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Friends revved up for big birthday

AVON PARK — Car enthusiast Leslie Hollandy received the dream of a lifetime Friday as he celebrated his 80th birthday by riding in the Mobile 1 12 Hours of Sebring Pace Car.

Hollandy, a consumer with disabilities at Ridge Area Arc, was totally surprised as he walked outside in front of the Arc Workcenter on Friday afternoon with more than 50 consumers and staff to welcome in his surprise. Hollandy loves all sorts of cars but especially loves the racing cars. He can tell you just about any make and model of car just by looking at it. He even has a collection of model cars at his group home in Avon Park. So, it was more than fitting that this milestone birthday, which is actually Sunday, Oct. 10, would be celebrated in a race theme.

As Hollandy and his peers walked outside, they were handed a checkered flag to wave. A checkered flag banner was hung in front of the building along with a Dale Earnhardt Jr. cutout. They answered race trivia as they waited for the pace car to arrive. Amazingly enough when they were asked how many have been to the 12 Hours of Sebring race, no one raised their hand. So seeing the pace car up close and personal was a thrill for everyone.

The crowd was instructed to watch the Panther Parkway in front of the agency to look for a bright Sebring orange Corvette. Right at 1 p.m. the car drove down the Parkway and onto Independence Street where they were standing. Sebring International Raceway Public Relations Director Elizabeth Worley drove the car up to the building, honking and revving up the engine. Brittany Underwood, also with SIR, rode along in the car.

“It was an honor to be here and bring the car for them,” Worley said. “It’s great to personally interact and see their reactions.”

As they got out, everyone waved their flags and cheered. Worley presented Hollandy a goodie bag filled with race paraphernalia including a T-shirt, hat, cup and other items. Hollandy put his hat on and posed in pictures with the ladies and the car. But, his surprise was not over. Worley offered to take him on a ride in the pace car.

“Oh wow!” Hollandy said. Even with a mask on, everyone could tell he was grinning from ear to ear.

After the staff carefully assisted him into the car, he leaned out the window to wave goodbye to his friends as Worley drove him down College Drive. Upon his return, everyone waved their checkered flags for the great finish and they sang “Happy Birthday” to him as he exited.

“That car goes fast,” Hollandy said. “That’s a fast Corvette. I like that little Corvette made by Chevrolet. It’s a good car.”

Although Hollandy admitted he likes Porsches, he now has become a fan of Corvettes. “This was the best birthday ever,” he said.

Christmas shoeboxes change lives
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AVON PARK — Every year, many residents pack a shoebox full of necessities and toys for children all over the world through Samaritan Purse’s Operation Christmas Child. Since 1993, Operation Christmas Child has sent more than 188 million shoeboxes to children in over 170 countries.

It’s that time again. While it’s true we haven’t heard our first “Trick or Treat” or carved the Thanksgiving bird, Christmas is just around the corner. Now is the time to fill the boxes as they have packed and shipped across the globe. The National Collection Week is Nov. 15-22.

Do you ever wonder if anyone actually gets the boxes and do they make a difference? Yuri “Judy” Lopez, received her gift box when she was just 6 years old as an orphan in Honduras. She recently spoke of that life-changing event at First Baptist Church of Avon Park. Some 75 people from various churches and individuals attended to hear her testimony.

Lopez was separated from her family, including her twin sister at he age of 2 and was placed in an orphanage, several in fact. The shoeboxes arrived by helicopter one day and she said she would never forget it.

Lopez, like many shoebox recipients, had never received a gift in her life. Opening the box, she “screamed as loud” as she could when she saw the set of 10 pencils. She explained the orphanage gave students one pencil and one notebook to last them the entire year. It was like striking gold.

“I remember experiencing hope for the very first time when I received one of these colorful shoeboxes from Operation Christmas Child at the age of 6,” Lopez said. “Everything inside my box was special.”

She also received a new toothbrush, which may not sound like much to most people, but to her it meant not having to share one toothbrush between 25 other girls any more. She slept with her shoebox like many children sleep with a teddy bear.

“Knowing that I had my own (toothbrush), I was full of joy,” Lopez said.

Among the hygiene products in the box, the most special item was a hand written note from a little girl who packed the box. She held up the original note that said “Jesus loves you” on one side and “I love you too” on the back.

Lopez said at her age, she was more excited about the items than the note until she hit a low point in her life at 13 years old. No longer allowed to attend school or play soccer because of her sex, she became “angry at God for the life I was living” separated from her family. She said she felt hopeless.

After asking God for a sign of his love and presence, she came across the letter again. Lopez she said in the middle of her pain and struggles, God reminded her that he loved her and was always there for her and someone else who had never met her loved her too. The same day, she received a Bible.

After leaving the orphanage and moving to Eternal Family Project in 2004, she was able to continue her education and serve her community. In 2005, she met her would-be adoptive parents and would move to Dayton, Tennessee in 2008. She graduated from college and is now a full-time missionary and shares her testimony with Operation Christmas Child.

Highlands and Hardee counties usually collect about 9,000 boxes, according to Lori Bell, a volunteer coordinator with OCC.

“This year our goal is 9,500 boxes,” she said.

Bell said the boxes are delivered to many difficult places to reach and by different ways of transportation. Some are sent in airplanes, boats and even by camel or donkey.

Bell has been on a trip to deliver the shoeboxes in Tanzania.

“The pastors and missionaries are very appreciative for the shoeboxes to reach the boys and girls in their communities,” Bell said. “Many of the children have never received gift in their lives. So they’re learning how to receive a gift but also the free gift of salvation.”

Any sturdy medium size shoe boxes will work but some may prefer to purchase a colorful box from Samaritan’s Purse. They also sell plastic boxes the children can use to hold their personal items indefinitely.

School supplies, hygienic items, shoes and more are just some of the items that can be packed. A “Wow” item is suggested such as a doll, a soccer ball with a pump or other toy. A list of ideas is available online. Bell said one of the most important things to include is a personal note and a photo.

Please deliver filled boxes to Bible Fellowship Church at 3750 Hammock Rd. in Sebring, New Hope Baptist Church at 1999 State Road 64 E in Wauchula, First Baptist Church of Avon Park at 100 N. Lake Ave. and First Presbyterian Church of Lake Placid at 117 N Oak Ave.

Those who prefer not to shop can fill a box online at samaritanspurse.org/.

Bell said most of the people involved with OCC are volunteers. To volunteer or if you need more information call her at 502-553-5760.

Court expects challenges seating Xaver jury
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SEBRING — The upcoming trial of Zephen Xaver, the man who allegedly shot and killed five women in SunTrust bank in 2019, will present a challenge to the courts and jury pools of Highlands County.

During a pretrial status hearing on the five-victim death penalty case Thursday, Circuit Court Judge Peter Estrada told Xaver’s defense attorney, Jane Allie McNeill, and 10th Judicial Circuit prosecutor Paul Wallace, that COVID-19 restrictions could require him to summons as many as 500 potential jurors. From that group, prosecutors and defense attorneys must retain at least a dozen jurors and alternates. The Florida Legislature in March 2014 changed the law to require only a 10 juror-supermajority to issue a sentence of death. Other states require a unanimous declaration of 12 jurors.

At Thursday’s hearing, Estrada brought up the difficulty he faced putting together a jury to try Daryl Cason, charged with first degree murder, robbery with a firearm, and aggravated assault with a firearm in October 2016.

“I just want everyone to know, state, defense, I remember the case this summer, the difficulty of obtaining enough jurors in the Cason case,” he said.

Rebecca Raulerson, jury manager for the Highlands County Clerk of Courts Office, said the court sent out 150 summons for jury duty in Cason’s trial, but only 43 showed up. Potential jurors dropped out when they learned the trial would last up to two weeks. Several of the prospective jurors were single parents with no alternatives for after-school programs or child care. Most could not forego paychecks for two weeks while being on jury duty.

Estrada believes the phenomenon could happen again, with prospective jurors asking to be excused because they cannot afford to go without a paycheck and other hardships. Older potential jurors can be excused over COVID-19 worries.

A motion by Xaver’s defense team could either help in the choosing of jurors or slow the process of picking them. The motion asks the court and the clerk of the court to formally present each juror’s excusal in a hearing so both sides can state their positions as to whether the jurors should be excused. If dozens, or scores, of jurors are excused via a phone call or written notice in the days before jury duty, the clerk cannot simply make a note of it. Each excusal may have to be examined in a court hearing, if the motion is granted. Estrada will prepare a response to the motion.

Because it can hold so many prospective jurors, Estrada told McNeill and Wallace that he plans to open the historic, second-floor courtroom near his courtroom as a staging area. The historic chambers are always locked, except for tours or special events. While Xaver will be tried in Estrada’s felony Courtroom 2B nearby, the mass of jurors will await their turn for voir dire in the historic courtroom.

Jurors will be asked to report to the Highlands County Court House over two days; one batch on Monday of the trial week and the second batch on Wednesday of that week. Once the jury is set, the trial can begin, a process known as “pick and go.”

Prosecutor Wallace said in court several times Thursday that he wants Xaver’s trial to occur in May 2022, as scheduled.

COVID numbers continue to decline

Florida saw its sixth straight week of dropping COVID-19 numbers, according to the weekly update from the Florida Department of Health. The state saw 25,792 new cases for the seven-day period between Oct. 1-7. Florida has now had a total of 3.6 million cases.

There were 1,368 deaths reported for the seven days, with 147 occurring during the week and the others having happened earlier but were classified as COVID deaths during the week. Florida has now seen a total of 56,667 deaths.

Hospitalizations continue to drop, with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showing the state with 3,945 COVID-19 hospitalizations, which is just 6.78% of all hospitalizations. There are 1,081 ICU cases.

Of the state’s new cases, there were 4,140 in children age 11 and younger, with an additional 2,580 cases in the 12 to 19 age group. The state’s positivity rate of 4.8% was the third straight week Florida has been under 10%.

The state has now seen 27 deaths in those age 15 and younger, with 389 deaths in those ages 16 to 29. The majority of deaths (42,790) have occurred in those age 65 and older.

There were 311,720 vaccine doses given the past week, which is the lowest number in the past 10 weeks. The state has now vaccinated 13.7 million, which is 72% of those age 12 and older in the state.

Highlands County also continued its downward trend, with the county reporting 161 new cases and a positivity rate of 9.9%. The county has now seen a total of 15,716 cases.

There were 192 people vaccinated in Highlands County over the seven-day period, which raises the overall number to 58,387, which is 62% of those eligible.

Other counties in the Heartland also saw a decent reduction in cases, but with the rest of the state showing improvement, several counties are still well-below the state average. Hardee County was second worst in the state in terms of new cases per 100,000 population, while Highlands County was the seventh-worst county in the state.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report Highlands County with 19 new COVID deaths over the past seven days. FDOH is no longer reporting deaths on a county-by-county basis, but the New York Times is reporting Highlands County with 514 deaths. The last official number from the state was 366 in June.

The United States is also seeing a downward trend in its numbers, with the seven-day average showing 93,605 new cases per day. Deaths have declined slightly, with the country reporting an average of 1,421 new deaths over the past week. The U.S. has now seen a total of 44.1 million cases and 700,784 deaths.

Vaccination rates were high across the country, with an average of 1.01 million shots given per day over the last week. More than 401 million doses have been given so far in the country, as CDC is showing 76.3% of those eligible to be vaccinated to have received at least one dose.

Globally, there have been 6.5 billion doses given in 184 countries, with 27.8 million given per day over the past week, according to Bloomberg.

There have been 237.4 million cases and 4.84 million deaths globally, according to Johns Hopkins University.