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Man displaced, home destroyed by fire

AVON PARK — A newspaper carrier, running a route early Friday morning, came upon a fire on Century Boulevard in Avon Park, with the resident trapped in a backyard pool.

Jim Ervin, who delivers newspapers for the Highlands News-Sun, said the mobile home was already engulfed in flames when he drove by, and he didn’t know anyone was home, until he heard someone yelling.

“I was getting ready to call 911 when I heard a man in the swimming pool out back,” said Ervin, who had to knock out part of the privacy fence and screen panel to find the man. “I couldn’t see him, but I heard him hollering.”

Ervin described the man as being in his late 60s and somewhat disoriented. Rather than let Ervin assist him out of the pool, the man told Ervin to go outside of the pool enclosure until police arrived.

“I was afraid the pool roof would melt,” Ervin said.

Sheriff’s officials said it took three minutes for Highlands County Sheriff’s deputies to arrive, and seven minutes for Avon Park Fire Department and Highlands County Fire Rescue to arrive on scene.

Once deputies arrived, Ervin helped them pull the man out.

Avon Park Fire Department Station 5, HCFR Sun ‘N Lake Station 7, HCFR Highlands Lakes Station 1, HCFR West Sebring Stations 9 & 10 responded along with Battalion Chief 1, and Medic 4 from Avon Park were alerted and responded, said HCFR reports.

HCFR reports that Battalion 2 and Rehab 51 also responded. Medic 4, first to arrive, confirmed the house was fully involved. Firefighters got the fire out, but stayed on scene for four hours to ensure it was completely extinguished, given the nature of the flooring and additions to the house.

The home was a total loss, but no injuries were reported, HCFR reports state. The American Red Cross is assisting the resident.

Firefighters have not determined the cause and have called in the Florida Division of the State Fire Marshal to investigate.

High school elective leads to employment

SEBRING — Today, a student can graduate from high school not only with a diploma but also with a certificate of accomplishment in a vocational field. That can enable him or her to gain an entry level position directly upon graduation.

In Florida, the position of veterinary assistant is an entry-level position in the growing field of veterinary medicine. A student can become a certified vet assistant if his or her high school offers the program. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s a job seeker’s market in all veterinary employment categories.

Sebring High School started a veterinary assistant program about six years ago and Avon Park High School, about two years ago.

Katherine Fernandez, who teaches the SHS program, explained to this correspondent how it works.

The veterinary assistant program is an elective. Each student must complete 250 hours of classroom training and 250 hours outside the classroom under the supervision of an experienced vet technician or a veterinarian. Classroom training takes place between freshman and junior years and volunteer internships during the senior year.

After successful program completion, students are eligible to take the Florida Veterinary Medicine Association’s Certified Veterinary Assistant exam. A passing score is 70 or higher.

Before they can graduate, students also must complete certain required math, science and English classes that every high school student must pass.

The program has helped jumpstart veterinary careers.

Talia Toussaint graduated from Sebring High School with her Veterinary Assistant Certification in 2018.

“As a child, I knew I wanted to work with animals. When I saw that Sebring High School had the veterinary assistant program, I knew I had to be in that program. Just knowing that I would get one foot in the door of my dream career at such a young age was so exciting for me,” she recalled.

Paige Thompson and Destiney Turner, 2021 SHS graduates and Certified Veterinary Assistants, agree with Toussaint.

“The vet assistant program is a great starting point. Classes cater to different styles of learning. Students get hands-on experience with animals in the on-campus barn behind the school,” Thompson said.

Following up on Thompson’s statement, Turner added, “The program is not just about caring for dogs and cats. It’s also about livestock animals, like the goats, pigs and cows housed in the barn.”

“You learn about the different animal breeds, their body parts and organ systems, their patterns of behavior, and their dietary needs,” she said.

According to the SHS Program of Studies Guide, students also learn about low-stress handling of animals, restraint techniques, the parameters of physical exams, diagnostic and therapeutic testing, pharmacology and the administration of medications.

They’re introduced to surgical preparation and procedures, anesthetic equipment, monitoring devices and basic radiography techniques, and pet grooming, as well as basic principles of managing a veterinary practice and other animal care businesses.

According to Kylieann Stevenson, who will graduate in 2022, Fernandez is a significant part of the reason for the program’s success. “She is wonderful. She takes time to listen and pay attention to her students. She wants fo make sure we understand the concepts behind what we are learning,” Stevenson said.

Much is learned through internships.

Toussaint took her internship at Sebring Animal Hospital.

“Dr. Larry Jernigan and the staff had a big impact on me. Because of what I learned there, I gained more responsibility at my next job more quickly than would have been the case otherwise,” Toussaint said.

After graduation, Toussaint moved to Canada where she has been working as a vet assistant at Bank Street Animal Hospital for three years. She has been trained to do intake exams, take x-rays, draw blood, and do lab work. She also helps the technician with surgery induction, monitoring, and recovery.

In 2020, she was accepted into the vet technician program at Algonquin College in Ottawa. Vet technician is the next level of seniority after vet assistant.

Turner performed her internship at the Humane Society of Highlands County. She worked in the animal shelter where she helped to manage the dogs and cats and to get them ready for adoption. She also interned at the Humane Society’s Affordable Care Clinic which opened in September 2020. After completing her internship, she became a full time employee at the Affordable Care Clinic.

“I’ve learned a lot from Dr. Carpenter, who oversees the shelter animals, and Dr. Stewart, who operates the clinic. I’ve enjoyed my interactions with pet owners too. It’s been a really good experience,” Turner said.

Thompson is employed by the Dawg House Pet Resort in Lake Placid, where she also interned.

“We make sure the animals have time to go outside, run around, do their business, and play. We clean up their rooms and make sure they’re comfortable. It’s rewarding to see how thankful the owners are that their pets are being well taken care of,” Thompson explained.

Stevenson will enter her senior year of high school this fall and doesn’t yet know where her internship assignment will be. But her dream is to be an equine vet, and she has her eyes set on interning at Steel Equine Veterinary Services and Performing Arts Center in Zolfo Springs. Her longer range goal is to attend Texas A&M Veterinary School. Stevenson owns two horses and participates in various equestrian competitions.

“The vet assistant program opens lots of doors. You can have a good career as a certified vet assistant. You can continue your studies in veterinary school or you can go into an animal-related profession like biology. If you’re also a pet owner, you know how to make that animal happy,” Fernandez said.

Courthouse deputies glad masks are off

SEBRING — The Highlands County Sheriff’s deputies who spent the last year wearing masks and screening courthouse visitors say they are happy things are returning to normal.

“Wearing a mask was restrictive, it made me sneeze, and made my glasses fog up,” smiled Deputy Paul Robitaille, whose daughter, Ashlee, joined the detention staff in 2018. “I am relieved we don’t have to wear those anymore.”

Sgt. Christopher E Myers, a 20-year veteran with the Sheriff’s Office, supervises the 10 deputies who work in the courthouse, including bailiffs, detention deputies and the handful of deputies who screen the public just inside the courthouse front door.

They wore their N-95 masks every day since COVID-19 closings hit and Florida Chief Justice Charles T. Canady ordered the state’s courthouses to adopt mask-wearing, hand cleaning, disinfection of surfaces and other precautions.

“We also took people’s temperatures, and individuals who came into the courthouse were asked to read a form that had standard questions, ‘had they come in contact with anyone who had COVID,’ those kinds of things,” Myers said. “Based on what their response was, they would be allowed to come into the courthouse or not.”

Deputies remembered only one incident where a citizen refused to wear a mask or enter.

“People were responsible and understanding,” Deputy Kenny Young said.

COVID-19 led to a drastic reduction in the number of visitors, but still a lot of people to check for symptoms.

In 2019, 105,398 people entered the Highlands County Courthouse through the deputies’ screening point. In 2020, the year the virus hit, that number fell to 41,089 people. At the mid-year point of 2021, deputies have screened more than 25,000 people, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Myers and other deputies at the security X-ray machine (that’s what they’re called) that screens purses, briefcases and other items, said they got whacked by another mask-wearing inducing event in June 2020: a broken water pipe between the courthouse’s second and third floors.

Flooding and the resultant black mold did what COVID couldn’t quite accomplish: it temporarily closed the courthouse. Though administrative staff moved their offices to the County Government Building down the street, the deputies stayed at their post, their N-95 masks protecting them from COVID-19 and mold.

“When the flood occurred, we had to deal with the air quality in the courthouse too,” Myers said.

Yet the year-long experience led Myers and his deputies to appreciate what they refer to as the “hybrid model” of court.

With COVID-19 restrictions, the 10th Judicial Circuit, like other Florida circuits, migrated to virtual court, using Microsoft Teams to connect prosecutors in their offices next door, defense attorneys in their offices wherever, inmates in the jail courtroom, and members of the public who call in from home or other location for their court hearing.

“In the future, if we can do hybrid, instead of having the public coming here, individuals can log online and see it virtually,” Young said, ”and not have people lined up in the courtroom.”

“Some of the things we learned about procedures are going to help us out in the future, how we run things in the court house,” Myers said.

The hybrid model – having some cases heard online – helps deputies manage inmates with court dates.

For instance, inmates in the jail stand and speak into a camera screen in the jail courtroom as a judge addresses them over Microsoft Teams. The inmate can see and hear the judge, the judge can see and hear the inmate, and the prosecution and defense lawyers can see and hear each other.

During COVID, inmates were brought over to the courthouse in what deputies call a “mass movement” and put in a holding cell until individually called into court. With virtual appearances, inmates stand in front of a camera in the jail.

“We can cut down on mass movements of inmates,” Young said. “It helps with the safety and security of inmates, too.”