Year In Review 2021

Posted 12/29/21

As we prepare for 2022, we wanted to take a moment to look back at the important and memorable stories of 2021.We celebrated championships and honored our frontline workers. We cried when our friends …

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Year In Review 2021

Posted

As we prepare for 2022, we wanted to take a moment to look back at the important and memorable stories of 2021.
We celebrated championships and honored our frontline workers. We cried when our friends and neighbors died and we desperately worked to find solutions for crime along Wells Road and drug abuse
in Middleburg and Clay Hill.
But most of all, we learned to adapt to an ever-changing world. Here are a few of the stories that got our attention in 2021

January

FDLE lays out its evidence against former Sheriff Daniels

The State Attorney’s Office said the Florida Department of Law Enforcement currently has 67 witnesses who’ve been interviewed in the case against former Clay County Sheriff Darryl Daniels related to an extramarital affair, subsequent coverup and pressuring CCSO officials to make campaign contributions.
Daniels was arrested on Aug. 13 on one count of destroying or tampering with evidence and making three false claims to law enforcement about his girlfriend. His legal team demanded the state turn over all investigative reports related to his arrest and the long-standing extramarital affair he had with a former subordinate when he worked with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.
The report detailed what it believes was a desperate attempt to hide personal information relating to the affair with Cierra Smith. The affair became public on May 6 when Daniels called CCSO and demanded Smith be arrested for stalking him. FDLE and Smith contend Smith had a prearranged meeting set up by another deputy at 370 Oakleaf Plantation Parkway with Daniels to return some CDs.
Daniels sought an injunction against Smith earlier in the day for following and harassing him, but the Fourth Judicial Circuit of the State Attorney’s Office in Jacksonville refused, saying he lacked significant evidence, according to the FDLE. CCSO conducted a traffic stop on Smith and Daniels demanded her to be arrested. She was taken to the Clay County Jail, but was quickly released without charges.

The FDLE contended Daniels asked the sheriff’s office to reset his personal phone because there was information on the phone he didn’t want “to see the light of day.” The report said Daniels denied ever using his sheriff’s office cellphone for personal business.
Daniels’ trial is set to begin on Jan. 21 at the Clay County Courthouse.

Baptist Health plans a healthy living center at VyStar building
The guttural sounds of heavy equipment bulldozers and dump trucks have become a welcomed consequence of rapid growth for Baptist Clay Medical Campus President Darin Roark. The fast-moving construction will result in a new 100-bed hospital and the creation of Baptist HealthPlace at Fleming Island that’s designed to enhance the quality of healthcare – and life – in the area. Baptist Health also completed its purchase of the VyStar Credit Union’s North Florida call and operations center at 2310 Village Square Parkway. The hospital group will quickly move forward to convert the 85,000-square-foot building into one of its new healthy living centers.
“The concept around that is that we incorporate the process that we use at our various locations,” Roark said. “The latest one we’ve opened is at Nocatee. They are staffed by a healthy living coordinator and they help folks to navigate our complicated healthcare industry. It also provides health education and opportunities to just make sure that they go through their resources to help patients determine what they have and how to go about using them.”

COVID-19 cases continue to surge in Clay County
Even as county health officials start inoculations for the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people testing positive – and dying – continues to rise in Clay County.
Testing sites were overwhelmed by residents following the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. And as feared, many family get-togethers resulted in additional cases.
As of Wednesday, Jan. 13, there have been 12,062 cases of the deadly coronavirus confirmed in the county. The death toll was 189.
Since Christmas, there have been an average of 133.1 positive cases reported daily, including a spike of 264 cases on New Year’s Eve and 202 on Monday, Jan. 4.
In comparison to numbers reported six months ago, the increases are alarming. On July 1, there were 903 confirmed cases and 42 deaths in the county. Clay’s first death was a 70-year-old man on March 14.
The median age of those infected is 43.
Included in the statistics, there have been 551 cases reported by the Clay County School District, as well as 149 residents and 51 employees of long-term care facilities. The state reported 76 deaths in Clay County at 17 different long-term care facilities.

February

Keystone Heights’ Genesis Helmet wins award from NFL
Although Joe Condon and Dr. Mark Horstemeyer were selected from hundreds of applicants to make a pitch to the NFL for their revolutionary football helmet, their appearance on the NFL Network wasn’t the conclusion of a lot of collaboration and work.
It’s just the beginning.
The two finished second in the “1st and Future” competition, and in the process, they convinced a panel of experts their Genesis Helmet could revolutionize head safety in the sport. They won $25,000.
“Just to be one of only four selected was a big honor,” Condon said.
Joe and Betsy Condon started Auxadyne in their Keystone Heights garage. It’s an auxetic foam called Xylafoam that expands at the point of pressure instead of contracting. The foam is considered instrumental for the future development of safer sports equipment, particularly football helmets.
The Condons won an $86,688 NFL grant in 2019 for its XPF material that absorbs and disperses energy at impact.
They met Horstemeyer, the Dean of Engineering at Liberty University, later that year at the NFL Helmet Summit in Youngstown, Ohio. Horstemeyer’s Yobel Technologies developed a revolutionary facemask that won a $20,000 grant from the NFL in 2018. The facemask reduced damage to the brain from certain types of impacts. Studies show about one-third of all concussion result from blows to the facemask.
Together, they developed a first-generation helmet that was one of four selected for Tuesday’s show.

School board sends Gov. DeSantis letter to consider teachers as frontline workers

The school board sent a letter to Governor Ron DeSantis urging him to consider teachers and education employees frontline workers for COVID-19 vaccinations.
People 65 years of age and older, as well as all frontline workers like doctors and firefighters, can get the COVID-19 vaccine now. The school board wants the definition of “frontline workers” to be expanded to teachers and school-related employees because it believes they should have access to the vaccine should they wish.
“Hopefully, as the vaccines become more and more available, we can encourage the governor to realize that teachers are on the frontline and that all education employees are on the frontline,” board chair Mary Bolla said during the Thursday, Feb. 4, school board meeting.
Superintendent David Broskie said this has been the hot topic, and he supports the request and has been heavily advocating for younger teachers to be eligible for the vaccine. He said other districts have already sent letters to the governor and that he would be willing to do the same.
The board came to a 5-0 consensus to send a letter to Gov. DeSantis on behalf of the Clay County School District. Board member Ashley Gilhousen added the letter wouldn’t be asking the governor to make vaccines mandatory for teachers and school-related employees. It will only ask the governor consider teachers and school-related employees as frontline workers so that they may have the option to get the vaccine.

Ludlam using AstroBot STEM to attract more women to advanced technology

Kait Ludlam is paving the way for women in the future of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
When Ludlam was about 8 years old, she went to the Kennedy Space Center to see the last shuttle launch at the time there. She witnessed history, learned more about the progress humankind has made in space and saw how NASA’s many different simulations worked. It was there that she decided space was her future.
“I decided that day that I wanted to be an astronaut,” Ludlam said. “There was no question about it. With that in mind, I figured out what I needed to do and where I needed to focus: math and science.”
Ludlam quickly realized in her extracurricular math and science-related activities that it was a field largely dominated by men. That was intimidating, but she persevered. Now she’s an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Florida dual-majoring in mechanical engineering and aerospace engineering. For a little more than a year, she’s been trying to make the STEM space more friendly for girls and women through her nonprofit dedicated to the cause: AstroBot STEM.
This nonprofit was founded as her Girl Scout Gold project when she was a senior at Fleming Island High with the goal of creating a community for girls interested in STEM.
“It started as social media and a website counterpart to create a community of girls who are interested in STEM,” Ludlam said. “It was important to me to create a support system for other girls and a place for others to teach and learn.”

March

Projects by Derousie, Kouchakjy earn awards at Clay County Science Fair

Two high-schoolers aren’t just going to the state science fair competition, but the ISEF Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair as well.
Due to COVID-19, these fairs won’t be held in person like usual and will instead opt for a virtual conference. But Orange Park High senior Sebastian Kouchakjy, 17, and Ridgeview High junior Serenity Derousie, 17, are still as excited to take their projects to the global stage. Both of the students were first-place winners in their respective categories at the county fair, and both have been to state before, but this will technically be the first time they’ve participated in an international fair.
Derousie’s project is perhaps more relevant now than ever before due to the global pandemic with people ordering things online more than ever before. She started the three-year project for last year’s fair and it dealt with finding ways to break down the cellulosic material in cardboard boxes to arrive at glucose, which can hypothetically be used to create ethanol or fuel.
Kouchakjy will join Derousie at this year’s international science fair, and he’ll be showcasing his exoskeleton.
Kouchakjy said his exoskeleton moves using electrodes that read signals from the wearer to let the electrodes know to flex in such a way that the signaled movement can occur. He got the idea from video games, where exoskeletons are heavily featured throughout the medium.

Community rallies to fix woman’s dilapidated home

Deborah Kelly-Gainers is a strong woman, but her resolve dampens every time it rains. There are buckets around the house to catch water from her leaky roof. During particularly strong storms, she’s forced to share her bed with buckets and pots.
Because of COVID-19, calls to the county’s State Housing Initiative Program hasn’t brought any relief.
So she’s forced to navigate through the decay brought on by time, neglect and Mother Nature.
The 62-year-old Orange Park resident is in a difficult position. She’s in Clay County since she was 2. She’s a cancer survivor, and after returning home, she had to put her husband into a nursing home.
But it’s not her body that’s in disrepair. It’s her home.
Kelly-Gainers has lived in her house for 33 years. It has been leaking for some time, and she and her husband did what they could to minimize the damage. They tried to patch holes and have the sheetrock on the ceiling done, but the fixes were only temporary. And that was only part of the home’s issues. The home’s water heater is dilapidated. There are holes in the home which literally open to the outside. The holes have allowed snakes, raccoons and opossum to come into the house in the past.
Enter the Human Collective Foundation. Based in Clay County, the foundation works to help those in need. Once they discovered Kelly-Gainers’ situation, they jumped into action, and the response from the Clay community was resounding.
The foundation posted photos of Kelly-Gainers’ home on their Facebook page, and community members immediately reached out with offers to help.
Noelle Marx of the Human Collective worked with her contacts to begin the process of helping. PuroClean Emergency Restoration Services was enlisted to perform a mold assessment. The report showed water damage, wetted materials, elevated airborne fungal levels and visible mold growth.
The Human Collective also worked with contractors to get some help on fixing the damaged home.

New patient tower opens at Orange Park Medical Center

The Orange Park Medical Center’s new five-story patient tower is complete and ready to house more patients, using its increased technical abilities to improve the standard of care.
“It’s been in design and development stages for several years,” said Lisa Valentine, Chief Executive Officer. “We’ve been under construction for almost two years now, so it’s been a long process of bringing online a good project that’ll help us serve our community even better.”
The tower was part of a $126 million expansion project.
The new tower will have 48 new inpatient surgical beds on the fourth and fifth floors. The total number of beds in the new building will be 96. The tower will house patients requiring care post-surgery and those suffering from other illnesses.
“One of the biggest benefits is that this tower has so many technological advances that allow the physicians and nurses to focus on the patient; put them at the center of care and to share treatment information real-time, right there at the center of the room so they can spend more time with the patient explaining things and developing a treatment plan,” said Brad Shumaker, the hospital’s Chief Medical Officer.

April

Record crowds mark the return of the Clay County Fair

Evan Mayo came from Pensacola to break the monotony of seclusion that came with the COVID-19 pandemic. Once he got to the fair, he decided to stay a week – and clean out the top carnival game prizes.
“I came to the fair seven days,” Mayo said as he walked to the parking lot with a four-foot-tall stuffed dog riding on his shoulders. “I had a lot of fun. I love the games. I’m really good at shooting. They only let me win one a day, but that’s all right. We had so much fun.”
Mayo wasn’t the only one. According to fair general manager Tasha Hyder, a record 148,000 people attended this year’s fair. It broke the 2019 record of 135,000 and followed 2020’s cancellation for the pandemic.
“It felt great to bring back some normalcy to our community this year,” Hyder said after the 11-day fair ended on April 11. “It was the best feeling to see people smiling and having fun again. The most important thing about our fair is that it was a safe event.”
Hyder worked with the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, health department and emergency management for a year to create a protocol that not only assured fun, but kept visitors safe. While masks weren’t required, visitors were “strongly” encouraged to wear them. There were hand sanitizing stations and reminders of social distancing posted throughout the property.
The health department also offered free COVID-10 vaccinations
“The entire event was ever-changing,” said Director of Emergency Management John Ward. “We knew we were going to have a lot of people coming to it. Things went very good. It was busy, but good.”
Three of eight nightly concerts were sold out, including Vanilla Ice, Scotty McCreery and JJ Grey and Mofro. Attendance records for Sunday (April 4) and Monday (April 5) also were broken.
“Our midway numbers were up and our gate was up,” Hyder said. “We expected a big crowd, but not nearly 20,000 over 2019.”

Discovery Oaks teacher nominated for presidential award

Shadreka Smith knew she wanted to be a school teacher as early as third grade, but what she didn’t know the desire would blossom into a career that’s led her to being a state finalist in a prestigious presidential competition.
Smith, a Discovery Oaks Elementary teacher, is representing Clay County as one of the state’s three science teacher finalists in the national Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching competition. She’ll receive a certificate from President Joe Biden if she wins, as well as a paid trip to Washington, D.C., for a teacher-related event and a $10,000 reward.
“I remember getting the email that said I was a finalist,” Smith said. “I was on my lunch break here [Discovery] when I saw it. I read it and I just sat there, soaking it in. I had to let it marinate and I had to let myself feel everything in that moment. It was amazing, and then I finished my lunch break and went back to work.”
That’s the kind of teacher Smith is – she’ll receive some of the most amazing news a teacher can receive and then, when the clock strikes, she’s back in a classroom, teaching students about science or language arts or math.

FPL solar power farm goes online in Clay County

A Florida Power and Light Company solar energy farm opened in the county, and it’s capable of powering 15,000 homes each year.
The Magnolia Springs Solar Energy Center is a 74.5-megawatt center with 280,980 solar panels that creates clean, emissions-free solar energy. It’s another stone laid in FPL’s pathway to its big 30-by-30 goal, which is its name for its initiative to install 30 million solar panels by 2030.
“It really is a beautiful site,” FPL external affairs manager Jim Bush said. “It’s something the entire county can be proud of. Florida is in the midst of largest solar expansion in history...and [Clay County] is a part of that.”
FPL is anticipating being 30% complete with its 30-by-30 plan by the end of this year, bringing it one step closer to reaching its goal. Florida will be home to 11,000 megawatts of solar energy when that happens, which is enough energy to power two million homes, Bush said.
“Once 30-by-30 is complete ... 40% of our power will be generated from emission-free sources and 20% of our fuel portfolio will be from solar energy,” Bush said. “Florida will be a world leader in solar energy production.”
Bush said Clay County became part of its power portfolio after taking a look at the “geographical dispersity” of the company. Basically, the power company needs to spread its solar centers throughout the state and Clay County had a perfect 425-acre spot about five miles south of Green Cove Springs and west of U.S. Highway 17 near Leno Road.

May

GCS celebrates completion of the Augusta Savage Social Services and Cultural Complex

The City of Green Cove Springs, along with Clay County, Food Pantry of Green Cove Springs and additional community partners, celebrated the newly renamed Augusta Savage Social Services and Cultural Complex on Monday, May 3.
Work to the complex includes new parking lot and paving on the west side of the complex and circular driveway and portico at the Food Pantry of Green Cove Springs. The two biggest changes to the complex are the newly constructed Augusta Savage Museum and Mentoring Building and a complete interior renovation of the Green Cove Springs Food Pantry, which includes new A/C and heating, electric, ceiling, walls to create dedicated waiting room, office space and bathroom and lockable storage areas.
The Augusta Savage Museum and Mentoring Building, built on the foundation of the former Dunbar High library building, holds classroom space for a computer lab and individual and group tutoring, a dance studio, a music studio, and a permanent art museum space dedicated to the work of Augusta Savage and other artists.
Total cost of construction and renovation work is $952,926, which includes $250,000 of CARES Act funding for work on the food pantry and $300,000 from Clay County for construction.

3 Oakleaf cheerleading teams win national championships at Disney World

The Knights Youth Cheerleaders won first-place national championship honors at The Quest, one of the biggest cheerleading competitions in the world.
The cheerleaders took home the gold in 18-and-under Level 1 traditional recreation cheerleading, 10-and-under Level 1 traditional recreation cheerleading and 8-and-under Level 1 traditional recreation. It’s a big win for some of the hardest-working cheerleaders in Clay County.
“This is commonly referred to as the Super Bowl of recreational cheerleading,” Oakleaf Sports Association cheer director Ashley Levy said. “Due to COVID-19, we couldn't’ stay and do the live awards so we rented out a banquet room in the host hotel and watched – well rather, listened – to the awards. Once they called Oakleaf not once, not twice, but three times as a national champion, the room erupted with celebration.”
The Quest is a two-day competition held at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex at Walt Disney World. The girls competed for two days, on April 16 and 17. The first day was worth 25% of their overall score and the second day was worth the other 75%. After each squad completed Day 1 and Day 2, the scores were averaged to see how everybody stacked up and the Knights were on top in three different categories.

Longtime Middleburg custodian honored at the high school

Henry Burke literally helped build Middleburg High. Now his name will live forever on campus grounds thanks to a new street sign on campus erected in his honor.
Burkes has been working at the high school in the heart of Middleburg for more than four decades. He has pictures of the school when it merely was a pecan tree grove. He helped lay the concrete and the bricks to make the school what it is today, according to the staff at the campus. So last Thursday, May 20, his devotion to the school was honored with a street sign that reads “Henry Burkes Way.”
“I had no idea this was happening,” Burkes said. “It was a big surprise and it’s an honor.”
Middleburg reading teacher, Ruth Gardner, said the entire school had to keep it quiet because if Burkes had found out, he wouldn’t have shown up. Burkes was transported by a golf cart to a service road on campus. As he rounded the corner, he was greeted by dozens of students lining the road.
They held signs that said “We love you, Mr. Burkes” and “Thank you for all that you do, Mr. Henry.” The surprise stayed on Burkes’ face until he arrived at the red and green sign at the end of the road, concealed with a trash bag. After some cordial greetings, the trash bag was pulled off and Burkes saw his “Henry Burkes Way” sign for the first time.
A massive smile stretched across his face while the school’s band played its alma mater and his family and friends hugged him and congratulated him for his dedication to the school.
“Henry Burkes trained all of us,” Superintendent David Broskie said.

June

Organization has plans for 65 new apartments for self-sufficient families

With the grand opening of Mercy Support Services now complete, the nonprofit that helps indigent families become self-sufficient will be able to expand its services.
The grand opening originally was supposed to be done earlier this year but got pushed back due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Officials welcomed guests Thursday afternoon to their new offices at 515 College Dr., the former home of River Christian Church.
In addition to new offices, the site will someday be home to new apartments, called Mercy Village and provide additional support.
Patrick Hayle, the Executive Director for Mercy Support Services, is excited to see their outreach expanding and reaching more people.
“We’re going to be introducing Mercy Village, which we have enough property to build apartments here for the people we serve. This new property will be on five acres of land,” Hayle said. “And so, we’re blessed to be able to use the offices here but now we have enough land to build 65 apartments.”
Mercy Support Services has come a long way since this grand opening. They started as The Mercy Network in 2003. The former president, Andre Van Heerden, soon realized there was a need for housing when he received a call from a Clay County school that a grandmother had been living out of a car with her five grandchildren.
Mercy Support Services works with people that have no homes or no place to go and people who have been displaced from their homes. They cater to people of all ages and also support mothers and children without homes. Mercy plans on using one of the apartment buildings to house mothers and children along with providing resources for them as well.
According to Mercy, there are nearly 1,000 children in county public schools who have no permanent address. Of those, more than 140 are considered unaccompanied youth, children with no legal guardian or parent.

Middleburg students win Best Technical Approach in ACE regional competition

Three local high school students won the award for Best Technical Approach in the Architecture Construction Engineering Mentor Program of Northeast Florida regional competition after building a tiny homemade house on the shores of Black Creek.
The tiny home, which as the name suggests is small and compact to save space, was the work of a year-long project for Middleburg High 11th grader Kamryn Wright, who was the project manager and architect, ninth-grader Daniel Lee, who was the team’s electrical engineer and 10th grader Connor Tison, who was the architectural designer on the project. The team was led by their ACE teacher, Michael Carson, and their ACE mentor and Stellar Architectural Associate, Chise Nicholson, and together, the five of them created an award-winning design.
“I have to say this ACE competition was a lot of fun,” Wright said. “It was a year-long competition where we made our own project – our tiny house. We all worked really hard for months and months and in the end, seeing it all come together and competing against the others in the competition who worked just as hard was amazing. Winning on top of that was even better.”

Shoppers won’t notice any changes caused by Orange Park Mall’s bankruptcy

The parent company that owns the Orange Park Mall filed for bankruptcy protection last weekend, but mall officials said it won’t have any effect on business at the county’s biggest shopping center.
“You won’t feel a thing,” said mall general manager Randy Bowman. “We are still focusing on doing cool things here in Clay County. We’ll let corporate deal with their part. But for us, it will be business as usual.”
Washington Prime Group Inc., which owns 102 shopping malls and plazas around the country, filed for Chapter 11 protection after it reported losses of $55.4 million in the first quarter. Chapter 11 allows companies to reorganize their debts while it keeps its business operating while seeking relief.
Washington Prime released the following statement: “The COVID-19 pandemic has created significant challenges for many companies, including Washington Prime Group, making a Chapter 11 filing necessary to reduce the Company’s outstanding indebtedness. Throughout the restructuring process, the Company remains committed to serving as a preeminent operator of retail town centers and will continue to serve its guests. Importantly, the Company will continue to prioritize the health and safety of our guests, retailers, employees and communities.”
The parent company said it needs help following a year of shutdowns and slowdowns from the COVID-19 pandemic. While many of the mall tenants were eligible to receive Paycheck Protection Program payouts to keep their doors open, malls weren’t eligible for the government money.

Matt Weaver takes over as the Players Championship Chairman

As a volunteer for the Players Championship, Matt Weaver has helped park cars, helped players make reservations and picked up trash.
But when the tournament returns to the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass next March, Weaver will have his most significant role yet as the new tournament chairman.
The retired construction executive from Fleming Island will be the frontman for more than 1,500 volunteers when the Players return to Northeast Florida March 8-13.
The Players in 2022 won’t be like any other. Weaver said organizers will fold in what they learned a year ago when crowds were limited by the COVID-19 pandemic to the popular aspects of tournaments past.
“It will be a lot like it was,” he said. “There will be some things that will change, some things that we’ll keep. We will always be changing. We’re always working to make it better. That will be the new normal from now on.”
As the chairman, Weaver will greet players, dignitaries and fans for the first full return to golf after struggling the virus for the past two years. He will shuttle the winner to their post-tournament commitments and share the stage when the golden trophy is presented in front of the clubhouse.
But most importantly, he will continue to offer support and encouragement to everyone who works thanklessly behind the scenes.

July

Green Cove gets $700,000 for three neighborhood improvement projects

Gov. Ron DeSantis came to Green Cove Springs on July 12 to personally tell the city it will be receiving $700,000 for neighborhood revitalization improvement projects.
The governor made conducted a 20-minute press conference, and in the process, he also told city and county officials his family was eager to return to the Clay County Agricultural Fair next year.
Then he told the city it would receive $700,000 as part of the Florida Small Cities Community Development Block Grant program.
“There’s $29 million in grants for 42 small and rural communities throughout the state under the Florida Small Cities Community Development Block Grant program and that includes $700,000 right here for the city of Green Cove Springs,” DeSantis said. “This money will allow the city of Green Cove Springs to do three neighborhood revitalization improvement projects.”
The money will be used to replace a stormwater pipe that’s more than 50 years old, as well as install sidewalk, curbs, asphalt and landscaping to West Street. The second project funded by the grant will include the installation of nearly 1.5 miles of sidewalk on Highland Avenue and Center Street. The third and final neighborhood revitalization project funded by the grant is the installation of picnic tables and benches at Vera Francis Hall Park.
Development Services Department applied for the grant program in November 2020 after a two-month process of public hearings and community hearings. The city is eligible to apply for up to $700,000 in the neighborhood revitalization, commercial revitalization and housing rehabilitation grant categories.
All three projects were slated to begin in October 2021. Vera Francis Hall Park improvements and the Highland Avenue sidewalk project are estimated to take three months to complete. West Street stormwater replacement is estimated to take between six to eight months to complete.

Residents hope Black Creek Water Resource Development Project pumps new life in Keystone lakes

Now that the St. Johns Water Management District governing board has approved participation agreements with four North Florida Utility Coordination Group members, residents and region officials are eager for the Black Creek Water Resource Development Project to begin.
The plan is to pump filtered water from Black Creek to the depleted lakes region.
SJWMD’s governing board approved participation agreements with the Clay County Utility Authority, Gainesville Regional Utilities, Jacksonville Electric Authority and St. Johns County Utility and they consider these agreements a “positive step forward in advancing the Black Creek Project and addressing the low water issues with Lakes Brooklyn and Geneva in Keystone Heights.”
Former Save Our Lakes Organization president, Vivian Katz, said the four utility groups signing this agreement was a long time coming, especially because they weren’t initially behind the project.
Katz said utility companies often have conditions in their contracts that require a recovery effort when draining bodies of water. For Lakes Brooklyn and Geneva, in this instance, she said, and the utilities knew the shoe was soon to drop.

Master of Ceremonies Ernie Cohen passes away

Ernie Cohen was more than the man with a microphone who told jokes and poked fun of friends on behalf of several Clay County nonprofits.
He was the county’s friend. Its best friend.
Ernie embraced a lot of projects, like Clay Behavioral Health Center, Kids First of Florida, Haven Hospice, Clay County Senior Adult Advocacy Council and Clay SafetyNet Alliance. He also proudly served as the master of ceremonies for the Chamber of Commerce, Concert on the Green, the Rotary Club of Orange Park, Orange Park Medical Center, Golden Years Gala, Orange Park Mall Festival of Freedom, Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk, Clay County Monument for Fallen Warriors and the annual recognition for the Vietnam Veterans Association.
He did more than lend his voice and humor as an emcee for a project. He gave us his heart and passion. In return, all he wanted was a smile in return.
His gregarious appetite for life was hard to ignore. His tireless work made him more than an asset to the organizations he represented. He was one of the best friends this county has ever known.
Cohen is survived by his wife, Joann, and his two daughters and sons-in-law: Sharon and Bradley Herbst of Jacksonville and Jackie and Brian Bukstein of Chicago; a sister and brother-in-law, Shelley and Mark Schulman of Cleveland; and, four grandchildren: Sydney and Andrew Herbst and Joshua and Zachary Bukstei.

Fleming Island junior earns award for creating sensory room at R.C. Bannerman

Lorelei Love is a hardworking Girl Scout in high school who recently achieved the Gold Award for devotion to children with special needs.
The Gold Award is one of many accomplishments Love has received throughout her time in the Girl Scouts. Her vest displays a whopping 70 patches, all dedicated to something Love has done in the Girl Scouts. Her most recent award is the highest achievement Girl Scouts can get. Only 12 recipients were given this award.
Love was given the Gold Award after designing a sensory room for special needs children at R.C. Bannerman Learning Center in Green Cove Springs. The sensory room is designed to help children relax and cope with their emotions in a healthy manner.
Love first got the idea for the sensory room after spending time with her friend.
“I have a friend with special needs, her name is Chloe. She’s a family friend and I’ve known her for years. Her mother is friends with a teacher at R.C. Bannerman Learning Center who needed help. Her kids were struggling a lot because they needed to relax because they were feeling overwhelmed, which brought up the idea for the sensory room,” Love said.
A lot of research was put into the sensory room. The sensory room needed to be a place where children could relax all while expressing their interests. Love started researching and designing the sensory room in ninth grade. The room consists of certain items that are all geared towards helping children.

August

Community unites to celebrate life-saving heart transplant for Keystone Heights boy

Tayler Buchanan never met Sage Pridemore. In fact, most of the people who attended the Operation #SageStrong rally on Saturday, July 31, didn’t know the 14-year-old.
But they all were compelled to fill the Melrose Heritage Park for six hours to raise money and awareness to the middle schooler who received a life-saving heart transplant a few hours earlier.
“When my parents said they wanted to support Sage, I said I wanted to go, too,” Tayler said. “We support people here. We care about each other.”
Tayler waved a sign on State Road 26 asking passing drivers to join the party. And since the event originally was scheduled to offer Sage encouragement while he waited for a heart at the UF Health Heart and Vascular Hospital in Gainesville. But a day before the first hamburger hit the grill and the first of four bands starting playing, Sage got his heart.
“This turned into a jubilee,” said organizer Terry “Sarge” Huffman. “One family is celebrating; another is planning for a funeral. It’s a hard thing to think about, really.”
Pridemore, who attends Keystone Heights Junior High, went into surgery late Thursday, July 29. It arrived in an Alachua County Rescue Squad ambulance and was quickly transported into the hospital by three technicians. From there, Dr. Mark S. Bleiweis performed the operation that was deemed “successful.”
Sage took his first walk a few days following the surgery.
“Sage is the strongest kid I know,” his mother, Candy Pridemore, said.
The boy was born with half of a heart. The condition is called hypoplastic left heart syndrome. He’s required several surgeries to remove bronchial casts since he was 3. In fact, he needed that procedure just days before his transplant.

Students, teachers eager to reunite, get back to work in the classroom

Forty-two schools opened their doors to nearly 40,000 students and 5,000 employees Tuesday morning, and there were smiles all around.
It’s yet another year where COVID-19 hovers over the school district, but for most, they already know how to deal with the virus. The district had a successful year for all intents and purposes a year ago. School grades rose, students excelled against all odds, and COVID-19 outbreaks were minute. The district looks forward to a similar year for the new year.
“I’m feeling apprehensive, but good,” school board chair Mary Bolla said during the first-day tour of Fleming Island Elementary. “Masks are encouraged, strongly encouraged, and we’re hoping that families take that to heart if they’re concerned about their children. I saw a lot of students wearing them and a lot of teachers wearing them too. It’s been a great start to the first day. There are a lot of parents here excited about their children being back in school and...there’s lots of smiles and lots of excitement about this new school year.”
Fleming Island was the first of four first-day tours for the board and chief district staff. Students were catching up with friends; teachers were greeting new and returning students alike; principal Jennifer Collins greeted students by name as they walked past her; and, parents gave their final goodbyes before the school day started.
There are plenty of COVID-19 related procedures as well, but Collins and her staff made sure to make it seem like part of a standard day. Large classroom hallways are one-way only, marked by small stingray cutouts that point in just one direction.
Stingrays on the sidewalk tell students which way they should be walking while colorful lines on the sidewalk keep them walking straight, so as not to interrupt social distancing that’s happening on campus. Collins is especially excited about the cafeteria’s COVID-19-related policies. So much so that she said they’re here to stay even when COVID-19 isn’t a threat.
“Honestly, a lot of the things we’ve done for COVID-19 have been things like, ‘why didn’t we do this to begin with?’ because for years, we’d say, ‘don’t touch each other, stay in line,’ and now we’ve got dots on the floor,” Collins said. “Why didn’t we think of this before? Even when COVID-19 goes away, we’re using some of the stuff that we’ve done because they’re just best practices and sometimes there’s good that can come out of things like this.”

Charles E. Bennett earns ‘C’ rating with aspirations of being an ‘A’ school

Charles E. Bennett is a C-School, which means it’s no longer being threatened by a possible state takeover.
Bennett has struggled to show overall improvement in years past. While few placed the blame on lagging scores, teachers, administrators, district leaders, families and students rallying together to improve things. It’s tough to get a ‘D’ grade, and CEBE received a ‘D’ two years in a row. One more ‘D’ and the state would have essentially taken over the school in conjunction with the Clay County School District.
That worry is no more. In fact, Bennett now has sights on becoming an A-school in future years.
“I think it was a collective commitment with all parties focused on one goal: providing the best educational experience for all scholars at Charles E. Bennett,” CCSD Chief of Elementary Education, Heather Teto, said. “I believe that school leaders worked collaboratively with families as well as teachers and support staff to really endure a difficult time with the pandemic to ensure that scholars had everything they needed to be successful at home and in school.”
More impressive is the fact Bennett did it during an extremely challenging school year during the COVID-19 pandemic. Teto said that's the result of district leadership, instructional coaches, ongoing support and more within the school’s community. Their goal was to remove all obstacles for students and provide a great education. It clearly worked.
Teto said the grade is determined by Florida Standard Assessments in reading, math and science, as well as learning gains from comparative years. Students simply weren’t hitting the grades they needed in the past.

September

CCSO Deputy Clint Seagle: End of watch Aug. 29, 2021

Clay County Sheriff’s Office deputy Clint R. Seagle was buried with full honors on Friday, Sept. 3, after he died from complications of COVID-19. His visitation and memorial service were conducted at the First Methodist Church of Middleburg before his casket was taken to Jacksonville Memorial Gardens for burial during a private ceremony.
Sheriff Michelle Cook presented the family with a flag that was draped over Seagle’s casket during the ceremony. Following a 21-gun salute and the playing of “Taps,” Cook led the procession from the altar to the parking lot at the church ahead of the 12-mile drive to the cemetery as bagpipes played “Amazing Grace.” Seagle is the second CCSO deputy to die of the virus.
Sgt. Eric Twisdale died a year ago of COVID-19.

Sheriff asks BCC to help with overcrowding crisis at the Clay County Jail

Time just doesn’t move slowly at the Clay County Jail, it stops. The lighting is dim; the humidity created by so many people crammed into a confined space seems to suck the energy from everyone, particularly the unlucky few wearing yellow and white striped overalls.
The jail is full. To the rafters full. With so many sleeping on the floor, inmates often have to weave a path through a maze of those who are trapped, physically and emotionally, by their own doing.
Clothes are draped over handrails because there’s no room for storage. There are a few board games and decks of cards, and if anyone's interested, there’s a small cart of paperback books. But for the most part, most inmates either lay on their mattresses, slowly pace around the pod or make an undignified trip to the toilet that has no privacy.
It’s a miserable place. Then again, it is jail.
Conditions have become a serious problem for the Clay County Sheriff’s Office. The building is falling apart. The inmate population is often beyond maximum capacity. The air conditioning flickers on and off and water pipes leak in the roof.
Although the jail opened in 1972 and has been expanded twice since, it still uses a video monitoring system that utilizes original eight-inch floppy disks that were created in the late 1960s – nearly 20 years before Pac-Man was released and 30 years ahead of the first Game Boy.
To make matters worse, the agency is extremely short-staffed.
Sheriff Michelle Cook knows getting millions to build an annex – or better yet a new jail – is a hard sell. The Board of County Commissioners were given charts and graphs and they heard compelling information that clearly shows the desperate need for a major overhaul. They also heard similar pitches from the two sheriffs who preceded her, but compared to other needs of a growing county, the jail hasn’t been a major priority. After all, it’s difficult to garner sympathy for society’s trouble makers.

Evatt, Hailey earn state awards for teaching social studies, history

Teaching already is a challenge, but teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic created the most difficult teaching challenge in modern education history and a feat unto itself.
Wilkinson Elementary social studies teacher, Lorraine Evatt, and Lake Asbury Junior High social studies teacher, Josh Hailey, took it a step further by winning state awards for their work in the classroom.
Evatt won the Dr. Theron Trimble Florida Social Studies Teacher of the Year for Elementary Schools, and Hailey earned Florida’s Recipient Excellence in Teaching History Award.
Hailey attended Orange Park Elementary years and years ago and graduating from Orange Park High in 2010. He went to grad school in Arizona, and while he wasn’t necessarily sure he’d be back teaching in Clay County, it was one of the many places he applied to work at post-graduation. The stars aligned and Hailey returned home and now, two years in, he’s an award-winning teacher.
Evatt has been teaching in Clay County, all at Wilkinson. She’s no longer a classroom teacher, but she now works as a literacy coach at the Clay County School District Office. She won the award for her service last year.
Both Evatt and Hailey won different awards at the county level and the school district encouraged them to apply for the state versions.

October

Community Paramedicine Program to attack drug addiction from three directions

It was coincidental the day Clay County unveiled its proactive community paramedicine program was the 52-year anniversary – Oct. 4 – of Janis Joplin’s death of a heroin overdose.
In reality, just about any day on the calendar could be remembered for the horrific realities of drug abuse.
The Clay County Sheriff’s Office, Clay County Fire Rescue and Clay Behavior Health Center want to change all that. While they can’t rewrite the history of opioid deaths, they hope to create a future that includes a three-pronged approach to getting addicts the help they so desperately need.
The community paramedicine program not only identifies addicts who want help, it creates paths for treatment and counseling to help break the vicious cycle of abuse.
“In the first six months of 2021, we have exceeded the entire number of individuals served in the entire year of 2020,” said Irene Toto, CEO of Clay Behavioral. “The numbers are rising. We’re hopeful this program can make an impact. It’s really important with addiction, it’s a disease that carries stigma and shame, unlike any other disease. It’s important that we treat people with empathy, nonjudgmental strategies to let them know we’re going to help them on the road to recovery.”
Sheriff Michelle Cook said there’s no financial upside to incarcerating drug addicts. While enforcement remains an important aspect of the program, she said while they have an inmate behind bars, it’s the perfect time to set up a plan for recovery.
“There’s one thing I know with 30 years of law enforcement is we cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem,” Cook said.
Clay County Fire Rescue now has the resources to help wean addicts from their addictions, while Clay Behavioral has a variety of treatment programs to create long-term success.
“We provide up to seven days of medication-assisted treatment in the form of buprenorphine and we dose daily,” said Battalion Chief Glenn East, the community paramedicine coordinator for Clay County Fire Rescue. “Our goal is to prevent overdose-related deaths in Clay County by helping people get off of opioids. We work in conjunction with Clay Behavioral. Once somebody comes into the program, they are assigned a peer counselor who is another contact for them to get services with Clay Behavioral.
For more information, call (904) 284-7703.


Green Cove Springs Chief of Police Derek Asdot laid to rest

Law enforcement and the Clay County Community, particularly Green Cove Springs, paid their respects to Derek Asdot before he was laid to rest. The Chief of Police in Green Cove Springs died Sept. 28 after spending 37 days in the hospital battling COVID-19.
“It was an honor to know him, his incredible dedication to family, his police department and his city beckoned us all. His love of Green Cove Springs was truly aspirational,” Mayor Ed Gaw said. “He was the heartbeat of Green Cove. That allowed him to accomplish the role of police chief with an incredible combination of authority and compassion and understanding.
“We were so fortunate as a city to have a chief of police with his sense of direction. It was incredible.”
Asdot’s funeral was at the Church of Latter-Day Saints on Blanding Boulevard Wednesday morning. The procession to the Jacksonville National Cemetery included officials from law enforcement agencies throughout Florida. Asdot joined the GCS Police Department in 2002 and was promoted to Chief in 2017. Residents have showered his patrol car with flowers, cards and balloons at police headquarters.
Asdot, who was 49, was buried following a graveside service that was open to the public. Asdot, the third law enforcement officer in Clay County to die from the coronavirus, is survived by his wife, Angie, and his son Jake and daughter Ashley.

Gateway to Clay success dependent on public’s input

Clay County officials brought a lot of questions to a community forum on Oct. 14 to address the problems along Wells Road, and now they’re relying on the public to provide the answers.
The Gateway to Clay is a long-range initiative that will utilize federal and state funds to enhance the main entrance into the county from Jacksonville. More important, it’s designed to make the area more desirable “to live, work and play,” according to Clay County Commissioner Jim Renninger.
Officials, including Renninger and commissioner Mike Bolla, Clay County Fire Rescue Community Paramedicine Program Coordinator Glenn East, Orange Park Mayor Randy Anderson, Clay County Sheriff Michelle Cook, Sheriff’s Office Assistant Chief of North Patrol Domenic Paniccia, County Manager Howard Wanamaker, Clay Chamber President Wendall Chindra and county Community and Social Services Manager Victoria Hapner met with residents and business owners at the Holiday Inn and Suites on Wells Road.
All of them were eager to learn what the community wants most.
Whether it’s a more tactful location for a garbage can or adding patrols to push drug traffickers out of the county, the county wants as much feedback as possible. To accomplish it, the sheriff’s office already has contacted people at 181 properties along the 4.2-mile road. The agency also used a drone on Sunday, Oct. 24, to detail the area from above.
The biggest tool to fulfill the area’s concerns, however, is a survey on the county’s website. It invites everyone – not just the people who live and work along Wells Road – to offer suggestions to put a better light on an area that needs a facelift – in aesthetics, enforcement and perception.

November

Fleming Island Elementary’s Collins earns top principal honors

When Fleming Island Elementary School Principal Jennifer Collins was called to her daughter’s fifth-grade class, she thought something might be wrong, but it was district staff and Superintendent David Broskie holding a bouquet of flowers.
Now, Collins joins an exclusive club as the Clay County School District’s 2022 Principal of the Year.
Collins joked the school staff pulled one over on her. A district video shows Broskie making the announcement on the school’s intercom and applause ringing out through the school.
“It was immediately a mother’s instinct kind of thing,” Collins said of going to her daughter’s class. “They said they need you there now. I was completely caught off guard and surprised.”
Collins has been the principal at Fleming Island for five years after teaching and principal stints in Duval County. She said the award isn’t something she can claim on her own, thanking the staff, students and parents.
Broskie called Collins a top-notch principal who cares about the students and faculty she serves. The elementary has become a high-performing school under Collins, he said.
A principal is a unique role and a balancing act, Collins said. She likes getting to make a difference for the entire school.
“You see all the kids and have an impact on all of their lives,” she added. “You work and build relationships with teachers. It’s brought me a lot of joy over the years.”

Fleming Island to get invite to London’s New Year’s Day parade

After the first couple days of band practice during the summer, freshman Nic Niemi wondered if he could survive. He quickly learned being a part of the Fleming Island High marching bands was a lot tougher than playing his trumpet.
The countless hours of practicing will pay off when the Golden Eagles band marches in the New Year’s Day parade in London.
“It’s going to be my first time out of the country,” Niemi said after a two-and-a-half-hour practice session on Tuesday. “I can’t wait to play in front of a giant crowd. At first, I wondered if it was really worth it. It was.”
Fleming Island went to London six years ago, according to director Mara Rose. To earn an invitation, she was required to supply “a hefty process” to parade officials with testimonial letters, photos and video of their performances. The Golden Eagles now are a legacy band, which means invitations essentially are a matter of formality.
The band needed approval from the school board and parents. They also have to navigate through ever-changing COVID-19 policies in both the United States and England.
The band officially will receive its invitation on Nov. 19, Rose said. The trip is planned from Dec. 27 to Jan. 4.
“We are allowed to be there,” Rose said.

Oakleaf grad wins national competition with fishing line, bait recycling

An Oakleaf High graduate received national recognition for designing a machine that would recycle fishing lines and bait.
Abigail Askew won the BoatUS Foundation and Berkley Recast and Recycle Contest, which aimed to find a way to recycle fishing lines and soft bait. Her “Berkley Recycling Machine” took home first place and $15,000. She's also a 2021 graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design industrial design program.
She first created a survey for 84 anglers and conducted a series of interviews to help her understand how the bait molding processes worked. Askew found most anglers didn’t have easy access to recycle products, but they wanted to. She interviewed Dennis Montgomery, president and founder of D & J Plastics, an expert when it comes to the injection molding of soft plastic baits.
“The information I received from the survey and interviews provided the complete direction for my project,” Askew said.
Early in the process, Askew had her design model in mind: a service counter that customers could use to remold bait and collect their line for credit with the help of an associate. However, a classmate shared a childhood memory of the classic Mold-A-Rama, a vending machine that molded items into figurines.
Askew's machine prompts anglers to throw away reusable items at retailers and or launch sites. She felt the idea could catch on as a novelty. The contest entry was also her SCAD senior year capstone project and she said her coursework went a long way to designing the Berkley Recycling Machine.

December

Hansen, Pastrana and The FIRM come away from Nitro RX finale as big winners

Former World Rallycross Champion Timmy Hansen closed out the inaugural Nitro Rallycross season with a victory at the Florida International Rally and Motorsports Park.
Series founder Travis Pastrana left the multi-purpose track at the Keystone Heights Airport with the first Nitro RX championship.
And with a sellout crowd on Sunday, Northeast Florida made a lasting impression on the international organization.
“This far exceeded our expectations,” said Nitro RX general manager Chip Pankow. “Keystone Heights were super hosts.”
The three-day event was considered a risk by Pastrana because of its remote location, but his group put together enjoyable days of racing that included portions of pavement, soft sand turns and high-flying ramps. Race fans from across the country responded in an overwhelming manner and they were treated to a lot of thrills – and controversy – in the Supercar season finale.
Former NASCAR champion Chase Elliott made his first rallycross start, driving his way into the eight-car main event during one of the heat races. Despite finishing eighth and having no experience in off-road racing – particularly making 100-foot jumps on a two-story-tall ramp – he said he hopes to compete in future races.
“This is a different vibe. It’s fun for me,” Elliott said. “At the same time, I’ve enjoyed working with all of these guys. I would love to do more of this and get a little bit more up to speed on it. I feel like I came a long way in my couple days here, but I certainly have a long way to go.”
Nitro RX safety officials cut off ticket sales Saturday afternoon after it determined the track had reached maximum capacity. Many portions of the track weren’t accessible because it borders thick woods on one side and the airport on the other. Nonetheless, several thousand fans packed the parking lot, general admission and VIP areas with fans watching eight-deep in the standing-room-only areas.
“I tell you: I love The FIRM,” Pastrana said. “You guys have been awesome, everyone down here in Florida.”

The legacy – and the need – continues for J.P. Hall Children’s Charities Christmas Party

The first car arrived at the Clay County Fairgrounds for the J.P. Hall Children’s Charities Christmas Party at 5 p.m. Friday, Dec. 18 – 16 hours before the gates opened for the 40th annual toy giveaway to local children.
Whether out of desperation or the need to be in and out quickly ahead of a work shift, hundreds of cars packed the back parking lot by daybreak, and children, most still in pajamas, were waking up to the reality of having gifts under the tree on Christmas morning.
“Even if one kid gets a Christmas gift who normally wouldn’t, it’s a success,” said charity president J.P. Steinmezt.
More than 1,000 children got a stuffed animal and four large toys. All were broken down by ages and whether they were for a boy or a girl. And half of the children could pick a bicycle from a selection of more than 650.
“We gave away 500 bikes,” Steinmezt said. “Every child that wanted a bike, got one. The ones who didn’t get a bike didn’t want one – whether it was because they already had a bike or they didn’t have room for it.”
Like a year ago, toys were given away in a drive-thru format. Numbers were written on the front windshield 100 yards away from the pickup point inside the Cattleman’s Arena. Volunteers then radioed the specific needs for that car. When the car got inside the arena, they were met by volunteers, including Santa Claus and Teresa Oliverio, who was working her 39th Christmas Party, each child could pick from a large assortment of new stuffed animals.
From there, they pulled up where other volunteers already had gifts bagged for each child. From there, parents had the option to leave, or pull over to another building to pick out a bicycle.
The volunteers also assured success. Green Cove Springs City Councilman Van Royal donated his time, along with members of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, including Sheriff Michelle Cook, Clay County Fire and Rescue, Orange Park United Methodist Church and other longtime members of the charitable organization.

John Guzman selected as Green Cove Springs’ Police Chief

John Guzman has been the Commander and acting Police Chief for the City of Green Cove Springs for the past four months – all while taking online classes to get his master’s degree from the University of Florida.
Guzman’s workload got a little lighter Monday when City Manager Steve Kennedy officially promoted to Chief of Police.
Guzman took over for Derek Asdot after the popular chief was diagnosed with COVID-19 in August. Asdot d

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