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GAINESVILLE -- Alachua Habitat for Humanity has named longtime residential homebuilder David Weiss as its new Chief Operations Officer.

Mr. Weiss started in early November in the position that was created when Executive Director Scott Winzeler was promoted to Chief Outreach and Development Officer earlier this year. While Mr. Winzeler will focus on developing the resources needed to expand the mission and advocate within the community for the needs of affordable housing, Mr. Weiss will handle day-to-day operations of the affiliate.

Mr. Weiss has spent much of his 30-year career as owner of a large Midwestern company that built up to 185 homes a year which was a draw to Alachua Habitat as it is looking to ramp up its construction program. “The beauty of Dave’s resume is that he has been a homebuilder with years of experience building hundreds of homes,” Mr. Winzeler said. “Applying the practices he has learned through this process to build affordable housing will enable this affiliate to fulfill its main mission; helping more families obtain affordable housing.”

Mr. Weiss holds a bachelor’s degree in construction management from Purdue University. “I’m very excited,“ Mr. Weiss said of the new job. “Our 10-year plan is to double the number of families we serve and I plan to implement processes to make us run well and efficiently so we can avoid growing pains,” he said. “We owe it to our families, donors, volunteers and staff to make sure we run as smoothly as possible. We want what we do to serve the needs of our community at every level.”                                                                           

Founded in 1986, Alachua Habitat for Humanity is the local affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International. We envision a world where everyone has a decent place to live and we work towards that vision by bringing people together to build strength, stability, and self-reliance through shelter. To accomplish these goals, we invite people of all backgrounds, races, and religions to build houses together in partnership with local families in need of affordable housing. Through volunteer labor and donations of money and materials, Alachua Habitat has built more than 145 homes in the local community. Habitat houses are sold to homeowner families at no profit and financed with affordable loans. For more information visit www.alachuahabitat.org

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ALACHUA COUNTY — A higher percentage of Alachua County Public Schools students graduated on time in 2019, continuing a steady climb in the district’s graduation rates.

According to figures just released by the Florida Department of Education, Alachua County’s overall graduation rate for 2018 is 88.5%, up from 88% in 2017. For the third straight year local students outperformed their state peers, who graduated at a rate of 86.9 % in 2019.

The 2019 gain represents a five-year increase of more than 14 percentage points in the district’s graduation rate, which was 74.3% in 2015.

According to DOE, Alachua County Public Schools had both a larger ‘cohort’ of seniors and more graduates in 2019. The number of seniors rose from 2021 to 2082, with the number of those earning diplomas increasing from 1779 to 1843.

“I want to applaud our teachers, staff, administrators and particularly our students and their families for all their hard work in getting more of our students across the finish line,” said Superintendent Karen Clarke. “Earning a diploma on time in Florida is not easy, and it’s good to see more of our students rising to the challenge each year.”

Newberry High School has the highest graduation rate in 2019, with 100% of its students graduating on time. Eastside High had the biggest increase, from 92.5% to 94.9%.

The graduation rate for local African-American and Hispanic student also increased this year—from 79.2 % to 79.9% for African Americans and from 83.7% to 90% for Hispanic students.

African-American students at all of the seven high schools operated by Alachua County Public Schools graduated at a higher rate than their state peers in 2019. At six of those schools, the African-American graduation rate was 90% or higher this year.

Newberry High had the highest rate of 100%, while Eastside had the biggest gain in that category as well, with the graduation rate for its African-American students jumping from 84.9% to 91.8%.

“We really drilled into the data for individual kids to see what the challenges were, whether test scores, credit deficiencies or something else,” said Eastside High principal Shane Andrew. “Our teachers and staff worked very hard to provide students with whatever support they needed to meet the graduation requirements.”

                                                      

“This took a team effort, with leadership from the district, hard work by our teachers and staff and great support from our community,” said Newberry High principal James Sheppard. “Whenever we asked for help, they responded.”

“I’m proud that we continue to exceed the state in this very important indicator,” said School Board Chair Eileen Roy. “We’ve certainly made significant gains over the last several years, and we want to keep improving even as the state raises the bar for graduation.”

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ALACHUA — The City of Alachua plans to pursue Safe Routes to School Grant. In an effort to promote and empower the Alachua’s children to walk and bike to school, the City of Alachua will be submitting grant applications to the Florida Safe Routes to School Program to implement infrastructure improvements.

The improvements include a 2,650-foot sidewalk along U.S Highway 441 to benefit Santa Fe High School and 2,350 feet of sidewalk within the Hunter Woods neighborhood to connect to the existing sidewalk system on CR241 to benefit W.W. Irby Elementary School.

Safe Routes to School (SRTS) programs are sustained efforts by parents, schools, community leaders and local, state and federal governments to improve the health and well-being of children by enabling and encouraging them to walk and bicycle to school.

SRTS programs examine conditions around schools and conduct projects and activities that improve safety and reduce traffic and air pollution in the vicinity those schools. As a result, these programs make bicycling and walking to school a safer and more appealing transportation choice, thus encouraging a healthy and active lifestyle from an early age.

In addition to improving safety for children, Safe Routes to School programs can benefit a community’s quality of life by reducing traffic congestion and motor vehicle emissions while increasing opportunities to be more physically active and connect with neighbors. Consequently, SRTS programs can improve safety for all pedestrians and bicyclists in the community.

For more information on the proposed project, contact Adam Hall at 386-418-6100.

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HIGH SPRINGS — A county-wide effort to limit tobacco sales to persons 21 years of age or older appears to have run its course in the city of High Springs. During the Nov. 14 High Springs City Commission meeting, City officials voted unanimously to opt out of the County's “Legal Sales Age 21 ordinance” on first reading of the ordinance.

A second reading of the ordinance in its entirety is anticipated at the Nov. 26 City Commission meeting.

Despite statistics and impassioned pleas by some residents, others see the ordinance as one more way in which the government is interfering in the public’s personal lives. Some also believed that penalties on tobacco sellers was not the way to address the issue.

Chris Rhodes addressed commissioners to make a strong case against approval of the County's ordinance. On the other hand, Tobacco Free Alachua President Victoria Gibney and another member of the organization, Greg King, talked about how youth who begin smoking at a young age continue to be life-long smokers.

King read a letter by High Springs resident Sarah Catalinato, also a member of Tobacco Free Alachua, in which she expressed her dismay at not having the City Commission support the County ordinance.

Although everyone on the High Springs Commission seemed to agree they would not like to see kids smoking at an early age, they expressed their belief that people have to make decisions for themselves and deal with the consequences of their choices.

Commissioner Linda Jones said she would like to see tobacco use stopped, but thought she could not tell an 18-year-old, who can make decisions about whether to serve in the military or who to vote for, that they cannot purchase a pack of cigarettes.

Mayor Byran Williams said he didn't see how raising the age to 21 would result in people not smoking. Commissioner Scott Jamison said at some point, people have to be accountable for what they do. Mayor Williams suggested more education about the dangers of smoking would be a better way to go, in his opinion.

In a roll-call vote, Commissioners voted unanimously to opt out of the County's smoking ordinance. Both sides will have another chance to sway the Commissioners to their way of thinking at the Nov. 26 second and final reading of the opt-out ordinance.

Due to the holidays, the City Commission meeting schedule has been modified and will meet only one more time before the end of the calendar year, on Dec. 12.

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L-R: Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe Trail Project Organizer Linda Rice Chapman and Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe President John Manley proudly display the new sign which reads: The Santa Fe Kiwanis Fitness Trail.

HIGH SPRINGS — On a windy Wednesday, Nov. 13, Kiwanis Club members, funding donors, city officials and interested residents gathered for the unveiling of the sign commemorating the opening of the new Fitness Trail. The trailhead is located behind the High Springs Cemetery at the High Springs Sports Complex and is now open to the public.

The fitness trail, now formally known as The Santa Fe Kiwanis Fitness Trail, was the brainchild of Kiwanis Club member Linda Rice Chapman. Chapman is quick to point out that she was not alone in this project and had a great deal of help from her fellow Kiwanians and the High Springs Parks & Recreation Department, under the leadership at that time of Robert Bassford. She also acknowledged the great support she received from former city manager Ed Booth.

Chapman was, however, instrumental in obtaining the grant funds for the project and keeping everyone focused. The project began in early 2017, with the group clearing a walking trail on weekends. As she says, "Many members of our club and their friends spent countless hours chopping vines and clearing brush."

Although there were setbacks, the group stayed on task and completed Phase 1 of the project. In doing so, they had to battle inclement weather, poison ivy and weed growth that seemed to be akin to the speed at which Jack's beanstalk grew in the nursery storybook.

As Phase 1 continued, club members began looking for grant programs and community support for the project. Luckily, they learned about the Clay Electric Coop, Inc.'s Operation Round Up grant program. Chapman prepared the paperwork and applied for the grant on behalf of the Club. "Clay Electric obviously shared our vision for this community project," said Chapman, "because they awarded the grant to our club."

Six months later, club members learned that the Florida Kiwanis Foundation had a matching grant program. Again they applied and were awarded the grant.

Meanwhile, it had taken so long to obtain the financing that the City went forward with a five-year master plan for recreation. “Our site had morphed into an overflow parking lot,” said Chapman.

A meeting with former recreation director Robert Bassford resulted in grouping the equipment into two pod sites, which ultimately led to finalizing the project.

The City's current Parks & Recreation Director Damon Messina sees potential in not only having the fitness trail at the Sports Complex, but also in ways in which it could be utilized and even expanded in the future. "For instance, I'm hoping we can incorporate the trail into the Frozen Foot event," he said. "I believe we could also expand the fitness trail and do another phase."

The Recreation Department's five-year plan will incorporate lighting, which could make the trail usable even after sunset. During the hot summer months, the light might be a benefit for folks who don't want to exercise in the heat of the day.

“Our five-year plan also proposes a playground in 2021,” Messina said. “That could be a real benefit to parents who want to work out and also keep an eye on their children.”

Messina was quick to praise Bassford and his recreation maintenance person, Dave Sutton, for the work they did to restore and develop the nearby fields. "They did the groundwork, so that's something we don't have to do to use and develop the sports complex," he said. "High Springs has been lucky to have open fields available for recreation. In more congested cities, available land for recreation is difficult to come by."

“This project reaches those people who cannot afford a health club membership and those with no transportation to a gym, even if they could afford membership,” said Chapman. “It gives seniors and others with limited income and transportation an incentive and an opportunity to keep fit at no cost to themselves,” she said.

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ORLANDO — The City of Alachua, along with the Florida Municipal Power Agency (FMPA), and in conjunction with 11 other Florida municipal electric utilities and Florida Renewable Partners, LLC, broke ground on the Florida Municipal Solar Project, one of the largest municipal-backed solar projects in the nation.

A total of approximately 900,000 solar panels will be installed at two sites in Osceola County and at one site in Orange County. That’s enough solar panels to fill 900 football fields or stretch from Jacksonville Beach to Key West two and a half times. The total generating capability will be 223.5 megawatts of zero-emissions energy, which is enough to power 45,000 typical Florida homes.

The 12 local utilities that will purchase power from the project include: Alachua, Bartow, Beaches Energy Services (Jacksonville Beach), Fort Pierce Utilities Authority, Homestead, Keys Energy Services (Key West), Kissimmee Utility Authority, Lake Worth Beach, Ocala, Orlando Utilities Commission, Wauchula and Winter Park.

“We are pleased to start construction on a project of this size, which will enable us to provide affordable, emissions-free solar power to our customers,” said FMPA’s Jacob Williams, general manager and CEO of the Orlando-based wholesale power agency. “By working together, the cities can build a larger, more efficient facility to help make solar energy cost effective.”

Construction on phase one of the project will continue through mid-2020. When complete, the power output from this project will be equal to 37,250 average-size rooftop solar systems.

To enhance efficiency, the ground-mounted solar panels will be installed with a computer-controlled tracking system that moves the panel to track the sun as it travels from east to west, maximizing power output.

Buying and installing the solar panels in such large quantities and using technology to make them as efficient as possible, the cost of solar energy from this project is about one-third the cost of electricity from a typical private, rooftop system.

FMPA is serving as the project coordinator, and the 12 municipal utilities, who are member-owners of FMPA, will purchase power from the project. The builder, owner and operator of the solar farms is Florida Renewable Partners, whose parent company is the world’s largest generator of renewable energy from wind and the sun.

While construction of the first phase is underway, FMPA and its members are working to expand its solar power generation. The utilities are looking to grow the project to a total of 375 megawatts by 2023. 

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ALACHUA — It’s safe to say that most people have hard times and sometimes troubles seem too much to overcome. In America, troubles are generally over relationships, school drama, jobs, money, and the other similar issues. And teenagers tend to see these everyday challenges as more distressful. On Dec 10, students at Santa Fe High School gathered in the auditorium to hear Dr. Jacob Atem as he spoke to them about preserving in times of trouble and overcoming obstacles to create their own success.

Atem knows about hard times and adversity. He is one of those known as “The Lost Boys of Sudan.” Born in Sudan, his country became embroiled in a brutal civil war that claimed the lives of close to 2 million people and lasted for 22 years. It is one of the longest civil wars on record.

Village burned to the ground

When Atem was seven years old, he watched as his village was attacked and burned to the ground. This young child watched as his parents and almost every adult he knew was murdered. He escaped and joined over 20,000 other orphans (mainly boys) trying to flee the country. Much of the travel took place by foot in large groups with the boys traveling in single file lines.

The journey from South Sudan to the nearest refugee camp could be up to thousands of miles. Travel ranged from a span of weeks to two or more years. Often, the children traveled with no possessions besides the clothes on their backs. The Boys often depended on the charity of villages they passed for food, necessities, and treatment of the sick. However, most of their travel was in isolated regions with very little infrastructure and few supplies to spare.

Orphans attacked by Ethiopians

Groups of Boys were often organized and led by the oldest boy in the group, who could be a young adult or sometimes as young as 10 or 12 years old. Repeatedly attacked as they fled toward Ethiopia, young Atem saw many other children die from military attacks,thirst, starvation and wild animals including lions, hyenas and crocodiles. An estimated 50 percent didnt make it.

Once the children finally crossed into Ethiopia, they were put in crowded refuge camps where malnutrition, starvation and disease continued to kill them. After two years in these makeshift camps, they were told they had to leave because the country was embroiled in its own civil war and could not afford to feed or care for the children. On the Sudanese side of the river were militias that wanted to kill or enslave the refugees. Caught between the two, the Boys refused to leave and were attacked by the Ethiopeans and forced into the river where many drowned or were eaten by crocodiles. Many more were killed or captured by Sudanese militia and forced into being child soldiers.

Refuge in Kenya, then America

Atem survived and continued with others on a journey to find refuge in Kenya where international aid groups had set up camps. The world was now aware of their plight and some, including Atem, were given a chance to immigrate to America.

But Atem told the students that immigration is not as easy as often portrayed politically. It took two years to get through the paperwork, pass the citiizen exam and find a sponsor family in the United States. Ones that were over 18 had a three-month visa to get a job and pay back their travel costs or be deported. Those under 18 had to find foster parents willing to sponsor them.

At 15, Atem did not know how to read, write or speak English and even simple things taken for granted in America required learning, such as light switches, television or cooking with a stove. They were all foriegn to the world he had grown up in. Placed in school, he faced bullying,was called stupid and riduculed. But he knew he had an opportunity to have a better life and persisted in his studies.

Education key to future

The reason Atem told the students his story was to show how bad adversity could be and yet not defeat you. He worked hard, eventually working his way into college and finally graduating with a Ph.D. The point of his lecture was to show that no matter how bad things seem, you can make your own future if you work hard and don’t give up. He urged the students to take their education seriously, saying, “Education is a commodity that determines your future abilities.”

He also discussed using education and privledge to help others by doing volunteer work for the less fortunate. Atem has established a medical clinic in rural South Sudan to help rebuild the country of his birth that also drove him and thousands of other out. Atem holds no animosity towards others and has learned to heal and better himself by helping others. He said that the mission of his clinic is to provide medical services and education to uplift the people of South Sudan and bring hope where it has been lost.

He told the students that he was not smart, but rather, achieved his goals and current life through hard work and urged the students to do the same. "If you have a teacher trying to help you learn and you don’t show up or care, you only hurt yourself and limit your ability,” Atem said. “Success in your life is only gained by your own efforts.”

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