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Historic building condemned following fire

SEBRING — A longtime establishment at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Lemon Street has been condemned after a late night fire Sunday engulfed the second floor of the building.

Sebring Fire Department Capt. Austin Maddox said firefighters responded to a fire on the second floor of the building around 11:30 p.m. Sunday. He described it as “hot and fast burning.”

The owner of the Golden Palm Trees Grocery at 420 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. told first responders that everything was locked up at 10:20 p.m. when he left, according to Maddox.

It took firefighters about two hours to get the fire out and another 90 minutes for cleanup.

While a grocery/convenience store is located on the first floor of the building, about 12 apartments are on the second floor. All of which were vacant, according to what the owner told officials.

The building is a concrete block structure with wood trusses. Maddox said it is believed the building was constructed in the 1950s.

Due to the damage done to the structure, city officials have condemned the location.

The fire remains under investigation by the Florida State Fire Marshal’s office.

Sebring Police Commander Curtis Hart said there is no evidence that Sunday night’s fire is connected in any way to the shooting early Saturday morning that resulted in four people injured, one of whom was arrested for illegal weapon possession. Jomichalle Kline Mack, 23, was treated for a lower leg wound and then arrested for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, according to reports.

Approximately nine off-duty personnel were on scene of Sunday night’s fire to assist the six on-duty firefighters who were fighting the blaze. Highlands County EMS was also on standby at the scene. There were no injuries reported in the incident.

Aktion Club honors Darrel Smith

SEBRING — The Kiwanis Aktion Club of Highlands County named June 4 as Darrel Smith Appreciation Day. This was a drive-by event in front of his Sebring home. The members, as well as the community, wanted to show Ranger Smith how much he is loved and appreciated for all his years of service at Highlands Hammock State Park and telling such great stories to campers.

“The Aktion Club voted on showing their love and appreciation for former Highlands Hammock State Park Ranger Darrel Smith after hearing about his poor health,” said Cindy Marshall, club advisor. “Darrel always took the time out at the park to tell special stories or talk to our group when they went camping or visited. He gave from his heart. This is our way to say thanks for all the years of service.”

A long line of cars drove by Smith’s home with his family in attendance. He was surprised at the outpouring of love from the community. Most of the visitors brought colorful cards to thank him.

“I’m overwhelmed,” Smith said. “I didn’t know that I did so much. I never really worked a day in my life as I loved every single day I worked.”

Marshall presented Smith with a framed Certificate of Appreciation from the Aktion Club. “You’ve always touched our hearts, Darrel.”

Carla Sherwin, from Highlands Hammock State Park, gave a short speech recapping Smith’s accomplishments in Highlands County.

“Darrel Smith is a very busy person who has lived an extraordinary life.”

He was a master photographer, owned and operated Frames & Images, was a park ranger and a park volunteer, served on the Friends of Highlands State Park Citizen Support Organization Board, was the curator of the Florida Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Museum, was the traffic director at the Ranger Station for the Turkey Trot 5K, was an avid Highlands Peddlers bicyclist and was the Florida State Parks Volunteer of the Year in 2014.

“His living history program, ‘The Best of Times, the Worst of Times,’ is the story of a CCC boy looking back on his youth and service in the CCC,” Sherwin said. “Darrel has been invaluable in interpreting this period of history to many visitors from all over the country.

“Darrel, you are truly the ambassador of Highlands Hammock State Park. Congratulations and heartfelt thanks!”

“He’ll do anything for his community,” said son Greg. “He’s stubborn that way.”

“Darrel was my mentor and everything I do, I do well because of his guidance and support,” said David Schmidt, current CCC curator.

“I was so used to his stories about the CCC that I thougth he was one of those soldiers (it was way before my time),” said granddaughter Katie. “I even got into trouble because I fought with a girl at school when she told me he couldn’t have been in the CCC. I said it was my grandfather and I should know!”

In addition to personal friends and friends from the park, family members attending included Candy Smith (wife), Vicki Jarvis (daughter), Greg Smith (son), Katie Smith (granddaughter) and Drew Smith (grandson).

Helping parents be the best they can be
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Editor’s note: Want to know more about the people who work in the county government, serving us, the residents? The Highlands County Board of County Commissioners will provide regular stories and photos to help educate us on the jobs and challenges that each of the county departments face.

SEBRING — Sometimes a motto says it all. “Helping parents be the best they can be.” These inspiring words are backed up by the staff who live that motto every day with their work.

And where that motto breathes each day is in Healthy Families Highlands, a division of the Community Programs department of the Highlands County Board of County Commissioners (BCC). We have a staff of eight and the program’s goal is to help parents provide the safe and stable environments children need for healthy growth and development.

The Florida Legislature established Healthy Families Florida in 1998. If you want to know the specific statute, look for F.S. 409.153. Healthy Families Florida, a nationally accredited, evidence-based, voluntary family support and coaching program, is an affiliate of Healthy Families America, which has received the highest possible rating of “well-supported” through the Prevention Services Clearinghouse.

The BCC first entered into a contract to begin offering services to eligible families in all Highlands County zip codes in 2007. This program serves up to 92 families annually. In total, 1,250 families have been served since Healthy Families Highlands began its work in our county.

So, what makes this program so important to our community? In a nutshell, the program helps teach parents ways to create a stable home life for their family, so their children feel safe and nurtured and ready to succeed in school and in life.

Recently, a local mother named Samantha Pollack shared her story of how Healthy Families has helped her achieve her goal to become a better person and the best mother she could possibly be.

“I honestly wouldn’t have thought that only one hour a week could have such an enormous impact on my family life,” she said. Local family support workers provide information, guidance and support in many ways. One way is to help program participants develop appropriate problem-solving skills and identify positive ways to manage stress.

“I have learned how to communicate with and understand my children, to bond with my children in a healthy way, and to discipline them in a loving way,” Pollack said. “I have learned how to give them what they need to grow into emotionally successful adults, and I’ve learned to take a little time for myself, because I am important too.” She admitted that this last part, that parents are important too, is something many parents seem to forget all too often.

Pollack also praised her local family support worker, Mara Hernandez, for her encouragement and support throughout her time in the program. “She never missed a weekly meeting,” Pollack said. Meetings can be held in person, over the phone or through virtual means like Facetime.

Other ways staff help parents and caregivers is to connect families to medical providers and make referrals to other community services. They also teach program participants how to recognize and address child safety hazards in and around the home, in the car, in and around water and in other environments. Family support workers also help teach participants that personal responsibility is key to a safe and stable home. They help participants set and achieve goals, such as furthering their education and acquiring stable lives.

Healthy Families Highlands is a free and voluntary program. Eligible families are provided services beginning prenatally and continue for up to five years, depending on the needs of the family. 85% of program completers improved their self-sufficiency in concrete ways, like gaining employment, enrolling in job training, furthering their education, or securing stable housing.

To learn more about the program and find out how to sign up, call 863-402-6628. It comes down to teaching best parenting practices that work for each family and how parents and other caregivers may dedicate themselves to becoming the best parents they can be.

“Honestly, Healthy Families is the best thing to have happened to my family,” Pollack said. “They have truly given me the tools to build my house into a home.”

State COVID reporting changes drastically

When the Florida Department of Health abruptly changed its COVID-19 reporting procedure on Friday, not everybody supported the switch. The state has gone to a weekly reporting method after reporting daily since March 16, 2020.

Those opposing the change made their opinions known on social media, which prompted Governor Ron DeSantis’ spokeswoman Christina Pushaw to post on her personal Twitter page, “I don’t know who needs to hear this, but the Florida Department of Health will continue reporting all reportable diseases (including COVID-19) to the CDC, which publishes state by state data. I am surprised anyone expected the state COVID-19 dashboard to be updated daily forever.”

The timing of the move was criticized by some, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent “State Profile Report” for Florida, from May 28, shows the state near the bottom in many of the major COVID-19 metrics. Between May 21-27, Florida ranked No. 48 out of 52 in new cases per 100,000 residents, with Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico also included. The state was No. 45 in positivity rate and No. 52 in new deaths per 100,000.

Florida did fare better in vaccinations, ranking No. 29 in percentage of population fully vaccinated.

The Agency for Health Care Administration published hospitalization data related to COVID-19 and that page is no longer found.

All non-resident data was purged from the new FDOH weekly report and the long-term care facility data, including cases and deaths, has also been removed from the FDOH website.

There was a change in the manner deaths are reported, with the state changing to reporting by date of death, as opposed to when COVID-19 deaths are actually classified as COVID deaths. There is a lag time in death reporting in which it can take weeks or even months for a death to be classified as a COVID death.

The state’s final daily report on Thursday showed 52 more deaths than were seen the previous day, but Friday’s first weekly report had just 35 deaths for the week. This is due to the lag time in reporting, with many of those 52 deaths reported on Thursday having occurred at least a week earlier, which is why they were not on the weekly report.

FDOH states new weekly reports will be published on Fridays.