SEBRING - The United Way of Central Florida's Highlands County division celebrated the contribution of its donors and volunteers and also went down memory lane to mark its 25th anniversary Thursday.
Contributions provided to the non-profit group fund 22 programs at 17 "partner agencies" so they can receive the resources they need "to build better lives right here in Highlands County," Kristin Handley, area director of United Way, told those gathered.
For 2013, 66 local businesses and government entities ran campaigns and more than 2,000 contributed, helping the group raise more than $456,000 in pledges.
Alan Jay Wildstein, owner of Alan Jay Automotive Network, was recognized once again as the United Way of Central Florida - Highlands County division's Alexis de Tocqueville Society member.
Membership is given to individuals and families who invest $10,000 or more to United Way every year. Wildstein has been a member for 11 years.
Publix Supermarkets' three stores pledged the largest amount raised at $158,264.
The School Board of Highlands County's 17 schools and the district office came second with $79,337, followed by Alan Jay Automotive Network at $33,493.
Joseph Derenzis from Avon Park High School was named the employee coordinator of the year.
"Through his ability to connect with students, he worked hard to increase their school's campaign 204 percent in the last two years and was instrumental in helping Avon Park High School reach the top of all the other schools United Way campaigns in 2013," Handley said.
The 2013 United Way Volunteer of the Year Award went to Rich Hetherton.
Four years ago, United Way received a call about a woman with dementia whose home had been set on fire and needed to be demolished but the woman couldn't afford it. Hetherton organized a team and stepped up to help. The home had sat half-burned for years before the county told the lady and her family they needed to have it demolished or they would do it and place a lien on the property.
The home was in a highly populated neighborhood where many children lived and presented a huge hazard. Hetherton agreed to help out and had at least 10 members of his staff out there with large equipment, but they got it all done in one day.
When tornadoes hit Lake Placid a couple years ago, United Way received a call from a widow in Lake Placid who had many downed trees in her yard and couldn't get to her home.
She contacted her insurance company but since it didn't affect her home directly they wouldn't help.
"After calling several other places she ended up calling United Way in tears," Handley said.
They sent an email to the board and many responded to help, but Hetherton was the first and got the project taken care of quickly.
County commissioner Don Elwell received the citizen of the year award.
He was described as being involved in every aspect of Highlands County, "whether it is government-related, volunteering on multiple boards or entertaining crowds with his humor and exceptional emcee skills."
"This person has served on most boards in Highlands County but to name just a few they include the Highlands Art League, The Salvation Army and the Greater Sebring Chamber of Commerce. This person's dedication to the people of Highlands County has no bounds," said presenter John Shoop.
Robert King, who was president of the Avon Park Breakfast Rotary in 1988, and Catherine Cornelius, former president of South Florida Community College, were members of the first advisory board and "led the charge and helped raise the funds that were dispersed by the first community investment team."
King and another early leader, Carl Cool, reminisced a little about the 1988 launching of the Highlands County division.
Their first goal was $88,000, and they exceeded it at $102,000, they remembered.