and get going, or you choose to give up. And I've never chosen to give up.”

She added: "Staying involved in sports and baseball, which was their true passion, has helped a lot. It gives me a purpose. I knew I won't have my own ever again, but I have hundreds of other children and I'm going to continue to help."

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