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GAINESVILLE – Alachua County Clerk of Court J.K. “Jess” Irby has announced the Alachua County Clerk’s Office is now certified by the U.S. State Department as a Passport Acceptance Facility. U.S. Citizens can now apply for a passport at the Alachua Family and Civil Courthouse located at 201 E. University Avenue, Gainesville. Passport services are available at the courthouse Monday through Friday, from 8:15 a.m. to 4 p.m., excluding holidays. The Clerk’s Office also offers passport/ID photo services for an additional $15 fee.

“If you want to explore the world, the Alachua County Clerk’s Office can now be your first stop,” said J.K. “Jess” Irby. “We are a one-stop shop for all your passports needs.”

For more information, visit the Clerk of the Court’s Passport Information website or call 352-374-3625.

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ALACHUA/HIGH SPRINGS – Organizers and volunteers for Relay for Life, a signature fundraising event for the American Cancer Society, have been gearing up for weeks for tonight’s Pink and Purple on the Patio event, sponsored by the Great Outdoors, and also for the upcoming culmination of Relay for Life at Hal Brady Recreation Complex in Alachua.

Good food, live music and a full bar are available at The Great Outdoors Restaurant, 18587 High Springs Main Street, from 5 – 8 p.m. Let the server know which team you support as the Great Outdoors will donate a percentage of the proceeds to Relay for Life or to your Relay for Life Team. This year’s theme is “United We Stand, United We Relay!” The top sponsors for this event are Waste Pro and Taylor’d HVAC Services Inc.

Coming up next month is the culmination of a considerable amount of fundraising efforts at Relay for Life of Alachua and High Springs. April 13 from 6 – 10 p.m., volunteers, cancer survivors and their caregivers will join together at the Hal Brady Alachua Recreation Complex, 14300 N.W. 146th Terrace, Alachua, to honor cancer survivors. There will be food and games available.

Luminaria bags, small bags decorated with names and sometimes messages to the people they are dedicated to, are lit at night in remembrance of a life touched by cancer. They can be dedicated to a loved one lost, someone currently battling cancer, or anyone who has overcome it.

“It is not too late to start a team or join an existing team,” said American Cancer Society Event Organizer Stevie Doyle. In addition to going online to sign up, Doyle can answer questions and steer potential volunteers toward team captains who might need some extra help. She can be reached via email at stevie.doyle@cancer.org or by calling 352-240-5055.

Helping hands are always needed the day of the event. For those people who want to get involved, but cannot commit their time to a team, there are many ways they can help. Tents need to go up, luminaria bags need to be lit at night, funds need to be collected and counted. Organizers agree that there are many small ways to help out that make a huge difference.

This year something new has been added to the Relay for Life event. A fireworks display by the “Detonators” is planned for 10 p.m. to end this year’s Relay for Life. “It’s also a fun way to celebrate our cancer survivors, their caregivers and all the volunteers who made this year’s Relay for Life so successful,” said Doyle.

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ALACHUA – The Alachua City Commission has approved funds to update and strengthen firearms used by the Alachua Police Department’s School Resource Officers.

Updated weapons will ensure that officers are armed with a rifle of equal or better firepower and range than the civilian AR 15 or similar semi-automatic rifles used by gunmen in recent shootings. These rifles have a clip that holds 30 or more rounds and is easily changeable, which may leave officers outgunned by superior firepower. Law enforcement staff determined that the Sig Sauer MCX rifle is most suitable for the school environment as it is compact, collapsible and may be quickly deployed for rapid response during a critical incident. These rifles can be carried discretely in a case worn by the officer.

Alachua Police Department Chief Chad Scott said that the new rifles will be in the officer’s possession at all times. Putting them in a safe or car trunks until needed loses critical moments and may not allow the officer to get to the weapon in a critical situation. Seconds matter when an active shooter has a semi-automatic assault rifle and the officer has to be able engage the shooter quickly to minimize casualties. The recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School only lasted six minutes in which 17 people were killed and 17 wounded.

Scott said that not only would the rifles give the officer the firepower and the ability to react quickly to an active shooter, but would also deter attacks before they happen. “Most of these shooters have surveyed their target prior to the incident and planned it out to create the most damage. They are after easy targets. If they know the school has a well-armed Resource Officer they are less likely to attack,” Scott stated.

The commission also approved the cost of DNA analysis for investigations as well as the purchase of the four new rifles. The purchases will be paid for from the City’s Forfeiture Fund. Scott requested a total transfer of $10,450 of which $6,760 would be for the cost for DNA analysis related to applicable investigations and $5,718 would be for the purchase of four rifles for School Resource Officers.

The Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act (FCFA) allows law enforcement agencies to use proceeds collected under this act as supplemental funding for authorized purposes. The FCFA provides for the seizure and civil forfeiture of property related to criminal and non-criminal violations of law. Contraband and other property may be seized when utilized during a crime or when the property was gotten either illegally or obtained by profits from illegal activity.

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HIGH SPRINGS – Recreation is a large part of people’s enjoyment of the community in which they live. Realizing that, as well as having the opportunity to purchase 3.88 acres east of Memorial Park, 2715 U.S. Highway 441, the High Springs City Commission approved a land purchase to improve the recreational facilities at that park.

The City will also plans to submit a grant application to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to develop the nearly four-acre site. The grant being considered would provide $200,000, with a match from the City of the same amount, resulting in $400,000 to make improvements to the Memorial Park Extension. The City intends to use money from Wild Spaces Public Places, already awarded to High Springs, for the $200,000 match.

Recreation Director Robert Basford was on hand to explain the proposed improvements to that property. As there is currently no parking area provided at Memorial Park, one of the first things he mentioned was a 100-vehicle parking area.

“Right now, if you go by there, you can see cars parked everywhere because we don’t have places to park,” he said. He also said there are currently 13 softball fields, but no baseball fields in the city, so a baseball field is another feature of the intended improvements. Lighting will also be included in the grant proposal along with a new playground. “We don’t have a playground at that park,” he said.

There are other items to be included in the grant request, just in case funds are available after all of the main projects have been completed. One item mentioned by Basford is a walking trail.

Before city commissioners considered the property purchase during the March 22 commission meeting, City Attorney Scott Walker said that during a title search of the property it was found that there was an exception granted to Seaboard Coastline Railroad whereby they had reserved a mineral rights easement on the property.

“Both Mr. Booth [city manager] and I think it doesn’t affect the proper use we have for the property,” he said. “This is a very common thing with railroads. The commission needs to decide if they will accept the title exception.”

The property closing agreement includes the cost of the land purchase at $194,000, $23 settlement charges to be paid to the city attorney, a binder deposit of $20,000, leaving $173,236 for the City of High Springs to pay the property owner.

On another recreation-related topic, City Manager Ed Booth explained that the Civic Center building renovation was going along well and the project is expected to be completed by the first or second week of April.

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RAY CARSON/The High Springs police and fire departments delivered gifts to seven different locations for the annual Operation Holiday Cheer giveaway. Since 2008, High Springs first responders have been delivering presents to selected families who may be having financial difficulties during the holiday season.

HIGH SPRINGS – On the morning of Dec. 21 a convoy of emergency vehicles gathered in front  of the High Springs Police station. They were on a special mission called Operation Holiday Cheer. At 9:30 a.m., a convoy of four police cars and a fire truck left the parking lot with emergency lights flashing and a police siren to alert traffic at crossroads. One police vehicle towed a trailer full of presents. These first responders were on a mission to make Christmas special for kids that might otherwise receive little. It’s a chance to give to others and help keep the excitement and joy in a child’s heart for this special time of year.

Since 2008, the High Springs police and fire departments have asked for donations of new toys, pajamas and books from the community so they can provide them to local children. Several local businesses, the Rotary Club and the High Springs Community School are also involved in the effort.

The High Springs Community School notifies the police department of families they feel could use the help, and the police department then contacts the child’s parents to get approval for a delivery and find out if there are other children in the house. They don’t want anyone to feel left out, so if there are other children in the house they are also added to the list. This also gives the police an opportunity to see what the children want and they try to match the gifts to the children.

Once the visit is approved by the parents, the families are added to the list. For some families, the delivery date did not work, so they were able to pick up the gifts at the police station or a day care center. However, part of the total experience for the children is the delivery. It’s not often that a child has a convoy of police and fire vehicles come to their home with lights flashing and a trailer full of wrapped presents.

The event is organized by High Springs Police Officer Jason Taylor and on the morning of Dec. 21, Officer Taylor, his son Jason Jr. and friend Noah Brock were joined by fellow officers James Yakubish, Tony Pakala, Assistant Chief Antione Sheppard and Chief Joel DeCoursey. Lieutenant Kevin Pearson also arrived with the fire truck and crew.

The first delivery was to a boy living with his mother and grandmother. They both knew what was to happen, but the boy did not. As the convoy pulled into the apartment parking lot the boy had a surprised look on his face, which only grew as Jason Jr. and his friend Noah brought a large box of wrapped presents to him. As his mother and grandmother looked on, he excitedly began opening the presents one by one. After all were opened, he thanked everyone and shook hands with Chief DeCoursey and Lt. Sheppard.

At the next stop, both parents were working and the two middle school kids were home on Christmas break. They were hesitant to open the door and come out with all the police cars there with lights flashing. A call to their parents resolved the issue and they came out to a crowd of uniformed officers in Santa hats complete with a box of presents for each of them. They opened them in a stunned silence, unable to believe it was happening, with smiles growing on their faces with each present.

The next stop was two boys living with a guardian. The initial reaction was the same as the others, a disbelief that this was happening to them. Accompanied by a friend, they opened the presents. At the end they thanked all the officers thinking it was over, but the crew had an additional surprise for them. Officer Taylor pulled two new bicycles off the trailer and presented them to the boys. As the boys climbed on the bikes, Taylor halted them and explained that as police officers they had to make sure that these two riders met the legal safety precautions and produced two helmets for them as well. After the officers put the helmets properly on the boys they were allowed to ride, with a reminder that they should always wear a helmet.

The next delivery was a house with five children. They all gathered on the front porch as the convoy pulled up. The eldest had her hands clasped together and a smile on her face. As dad looked on, she walked down the steps to greet Jason Jr. as he approached with a large box of presents. Like the previous stops, she had a look of shock and joy mixed on her face. The box was brought back to the porch and the name on each present was called out. One young boy stopped opening presents when he got a drum. It was what he wanted and nothing else mattered as he picked up the drum sticks and began hitting the drum.

The five kids were not the largest delivery. Next was a house with six children. Their excitement showed as they each opened presents leaving the yard strewn with wrapping paper. But this was still not the largest group. The final stop of the morning was a day care center, where about 15 young children gathered in the fenced yard to be handed presents by police and firemen. For one police officer, this stop had special meaning. His young son attended here.

Operation Holiday Cheer has brought happiness for nine years for children who have little  For those children, these gifts made a huge difference. Operation Holiday Cheer is well named, bringing joy and happiness by the simple act of compassion and giving to children who need it.

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Easter came early for children at the High Springs Day Care Center. The Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe regularly visits the children and on this occasion provided Easter treats and gift baskets to each child.

HIGH SPRINGS – Children at the High Springs Day Care Center were thrilled on Wednesday, March 21, as the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe showed up with specially made Easter treats and had planned a hunt –– but not for Easter eggs.

The children were treated to special sweet treats made by Kiwanis Club President Linda Rice Chapman. She created an imaginative treat appropriate to the Easter bunny theme. “The children were delighted with their Easter treats. It was a big hit,” said Kiwanis Event Organizer Carole Fernandez. Each treat was made to look like a small car with pink, purple or yellow bunnies at the wheel. Tires were made from Oreo cookies. The body of each car was a long cream-filled cake. The bunnies were marshmallow and the steering wheel was a pretzel covered in chocolate with multi-colored sprinkles. Fruit juice rounded out the Easter party menu.

Following snack time, each child was provided with a sticker shaped like a zebra, butterfly or egg. Individual Kiwanis Club members went outside with each child to help them hunt for and identify their specific pastel plastic Easter basket with a matching sticker to the one they had been given. The appropriate child’s name was also written on the back of each basket to guarantee that each child received the correct basket.

Instead of loading up each basket with candy, Fernandez did her best to match donated children’s books with each child’s interest and reading level.

Children also received crayons or other toys such as stuffed animals and small cars. Cookies, learning flash cards and a small amount of candy were also included in each basket.

“We just tried to include an assortment of different things in each basket and tailored them as best we could to each child’s interests,” said Fernandez.

Squeals of delight were heard as each child found their very own basket and saw what they had received. The children seemed to enjoy their gift baskets and showed off some of their items to their friends and teachers. “I think the Kiwanis Club members enjoyed this event as much as the children,” Fernandez said. “It was a fun day for adults and children.”

The High Springs Day Care Center primarily works with children from two to five years of age, although they also have children slightly older who are “after schoolers.” All were included in this event.

Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe, a local service organization with members from High Springs and Alachua, tries to do something special for the High Springs Day Care Center every month.

In the past, Fernandez has been responsible for children’s outings to the Alachua Splash Park, a Halloween carnival and a trip to Santa Fe College’s zoo, just to name a few.

“The children get so excited no matter what we do for them,” she said. “It’s a delight to work with them and expose them to places and events they may have never seen or done before.”

The Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe has spearheaded a campaign to request donations for new or gently used books for children of all ages. The books will be distributed to area children, given as rewards for achieving school goals and used to populate a lending library during the summer months at the Alachua Police Department substation in the Merrillwood neighborhood.

Kiwanis Club members are asking area residents to donate books that their children have outgrown to children who cannot afford to buy books of their own. Drop off points are Boukari Law, P.A./Alachua County Today Newspaper, 14804 Main Street, Alachua, and at Bev’s Burger Cafe on U.S. Highway 441 in High Springs.

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With more than 16 years at the City of Hawthorne, LaKesha McGruder is a mainstay in the local government.

HAWTHORNE – LaKesha H. Hawkins-McGruder, MMC of City of Hawthorne, has earned the designation of Master Municipal Clerk (MMC), which is awarded by the International Institute of Municipal Clerks (IIMC), Inc.

IIMC grants the MMC designation only to those municipal clerks who complete demanding education requirements and who have a record of significant contributions to their local government, their community and state.

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Read more: Hawthorne’s LaKesha Hawkins-McGruder making her mark

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