HIGH SPRINGS – After a few hours of driving, the couple arrived at the High Springs Community Theater to a sold-out show. Luckily, the theater was able to find them a seat for the play. Some weren’t as lucky.

The High Springs Community Theater finished its three-week run of the play “The Homecoming” last weekend. Each of the nine showings was sold out.

“We had to turn people away,” said Arlene Levine, president of the theater.

From Dec. 6 to Dec. 22, people from Lake City to Ocala and everywhere in between came to see the play, said Wanda Roe, who co-directed the production.

The show was inspired by the book “Spencer’s Mountain,” which also inspired the TV show “The Waltons.”

It’s about a family struggling to get by in rural 1932 Virginia. The father of a family of eight has to take a job in a nearby community and has not yet arrived home for Christmas. The family is concerned about his absence, so sends the oldest child to brave a winter storm and find him. Along the way, she meets members of the community and learns about them and her father, having her misconceptions corrected along the way.

“It was just a heartwarming message,” Roe said.

Wanda Roe co-directed with her husband Pete. The couple wasn’t certain about working together at first.

“We weren’t sure if we would fight about it,” Wanda Roe said. “But we got along great.”

The play featured 28 actors from Alachua, High Springs, Gainesville and all around the area.

Working with such a large cast was challenging for the theater that usually deals with 10 actors or fewer, she said. Most of the actors were new to the stage, though there were some veterans.

The cast was comprised of a diverse cross-section of the area, including actors from ages 9 to 72 of multiple ethnic backgrounds.

There were also two students from Santa Fe High School who operated the sound and light boards.

“We could not have done it without everyone working together,” Roe said.

Community members from High Springs and beyond pitched in and provided props, costumes and help create the sets.

Throughout the three-week run, 675 people came to see the show, Levine said.

The themes and messages of “The Homecoming” resonated well with the audience, Roe said.

“Family is the best gift of all,” she said. “That’s the theme that attracted most people to the show."  

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HIGH SPRINGS – Santa was escorted by a bright red High Springs fire engine and police vehicles, all with lights flashing and the occasional sound of a siren when crossing a busy intersection. The caravan snaked through back roads and highways to make sure everyone on the list received their Christmas gifts.

Each year, the High Springs Police Department (HSPD) organizes a gift-giving program for people in the community who need help with Christmas gifts. This year, “Operation Holiday Cheer” received gifts throughout the collection period, which began the Monday after Thanksgiving.

Most of the donations of unwrapped children’s gifts showed up about one week before Christmas, said HSPD project organizer Stephanie Hall.

“We were beginning to get a little worried that we would not have enough gifts for all of the people on our list,” she said. Ultimately, not only did the High Springs community step up to help out, but the Live Oak Fire Department also showed up with eight-and-a-half large boxes of toys.

“They collect gifts for 400 kids each year and actually had some items left over after they completed their gift distribution,” Hall said.

On Monday, Dec. 23, a white city truck and a trailer, filled to overflowing with puzzles, games, dolls, clothes and many other requested items, left the HSPD with Santa riding in the front seat. All were bound for 12 area homes. Santa had a list of 38 children to deliver presents to. In addition, restaurant gift cards and other items were delivered to parents as well.

Five children shrieked with delight at one house where Santa handed out bicycles, scooters and other gifts. The bearded, gift-giving gentleman received more than his fair share of hugs from grateful children and their moms for his efforts. In some areas, neighbors came out to see what all the fuss was about.

One family, which had suffered a tragedy this past year, received tickets to an adventure park, along with hotel and food accommodations and a gas card.

At another home, a mother of five had been diagnosed with a medical condition and had numerous surgeries in the past year and a half.

Jeanette Avila, 42, is the mother of four boys, ranging in age from 6 to 15 years old, and one 5-year-old girl. She is a stay-at-home mom and her husband works as a police officer at a local hospital. Between the cost of all the surgeries and her ill health, the Avilas were not able to provide their children with the type of Christmas they would want. This is the second year Operation Holiday Cheer has chosen to help this family with gifts for their children.

“I surprised the kids and did not tell them they were going to get a visit from Santa and all these toys. They were absolutely thrilled,” said Avila, who praised the HSPD and organizer Stephanie Hall for all her work to make this event happen for her children. Bicycles for the older children and scooters for the younger ones were a big hit with her kids.

“They have been racing around the house with the scooters and are just having the time of their lives,” she said.

Hall obtained the list of families who needed help from the High Springs Community School and from the day care owners in High Springs.

“After we received the abundant supply of boxes from Live Oak, we realized we had more than we needed for the original list of families," Hall said. "That’s when we contacted the day care centers in town. We wanted to make sure everyone who needed toys this year had them."

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CARL MCKINNEY/Alachua County Today

Mayor Gib Coerper shows off the certificate of occupancy. He posed in the jail cell, a remnant of the building's history as a police station.

ALACHUA – Years in the making, the renovation for the Community Welcome Center in Alachua has finally hit a milestone.

The building, situated in downtown Alachua, is now up to code, complete with a certificate of occupancy from the city’s building inspector.

The welcome center, which was formerly a post office and then a police station, has been in the works since around 2006 or 2007, when the Chamber of Commerce began the project.

“We envision it as a place where people who are visiting can stop in and learn about the local community,” said David Flinchum, chamber president, in an earlier interview.

It will serve as a tourist information center and as the main office for the chamber. It will provide information on local businesses, and will also feature displays and exhibits from the Alachua Historical Society.

With help from the community, the chamber expects the welcome center to formally open in mid-January, said Linda Rice Chapman, chamber member.

Sandy Burgess of Precision Metals donated the railing system, Hugh Cain of Allstate will supply some office furniture and Lowe’s of Alachua supplied all the exterior paint.

The building was essentially gutted, Chapman said, as it needed a complete renovation.

Until the welcome center is complete, the Chamber of Commerce will continue to be based out of a small office at Alachua Elementary School.

With a new headquarters on Main Street, the chamber can operate more visibly, said previous chamber president David Pope.

“It gets the chamber out front where it can be seen,” he said.

The biggest issue so far has been funding, current president Flinchum said in a May interview.

The chamber received a grant in 2011 from the county’s Tourist Development Council for $25,000. It got another $25,000 from the Alachua Downtown Redevelopment Trust Board.

When the chamber applied for the next phase of the grant this year for another $25,000 from the council, it lost out to the City of Alachua.

“Right now, we’re broke,” Chapman said.

To raise the money to finish the project, the chamber has two fundraisers on the immediate horizon.

The first is a patronage program. Donators can sign up to be a patron of the museum that will be inside the welcome center. Patrons will be honored with a permanent plaque with their names prominently displayed on the museum walls.

The second fundraiser allows people to purchase spots on the chamber’s calendar, effectively letting them “buy the day,” Chapman said. It would come with a signed proclamation from Mayor Gib Coerper declaring the day in honor of whoever bought the spot. For smaller amounts of money, the plan is to allow citizens to memorialize birthdays, anniversaries and other special personal events.

There’s still a long way to go for the project, said former president Pope, even though the building is finally up to code.

Chapman walked through the building, explaining what kinds of renovations are still in store.

The bathroom tiling still needs to be finished, there are no furnishings or display cases yet and the exterior needs to be painted and landscaped. Security lighting and signage are also part of the plan, if and when the funding allows it, Chapman said.

“The outside is virtually untouched,” she said.

Local architect Paul Stresing donated his time to help, drawing up big plans for the center.

The building is a concentrated effort from the Alachua economic community to move the city forward by bridging tourism, history and business, Chapman said.

“This building is going to have the power to transform Main Street,” she said. “That can only have the effect of making Alachua more prosperous.”

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ALACHUA – Every year, the best high school football players from Florida and Georgia face off in the Border War Football Game in Valdosta, Ga., and this year, a local star will make the trip.

Tim Deen, of Santa Fe High, is a defensive end, linebacker, tight end and punter for the Raiders. He led the team to a winning season at 6-4, and narrowly missed post-season contention. Deen has proven to be a versatile player all year, and averaged just over 41 yards per punt. The game will take place in Valdosta on Jan. 10.

“Tim is a great kid and very deserving of this honor,” said Bill Wiles, Raiders head football coach.

However, the football field is not the only place Tim excels. He carries a 4.1-weighted GPA and is involved in student government at Santa Fe High School as well. Deen is also a multi-sport athlete, as a member of the school’s baseball team.

“He represents SFHS and our community with integrity and class. He represents what Raider pride is all about,” Wiles said. “Raider Nation is very proud of and happy for Tim.”

Deen isn't the only one representing the Raiders in a major event. Sumner Barnard, Cory Jones, Mac Welch and Lee Washington are set to participate in the North Central Florida All Star Football Game to be held at Fort White High School on Saturday, Jan. 18. This is the sixth year the game has been played.

“We are very proud of these young men and are happy that they have the opportunity to represent SFHS on the football field one more time,” Wiles said.  

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CARL MCKINNEY/Alachua County Today

Santa waves to the crowd as his car moves down Main Street.  About 60 local businesses and organizations had a presence in the parade.

Residents of the Good Life Community gathered around Main Street to see the annual Christmas parade on Saturday, Dec. 14.

As the show started around 2 p.m., floats came rolling in representing this year's theme, “Christmas at the movies.”

City Commissioner Ben Boukari, Jr., Alachua recreation director Hal Brady and resident Gussie Lee announced each float as they drove by, offering commentary and chit-chat as the event went on.

Chamber of Commerce members Linda Chapman and Jim Brandenburg and Alachua Elementary principal Eva Copeland judged each participant who passed by.

“Most took great pains to express the theme of the parade,” Chapman said. “The attention to detail was impressive.”

The Alarion Bank float, featuring the Grinch and Dr. Suess-inspired scenery, won first place in the for-profit category of this year's event. The other winners were Matchmaker Reality and the Marlowe L. Smith Electric Company.

The three judges picked the City of Alachua, the High Springs Art Co-op and Lee's Preschool as the winners of the non-profit category.

“A lot of people put a lot of effort into all this,” said Mayor Gib Coerper. “Everybody is having a great time, and that's what this is all about.”

Mayor Coerper made an appearance near the beginning of the event, riding in a motorcycle side-car and donning a Santa hat, red clothes and sunglasses.      

Other local elected officials made an appearance, including County Commissioner Lee Pinkonson, who walked alongside a black car while waving at the crowd.

While many of the onlookers were current Alachua residents, there was at least one person from outside of town.

Pegg Dodson, from St. Augustine, moved out of the city of Alachua about 10 years ago. Whenever she goes to the annual parades in the spring and winter, she misses the small-town atmosphere, she said.

“It brings back Alachua memories,” she said.

Around 60 local restaurants, shops, non-profit organizations and other businesses participated, showing off colorful and detailed floats.

As the streets were flooded with candy thrown by costumed characters, eager children ran and dived to collect their prizes.

Sherrie Dyal, who lives near LaCrosse, was impressed by the variety of the parade.

“It's certainly colorful,” she said. “For the size of the city, it's a pretty good deal.”

For her, the Alarion float was the winner. Not only because of its recreation of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” but also at least partly because her daughter manages Alarion.

The parade ended around 3 p.m., just in time for it to finish before the rainfall to start. People packed up their chairs and said their goodbyes to friends as they got in their vehicles. The City of High Springs wasn't as lucky, its parade having been rescheduled to next Saturday due to the weather.

Sue Kreft, who lives near Jacksonville, saw the annual event as a good way for people to really learn what the city is about.

"We're getting to know Alachua in a neat way," she said.

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Photos by BETSY THOMASON/special to Alachua County Today

The High Springs Historical Society participated in the rescheduled parade.

 HIGH SPRINGS – After the first attempt was met with unfavorable weather, High Springs residents were fortunate enough to have warmer temperatures and no rain for their second attempt to hold their High Springs Chamber of Commerce Annual Twilight Christmas Parade on Saturday, Dec. 21.

The parade began promptly at 6 p.m. with Police Chief Steve Holley taking the lead.

Because of the last minute date change due to inclement weather the previous week, some of the 42 original participants were unable to paricipate.

“With drop-outs and add-ins, the parade ended up with 34 participants this year,” said Betsy Thomason, chamber event coordinator. “We were just pleased it didn’t rain and we had so many people lining the streets to see the parade.”

Mayor Byran Williams and city commissioners all rode on golf carts provided by Camp Kulaqua. Additional participants included the North Florida Antique Tractor Club, the High Springs Bicycle Motocross Racing Group, the High Springs Historical Society, Cowboy Church and other clubs and civic organizations in the area.

The special guest of honor every year is Santa Claus, who was seen near the front of the parade this time in a Polaris, donated for the evening by TH Building Group. After the parade ended near Railroad Avenue, Santa visited with boys and girls to find out what they each wanted for Christmas this year.

Serving as the parade grand marshal was Gloria James, 2013 High Springs Citizen of the Year. The parade began at the corner of Northwest 2nd Avenue and U.S. Highway 441 and proceeded east to Main Street. The colorfully lit floats, cars, horses and bicycles traveled south along Main Street to Railroad Avenue. Former city attorney Tom DePeter acted as the master of ceremonies and announced each group as they approached the viewing stand. Eyvonne Andrews, the chamber’s economic development coordinator, assisted DePeter as the official spotter.

This year’s parade theme was “A Pioneer Christmas.” Gift certificates to the first, second and third place parade entries were provided by Estate Solutions’s owners Chris Mckee and Roy Hammond. First place went to the Alachua Hare Krishnas in the amount of a $100 gift certificate. Second place went to the High Springs Historical Society Museum in the amount of a $50 gift certificate and third place went to the High Springs BMX Club in the amount of a $25 gift certificate.

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ALACHUA – Tables of students with their noses pressed into books at the Santa Fe High School Media Center witnessed Dollar General give the school a Christmas gift.

“I was thinking they were giving us $500 or $1,000, so that’s what I was anticipating,” said principal Elizabeth LeClear.

The gift turned out to be $40,000.

“I couldn’t even speak,” LeClear said.

On Wednesday Dec. 18, Dollar General distribution center director, Alain Arrendell, went to Santa Fe High School and held a presentation looking at the importance of literature and reading.

At the end of the presentation, the school was awarded with a black and yellow box containing a check for $40,000 to go toward literature. The goal, he said, was to create a “reading revolution.”

Right now, the school has not discussed what books will be bought with the money, said Santa Fe High School principal LeClear. However, the staff plans to get together after the holidays and determine the use of the money.

LeClear said she hopes a portion of the money will go to expanding the nonfiction literature section in the media center and purchase technology like iPads and Nook tablets.

Any program or use that promotes literacy is acceptable, Arrendell said.

The amount of money donated to the school took LeClear by surprise.

Dollar General has supported Santa Fe High School in more than just its literacy program, but also has helped sponsor teams and worked with the teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week.

Media specialist Georgeana Moore said that while Dollar General has been supportive of the high school throughout the years, she never expected the school to be awarded so much money.

“It just knocked our socks off,” she said.

Dollar General chose Santa Fe High School because of its proximity to Dollar General stores in Alachua. Arrendell said it also had to do with the number of parents of students at the school that work at the stores.

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