John Shatto

John Shatto

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They stand in the sun, in the rain, in the cold, on their good days and bad days, these public servants go to work every school day. They make sure that the children of Clay County can safely make it to their destination.

However, crossing guards often go unnoticed, except for when they stop the traffic.

John Shatto is one of those individuals, but it’s very unlikely that he goes unnoticed. So far, he’s worked a total of 16 years with the Clay County Sheriffs Office as a crossing guard. In that time, he’s made a name for himself among students, parents, drivers and co-workers alike.

“He’s a square guy, that does his job, and the kids love him,” said fellow crossing guard Dan Finch.

You can find Shatto at the corner of Moody Road and Doctors Lake Drive, next to the train tracks. He always has Alabama football gear on display, whether he’s wearing it or driving around with it, he’s even known as “Alabama John” by some.

Prior to becoming a crossing guard, Shatto gave over 21 years of service to the United States Navy. He was a father of two, and was married for a number of years to his first wife, who inspired him to become one as well, post retirement.

“When I retired from the base, my wife said that I couldn’t just sit around the house, so I started doing this,” Shatto said. “It’s a good job, it keeps me up and going.”

When Shatto’s first wife passed away, he still continued his crossing guard duties. Five years ago he remarried, after meeting a woman on the Christian Mingle dating website.

“I dated a couple of other girls on that website, but they didn’t work out,” Shatto said.

Fortunately for those who cross his path, the love he spreads extends to more than just his significant other. Every school day, from about 7:20 a.m. until 8:20 a.m. motorists can see him blowing kisses to the ladies that pass by him and saluting the gentlemen as well. There’s a specific reason that he does this.

“It draws attention to me as a crossing guard, so they slow down some,” Shatto said. “Of course a lot of them slow down and a lot of them go through the red light, which is dangerous.”

He feels this way, because he cares for the ones who get the most of his affection – the students.

“I just enjoy being around kids, I only had two of my own and they’re all grown,” Shatto said. “It’s a blessing to me, you get to talk to them about their lives, even at this age they’re starting to talk about college and it makes me feel so good.”

Over the years, Shatto has bought “his children” gifts and dressed up for them on holidays. Going above and beyond the duties of a crossing guard is something he prides himself on and the children appreciate it too.

“He’s really nice,” said Mallory Finch, 11, a student at Montclair Elementary School.

“He’s really fun, he can talk to you, and be your friend,” said Layla Davis, 9, who also attends Montclair.

Those sentiments extend to the parents and community as well. Especially Shaun Wimberley, a paramedic at Orange Park Medical Center, who crosses the road with his son every day, but he knows Shatto from more than school mornings.

“I have a-fib, my heart is messed up. I went into the hospital, and he was there that morning,” Shatto said. “He takes good care of anybody that comes through the emergency room.”

“I see a lot of community members come through, I’ve seen John a few times, I try to give him a little extra-special treatment for all the good that he does out here for these kids,” Wimberly said.

Wimberly said that his son, River, whom he walks to school loves Shatto as much as he does.

“If John’s absent for any reason, it breaks his heart,” Wimberly said. “He always includes crossing guard on list of things he wants to be when he grows up, because of him.”

Shatto’s years on the job have given the opportunity to listen to the students that he encounters, something that he cherishes, because it could change someone’s life.

“I tell them that they can talk to me about anything,” Shatto said. He recounted one instance which he unknowingly saved a girl from an abusive home. He discovered that the child was being molested by her grandfather, all from a crosswalk conversation.

“I went to the school with that one,” Shatto said. “As far as I know, he’s still in jail, and they got her in counseling. I was so glad that she had enough trust in me to let me know, and I could do something about it. The best thing I ever did out here was save that one girl’s life.”

Despite Shatto’s love of the children he encounters, he hasn’t been immune to complaints. What he sees as innocent, some people take issue.

He once started working on a photo album of the kids he bonded with over the years, with the intention of giving the photos to parents as a keepsake. However, he received a complaint before he could finish the project.

“You don’t get to do good things anymore, the parents loved it, but I had to quit, because people complained one time and my boss said I couldn’t do it anymore,” Shatto said. “Some of these parents can’t afford to get the regular school pictures anymore, but I still had to quit.”

Even in the face of that adversity, Shatto still continued with his duties as a crossing guard, and he still loves to be a helping hand to those around him.

“It’s just a different world that we live in, I go to church on Sunday, and live a Christian life, Shatto said. “I love to give, and I pray that God puts people in my life that I can help, I’m just that kind of guy.”

Shatto will continue working into the next school year, because “he has nothing better to do.” That is because he feels, that there truly is nothing better to do than be a crossing guard.

“I’m just an ordinary guy, nothing special about me,” Shatto said. “I just like to do what I do, I’m ready to quit everything except this, I’ll be out here as long as my health holds up.”


Racing Against opposition

Racing Against opposition

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – What could arguably be described as one of Green Cove Springs’ biggest hidden treasures is a strip of racing lanes located deep within Reynolds Industrial Park on State Road 16

Since its opening in September of 2013, the Green Cove Springs dragway has provided a place for racing enthusiasts to quench their thirst for speed. The track was recently in the spotlight after the tragic shooting deaths of Buddy Short and Valorie Short, both of whom frequented the dragway.

Buddy Short helped build and operate the attraction that has been growing in popularity. Now the dragway is in the spotlight once again, but under vastly different circumstances.

“The counties, municipalities, towns and states do a good job of providing places for kids to play the ball sports, but there’s a lot of young people we call gearheads, they love motor sports,” dragway owner Peter Scalzo said. “We provide a venue, with no investment from a municipality, we give them a place to race.”

The dragway itself looks like the set of a “Fast and the Furious” film, but what goes on at the Green Cove Dragway is not staged fiction at all. In fact, it’s causing some real concerns for some Green Cove Springs residents.

Since it opened, the dragway has been going before the Green Cove Springs City Council to get its permits re-approved. On May 17 they did it once again, but this time they were met with opposition.

“I never thought I’d be saying something against the dragway,” said Joe Sobotta, a Green Cove Springs resident. “Volume is an issue with whatever cars are making that kind of volume, I can hear it outside and I can hear it on my porch.”

Sobotta was the only Green Cove Springs resident to come before the packed council chambers and speak out against the noise levels that come from the track. He also claims to have felt attacked by the racing supporters that heavily outnumbered him.

“Either I didn’t give my presentation to where it could be understood or we have a group that feels if you don’t agree with them, then you’re throwing a stone in the spokes,” Sobotta said. “I can assure you there is no consorted group of people who got together in Green Cove Springs who said let’s go down there and complain, and shut down the racetrack, but I’ve been sort of accused of that.”

Sobatta lives less than 1,000 feet from the St. Johns River and the sounds he claims to hear are something that Scalzo admits to.

“The way our track is laid out, the sound goes right into town,” Scalzo said. “It travels over the water, once it hits the water, it really intensifies the sounds.”

When past testing of the dragway noise revealed that it was slightly over the city’s decibel limit, Scalzo was asked to take steps to reduce the noise. This included instituting a curfew on the races and setting up a sound barrier wall. Despite this, the city continued to get noise complaints.

“The raceway is enjoyable for race fans and car enthusiasts, however, the city has begun to get numerous complaints about the noise it creates. It has become a quality of life issue for residents whose peaceful evenings on their porches and patios are being interrupted, some report they hear the noise inside their homes,” said Mayor Pamela Lewis in an official statement. “We are reviewing complaints that we receive and are continuing to monitor the situation.”

The city of Green Cove Springs defines the dragway’s weekend operation as a “special event,” which is the same distinction as the city’s annual River Fest, despite the dragway operating numerous times a year. For that reason, the dragway must get re-approved by the city council every year, something they have had little trouble with in three years.

Despite the reported calls, only Sobotta vocalized his frustration in person, while the dragway had several citizens speak in favor of it.

“Racing is a lot more than a fast car, and the Green Cove racetrack is more than a place where fast cars race,” Amber Underwood, 19, said before the City Council. “For many people like me, it’s a home away from home. Like other sports, racing has many positive impacts.”

Underwood was just one of many that came to the meeting to show their support of the dragway.

Following a period of tense discussion, the city council unanimously voted to approve the special events permit for the dragway, ensuring that it will stay in Green Cove Springs, at least for another year.

This year’s approval will be coupled with continued decibel testing, something that Lewis lobbied for at the meeting. Scalzo is also open to several ideas to further reduce noise, such as sound proofing the announcers booth and changing the direction of the track.

Another obstacle that the dragway could encounter is the potential for waterfront development directly across from them. The Reynolds Industrial Park is prime real estate. Scalzo and the city council recognize that a dragway and residential areas don’t tend mix well.

“If a big developer wants to come in with a mega project next year, we don’t want him to go away, because if he wants to build here, that is going to be an issue,” Scalzo said. “At that point the city council is not going to renew my permit, and that’s okay.”

Until that looming day comes, the dragway is set in stone until May 2017, where races will continue until then.

“Everybody’s going to have an opinion, we all can’t agree on the same things,” Track manager Thomas Wilson said. “The one thing I can promise them is that the noise from an ambulance at three in morning, responding to a street race accident, is way more hideous than these cars make in five seconds. We provide a safe environment to race.”,2416?

The Miracle In La Gonave

The Miracle In La Gonave

ORANGE PARK – In one of the most iconic passages of scripture, David declared that the Lord lead him beside the still waters. However, for the residents of one Caribbean island, there is no water by which the spirit can lead them. For about 100,000 Haitians living on the island of La Gonâve, there is no access to fresh water.

Nearly 1,000 miles away from Haiti, is a small church on Blanding Boulevard. Inside that church are people who have an answer to the prayers of the people on that island.

New Beginnings Christian Fellowship of Orange Park, has found itself becoming a leader in bringing aid to the people in La Gonâve.

“We have the ability to buy water here,” Pastor Jerry Lankford said. “We have water in our taps, and we don’t care if it’s in our yard. We even have pools of water to swim in.”

New Beginnings formed a partnership with a group called Bethesda, which means “House of Mercy.” In 2012, Lankford went on a trip to La Gonâve with a church member who grew up on the island. There he met Pastor Micler and Rosiane and was introduced to their work on the island. It is on that trip that he made the choice to help make a difference.

La Gonâve is not the average developing island. Lankford said he had been places where there was “hope,” but this place had none. The people there suffered from what he referred to as “sustained poverty.” Essentially, several generations of a family in La Gonâve will be born, live and die on the island. Then the cycle repeats itself again.

The families are mostly illiterate, malnourished and deprived of one of life’s precious commodities – water.

“They don’t waste water like we do, with a shower,” Lankford said. “There are no creeks, no lakes and no rivers on this island. No sources of water.”

The people in La Gonâve use rainwater as their source of water, they have even gone as far as to study the types of rocks that hold water. The issue is that those sources of water are not always clean.

In La Gonâve, children and adults are dying rapidly from drinking contaminated water. Lankford believes that what his church is doing there will change that.

Before Lankford and company went to La Gonâve, the idea that water could come from the ground, was foreign to them.

“They believed that the island was cursed,” Lankford said.

Now, with the use of water wells, they can finally get clean drinking water from earth. Currently, they produce about 15 gallons of water a day, which is not enough, but New Beginnings is hoping they can increase the amount of water exponentially by providing them with more wells.

After the church decided to help, New Beginnings plans seemed to fall into place overnight.

They received a donation from a Texas missionary group. Using donated funds, they purchased a drill from Bronco Well Drilling in Keystone Heights, a Green Cove Springs ship captain will transport the drill to Haiti and an Orange Park pilot will fly the ministry to and from the island. Lankford described the serendipitous support for the mission as “divine.”

The church will be traveling to Haiti from July 5 to August 25 to make the project come to life. Lankford is welcoming anyone to become a part of their missionary work in La Gonâve, as well as accepting donations.

According to the Bethesda mission’s website, “Our vision is to drill wells that will yield fresh water. This will attract people from the upper half of the island to Bethesda, where their basic needs will be met, and they can receive the Living Water.” The “living water” they are referring to is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“There are many Christian religions in Haiti,” Lankford said. “There is also a voodoo religion, what they generally do is mix the two together, because their needs are so great.”

Even with all of struggles La Gonâve has endured, the people there still manage to have faith in their beliefs, to fix what they cannot change.

“If they have sickness in their body, they tell Jesus. If they don’t get a response, they’ll go to the voodoo doctor,” Lankford said. “They are desperate, and they are trying anything that they can to recover.”,2224


Paws With a Purpose

Paws With a Purpose

PENNEY FARMS – Local dogs are finding themselves behind bars, as part of a new program mutually benefiting Florida prison inmates and shelter dogs.

Clay County Animal Care and Control recently teamed up with a Jacksonville Beach-based animal welfare organization, Pit Sisters, in an effort to change the lives of inmates in Florida correctional facilities. Five Clay County canines will go to prisons as of Pit Sisters’ program Teaching Animals and Inmates Life Skills, or TAILS.

“We jumped onto this opportunity because it’s a great thing for these shelter dogs to not only be able to help themselves, but the people in the prison system too,” said Christina Sutherin, CCACC director. “We’re excited that this is our first selection of dogs, the staff is excited because it gives us something else to focus on, and we are hoping to add more correctional facilities in the future.”

The aim of the program is to pair five shelter dogs with inmates in order for the inmates to train, socialize and care for the dogs, with the overall goal of finding a forever home for the re-trained dogs. This is the first time Clay County has participated with the program.

The dogs that are housed at the shelter near Penney Farms are often those without formal training, some of them have been neglected and some lack interaction with humans. Jennifer Deane, TAILS’ director and president of Pit Sisters, put the dogs through extensive tests before transferring them to TAILS in a March 14 sendoff.

Deane said the animals they look for are ones that can tolerate being handled, don’t show aggression and interact well with other dogs. The dogs are put through a series of tests that included a one on one evaluation where Deane sees how the dogs handle food, distractions and general commands. The dogs are also spayed, neutered and heart worm free.

The dogs who passed the full-blown evaluation were sent to the Lawtey Correctional Institution in Bradford County. At the facility, the dogs will be paired with inmates who will have the opportunity to train the dogs for eight weeks. Upon the successful completion of the TAILS program, the dogs will graduate and be ready for adoption.

“The dogs receive training to help them succeed in everyday life and the prisoners discover a new purpose in life and are less likely to return back to the prison system,” Sutherin said.

The inmates who participate in the program must be non-violent, not have any convictions for animal cruelty or domestic violence and must have a record of good behavior in their facility. The program is so popular among inmates, that many are placed on waiting lists before they can participate with TAILS.

The inmates, like most pet owners, grow attached and devoted to their fury best friends.

“They treat them like they are their own dogs,” Dean said. “They really care and are sad to see them go.”

The advocacy group, Friends of Clay County Animals, which serves as the volunteer arm of CCACC, was on hand Tuesday for the TAILS selection event. The organization is in full support of what Pit Sisters is doing for the dogs.

“They will get some consistency, and when they come out, people will know what kind of dog they’re adopting,” said Andrea Cassman, founder of FOCCA.

When the dogs graduate from the prison program, so do the inmates who have a chance to learn the valuable skills which the TAILS program is built upon.

“We had one inmate that left prison and we offered him a scholarship to become a dog trainer, and he’s now studying to become one,” Deane said. “He’s a completely different guy than he was when he went into prison, and you can see it firsthand.”

Grammy Award Winning baritone: Daniel Belcher

Grammy Award Winning baritone: Daniel Belcher

The University of West Florida’s Center for Fine and Performing Arts was host to the melodious vocals of Grammy award-winning baritone Daniel Belcher on Monday night, March 7.

Belcher has an extensive career in the performing arts that includes an array of operas and roles in productions such as “Nixon in China” and “Romeo and Juliet.”

Belcher took to the Music Hall stage, performing works by Ludwig van Beethoven, Claudio Monteverdi, George Butterworth, Francis Polulenc and Gerald Finzi. Belcher was accompanied on piano by Blake Riley, assistant professor in the Department of Music.

“It was a wonderful experience,” Riley said. “He’s a very warm person and a strong performer. It’s easy to work with someone who knows what they want, and can express that intuitively rather than verbally.”

Even with the grandeur of UWF’s music hall, Belcher was able to give a performance that still felt intimate to the audience.

“His voice is so full; it’s from the bottom and he has a very rich expression,” student Marty Glover said. “His emphasis is really good.”

Belcher took a break from his career in music to spend some time with up-and-coming music students at UWF. He was invited by the Department of Music to perform, and once the dates were established, the department went to work putting together the show.

“I’m thrilled that there’s great interest in the classical arts,” Belcher said. “It’s very important given our political climate. We’re reminded that there’s some beauty instead of just anger.”

Belcher has had the opportunity to perform all over the country in venues such as Carnegie Hall, but even on a college campus he had no problem sharing his gift on stage before a crowd of college students.

“I’m 45 and still feel like I’m playing in the land of make-believe. I get to sing this music and create characters,” Belcher said. “There is a lot of great talent out there, and unfortunately because of economic conditions, not everyone gets the chance to do what I do, so I feel that it’s my responsibility to use it.”

Following a performance medley of classical works, Belcher returned to the stage for an encore performance of “What a Wonderful World,” made famous by Louie Armstrong. He used the song as tribute to his mother-in-law, who died two years ago.

“Since it was two years ago to the month she died, I considered it to be a love song to her,” Belcher said. “Her death was so sudden, that it’s nice that a piece of music can remind me of her.”

For more about Belcher, including videos of some of his performances, visit his professional website. For the schedule of upcoming Department of Music concerts and performances, visit the department’s website.piano-768x590