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Orlando Woman Charged With DUI With Serious Bodily Injury After Crash Critically Injuring 2 Young Children In Frostproof Crash

32-year-old Ashauntie Cox (DOB 2/15/1991) of Orlando, who caused serious bodily harm to two children in her vehicle while fleeing from two crashes and driving under the influence, was arrested in Polk County on Friday, May 19, 2023, and charged with several felonies.

According to witnesses and information developed during the investigation, the first crash occurred around 8:00 p.m. on US Hwy 27 at the intersection with US Hwy 98 near Frostproof. Cox was driving a blue Kia southbound on Hwy 27 when she struck a grey Chevy Silverado pickup truck and then fled at a high rate of speed. As she continued to recklessly speed south down Hwy 27, weaving in and out of slower moving traffic, she rear-ended a 2016 Honda CRV while trying to pass between that SUV and the vehicle next to it which were both also going southbound. The victim driving the CRV was taken to Sebring Hospital, where he was treated and released with minor injuries.

The collision caused Cox’s vehicle to flip several times, ejecting two Orlando children, ages 5 and 8 years old. Both sustained significant injuries, and they were taken to Tampa General Hospital where they are both in critical condition. A 27-year-old female passenger was also seriously injured along her spinal cord, hip, and back. She remains at Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center in stable condition.

When deputies arrived at the scene of the crash, they detected the odor of marijuana and located a bottle of tequila in Cox’s vehicle. Cox was transported to the hospital and interview by deputies. Cox told deputies they were driving from Orlando to Avon Park to celebrate the 5-year-old’s kindergarten graduation. She admitted to smoking marijuana earlier in the day, and to having four shots of tequila. Her blood was drawn for further analysis, and she displayed several signs of impairment. 

She was booked into the Polk County Jail and is being charged with:

·        Three counts DUI with serious bodily injury (F3)

·        Two counts negligent child abuse with great bodily harm (F2)

·        Reckless driving (F3)

·        One count DUI with property damage (M1)

·        One count DUI (M2)

Further charges are pending the outcome of the investigation. 

“This woman had no regard for anyone’s life when she got behind the wheel intoxicated and then drove recklessly down a major highway, but what’s worse is the blatant disregard she had for the lives of the innocent children in her car. I expect a successful prosecution to hold her accountable—and let’s hope she loses her driving privileges if she’s released from jail or prison. Please keep these babies and their families in your prayers.” – Grady Judd, Sheriff

Community Relations Advisory Committee Meeting Monday, February 26, 2024

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It is the goal of the City of Lake Wales to ensure that the services we provide are as accessible for individuals with disabilities as they are for individuals without disabilities. If this correspondence or any attachments provided do not address your specific needs, please email us and we will work to provide the information to you via alternative means. If you have questions or require additional information, please contact the City Clerk at [email protected].

City of Lake Wales e-mail and web site domain name have changed to Lakewalesfl.gov. E-mails to cityoflakewales.com addresses will no longer be delivered.

NOTICE: Under Florida law, e-mail addresses are public records. If you do not want your e-mail address released in response to a public-records request, do not send electronic mail to this entity. Instead, contact this department by phone or in writing.

Lake Wales Art Council ED Discusses Upcoming Lake Wales Art Fest

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by James Coulter

For more than 50 years, the Lake Wales Art Fest has showcased scenic artwork in scenic Lake Wales, most currently along the shores of scenic Lake Wailes Park.

This year, more than 75 fine artists and artisans will be arriving from across the county, state, and even country to showcase their artwork and compete for over $22,000 in awards.

The Lake Wales Art Fest will be hosted from Sat. Feb. 24 from 10 AM – 5 PM to Sun. Feb 25 from 10 AM – 4 PM. The event will kick off with Art-B-Q, which will be hosted on Fri. Feb 22 from 5 PM – 9 PM. For more information, visit their website at: https://www.lakewalesartscouncil.org/lake-wales-arts-festival-2024

Tommy Frank, the Executive Director of the Lake Wales Art Council, recently joined us to discuss the upcoming art fest and his expectations for it. Here’s a little of what he had to say:

Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your experience with the Lake Wales Art Center.

A: I have been the executive director for about a year and a half now. Before that, I was our director of programs. During that time, I helped to augment our concert programs, gallery exhibitions, and our education center.

Q: How long has the Lake Wales Art Fest been hosted and what does the event entail?

A: The Lake Wales Art Festival is in its 53rd year. It has been in a couple of different locations. After the last few decades, it has been hosted at Lake Wailes Park, which is a beautiful scenic area to have an outdoor art show. It boasts anywhere from 50 to 100 artists. It is open to the public and free.

Q: What can people come to expect from the upcoming event this weekend?

A: We like to call it an arts festival because it has a lot of extra components beyond just seeing artists and their booths. We also have a hands-on activity area, which is exciting because the community can come and try some of the stuff that they are seeing these artists make. We have a great community hospitality area where we have performances from local bands like Sandy’s Music Girl, which is a great organization that works with girls between 6 and 19 to learn string music. We have an awesome food vendors, so it is a really full festival for people to come down and enjoy for the whole weekend.

Q: Tell us about some of the artists who will be attending this year. Any particular artists you would like to highlight?

A: I have to say there have been a few that have been really great. They range from all over the place. Some of them are right here in Lake Wales like Linda and Richard Marino, who are some really great potters who are locals. Jeff Ripple is also someone from the state of Florida who makes incredible landscape paintings. He is our favorite and an award winner. We also have Tim Peters, who is a former best-of-show winner who will be showing his amazing ceramic works. So it is really exciting to host different artists who are showcasing their wares at our place.

Q: The Lake Wales Art Fest has been hosted for more than 50 years. For as long as it has been hosted, how would you say it has grown, and what has allowed it to be as successful as it has been?

A: It has certainly changed over the years since our humble beginnings in our first years in 1971 at the Southgate Shopping Center where Publix is. That is where we got started. We then moved to downtown Lake Wales. It became too big, and we moved it down to the lake. Overarching our theme there, this community is incredibly supportive of the arts. They want to see artists come to our town, showcase their wares, and have a chance to talk with those artists, and I think it has been the support of the community that has allowed this art festival to be as great during that time.

Hear more of Tommy Frank’s interview on our latest episode of Chattin on the Ridge. Listen to our podcast on Acast: https://shows.acast.com/chattin-on-the-ridge/episodes/ep-23-lake-wales-art-fest-2024-wtommy-frank

Lake Wales Residents Urge City Not to Give Away Public Land at Lake Alta to Private Developer

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by James Coulter

Lake Wales residents raised concerns over the city’s intent to give away a 3.5-acre public park near Lake Alta to a private developer to build a proposed housing complex.

At their meeting on Jan. 16, Lake Wales City Commissioners approved a consent agenda item that would transfer ownership of a 3.5-acre park near Lake Alta to Lake Wales Community Redevelopment Agency CRA. As Lake Wales News reports, “That body [the CRA] can negotiate property sales directly to buyers without competitive bids.”

The property contains a natural area, considered a “pocket park”, in a quiet neighborhood of single-family homes on the near north side of the city. Located between Osceola and Kissimmee Avenues, as Lake Wales News explains, “the park was depicted on the original street design plans for the city created by the famed Olmsted Brothers landscape and planning firm in the 1920s.”

The property had been transferred to the CRA in 2015, which then sold it to HAB Holdings, LLC for more than $8 thousand, and which was then sold to J. Walter Homes, Inc. for $250 thousand. As Lake Wales News reports: “That firm plans to build on the property, and work has already begun through final approval for a proposed Planned Development Project has not been granted by the City of Lake Wales.”

However, many residents, especially those living near the property, have raised concerns about the city transferring it to the new developer, from increased traffic to the troubling precedent of selling public land to private companies.

David Price, President of Bok Tower Gardens, claimed the entire situation set a bad precedent involving handing over public land to private companies, which would inevitably degrade the surrounding natural area.

“When we as a city start giving away our parks, it is a dangerous thing,” he said. “We should protect our parks because we cannot get more natural land, and just because a piece of property is not developed…does not mean it is not valuable. It is valuable to those people [living near it] and it means a lot to those people. When you ask people what is important to Lake Wales, it is our parks; and when you ask what is important to our parks, they will say it is the wildlife, it is the water, it is the trees.”

Patricia Lettieri is a resident who has been living in the neighborhood near Lake Alta with her family for more than 15 years. She said that buying a house near the land and the lake was a highlight, and she urged the property to remain under the city’s care. She claimed that the proposed development would increase traffic and affect parking for her and her neighbors, and that giving it to a private developer would take control away from them.

“Once this land gets transferred to the developer, it becomes part of an HOA, which has a say over our neighborhood, and we have no say about what happens on that land,” she said. “It is

unfortunate that we would have no say in the situation. It feels like our neighborhood is taking the burden of a decision of a poor plan.”

Susan Letteri, another resident, likewise raised concerns about the discrepancies between what the developer claims it would provide on the property and what was revealed in the proposed plans. The property was originally going to build six units, but that number was increased to nearly 26 units.

“The builder calls these [units] ‘cottages’, he said ‘small houses’,” she said. “Then he claimed that he was inspired to make them three-bedroom, three-baths. So I noticed there was a lot of language used that did not match. Two things were being spoken…If we lose control over it, we have no control over it. That affects the whole neighborhood. And once it is done and handed over, they can do whatever they want unless you stop them beforehand.”

Catherine Price, wife of David, complained about how the city had initially sold the property for $8 thousand, but was later sold for $250 thousand; and also how the original plan was to build six units, but was later increased to more. She decried the proposed project as a “travesty.”

“It is pretty obvious that the horse has been placed before the cart with the numerous things on this project,” she said. “This project will destroy green space and will degrade the Olmstead neighborhood.”

A Veteran Keeled Over Dead. Now This Lake Wales VFW Has an AED in Case Such an Emergency Arises.

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by James Coulter

Jackie Mannie remembers visiting a local American Legion. One of her friends came to the bar. He was barely there for two minutes when he took a shot and fell over.

“Because we did not have an AED, he ended up dying by the time the ambulance came there,” she said.

Since then, not only has an automated external defibrillator (AED) been installed at her American Legion, but also one was recently installed at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 2420 in Lake Wales.

“The fact we now have a defibrillator is great,” Mannie said. “It feels safer, absolutely, I am glad it is in both places [the VFW and American Legion].”

Culpepper’s Cardiac Foundation, a local non-profit organization headed by Melanie Brown Culpepper, donated and installed their 32nd AED at the Lake Wales VFW on Wednesday evening.

Phil Lefstead, an engineer with Polk County Fire Rescue, had contacted Melanie about installing an AED at the VFW post. He had been contacted by its Commander, Joe Settle, six months ago about purchasing an AED for their facility.

Lefstead had seen Melanie donate AEDs to several local eateries, so he contacted her about donating an AED to the Lake Wales VFW.

“I think it is a great cause,” he said. “So, I contacted her and the rest is history. I think her organization is great. If she can supply communities with AEDs, it makes our jobs as firefighters a lot easier.”

Settle had been a commander at the VFW for 31 years and counting. Since his post could have never afforded such a necessary emergency device, especially considering the older age range of their organization, being able to receive one for free was nothing short of a gift.

“It is a great cause,” Settle said. “I wish we could have given her [Melanie] money [as a donation], but right now, we are tight. If she wants to host a fundraiser here, she is more than welcome to have one.”

Melanie started her organization three years ago following the untimely death of her late fiancée, Michael Culpepper. He had passed away from cardiac arrest, despite the best efforts of first responders to revive him.

Not wanting anyone else to suffer a similar fate, she started her organization to raise proceeds to donate AEDs across the county. Since then, she has donated more than 30 to local establishments like Caribbean Bay, Tanner’s Lakeside, and Old Man Franks.

Melanie will be visiting a hospital in Brandon for a special presentation on Tues. Feb 13. She will also be donating AEDs to the Ritz Theater and Barrel 239 in Winter Haven.

For more information, visit the Culpepper Cardiac Foundation Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/honoringculpepper

Dozens of Jeeps Prepare for Lake Wales Mardi Gras with Inaugural Decorating Contest

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by James Coulter

Several dozen Jeep vehicles lined the streets of Orange Avenue last Thursday evening to deck themselves with festive purple, gold, and green for the Lake Wales Mardi Gras parade the next day.

Carey Coco, owner of Keep Moving Health, has been attending Lake Wales Mardi Gras with her family for the past three years. As someone from Louisiana, love for Mardi Gras comes naturally, he husband claimed.

Her family went all out with their Jeep vehicle decorated in Mardi Gras colors, masks on their dashboard, a giant purple and gold bow on their front bumper, and their kids wearing jester hats.

“It is a good parade with good family-friendly fun,” her husband said. “My expectations for this year’s parade is the same: to have a good time and look at the floats and let the good times roll.”

Mark Ward and his family, meanwhile, decided to decorate their vehicle after a galaxy far, far away. Their windshield displayed the quote, “This is the Way”, and featured a plushie of Grogu (Baby Yoda) from the hit Star Wars TV Show, “The Mandalorian.”

Ward personally knows the owner and wanted to help support her during her inaugural event. “It is so far so good with a good turnout,” he said.

Jessy G recently opened her photography studio at 251 E Park Ave in Downtown Lake Wales. She and her co-partner, the owner of Lake Wailes Point, wanted to drum up both support for her new business and excitement for the Lake Wales Mardi Gras. So, they decided to host the contest.

“We just wanted to have some fun,” Jessy said. “I just really wanted to make an impact and show some fun and stuff, and support our Jeepers that we have out here.”

Aside from the contest, the event that evening also included a handful of local vendors as well as musical entertainment provided by a local DJ. Overall, the small yet big turnout proved to be quite a good start to the Mardi Gras celebration, Jessy said.

“I am pretty excited about it,” she said. “I am so excited and stoked for Mardi Gras this year. Every year it is a good thing. We are just so happy to be excluded this year.”

To learn more about Jessy H Photography, visit their website at: https://www.jessygphotography.com/

Let The Good Times Roll Over The Hill! Lake Wales Mardi Gras Celebrates 40 Years!

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by James Coulter

What started as a funeral procession for a local restaurant owner and fan of New Orleans culture has, four decades later, transformed into one of the biggest Mardi Gras celebrations in Central Florida.

Lake Wales Mardi Gras celebrated its 40th anniversary last weekend. The event kicked off with a kick-party and 5K race on Friday evening and continued its festivities all day Saturday at Lake Wailes Park.

The celebration culminated with the big parade on Saturday at 3 PM. The parade started at Stuart Avenue, traversed through Downtown Lake Wales, and traveled along Central Avenue and Lake Shore Boulevard for the big finale at Lake Wales Park.

Nearly 100 units including parade floats, decorated vehicles, and marching band participated in the event. Attendees dressed in festive purple, green, and gold and tossed beads to eager parade watchers lining the downtown streets.

Participating in the event were several Mardi Gras krewes including the Krewe of Aphrodite and Wham Bams, as well as many local organizations including the City Commission, Lake Wales News, and Duke Energy.

Even the Polk County Sheriff’s Office took time out of their busy schedule serving and protecting Polk County to ride in their own float with the Honorable Sheriff Grady Judd tossing beads to his cheering fans.

The main festivities were hosted at Lake Wailes Park with food trucks, vendors, fun and games, and live entertainment. Dozens of local bands like B. Haven, Spankin’ Sadie, and the Free Whiskey Band took to the stage to perform live music.

Lake Wales Mardi Gras started 40 years ago as the celebration of the life and legacy of the late Vinton Davis, a local restaurant owner who loved the culture of New Orleans.

Vinnie, as his family and friends called him, was quite the “eccentric” character, according to his daughter, Nancy Bernhardt Estes. As a young man, he ran away from home to join the circus and later ran away from the circus to work in the kitchens of New Orleans.

There, he learned to love the music, cooking, and overall culture of the lively city. He took that love and culinary experience to Lake Wales and opened his restaurant, Vinton’s New Orleans Restaurant.

When he passed away in 1984, his family wanted to honor his wishes and provide him with a jazzy New Orleans-style funeral procession. That idea would eventually turn into a small Mardi Gras parade that caught big attention, Estes explained.

Now, more than 40 years later, what started as a funeral procession has transformed into one of the biggest family-friendly Mardi Gras celebrations in Central Florida, which attracts thousands of visitors each year.

“It has grown immensely,” Estes said. “The first time we did it…we had six weeks to get this thing together. About 200 people were watching our little, tiny, short parade. The Lakeland Ledger, at that time, had sent over a reporter. He said in the paper that it was the shortest parade he had ever seen, but it was the wildest and funniest he had ever seen. Word got out, and the next year, it was up to over a thousand people, and it grew and it grew. In its heyday…the crowds had reached about 30 thousand.”

Nancy Bernhardt Estes recently sat down with us to discuss her father’s life and how his legacy helped inspire Lake Wales’s longest-running Mardi Gras celebration.

Listen to our interview with her on the Chattin on the Ridge podcast on Spotify: https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/chattinontheridge/episodes/Ep–21-Lake-Wales-Mardi-Gras-wNancy-Bernhardt-Estes-e2fd8c9

Finally! The Lake Wales Public Library Can Now Set Its Own Rental Rates for Its Meeting Room!

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by James Coulter

Who has the authority to set the rental rates for the meeting room in the Lake Wales Public Library? One would assume it would be the library director. However, until now, that authority went to the city commission.

At their recent meeting on Tuesday evening, Lake Wales City Commissioners unanimously passed an ordinance that granted the library director the authority to set the rental rates for the Schoenoff Meeting Room at the Lake Wales Public Library.

Previously, the rental rates were determined using a table under Chapter 18, Section 1 of the Lake Wales Code of Ordinances. The previous rates were $60 for the first hour and $18 for each additional hour, excluding library-sponsored events and events by non-profit organizations.

However, as the city memo for the ordinance explained, the city staff “has found that the current room reservation rates for the Schoenoff Meeting Room at the Lake Wales Public Library are currently too high. Staff proposed a reduction in the rate.”

During a previous work session, the City Commission members determined that the authority for setting rental and reservation rates for the meeting room should go toward the library and not the City Commission.

Furthermore, the ordinance would permit “the schedule of fees established by this section [to] be adjusted annually to reflect an increase based on June’s annual CPI or two and one-half (2.5%) percent, whichever is greater, without further need for Commission action.”

City Commissioner Robin Gibson expressed his initial surprise that the city library was not responsible for setting the rental rates of its own meeting room.

“I want to make sure they have the opportunity to make full use of the facility,” he said. “What struck me is that they left that up to the city commission in the past, and they [the commission] never used it. So, it speaks of the wisdom of us. And it is obvious that it should be in their [the library’s] hands, and market forces will utilize the property.”

City Commissioner made a motion and a second to pass the ordinance, and the motion passed with a unanimous vote.

To learn more about the Lake Wales Public Library and the availability of its meeting room for events, visit their website at: https://www.cityoflakewales.com/976/Library

What Started as a Funeral Parade Evolved into the Largest Mardi Gras Celebration in Central Florida 40 Years Later

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by James Coulter

Vinton Davis loved all things New Orleans. He loved the music. He loved the culture. And he especially loved the food. He loved it so much that he owned and operated his own Cajun restaurant in Downtown Lake Wales.

In fact, so infatuated he was with the culture that he requested that his family host a New Orleans-style funeral procession once he passed away. When he died in 1984, his family was unable to host such a procession, but they did the next best thing and hosted a parade in his honor.

That parade evolved into the Lake Wales Mardi Gras celebration, which has been hosted in Lake Wales for more than 40 years. Within the first year, thousands of people attended. Even to this day, the event remains one of the largest Mardi Gras celebrations in Central Florida.

His daughter, Nancy Bernhardt Estes, was the founder of Lake Wales Mardi Gras, as well as the krewes the Krewe of Aphrodite and The Wham Bams. She also started the charitable gift-giving arm, which donates the money left over each year from the event and krewes back to the Lake Wales community.

The estimated amount of the annual donations from the Mardi Gras charitable arm has been more than a quarter of a million dollars. Proceeds have gone toward local charities, including the Lake Wales Hospital, which was able to purchase its first mammogram machines due to the generous donations, Nancy claimed.

Nancy remembers her father as an eccentric character. When he was young, he ran away from his overtly strict mother to join the circus. Eventually, he became a cook and gained enough culinary experience to start his restaurant, first in New York, and then in Lake Wales, FL where he started his family.

“My father was very eccentric,” she said. “He loved anything and everything about New Orleans…[When he was working for the circus], they came to New Orleans, and he decided to run away from the circus and stay in New Orleans washing dishes, bussing tables, and from then on, as he grew older, he learned a lot from the chefs from the kitchens, and that is pretty much how he learned to love food and jazz and all that.”

Lake Wales Mardi Gras will be hosted Fri. Feb. 9 and Sat. Feb. 10 in Lake Wailes Park in Lake Wales. The parade will be hosted in Downtown Lake Wales on Saturday at 3 PM. For more information, visit their website at: lakewalesmardigras.com

Nancy recently sat down with us for an interview on the Chattin on the Ridge podcast. Listen to her tell her wild tales of her father in our latest episode on Spotify: https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/chattinontheridge/episodes/Ep–21-Lake-Wales-Mardi-Gras-wNancy-Bernhardt-Estes-e2fd8c9

Check Out The Top Movies of 2023 with JC and Jen Nanek

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by James Coulter

If last year could be described in a movie quote, it would be the one from Forrest Gump: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.”

There’s no denying that 2023 was a mixed bag–or rather, mixed box–for cinema. Sometimes, you had films like Godzilla Minus Godzilla or Oppenheimer that were like rich caramel nougats, but then you had films like The Flash or Quantumania that were like coconut-filled chocolates…that were left under the couch with hair and dust!

If you’ve been following my work here on the Daily Ridge, you know that I have been sharing my thoughts on the latest movies through my column J.C. Reviews (formerly Welcome, World Travelers!). Recently, I sat down with Jennifer Nanek, the movie critic of Lake Wales News, to discuss our picks for the best and worst movies of last year.

You can hear our thoughts on the latest episode of the Chattin on the Ridge podcast. But here’s a sneak peek at some of our picks:

Best Live-Action Movie

J.C.’s Pick: The Barbie Movie

“I know that’s kind of surprising coming from a straight guy like myself, but I found it was an interesting movie…I really enjoyed how it was both a love letter to the Barbie brand as well as a deconstruction of what it means to be a woman. It was very philosophical.”

Jen’s Pick: Dungeons and Dragons

“It was so much fun. There were a lot of good special effects and action sequences. Chris Pine and Hugh Grant were very funny and did a good job…All the games in the arena and the cool monsters. I just thought it was great fun and I enjoyed the whole thing, and I’m sure there will be a sequel.”

Best Animated Movie

J.C.’s Pick: Nimona

“It definitely proved to be a surprise hit. A very funny buddy cop-style movie set in this imaginative, fantastical setting that combines medieval fantasy with futuristic, almost-cyberpunk sci-fi. I love sci-fi. I love fantasy. The fact that it combines both of these together really makes for a good blend. I also love the main character who is a shapeshifter and a real spunky ball of energy.”

Jen’s Pick: Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse

“[I loved] the whole thing with different Spider-Men from different parallel universes…[especially] the whole question at the end [with the main character] about whether he can save his father without saving his timeline. I thought that was fabulous. It was really compelling.”

Best Superhero Movie

J.C.’s Pick: Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse

“I felt it was a very good follow-up to the original film. I really enjoyed its stylized art style that combines 2D to 3D animation. It really does look and feel like a comic book come to life. And I really enjoyed how the movie built upon the premise of the last one with all these different Spider-Men from across the Spider-Verse. I loved many of the new characters like Spider-Punk and the Indian character Pav.”

Jen’s Pick: Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3

“It was very funny. It was a good backstory about Rocket Racoon…The whole backstory about him and the animals that were mistreated, it’s sort of a commentary on how we treat animals in society today with some of the experiments we sometimes do on them. I was in tears when he lost his one friend…I loved it immensely and I am sorry there is not going to be another [movie].”

Worst Movie

J.C.’s Pick: Trolls: Band Together

“Originally, I was going to choose the Paw Patrol movie, but my great-nephew is a fan of that show, so I want to be nice about that. What I am going to make the worst is this movie…The worst I can say about this film is that it rehashes the whole ‘bringing the band back together’ storyline. There isn’t anything new or original here.”

Jen’s Pick: 65

“There’s no reason why this should have been a bad movie. It involved Adam Driver in space and dinosaurs. But it was absolutely awful. The special effects were bad…and there was no emotional bond between the two main characters. This was horrible. Don’t watch it.”

Listen to the full podcast episode on Spotify: https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/chattinontheridge/episodes/Ep–20-Top-Movies-of-2023-wJennifer-Nanek-e2epsd4

Cherry Pocket Receives AED from Culpepper’s Cardiac Foundation

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by James Coulter

Cherry Pocket Steak n Seafood is a quaint little eatery located on the waters of Lake Pierce. The eatery receives a lot of customers, both locals and Northerners. However, while the food and scenery are great, being in the middle of nowhere has its disadvantages.

For one, being located on the far outskirts of Lake Wales, traveling there takes some time. Its far distance from town can prove especially difficult in case of an emergency. Fortunately, this eatery received an automated external defibrillator (AED) to assist them when and if such an emergency arises.

Jody McKeem, the wife of the owner, had reached out to the Culpepper Cardiac Foundation to have an AED installed at their eatery. She previously checked with her insurance agent to make sure using such a device during an emergency would not become a potential liability. Fortunately, the Florida Good Samaritan Act protects against such liability.

“We reached out to have one here because we are out in the middle of nowhere,” Jody said. “It probably takes ambulances and firefighters longer to get here than normal, so it is good to have it and have people trained who can use it. If we can save a life, let’s try it. Hopefully, we never have to use it, but if we do, we have it available for our customers and anyone staying in the park.”

Melanie Brown Culpepper and her team of volunteers arrived at Cherry Pocket on Tuesday evening to install the AED and offer a presentation and demonstration. Eric Seamus, a local EMT, offered the demonstration, while Brian Belike, Melanie’s fiancée, helped install the AED in the eatery’s event room.

The owner, Jed McKeem, had purchased the eatery five years ago. He had experience running other businesses and wanted to see similar success with Cherry Pocket. He is grateful that an AED was installed, as it will help aid in potential emergencies if and when they arise.

“I think it is a great thing to have this device here,” he said. “It is a great program that is going on there. I think it is fantastic.”

Melanie started her organization three years ago following the untimely passing of her fiancée from cardiac arrest. Not wanting anyone else to suffer a similar fate, she started Culpepper’s Cardiac Foundation to raise proceeds to donate and install AEDs across the county.

Since its inception, Culpepper’s Cardiac Foundation has donated and installed nearly 30 AEDs in local businesses and establishments, including Tanners Lakeside, Old Man Frank’s, and Caribbean Bay. The AED for Cherry Pocket was sponsored by the Sugar Barn, which was a previous AED recipient.

“I think Cherry Pocket is a place that deserves it because they have a lot of people who come out here to eat and it is a small community with a lot of northerners who come down and a lot of older people,” Melanie said. “So, I think it is great for everybody here.”

Melanie hopes to continue raising more funds to install more AEDs across the county and hopefully beyond. She owes her success to everyone who helps make her endeavors possible.

“I always give my success to the community,” she said. “I feel that without all of them, I could not make this happen. It takes a whole team of us to do this, and without them, I could not make this happen, without the sponsors and donations and people coming to my events. That is how we can keep this going.”

Gloria Gregg, an employee and bartender at Cherry Pocket, had known Michael Culpepper in life. She and him had been friends for 25 years. She is glad that an organization dedicated to doing so much good was created in his honor.

“It is a wonderful thing,” Gloria said. “We needed that thing [AED] out here. She [Melanie] has been trying to get it out here for a long time, and we finally got it out here, so that is great.”

To learn more about Culpepper’s Cardiac Foundation, visit their website at: https://www.facebook.com/honoringculpepper