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Site torn down for Medal of Honor Park

SEBRING — Anyone used to walking past the picnic pavilion between Highlands County’s Government Center and Courthouse had to detour Monday morning.

They’ll have to detour again today as a demolition crew continues to clear the site of the Stepping Stones Girl Scout House for the future Florida Medal of Honor Park.

Retired U.S. Army Col. Mike Borders did guard duty at the closed sidewalk. He said Monday that the man doing the clearing, on condition of anonymity, had made quick work of the picnic pavilion, making it a pile of flattened rubble by 11 a.m.

Plans were to get started taking down the Great Depression-era “Stepping Stones” log cabin that had served as the local Girl Scouts of America lodge for decades but had succumbed to termites in recent years.

Borders said people had salvaged as much as possible from the structure that could still be used, including electric wiring, fixtures and appliances, window frames and the air-conditioning/heating system, all donated to Highlands County Habitat for Humanity.

Habitat staff and administration confirmed the donation on Monday. They and Borders both said the Medal of Honor Park Committee has salvaged red bricks from the original log cabin foundation and fireplace, for use as donor bricks.

Among items saved, also, was memorabilia left behind in 2019 when Girl Scouts of Gulfcoast Florida Inc. ceded the 99-year lease from the city.

Borders said the items went to former and current Girl Scouts who are in the process of restarting local troop activities.

Meanwhile, Borders and his fellow committee member and site planner, Don Laycock, have big plans for the site.

A “visitors center” the same size as the Stepping Stones house will go on the north end of the property, under an old oak that the committee opted to save and use as the centerpiece of a “fork-in-the-road” gateway on that end.

Current plans for the visitors center, which will serve as both a gathering place and museum, would put building entrances on the north and west sides, Borders said. A stage sitting 30 inches off the ground will provide a venue for events.

The trunk of a cedar tree sits on the site near the log cabin. Borders has said it will get milled into two podiums for the visitors center.

Stairs on either side of the stage will provide access, along with a wheelchair ramp, Borders said. He also hopes to provide a motorized lift, to provide extra access to those bound to a chair.

Currently, the committee has use of two half-size Sealand-style containers for storage, currently secured on county property.

The next step, Borders said, will involve marking off the site for the new foundations of the monument and visitors center, then starting work on the sign for the park, then working back from there.

Pakowski leaving Highlands Habitat

SEBRING — After seven years with Highlands County Habitat for Humanity, Blair Pakowski is moving onward.

She’ll continue fighting against homelessness and substandard housing, but she’ll do it from a different organization. She’s taken a new remote-work position as program coordinator and compliance officers for the Coalition for Home Repair.

The national coalition of nonprofits, local governments, and churches repair homes and form partnerships with businesses, sponsors, other nonprofits and individuals to make a bigger impact. Habitat for Humanity is one of the partners, she said.

“It’s definitely bittersweet,” Pakowski said Wednesday. “I’ve been with Highlands [County] Habitat since 2016 and was with Habitat in North Carolina before that.”

In fact, when she arrived in Highlands County in May 2016, she had just finished working with Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity, the affiliate in Wilmington, North Carolina. In Sebring, she immediately set about getting more people involved with the local affiliate.

She started as volunteer manager under the former executive director, Sarah Creekmore, then she and her husband had a son, who is now 6. Two years ago, in the summer of 2021, shortly after the birth of their second son and after the departure of Creekmore’s successor, Pakowski got tapped to stand in as interim executive director.

Meanwhile, the local Habitat Board of Directors found a new executive director – Pakowski.

At that time, in the waning year of the COVID-19 pandemic, staff had reduced to a minimum, Pakowski said. They have since rebuilt, hiring a Home Ownership Program manager to do more community education, including financial skills for prospective homeowners, and a director of development with “a tone of Habitat experience” from both Pennsylvania and Florida.

They, along with existing staff, have brought the office numbers back up to a half-dozen people, with another 16 working at the ReStore.

Highlands Habitat is also redoing its website, Pakowski said, and has closed on five houses in the last year.

Monthly payments on those mortgages are going into the Fund for Humanity. That, along with individual donors and sponsors, has helped increase resources to continue the goal of building six homes per year, she said.

“She’s been wonderful,” said Highlands Habitat Board Chair Ron De Genaro Jr. “She’s offered stability for our organization and set us on the right track.”

De Genaro said she has “set the table” for the next executive director to lead the organization in its mission, and is looking forward to finding someone of both her and Creekmore’s caliber.

“We’re extremely proud of Blair [Pakowski],” De Genaro said of her new job. “She will help lead a national organization that will fight homelessness.”

De Genaro said he understands fully why she needed to find a work-from-home position. His own children had the same four-year age difference as hers, and he was impressed that Pakowski, while living in Polk County, managed to commute daily to Highlands County.

However, it started from Winter Haven, and then from Lakeland. Between construction on State Road 60 and the 75-minute drive, one way, it’s a lot for anyone, he said.

“We’re sorry to see her go,” he said. “We’re proud of her at the same time.”

“I was able to make an impact and put the organization into a better place,” Pakowski said. As for the change, she said, “It’s a great way to have more time with my kids and a little less stress.”

Russia pushes advance on Bakhmut, bolsters defenses in south

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Fierce battles raged outside Bakhmut as Russian forces pushed their advance on the eastern city with heavy shelling and infantry attacks, Ukraine’s presidential office said Monday, with at least five civilians killed and as many wounded in action across the war-torn country in the last 24 hours.

The presidential office said the situation in Bakhmut’s northern suburb of Paraskoviivka is “difficult” as Russian forces continued to pummel the area with “intense shelling and storming actions.” The nearby town of Vuhledar is also under heavy bombardment.

Russian forces shelled a dozen cities and villages in the Donetsk region in the last 24 hours including in Druzhkivka where a missile hit a hospital and in Pokrovsk where shelling damaged seven houses and a kindergarten.

“The shelling intensifies, and the Russians accumulate more forces for an attack on peaceful cities,” Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said. “We’re seeing a very tough battle in which the Russians aren’t sparing neither themselves, nor us.”

In the neighboring Luhansk region, Russian troops pulled back after several days of intense fighting near the key city of Kreminna, although they’re not “running out of steam,” Luhansk Gov. Serhii Haidai told Ukrainian television.

In the partially occupied southern region of Kherson, artillery fire hit more than 20 cities and villages over the past 24 hours including the regional capital of the same name which was recaptured by Ukrainian forces in November. Two men were killed in one of the villages when their car ran over a landmine.

In the neighboring Dnipropetrovsk region, Russian shelling of the city of Nikopol killed one person and wounded two others. The shelling also damaged a residential building, a water treatment facility and a college.

Meanwhile, the U.K. Defense Ministry said Russian forces are bolstering defensive fortifications on the edge of the battlefront in southern Ukraine to protect their flank, despite their focus on the Donbas region.

“This is demonstrated by continued construction of defensive fortifications in Zaporizhzhia and Luhansk oblasts and deployment of personnel,” the Ministry said in a briefing Monday.

The U.S. embassy in Moscow issued another warning to U.S. citizens not to travel to Russia for fear of harassment or detention, urged them to leave immediately if they have to travel there.

The warning cited “the potential for harassment and the singling out of U.S. citizens for detention by Russian government security officials, the arbitrary enforcement of local law, limited flights into and out of Russia, the Embassy’s limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia, and the possibility of terrorism.”

The embassy also noted that Russian authorities may sweep up U.S. citizens who also hold Russian citizenship in a possible renewed mobilization of reservists. “Russia may refuse to acknowledge dual nationals’ U.S. citizenship, deny their access to U.S. consular assistance, subject them to mobilization, prevent their departure from Russia, and/or conscript them,” the warning said.

Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, the embassy has regularly issued advisories for U.S. citizens not to travel to Russia and leave if they already have.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied Monday that a second round of mobilization is looming.

Although many people have fled the Donetsk province where the bulk of the fighting is concentrated, those who opted to stay depend on sporadic aid deliveries of food and water.

In the city of Sviatohirsk, in northern Donetsk, the few residents who remain rely on volunteers with the organization World Central Kitchen for food and supplies to cope with freezing temperatures. Sviatohirsk was liberated by Ukrainian forces in September.

On Sunday, the area was blanketed with snow, concealing the massive destruction from repeated bombardments and heavy fighting.

Standing by the ruins of the city council building, resident Valeriy Andrievskiy said the building used to be “beautiful.”

“God forbid our forces retreat and we stay (behind enemy lines). God forbid. I will not survive this one more time,” he said.

Walking near the ruins of her home, 80-year-old Tamara Yevdokimova said she had been “tortured” by Russian forces.

“I haven’t been able to hear for five months ... They (Russians) have knocked my teeth out. What can I do?” she said. In her yard were the burned out remnants of a Russian tank.

People who left the front lines in search of safety continue are still struggling to adapt to a new life elsewhere. In Kyiv, dozens of people from Donbas, Kherson and Kharkiv regions are being helped by Center of Hope and Recovery, an organization that provides temporary homes and meals.

“These are people who have left in the past what they have earned for years, and this is a very traumatic experience,” said head of the center Anna Harkun. They receive psychological and medical help, while volunteers help them find work and permanent lodging, she added.

Russian rockets destroyed the home of 80-year-old Anatoly Zakharenko in village Terny in Donetsk. His wife, daughter, and disabled granddaughter were all evacuated and are being helped in the city.

Missing his hometown, he wrote a poem to ease the pain of displacement. “I will return to you, believe me,” he said, reading it aloud.

Heartland Christian Academy to add classroom building

SEBRING — Heartland Christian Academy plans to add a new classroom building for the 2023-24 school year to accommodate middle and high school students.

Heartland Christine Director Rebekah Kogelschatz said the new building is to expand space for middle and high school students. The plan is to have it opened by August 2023.

For next year, the school will be accepting applications for all grade levels. All grades have space for next year at this time but some are close to capacity, she said.

If we are successful at opening the new classrooms in August, our middle and high school will have additional openings, Kogelschatz said. This year, eigth, ninth, and 10th grades were all full.

The current K-12 enrollment is 345 students.

At its Monday meeting, the Sebring Community Redevelopment Agency considered the design review application for the property at 1105 Production Drive for the new 144-by-66-foot metal building that will house 10 classrooms and bathrooms.

This solid building looks more like the current 11-piece modular building, according to the academy. “It is visually pleasing compared to other single units.”

The new building would be located behind the main campus on land that is currently used for physical education classes, athletic activities and parking.

Heartland Christian Academy is anticipating that the portable classroom modular unit will be used as temporary classroom facilities until the school builds a permanent facility.

When the building arrives, the interior and exterior will be complete to provide an aesthetically pleasing building for the campus, according to the Academy. The building will be painted navy like the other buildings on the main campus.

After a dip in enrollment, the school’s enrollment has quadrupled in seven years.

An August 2012, news reports stated that the school’s enrollment was around 120.

In September 2015, the Christian school, at 1160 Persimmon Ave., Sebring, was about to close when enrollment fell to 83, which the school deemed was 17 short to be financially viable to remain open. Community support kept the school open.

By August 2018, enrollment was at 253 with a new building with nine classrooms to accommodate the growing enrollment.