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5 to be honored at the Champion for Children Gala

The Champion for Children Foundation of Highlands County, Inc. has released the names of the five finalists to be honored at the 21st Annual Judge Clifton M. Kelly Champion for Children Awards Gala.

The annual awards gala is named in memory of the honorable Judge Clifton M. Kelly, a retired circuit court judge and lifelong child advocate, who passed away in 2005. For 21 years now, child advocates have been nominated from throughout the county, with 25 individuals nominated this year for the prestigious award. The Champion for Children Award recognizes passionate community members who give of their hearts and talents to incredibly improve the quality of life for children and positively impact youth across Highlands County. Kevin Roberts, Champion for Children Foundation founder and chairman of the board, shares that to his knowledge, “Highlands County is the only county in the nation to honor distinguished child advocates in such a formal manner, raising our community’s servants to celebrity status.”

The five child advocates being celebrated at the 21st Annual Champion for Children Award are Florine Anderson-Wells, Scott Kirouac, Pamela Lanier, Vicki Million, and Adam Smehyl.

For over 20 years, Florine Anderson-Wells has poured her love and care into the community of Avon Park. Her previous experiences as a counselor at the Avon Park Youth Academy and community liaison led to her serving as director of the Boys & Girls Club of Avon Park for the past 12 years. It is estimated her dedication and example have touched over 1,000 children, enriching and empowering young lives while also building beneficial relationships with parents and guardians. As Anderson-Wells emphasizes, “I hope to continue to encourage and help our future leaders reach their goals by ways of helping them believe in possibilities.”

Scott Kirouac, an agriculture professional working for Hillary Peat Co. and Big Sky Growers, created Ag Angels 13 years ago to provide Christmas gifts for less fortunate children. Over the years, more than $450,000 has been shared with Highlands and Hardee County schools and organizations to provide gifts of true need, not luxury. Such gifts hold the highest value and help students realize they have a supportive school and caring community surrounding them. Kirouac encourages others to “Experience the joy and satisfaction that one person with a vision can accomplish when your mission is for 100% of the right reason, to help others.”

Pamela Lanier has given her committed effort to ensuring the success of Highlands County children and youth for 33 years. Beginning as a camp counselor and paraprofessional, she became a band director and teacher, then an assistant principal, and presently serves as director of Exceptional Student Education. Lanier’s tireless sacrifice and leadership by example has touched an untold number of children and families. Her understanding of children with disabilities brings hope to families and encourages students to reach for their full potential. Lanier shares, “I have always tried to provide opportunities to children that they might not have had otherwise.”

Vicki Million has walked alongside local students for 30 years. Whether as a swim instructor and coach, or a guidance counselor at Lake Placid Elementary School, she looks at the whole child and reaches out to meet needs beyond what is apparent at first glance. Million has created “safe rooms” and environments where students can decompress and gain skills to navigate healthy solutions. She always encourages self-confidence, discipline, and a commitment to achieve goals; and her impact is built upon her sacrificial dedication to anyone in need. Million states, “I continue to strive to create a supportive and caring environment for all children.”

For over 19 years, Adam Smehyl has made significant impacts on countless Highlands County middle and high school students. As a former educator, and current Youth & Family Pastor at Bible Fellowship Church, his commitment to youth is based on his desire to be directly involved with them. Smehyl meets students where they are while maintaining positive relationships and a steady standard of behavior. He is often seen eating lunch on school campuses, participating in running events, and working alongside youth on community service projects. One of Smehyl’s main goals is “To help develop good men and women for 10-15 years down the road.”

“Our community is truly blessed to have these dedicated individuals and passionate leaders positively impacting our children and mentoring our youth,” states Champion for Children Foundation CEO Carissa Marine. “It is our sincere honor to celebrate and thank them for their compassion, sacrifice, and dedication.”

The 21st Annual Judge Clifton M. Kelly Champion for Children Awards Gala will be held on Sept. 24 at 6 p.m. at Grace Bible Church in Sebring, by invitation only. Due to current CDC safety guidelines, in-person attendance at this year’s Gala is extremely limited. The community is invited to join the award presentation online with live Facebook and YouTube viewing options, so together, all may celebrate the community’s outstanding child advocates. The evening program will include a formal award ceremony and entertainment, and culminate with the announcement of the 21st Annual Champion for Children award recipient.

State reports lowest daily new virus cases since mid-June

SEBRING — The 1,885 new COVID-19 cases reported Monday by the Florida Department of Health is the lowest daily increase since June 15.

There were 68 new resident fatalities to bring the state death toll to 11,187 attributed to the coronavirus. The total Florida case count is 623,471.

There were only two new COVID-19 cases in Highlands County, which is the lowest number of new daily cases in more than a month. The county death toll remains at 67.

Highlands currently has 24 hospitalized due to COVID-19.

DeSoto County added 11 cases for a total of 1,489 and Hendry County added six cases for a total of 1,975.

Hardee added five cases for a total of 1,097, Okeechobee had four additional cases in the latest count for a total of 1,243 and Glades had two more cases for a total of 456.

Statewide from the 34,849 previous day's test results, 5.5% were positive.

Highlands had a very low positive test rate of 1.8% with 111 tests and only two being positive. 

Hardee County had five positives from 15 tests for a positive rate of 33.33%.

Okeechobee County had four positives from 27 tests for a positive rate of 14.81%.

South Florida's previous day's test results show the following positive rates: Miami-Dade 6.54%, Broward 4.15% and Palm Beach County 3.49%.

Statewide over the course of the pandemic, 4,622,552 virus tests have been administered with 13.49% being positive. 

Nationwide, there have been 6,014,013 cases with 183,312 deaths.
Worldwide, there have been 25,318,901 cases with 847,797 deaths.

Teacher contract negotiations to resume

SEBRING — Contract negotiations between the teachers’ union and the School Board of Highlands County is set to resume at 4 p.m. Sept. 17 in the Garland Boggus Board Room at the District Office.

Deputy Superintendent Andrew Lethbridge said the district is looking forward to working on language and also discussing salary proposals.

“Hopefully we can get the contract settled,” he said.

There have not been any contract talks with the school support staff union, Lethbridge noted, and then he provided the rational for not starting the support negotiations.

State funding was given explicitly for teacher salary increases, he said. Under the state plan, the funding would more significantly increase the starting teacher salary, but all teachers would get raises.

With everything being so unsettled, there are many factors that will affect the district’s budget, such as the level of funding from the state, what the state’s budget is going to look like, how many students are returning, the difference in funding for a virtual student and a student who is in attendance on a school campus, Lethbridge said.

“The state has shared with us that our funding in the fall will be based on our projected number of students so it appears we will be held harmless if any students didn’t return,” he said. “But, there is no such guarantee for the spring, so this entire year we are trying to be cautious with the funds that we have to make sure that we are good stewards with the dollars.”

So the district wanted to wait and see how everything “shook out” before making any financial decisions, Lethbridge said.

There have already been projections that next year’s budget will be reduced significantly based on the reduced projections of the state sales tax revenue and other effects of the coronavirus such as on tourism, he said.

“So there is much that is unknown and those budget concerns will impact the negotiation process as well,” Lethbridge said.

Florida's economic opportunity chief resigns amid jobs woes

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s director of economic opportunity resigned Monday, months after being stripped of his oversight of the state’s glitch-ridden unemployment system, which left hundreds of thousands of people waiting weeks — and sometimes months — for benefits after losing their jobs during the coronavirus outbreak.

Ken Lawson said in his resignation letter that he was leaving his post “in the spirit of turning the page and moving forward.”

Florida’s balky unemployment system was among the slowest in the country to respond to the surge in unemployment as the pandemic sidelined key sectors of the state’s economy, including bars, restaurants and huge swaths of the tourist industry.

The number of unemployed overwhelmed the state’s benefits system, preventing many applicants from filing claims online because of glitch-ridden servers and phone lines. The debacle prompted widespread complaints and put Gov. Ron DeSantis under political duress.

With public anger welling, Gov. Ron DeSantis yanked Lawson from his oversight role in April. Lawson remained as director of the Department of Economic Opportunity, but management of the unemployment system was given to Department of Management Services Secretary Jonathan Satter.

Shortly before the leadership shakeup, Lawson had publicly apologized for the distress the problems caused the newly unemployed. “From my heart, I apologize for what you’re going through,” he said then.

DeSantis said he would announce a replacement as soon as Tuesday. During a press availability Monday, the governor said he appointed Satter to oversee the unemployment system “because we obviously were having major issues.”

“It wasn’t being moved along the way we wanted it,” he said. “There’s some things that need to change in that agency.”

Florida’s unemployment system became fodder for state and national Democrats, who pushed for investigations into the failures, including an explanation of why the state could not deliver timely benefits.

DeSantis has acknowledged that his state’s unemployment system is broken and ordered his own investigators to look into the system’s failures. At one point, DeSantis likened the state’s unemployment system, known as CONNECT, to a “jalopy in the Daytona 500” being “left in the dust.”

Democrats and Republicans alike have acknowledged that the problems with the CONNECT system predated the pandemic. The outbreak had caused the state’s unemployment rate to spike to 13.8% in April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, up from 4.4% the month before.

In fact, state audits found repeated failures in the system, which the governor has acknowledged was not designed to be able to handle the surge in claims.

In December 2018, a month before DeSantis was sworn in, Lawson, then president of Visit Florida, warned the governor’s transition team about grave deficiencies in the state’s unemployment compensation portal. The memo noted that the state’s reemployment system “may struggle in the event claims volume increases in the future.”

“To his credit, he submitted a memo to the governor even before the governor got sworn in,” said state Sen. Annette Taddeo, adding that addressing the deficiencies “was not a priority of the DeSantis administration.”

The governor’s office has said that it was not aware of the “extraordinary deficiencies” and could not have foreseen the coming meltdown.

Tonya Olson, a physical therapist in St. Petersburg who waited three months for her first unemployment check, said Lawson was made to be a scapegoat and was one of the few who actually seemed to care.

“He’s the only person that I’ve seen who’s gone on record to apologize, take responsibility, and pledge to fix CONNECT and get people paid,” she said.

DeSantis has begun reopening much of Florida’s economy, allowing some Floridians to return to work even as the state continues to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.

Since March 15, the department said it has processed nearly 3.7 million claims – paying out $14.6 billion in benefits to more than 1.9 million claimants. Much of that money – $11.5 billion – came from the federal government.

Under pressure, the governor ordered the department to install additional servers and to hire hundreds of temporary staffers to accommodate the deluge of calls.

With the state’s unemployment rate in July at 11.3%, more than 1.1 million Floridians remain out of work and the system continues straining to keep up.

“To this day we see new unemployment claims come our way, including from Floridians who haven’t seen a dime and others who are missing weeks of back pay. We need to completely dismantle and rebuild DEO with new people and policies,” said state Rep. Anna V. Eskamani.

Florida Democrats, who have been releasing a daily tally of those waiting for benefits, say the DeSantis has not fully resolved problems. According to state Senate Democrats, 1.7 million Floridians are waiting for benefits.

Associated Press writers Kelli Kennedy in Miami and Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee contributed to this report.