Out of the ordinary, into the extraordinary

Style presents its annual profiles of the people, places and events that make Lake and Sumter something special.

Historical journey 

“Watching the Blue Angels perform generated a great sense of pride.”
—Donnie Cochran
Photo: Douglas Tyler

Donnie L. Cochran was the first African American to serve as a Blue Angels pilot and commanding officer.

Story: Theresa Campbell 

Growing up the fifth of 12 children on a southwest Georgia farm, Donnie L. Cochran says he developed a strong work ethic as a young boy doing chores in the hot fields, yet there were many times when the sight of airplanes caught his eye. 

“I would look up and say, ‘Hey, that’s cool.’ Anything associated with aviation excited me,” says Donnie, of Clermont. “I knew I wanted to fly Navy fighter jets off the decks of aircraft carriers.” 

His wish came true. Donnie flew a fighter jet 880 times on and off carriers during his 24 years with the U.S. Navy, and the highlight of his naval career was performing with the Blue Angels in weekend air shows across the country.

“Watching the Blue Angels perform generated a great sense of pride,” Donnie recalls of watching his first air show in 1978 in San Diego. “It inspired my deep desire to achieve a higher level of excellence and execution.” 

He made history in 1986 as the first African-American pilot to fly with the Blue Angels, followed by becoming the first African-American commanding officer/flight leader. 

“I was not seeking to be the first of anything. The drive for me was I wanted to be a part of a very special and unique organization,” he says. “I was with the team five years and there were times when I had overall challenges, but my overall experience was exceptional. I was very fortunate to be selected twice to be on the team.” 

Donnie says he was also fortunate to receive a scholarship from Savannah State University’s Naval ROTC Unit to pay for college and pursue his dream of flying. After being commissioned in the Navy in 1976, he went to Pensacola for flight training. One of his most thrilling days was earning his wings of gold as a naval aviator. 

He retired as a Navy captain in 2000 and went on to work for UPS, where he flew cargo supplies, followed by a leadership position with Coca-Cola.

Donnie shares his journey in his book, “Glad to Be Here: My Lessons Learned as a Blue Angels Flight Leader and Pilot.” He now enjoys speaking to groups and providing audiences with “inspirational takeaways that people can use in their personal and professional lives.”

Boots, Buckles and Badges 

Sheriff Grinnell’s signature gala fundraiser returns for a second year. 

Story: Theresa Campbell 

Lake County Sheriff Peyton Grinnell and his staff generated raves and raised nearly $118,000 for charities at an inaugural 2018 fundraiser, and they’re ready to do it again. 

The second annual Boots, Buckles and Badges Gala will be hosted from 5:30-9:30pm Friday, Nov. 8, at Lake Receptions, 4425 N. Highway 19A, Mount Dora. 

“It was just a great time,” the sheriff recalls of the 2018 benefit event. “The food, the entertainment, the silent and live auctions. Smiles and laughter filled the room.”

The fundraiser was sold out with 500 people. It was noted as the largest plated dinner event at Lake Receptions, and was voted “Best of the Best” gala/fundraiser in the August issue of Lake and Sumter Style magazine. 

“Our goal is to make a difference in our community.”
—Sheriff Peyton Grinnell
Photo: Fred Lopez

“We exceeded our fundraising expectations by $18,000. Since it was our first event, we really did not know what to expect,” he says. “We commented on how awesome it would be to make $100,000. Our community showed up that evening with giving hearts.” 

Boots, Buckles and Badges Gala has become the sheriff’s signature fundraiser for Lake County Sheriff’s Charities Inc., a designated 501(c)(3) organization that he formed in 2017. He says the organization was created to support Lake County children, foster engagement between residents and the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, and help sheriff’s office employees, their children, and families in times of need.

The charity has supported the following causes:

The annual Fish ’n’ Fun Day hosted in February, when $30,000 was awarded to Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranches. 

The sheriff office’s award-winning BBQ Fundraiser in April provided $3,200 for the March for Babies.

More than 100 volunteers, sheriff’s deputies, and other employees handed out free backpacks and school supplies to over 700 Lake County children in July as part of Project Kid Connect, an annual event. 

Through Shop with a Cop, planned for December, the sheriff’s office will provide 100 children with Christmas gifts. 

“Our goal is to make a difference in our community,” Sherriff Grinnell says, adding his staff continues to plan November’s gala. “We have every reason to believe this year’s will be even bigger and better!” 

 Those who wish to contribute with donations or sponsorship opportunities, or attend the gala, may call Kristy Marden at 352.343.9501 or Cheryl Wilson at 352.343.9454.

They call her the Roadrunner

Pat Jenkins
Photo: Anthony Rao

Even at 94, Pat Jenkins isn’t slowing down with her work at Hospice Hope Chest in Mount Dora.

Story: Leigh Neely

After moving to Mount Dora 30 years ago, Pat Jenkins spent some time deciding what to do after retiring.

“I volunteered at the hospital as a Pink Lady and in my church,” Pat says. “I read about Women for Hospice and I joined.”

Women for Hospice is a charitable organization dedicated to raising money for Cornerstone Hospice and Palliative Care in Lake and Sumter counties. Hospice Hope Chest is a retail outlet that the group uses to raise money throughout for Cornerstone.

As Pat talks at Hospice Hope Chest, where she volunteers, an antique papier-mâché old lady sitting in a chair in the corner watches over her with a smile. Fondly called “Miss Dora,” the item was a gift from another antique store owner who closed his business. It appears “she” knows all the comings and goings at the store.

“She’s very fragile, but we love having her here,” Pat says. “When we opened years ago, it was started as an antique-type store, but we didn’t get as many antiques as we get now.”

The store is packed, corner to corner now, with furniture (antique and contemporary), dishes, jewelry, and various collectibles and interesting objects. The door announcing customers rings almost constantly as many people enjoy browsing for treasures.

“I love working here,” Pat says. “I work 40 hours over six days a week. I love every minute of it. They call me the ‘Roadrunner’ because I’m always in my car going back and forth.”

Her colorful PT Cruiser has decals on both sides of the car pronouncing her “Roadrunner.” 

Chris Farrari is a regular customer who always knows the days when new deliveries arrive and comes in to check them. Before he begins browsing, he always stops to chat with Pat.

“She’s very friendly and knowledgeable,” Chris says. “She’s always uplifting when you come in. In fact, she’s a national treasure and also a Mount Dora treasure.”

Pat say the most enjoyable part of her job is interacting with the volunteers and customers. She loves talking with people and helping them find what they want at the store.

One of her quirks is wearing colorful glasses.

“I don‘t need glasses. They’re just for fun,” she says. “One of our men who picks up furniture and delivers it to the store for Cornerstone (Hospice) brought me some red glasses with rhinestones. His wife had bought them and she thought they were just a little too flashy. I always wear them when I know when he is coming in.”

Sandy Reneson is Pat’s assistant manager and she tries to do the heavy lifting.

“I’m always trying to stop her when she begins moving heavy furniture, but I don’t always succeed,” Sandy says.

Christmas items already are being put out, and Barbara Parker was setting up the display.

“I actually work with hospice patients more than I do this,” she says. “But I enjoy helping out here, too.”

Pat says the store is a hangout for many locals.

“We’re like the neighborhood bar,” Pat says with a laugh. “People like to hang out here.”

The Roadrunner is always on hand for some great conversation and her “secret” sales techniques, which she won’t share with anyone. Doubtless those techniques include her ready smile and willingness to work.

Hospice Hope Chest, 315 N. Donnelly St. in Mount Dora, is open from 10am-4pm Monday-Saturday.

Beautiful voices

“The show provided a really easy and fun platform for people to be able to meet the people they want to meet.”
—Mari Jones

Clermont singers Mari Jones and Kayslin Victoria shine on 16th season of ‘The Voice.’ 

Story: Theresa Campbell 

Mari Jones was surprised to meet another Clermont singer, Kayslin Victoria, when both were in California performing on the reality television show “The Voice.”  

“I didn’t know Kayslin before the show. It was funny because we literally live five minutes away from each other, and when I found out there was another girl from Clermont, I thought it was crazy! We didn’t meet for a couple of months because there were so many of us at the beginning of everything,” says Mari, recalling that the 16th season of “The Voice” first aired Feb. 25 and ran until the May 21 finale.

“It was really awesome and an incredible experience,” says Mari, 21, who finished as a top-13 contestant before being voted off during the May 7 episode. “It was a lot of hard work, a lot of effort and I learned a lot that I didn’t expect myself to learn, but it was awesome. I am so grateful that it happened and that I was able to experience it.”

Mari’s initial audition was June 18, 2018, in Atlanta.

“It was a really long process, and a lot of people do not realize how many auditions go into it. The whole journey started in Atlanta, but there were two more audition processes out in California that were done before any of this was ever aired,” Mari says.

One of her favorite moments on “The Voice” was being in a group performance with her coach, Adam Levine. The other coaches on the show were Kelly Clarkson, Blake Shelton, and John Legend.

“It was the last four of us that was on Team Adam, and it was a really fun moment for me. It wasn’t as much pressure because it wasn’t a performance that was judged, necessarily, so no one had to vote. It was just us having fun, and it was so much fun to share the stage with someone that I looked up to for a long time,” Mari says.

Kayslin Victoria

Since being home in Clermont, Mari has been touched by the support from family, friends and strangers.

“It has been such an awesome thing to just receive all of that backing and support from these people,” she says.

Mari says she keeps up on social media with Kayslin, who finished in the top 24 on the show.

“I am always checking up and hearing what she is up to and stuff,” Mari says. “She’s such a sweetheart.” 

Residents of Clermont were excited to watch two local singers on “The Voice,” cheering them on via social media throughout the season. The city organized a fan video with the community for Mari at Suncreek Brewery when she made the top 13, says Kathryn Deen, Clermont communications director. Kayslin sang the national anthem at the Red, White & Boom Fourth of July celebration at Waterfront Park. The city also assisted NBC in scouting locations along downtown Clermont’s waterfront when television crews filmed there to preview the season.

“They were a joy to watch and the city is very proud of them,” Kathryn says. “We look forward to continuing to watch Kayslin and Mari blossom in their vocal careers and we’ll be applauding their success along the way.” 

Mari says the best thing about being on “The Voice” was making contacts with other people in the music industry and getting exposure.

“I have wanted to do music for so long, but it is really hard to get started. The show provided a really easy and fun platform for people to be able to meet the people they want to meet,” she says. “I made so many good friends. We all learned from each other, so it was pretty awesome.”

Mari recently released her first single “Chuck and Blair,” inspired by a fictional couple on the show “Gossip Girl.”

“I felt it was a good topic to start writing about,” she says. “Chuck and Blair are a couple that are emotionally distraught in a messed-up relationship, and everyone wants them to be together. It’s something that is super-relatable for a lot of people, especially my age. It’s about a relationship that you stay in because you love them, but they also drive you crazy, and I put a fun spin to it.”

Music fans can find “Chuck and Blair” at Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube and iTunes, and Mari plans to include the song on an upcoming six-track EP as well.

Big wheels

“there is just an endless cast of volunteers in front of and behind the scenes.”
—Pat Gillis

Cyclists put their hearts into fundraiser for Villages hospital foundation.

Story: Chris Gerbasi

Big Bike Weekend lives up to its name.

The cycling fundraiser that benefits The Villages Regional Hospital Auxiliary Foundation gets bigger every year. Upwards of 400 bicyclists will wind through Sumter, Lake, and Marion counties during the Bicycle Challenge, which is part of the fifth annual Hearts for Our Hospital Big Bike Weekend Nov. 8-10. The weekend comprises a Cycling Expo and Health Fair on Friday, the challenge on Saturday, and a free bicycle club ride on Sunday.

Last year, the event raised about $65,000, pushing its four-year total to more than $191,000. Proceeds help the foundation purchase hospital equipment and fund scholarship programs for hospital team members and area high school students. Individual cyclists and teams raise money through pledges for the miles they travel or flat-rate donations. Registration fees and corporate sponsorships also go toward the cause.

Race director Pat Gillis and his wife, Lori, the event coordinator, are members of the Sumter Landing Bicycle Club, the foundation’s partner in the event. They believe the ride grows in popularity each year for multiple reasons: the charity aspect, the variety of routes, and support from The Villages, law enforcement, other cycling clubs, and 30-plus sponsors that help make this event a “best-in-class experience” for cyclists. 

The Bicycle Challenge accommodates all rider levels with five route options (10, 20, 32, 64, 100 miles) starting and ending at La Hacienda Recreation Center in The Villages.

“The routes are pretty flat, making them attractive options for riders that want to use a well-supported event such as ours to challenge themselves to ride a longer distance,” Pat says.

Cyclists primarily are Villagers, but they also come from as far north as Jacksonville and as far south as Miami. Teams compete in various divisions for trophies for the most money raised. Among others, the divisions include colleges, cycling teams, restaurants, businesses, and armed forces as the event takes place on Veterans Day weekend.

At the Cycling Expo, visitors can see the newest bicycles and accessories from local shops and national manufacturers. Attractions will include e-bike, or electric bike, demonstrations, and A&P Cycling Tours’ customized tour bus, where cyclists can see how to travel in style.

The Health Fair will feature health-related vendors and free medical information, including screenings for blood pressure, hearing, skin damage, and body mass index. The Cycling Expo and Health Fair is scheduled from 10am-2pm Nov. 8 at La Hacienda Recreation Center, 1200 Avenida Central. The OneBlood Big Red Bus will be onsite for blood donations.

The Sumter Landing Bicycle Club will host a free ride for Bicycle Challenge participants at 8:30am Nov. 10, also starting at La Hacienda Recreation Center. The endurance ride of 2½ to 3 hours accommodates all pace levels.

The support from a large number of volunteers at all the events help make Big Bike Weekend a true community effort, Pat and Lori say.

“From rest-stop volunteers, to cheerleaders greeting riders as they head out through the town square, to the volunteers greeting you upon your return, to the dancers from The Villages Deutscher Club that will entertain you in the biergarten, there is just an endless cast of volunteers in front of and behind the scenes,” Pat says.

To register for the Bicycle Challenge or for more information on all events, go to h4hbikeweekend.com or call 352.750.2488. 

Painting queen

Photo: Douglas Tyler

Blend, shade, highlight in every stroke: 16,000 instructors in 147 countries teach the Donna S. Dewberry way.

Story: Theresa Campbell 

Donna S. Dewberry is larger than life.

The Lake County artist’s simple, one-stroke painting technique has generated a huge fan base in 147 countries around the world, especially among hundreds of thousands of students new to painting who are thrilled to be able to learn to paint quickly, easily and create everything from colorful flowers to whimsical critters and a variety of home décor pieces.

“The purpose of the one-stroke painting is when you blend, shade, and highlight in every stroke, you look like an artist,” Donna says from her DEWU Art Center studio and retail store at 15410 County Road 565A in Groveland, where she gives classes and films her educational shows for television audiences.

Donna often hears that her painting technique is a godsend. One older woman called in to a live TV show and told her: “I’m not a depressed person but I had no reason to get up each day. I just didn’t have a purpose on Earth anymore. But then I saw you on PBS and I started painting. Now when this 89-year-old goes to sleep each night, I cannot wait to wake up the next morning and see what I am going to create!”

Amanda Berroa Dewberry, the fourth of Donna’s seven children, runs the Groveland shop and sees the confidence building in budding artists.

“I already know my mom is amazing, but I have been able to experience so many stories of how she changed their lives,” Amanda says. “One lady mentioned she had been in the hospital for weeks and had several surgeries. She turned on the TV and saw my mom she said, ‘Amanda, I wanted to give up, but your mom gave me inspiration to keep going, and I was literally on the verge of saying I am done.’”

The woman started painting in the hospital after her husband bought her a one-stroke painting kit.

“It was therapy for her,” Amanda says. “It gave her a purpose to keep going and not give up.”

Donna learned firsthand how painting can be therapeutic when her daughter Maria died unexpectedly 20 years ago.

“I buried myself into painting and it was my therapy,” Donna says.

Donna’s children were young when she first began dabbling in arts and crafts at her kitchen table before she was discovered in the painting industry 28 years ago. Her one-stroke style of double-loading a paint brush with two separate colors to achieve the shading and highlighting became popular, and her method has been praised for inspiring students who are new to painting. Donna’s one-stroke product line was kicked off in 1996.

“I know that by sharing and being passionate about sharing, it has blessed me beyond belief,” says the grandmother of 26, with two more grandchildren on the way. “I always promised if I ever made it out there, I would help anybody who was trying to do it.”

She now has 16,000 instructors worldwide certified in different levels to teach the one-stroke method.

Donna can be seen on the PBS, QVC and HSN television networks showcasing her technique to hundreds of thousands of viewers, and because of her devoted fans, she found it humbling to have raised $13 million in pledge drives for public television.

“Back when I was growing up, all we could get was public television, so I’ve come full circle,” says Donna, who also sold 3 million copies of her first book. Since then, the artist has published over 120 books and has more than 220 lessons on her website, onestroke.com.

With homebound folks and caregivers in mind, she leads online classes two nights a week, Tuesdays and Fridays, on Facebook Live through Donna Dewberry’s Official One Stroke. The classes are filmed from her Groveland studio/art center where brushes, paint, videos and educational materials created by Plaid Enterprises are available. Donna is at the Groveland studio for public classes from 10am-noon Tuesdays and films lessons for 70,000 (and growing) followers on YouTube.

She recalls one thrilling time when she and several one-stroke artists painted 300 ornaments for the White House Christmas tree. The group, along with Donna’s husband, Mark, accepted an invitation from then-First Lady Laura Bush to a festive reception at the White House to see the decorated tree. 

 “I have dear friends that I would have never had, and it is very humbling,” Donna says of how one-stroke painting has enriched her life. “I am going to continue to improve my talents to get better, and what keeps me going is my passion for sharing. I love it, and I l love meeting that person who becomes my good friend.” 

Stepping up the pace

Grand Oaks Resort is more than just a place to horse around.

Story: Chris Gerbasi

When visitors drive through the gate at Grand Oaks Resort, they’re greeted by several beautiful horses roaming the pastureland. In fact, horses dot the landscape throughout the 400 acres of “America’s Equestrian Resort.” Just remember, as road signs point out, horses have the right of way.

Horses and carriages have always been the foundation of the resort at 3000 Marion County Road in Weirsdale. In 2011, Tom Golisano bought the Florida Carriage Museum and rechristened it as the Grand Oaks Resort and Museum, according to the resort website.

Since then, the resort has created a premier vacation destination by adding a wider range of guest experiences, such as a salon/spa with a pool; indoor and outdoor pickleball courts; a pitch-and-putt golf course and Golf Academy; and the Bistro Restaurant and Players Club Lounge. The resort is ideal for corporate events, and weddings are conducted in a hay barn redesigned as a country chapel.

In addition to houses, suites, and lodges, accommodations include 20 new one- and two-bedroom cottages constructed in an area called the Hamlet. Dozens of new RV coach sites attract visitors from far and near to the quiet and peaceful locale. Wayne Irving and his wife, Joy, are from nearby Clermont but enjoy getting away to Grand Oaks for a few days of relaxation in their RV as well as dining in The Villages.

“It’s a nice facility, clean, spacious lots, just a nice, relaxing place,” Wayne says. “It’s close to home but it’s a nice place to come.”

Grand Oaks Resort remains first and foremost an equine attraction. The Florida Carriage & Car Museum is home to a large collection of antique carriages and equine artifacts, and collectible cars are being added during renovations, the website states. Guests also can enjoy horseback riding and carriage rides or learn the sport of carriage driving.

A new 54,000-square-foot covered arena, an outdoor arena, and several other competition areas support carriages, dressage, and polo. Grand Oaks Resort is a U.S. Equestrian Federation elite training center and hosts more than 40 equestrian and dog competitions each year.

The resort’s calendar includes Hunt Country Horse Shows featuring hunters and jumpers on Oct. 5-6 and Oct. 26-27. The All-Breed Agility Trials Dog Show, scheduled for Oct. 18-20, features dogs navigating an obstacle course of jumps and tunnels.

The top-flight amenities and attractions make Grand Oaks Resort an oasis in horse country.

Undersea adventures

Diving medical officer has been on call for scientific, commercial and public safety dives.

Story: Theresa Campbell 

Swimming underwater on a marine-based expedition to explore a B-29 airplane crash site on the north coast of Puerto Rico remains an unforgettable experience for diving physician and underwater archaeologist Dr. Richard Fontanez-Aldea.

“The airplane laid between 125-150 feet in a rocky bottom. We used a decompression dive with air to do our forensic evaluation and gather evidence to bring to light the identification of the airplane and the circumstance of the crash,” Dr. Fontanez-Aldea recalls. “Studying a Superfortress underwater is like seeing another creature. The fact that airplane was so emblematic for the armed forces gave a feeling of honor and gratefulness.” 

Dr. Fontanez-Aldea is the medical director and expert on wound care and hyperbaric medicine at Curelogics Wound Care and Hyperbaric Center in Lady Lake. He went through training in the 1990s to be director of the Underwater Archaeological Office in Puerto Rico. He was involved in researching shipwrecks for the U.S. Navy. 

“I found archaeological evidence representing a wide time gap,” says Dr. Fontanez-Aldea, recalling one memorable dive in San Juan involved researching and creating a management plan to protect the Spanish-American War blockade runner SS Antonio Lopez that sunk in 1898. 

“I was amazed how big the archaeological site was; it looked like a gigantic creature underwater,” he says. The area is now a national historic landmark and public dive site. 

He also was part of a seven-member team researching the 1891 shipwreck of the Conquistador. His most breathtaking research dive was in Mona Island, a place between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic that is surrounded by deep water in a pristine environment with limestone cave, cliff and extensive reef. 

“The place is a natural preserve in natural conditions,” he says, recalling being mesmerized by 100-plus feet of visible waters and a bottom drop of 300 feet close to shore. “We stayed for 15 days looking for shipwrecks. Being far from the mainland without fresh water, electrical power, medical assistance, or food was challenging, but the natural view and the underwater scenery was worth it. The marine life was exuberant and wild; we found numerous anchors from historical periods and three archaeological sites.” 

In doing commercial work, he researched submerged fiber-optic cables from Europe, United States, Central America, South America and the Virgin Islands.

“Advances in technology make possible the connection of distant countries through submarine fiber-optic cables,” Dr. Fontanez-Aldea says. “The cables cross continents in deep water moving data at light speed.”

As part of the installation, he says several agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, required underwater archaeological studies. 

“My last investigation was in 2018, involving archaeological monitoring for the submarine fiber-optic cable system BRUSA, a cable that connects Brazil, Puerto Rico and United States,” he says. “Hurricane Maria in 2017 was a disaster of big dimension that destroyed a significant part of the Puerto Rico infrastructure. Submarine fiber-optic cables were damaged and repaired.”  

Dr. Fontanez-Aldea says the field of diving medicine is unique and “beyond the subspecialty in hyperbaric medicine,” which includes evaluating and working with commercial, scientific, military, law enforcement and recreational divers, and treating diving accidents.

“A diving physician needs knowledge in the risks related with diving, such as marine toxicology and water pollution,” says the physician, who first earned a degree in marine biology. 

“I was amazed how big the archaeological site was; it looked like a gigantic creature underwater.”
—Dr. Richard Fontanez-Aldea

“While I was a student, my diving partner, who worked with me on many research projects, had a serious diving accident in his regular job as diving safety director of the University of Puerto Rico. He was paraplegic after an air gas embolism happened,” he says. “Everything in his life changed, and that made me aware of the risk for diving accidents. It also motivated me to understand more about diving medicine.”

After finishing his medical training, Dr. Fontanez-Aldea was hired in 2008 by the Hyperbaric and Wound Care Facility of the Puerto Rico Medical Center and he later became certified as a diving medical officer. In 2014, the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society, based in Florida, and the Stellenbosch University of South Africa opened an academic track for physicians working in hyperbaric medicine to get international validated certification and become qualified for independent and supervisory practice. 

Dr. Fontanez-Aldea completed the demanding academic track. 

“My medical cases were mostly diving accidents that I managed in the hyperbaric chamber,” he says. “For a long time, my life has been related in one way or another to diving in different modalities: scientific diving, commercial diving, public safety diving, recreational diving. But to have the ability to help people with diving-related diseases changed my life.”

True to his roots

Photo: Nicole Hamel

NFL player Keanu Neal exhibits a great deal of Sumter County hometown pride.

Story: James Combs

Keanu Neal is living proof that small-town athletes can achieve big-time success. 

The former football star at South Sumter High School played three seasons for the University of Florida Gators before being selected as the 17th overall pick in the 2016 National Football League Draft. As a rookie safety with the Atlanta Falcons, he reached the pinnacle of his sport by playing in the 2017 Super Bowl. 

“It doesn’t matter where you come from,” he says. “I tell kids they can be whatever they want to be as long as they continue to work hard, respect others, and make sure their character is on point.” 

He relayed that message to young athletes when he returned to South Sumter High on July 6 to host a football camp. Keanu spent several hours teaching basic fundamentals such as tackling, cutting, and dummy drills. Once the camp concluded, Keanu treated the players to lunch and presented them with backpacks filled with small gifts. 

The following day, Keanu hosted a golf tournament at Belle Glade County Club in The Villages. Money raised went to local football programs he played for while growing up: Pop Warner, South Sumter Middle School, and South Sumter High School. 

For Keanu, the camp and golf tournament were ways to give back to a community that gave so much to him. 

“Bushnell is a small town, and there are lots of people who helped me get to where I am today, including my coaches, teachers, and people in the community,” he says. “They all made such a tremendous impact on my life. Coming back and hosting a camp is my way of saying, ‘Thanks.’”

The desire to return home and host football camps runs in his family’s blood. When Keanu was an aspiring athlete growing up in Sumter County, he attended camps hosted by his older brother, Clinton Hart. Clinton played seven seasons in the NFL and once intercepted legendary quarterback Peyton Manning. 

“The kids were awed to be on the same field and interact with an NFL player,” he recalls. “Now, I feel blessed to have an opportunity to make the same impact on today’s youth.”

Getting his act together

Photo: Anthony Rao

A Leesburg man aims for the bright lights of Hollywood.

Story: James Combs

Aspiring actors quickly realize the difficulty of moving forward in the notoriously tough film industry. It often takes many auditions to land that first role.

For 20-year-old Leesburg resident Trent Van Alstine, taking that first step toward an acting career was a little less grueling.

In 2018, Trent, who had completed two theater classes at Lake-Sumter State College, created an account with IMDb, a website providing a platform for actors to showcase themselves and connect with producers and directors. After searching for casting calls, he applied for the role of Derek Austin, an antagonist in the feature film “Finding Grace.”

The movie’s director, Warren Fast, contacted Trent one month later and asked him to audition. 

“I uploaded a video of me playing the role of Derek,” Trent says. “Fifteen minutes later, he called and offered me the part.”

The blue-eyed, blond-haired young man arrived in Panama City Beach for filming of the movie and found himself among a star-studded cast. Also starring in the film were actor David Keith of “An Officer and a Gentleman,” actress Erin Gray of the TV sitcom “Silver Spoons,” and actor Bo Svenson of “Walking Tall Part 2” and “Walking Tall: The Final Chapter.”

“It was really cool to meet and work alongside actors and actresses of that caliber,” says Trent, a member of Leesburg-based Good News Church.

“Finding Grace” portrays a young woman’s struggles to tame her tumultuous lifestyle and rediscover a relationship with her family and God. It premiered in May at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival in France.  

Trent had a strong supporting role and spent three days in Panama City Beach filming the movie. While he was admittedly nervous, he ultimately made a successful transition from theater to film.

“Before each scene, I’d put myself into the mindset of my character and think how my character would react to what other people are saying,” he says. “You’ve got to get in touch and in depth with your character. Listening and reacting is key.”

For Trent, that “opportunity of a lifetime,” as he affectionately calls it, paved the way for additional roles. As a lead character in the 15-minute movie “Vogue 1986,” which was filmed at Southeastern University in Lakeland, he helps a young woman navigate the difficult world of modeling. He also landed a small role as a bully in the 2018 movie “Beauty Is Skin Deep,” a whodunit thriller focusing on the unsolved deaths of high school students. The movie was filmed in Clearwater Beach.

Trent, a movie buff and ardent fan of directors Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, plans to continue pursuing acting but has a backup plan in case things don’t work out on Broadway or in Hollywood. He’s considering possible careers in real estate or chiropractic.

“Those other careers are much more of a sure thing,” he says. “It’s good to have other goals in case acting doesn’t take off the way I want it to.”

Earning his chops

Photo: Nicole Hamel

Leesburg’s Wyatt Rector gets the football opportunity of a lifetime at Florida State.

Michigan is beautiful in the fall, but the 2018 season was ugly for Wyatt Rector.

After playing in just one football game as a freshman at Western Michigan University, the former Leesburg High School quarterback eventually found his way back to Florida. Following the allure of a big-time college program and a chance to be closer to home, Wyatt transferred this year to Florida State University.

“Thank you, God, for giving me an amazing opportunity,” Wyatt wrote on Twitter before summer training camp.

As a transfer student-athlete, he’s required to sit out this season. He’s a preferred walk-on working to earn a scholarship. After redshirting the 2018 season because of his lack of playing time, Wyatt will have three years of eligibility remaining, according to the FSU sports information office.

Wyatt was rated a three-star quarterback coming out of Leesburg High. For his four-year varsity career, Wyatt accumulated nearly 10,000 yards of total offense and accounted for 99 touchdowns passing and running, according to the FSU guidebook. He was the No. 31 dual-threat quarterback in the 2018 recruiting class.

After announcing his transfer, the 6-foot-2, 227-pounder turned heads in the social media world with his work ethic. He and his father, Clay Rector, an assistant football coach at LHS, enthusiastically post videos of Wyatt’s workouts, including passing drills and weightlifting. 

Wyatt is allowed to participate in practices to soak up all the knowledge he can and no doubt will compete for the starting job in the future. Earlier this year, he told the noles247.com podcast:

“My long-term goal is to finish at Florida State because through the darkest times, they were the ones giving me a chance, walk-on or not.”