Everybody has a story to tell, and in many cases, the stories are of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Meet 10 local extraordinary people who have defied all odds and are leaving their own unique marks in the community.
STORIES: James Combs and Shemir Wiles // PHOTOS: Fred Lopez
On the surface, Gus Escalante is a man of few words. He’s modest — never one to brag about his accomplishments as a police officer because in his mind it’s all just a part of the job. However, under the quiet, unassuming surface stirs a passion and deep appreciation for hard work.
As a child growing up in Cuba, Gus recalls having to help his mother with work around the house. Then at 13 while living in South Florida, he started working for a living cleaning shopping centers to help care for his family.
“I’ve always tried to put 100 percent into everything I do,” says the 28-year-old Leesburg Police Department officer. “I consider work to be a good thing, and it’s important I work hard because I have a family that depends on me.”
Nevertheless, Gus always dreamed of something greater. He wanted to be a police officer. His dream came true in June 2010 when the Leesburg Police Department hired him. However, Gus didn’t stop there; he decided to accomplish another career goal —joining Leesburg’s highly skilled SWAT team. In 2011 after successfully completing a series of punishing tests, Gus was awarded a spot on SWAT and even competed with the team in the SWAT roundup competition. During that same year, department supervisors selected him as Officer of the Month four separate times because they felt he exemplified what it meant to be “best of the best.”
“He has a consistent work ethic and is someone you can count on to do the job right,” says Capt. Rob Hicks with the Leesburg Police Department. “He always has a kind word for people and is very humble.”
Recently, Gus was selected as Lake County Officer of the Year. Capt. Hicks explains that while many usually win the honor for a single act of bravery, the committee selected Gus for his body of work combined with who he is as an officer.
“It’s nice to have people recognizing what I do,” Gus says. “It just makes me feel humbled. Many other officers in Lake County could have been chosen, but I feel very blessed they picked me.”
It’s a little after 10:30 in the morning, but that doesn’t deter Anita Doebler from enjoying a bowl of cool strawberry ice cream and eyeing the vanilla birthday cake in front of her. And after celebrating her 105th birthday in July, who could deny her dessert for breakfast. She most certainly deserves it.
Anita lives at Sterling House of Tavares, an assisted living facility. Lynn Haynes, executive director, calls Anita one of their special residents. “We have several people who live here that are in their late 90s, but Anita is different. She brings a lot of history,” she says.
Originally from North Tonawanda, N.Y., which is located midway between Buffalo and Niagara Falls, Anita recalls working in and living above her parents’ general store as a child. “The store had a small room that my parents made into an ice cream parlor,” she explains. “The ice cream came in five gallon containers and my parents would put them in a cabinet filled with ice. They would use a baseball bat to pound the ice.”
Anita remembers loving hopscotch but being lousy at jump roping as a kid. Daughter Virginia Moll shared that her mother never finished high school. “She dropped out when she was 14 to help take care of her family, specifically her father who suffered from Parkinson’s disease,” she says.
At 19, Anita married her first husband, Robert Wilson, and by 20, gave birth to her only daughter Virginia. She went on to have three boys and live her life as a stay-at-home mother, though Virginia recalls a brief period of time when her mother worked at a department store sewing drapery. “My sister-in-law made drapes and she needed help one day, so that’s how I learned to sew them,” Anita says.
She eventually left the store and began taking personal orders at her home. All the while, Anita took care of her sick grandmother and cared for her youngest son who was born with a heart defect. After some time, Anita’s grandmother passed away. Then her son died in his 30s, followed by her husband.
She then married her second husband, Walter Doebler. Virginia says Walter had a son who lived in Florida, which led to the couple moving to the Sunshine State. But after only two and a half years of wedded bliss, Walter died. “My mother has been through a lot,” Virginia says, “but she’s always been very strong and very smart.”
Looking back over the years, Anita proclaims her biggest accomplishment has been raising her family. And even though there is no disputing her true age, Anita is adamant that she doesn’t feel like she’s 105. “When people first meet me, they think I’m in my 80s. When I tell them my real age, their jaws drop.”
She’s not quite sure why she has stayed looking so extraordinarily youthful. “I don’t know,” she answers and smiles. “I never used cosmetics.” However, she does know the key to longevity. “I just go along with the flow and I eat what I want… especially ice cream,” she says before slowly taking another bite. “I love ice cream.”
In 17 years, Leesburg High School student Haley Simons has racked up a load of notable accomplishments. Dual enrolled at Lake-Sumter State College, this 17-year-old girl-next-door is a member of the National Honor Society, senior class secretary, and president of the triad club. She was also an active member of LHS’ swim and tennis teams until she went back to her first love — dance.
Since age 3, Haley has been a dancer. However, she didn’t start seriously competing until she was 9. Out of all the dance styles she has learned over the years, she holds a fondness for jazz and contemporary. “I like jazz because it’s normally upbeat and fast and gets the adrenaline pumping,” she says. “And with contemporary, I like how there’s usually meaning behind the dance. It helps you tell a story.”
Five days a week from 4:30 to 9:30p.m., Haley practices as part of A Step Ahead Performing Arts Academy’s elite T Rose Dance Company. Lately she has had more time for dance since she attends LHS for only part of the morning. On Mondays and Wednesdays, she has classes at Lake-Sumter. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, she has plenty of time to finish homework before practice.
“Honestly, how I have time for everything is the biggest question I ask myself,” she says. “I just set a routine for myself to get everything done. I actually like being busy. I feel like I’m doing something meaningful with my time.”
When Haley isn’t dancing, she spends time modeling, working with her youth group at Good News Church, and volunteering in the community. She has also been involved with the Miss Leesburg program. She previously held the titles of Tiny, Little, Junior, and Teen Miss Leesburg. And though she contemplated going for the title of Miss Leesburg, Haley instead withdrew from the program to focus on her academics. “But even though I’m not part of Miss Leesburg I still go out and help with the program,” she adds.
After high school, Haley plans to attend Florida State University where she will study hospitality management. In the meantime, Haley says she enjoys trying to be a good example to those younger than her.
“When I was younger, I always hung out with kids older than me. Now, I try to make friends with freshmen and sophomores because I want to really try to be a role model. I want to be there to help them the way other people helped me.”
When Daniel Norris visited Haiti last March during a mission trip, he was devastated after witnessing 64 orphans living in tents.
“I wondered where their next meal would be coming from,” says Norris, who is the youth pastor at First Baptist Church of Eustis.
Norris teamed up with his friend Tom Mullen and formed Greater Events. The company provides timing and planning services for triathlons, marathons, and other racing events. However, their real goal is not to fill their pockets, but rather to help less fortunate people.
Each time their company organizes a race, 10 percent of all net profits go to three local charities that feed people locally and globally: Deliver the Difference, Lake Cares Food Pantry, and Orphan’s Heart. In addition, their meals per mile program allows racers to acquire pledges for each mile they run and donate to the charity of their choice.
“We call it compassionate capitalism,” says Tom, an account manager for a software company.
All racers see their dollars at work. “I email them photographs of children eating,” Daniel says. “That way, they know they’re still making a difference long after crossing the finish line.”
For most of his life, Villages resident Morris Wolff has always fought against injustice. Most notable of his conquests is the work he did for the family of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. Wallenberg is known for rescuing more than 100,000 Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary during the latter part of World War II. In 1945, Wallenberg was unjustly “detained” by Soviet Union authorities under suspicions of espionage. He later disappeared and was presumed dead until Wallenburg’s family received word he could still be alive.
The family called Wolff in 1983 to help determine if the information was true. While Wolff never successfully determined Wallenburg’s whereabouts, he successfully sued the Soviet Union and secured a $39 million settlement for the Wallenburg family, though the judgment was later dropped as part of a secret nuclear de-escalation deal between the Soviets and American bureaucrats.
Since then, Wolff has written Whatever Happened to Raoul Wallenberg and is now in the process of turning his story into an off-Broadway play. “It will be opening in New York around Christmas time,” Wolff says. “It should be very exciting.”
With his play, Wolff says he hopes to educate a new generation about Wallenburg while also presenting his story in a raw, no-holds-barred manner.
“It’s going to be straightforward and candid,” he says. “I want to tell it how it was — the drama of this 32-year-old man that was willing to risk his life to save strangers.”
By putting Wallenberg’s reality in front of the public, Wolff also hopes he will be able to return to federal court to urge the Russian government to either produce Wallenberg, if he is still alive, or his remains.
“I want the public to know the truth. I want people to question how such an injustice could be done. This man was held for no reason,” he says. “Also, I want to stimulate young people and let them know you can accomplish great things.”
Ciara Hopkins will never forget her 2008 feat that had her swimming 1.5 miles in 53-degree water, braving a painful 18-mile bike ride, and surviving a grueling eight-mile run that included 400 steps up the Equinox Sand Ladder.
It took Ciara three hours, four minutes, and 48 seconds to complete Escape from Alcatraz, considered one of the most difficult triathlons in the country. But the level of difficulty did not deter her from becoming the youngest competitor to ever complete this triathlon, which is held each year in San Francisco. Ciara was only 11 years old.
“Escape from Alcatraz is my favorite triathlon,” says Ciara, a 16-year-old student at Montverde Academy. “A ferry takes all the competitors to Alcatraz Island, and then a horn blows signaling the athletes to jump in the water. They have six minutes to get 3,000 people off the ferry. When you jump in, you have to immediately swim 15 yards or the other competitors will jump on top of you.”
This determined girl has not slowed down since that race. She competes throughout the country in races sanctioned by USA Triathlon, the premiere national-level racing circuit for junior triathletes. In 2011, Ciara was ranked as the number one female triathlete in the 15 and under age group. She also achieved All-American status from USA Triathlon in 2011 and 2012.
Ciara is an adrenaline-junkie who enjoys pushing herself to the limit. Of course, when you are raised on triathlons, intensive training and preparation become part of the a daily routine. As a small girl, she would attend triathlons to support her father Ralph, a Type 1 diabetic who began competing to manage his blood-sugar level.
“I started going to his races in a stroller,” she says. “Several years later, I would run around the course so I could see him in multiple locations.”
Ciara followed in her father’s footsteps, becoming a triathlete at age 7. Several years later, she became a national champion in the USA Triathlon youth division. “I love competing and testing my skills against the best athletes in the country,” she says.
Of course, her athletic prowess is not limited to triathlons. As a member of the Montverde Academy track team, she set school records in the girls’ 5,000-meter run, 3,200-meter run, 1,600-meter run, and 800-meter run. She is also a two-time national champion in road racing. Academically, Ciara tackles advanced placement and honors classes and is a member of the school’s National Honor Society, Key Club, Honor Council, and Student Government Association.
How does someone her age juggle a busy schedule? “I was raised in an environment of Type A personalities. When something needs to get done, I do it.”
2007 USA Triathlon Youth National Champion
2008 Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon 3rd Place (Youngest Competitor Ever)
2009 Florida State Time Trial Champion
2009 National Time Trial Champion
2009 National Road Race Champion
2009 Lake County Varsity Runner of the Year, Orlando Sentinel
2012 Captain of Montverde Academy’s Cross Country Team
2012 USA Triathlon Florida Region Champion
2012 Invite to U.S. Olympic Training Center, Junior Women’s Mini-Camp
2013 Captain of Montverde Academy’s Track Team
It was a defining moment in Alicia Weber’s life. While attending middle school in Pittsburgh, more than 100 students and teachers gathered inside the gymnasium to watch her attempt to set a school record in pullups.
Despite enduring ridicule and insults from boys who were jealous of her athletic prowess, Alicia was a nonconformist who remained unfazed by the opinions of others. With all eyes focused on her, Alicia shined bright by completing a school record of 35 pullups.
“I remember my teachers asking me, ‘How bad do you want these records?’ That helped me realize how hard I would have to work in life to be the best I can be.”
Today, at age 33, the Clermont resident’s drive remains stronger than ever. And she continues setting records. As a matter of fact, she is the proud owner of 335 records in various muscular strength and endurance exercises.
Some of her world records include most consecutive double bar flexed hang knee tucks (139), most shoulder-level perfect pullups in three minutes (71), most consecutive knee tucks (648), most consecutive side-to-side rope pullups (27), and most situps in one minute (62).
The Las Vegas-based website Record Setter named Alicia the “world’s most prolific female record setter.”
“I don’t do this for ego or recognition; it’s all about personal development and being the best I can be.”
When Alicia is not setting world records, she competes year-round in sports such as triathlons, road running, bicycle racing, sprint kayaking, paddle boarding, and long-distance trail running. In 2011 and 2012, she became a world champion in beach running.
“I’ve competed in as many as 10 sports in one year,” she says. “I do sports-specific training, which allows me to examine my strengths and weakness and alternate muscle groups as I go from one sport to another.”
Alicia also serves as a fitness trainer, a licensed massage therapist, an archery instructor, and an improv fitness comedy instructor who plays 10 different characters. Several of her trainees have set their own world records. “I am a type A personality and the kind of person who needs to juggle many things to be excited with life,” she says.
As a little girl, her parents, who both worked in health care, emphasized the importance of exercise and healthy eating. When she was 4, Alicia would run for hours around her neighborhood. “One of the neighbors told my parents I was running around lost and suggested they build a fence to keep me contained to my yard.”
Of course, that early training paid dividends. At age 16, Alicia became a Junior Olympics national champion in the 3,000-meter run. She also became a two-time All-American in the 10,000-meter run and was the only high school female in the country to compete in the event. She later starred on the University of Florida’s track and field team from 2000–2002.
Many in Lake County may know Ann Dupee because of her eclectic style. She’s a standout at South Lake Chamber breakfasts with her assortment of out-of-this-world hats; she loves “bling rings”; and you will rarely catch her out during the day without the signature flower in her hair.
However, most people know Ann as a journalist and businesswoman. She was once publisher and editor of the South Lake Press with her late husband George. Now she writes the weekly “Remember When” column. She was also a member of Clermont City Council on and off for 11 years and a past president of the South Lake Chamber, and she has been inducted into Lake County’s Women’s Hall of Fame and the Business Hall of Fame.
Nonetheless, no matter how you may know Ann, there’s no doubt she is a well-known, outspoken, and respected community leader.
Ann realized she wanted to work in media at an early age. In high school, she was editor of the school yearbook, which received recognition from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association and National Scholastic Press Association. After graduation, she attended Washington State University for three years and during the summers worked at the Ellensburg Daily Record, a daily newspaper in her hometown of Ellensburg, Wash.
“I made 85 cents an hour, but my editor would always say, ‘My dear, you’re gaining experience.’”
Ann went on to work in radio, television, and advertising. However, it was her job as an “advance man” for the once-widely successful ice-skating show, “Ice Capades,” which allowed her to travel the country. In her role, Ann traveled ahead to 25 cities annually where Ice Capes was scheduled to handle the publicity and scheduling.
She married her husband George, who was advertising manager of the Eastern Edition of the Wall Street Journal‘s eastern edition. After some years in the Big Apple, the couple decided to move to Florida.
“We almost bought a printing company in Miami, but the owner’s deal on another purchase fell through and he decided he didn’t want to sell,” she says. “So on our return to New York we called on a newspaper broker in Washington, D.C. After some time, we got a letter from the broker saying the South Lake Press was for sale. My husband flew to Clermont and told me he had found the most beautiful place in the world. But I’d have to go to work for three to four years.”
They bought the paper in January of 1968 and got right to work. “It was a mom and pop paper when we bought it. I served as the editor and my husband sold ads and wrote the editorials.”
After her husband passed away in 1987, Ann assumed both roles of editor and publisher before selling the paper in 1992. Since then, Ann has stayed active in the community as a member of South Lake Kiwanis, Beta Theta ESA, and as a Chamber Ambassador. As for her unique sense of style, Ann smiles and says the explanation is quite easy: “I’m old enough I can do what I want and others seem to accept it.”
The gripping, breakneck pace and exhilarating jumps may be the reason Bradley Leachman loves motocross. After all, most boys love speed. However, the thrill is just an added bonus. Bradley keeps coming back to this physically demanding sport because of the freedom he feels when he races. He’s able to let go and be exactly who he is.
“I can mentally be my own person,” says the 16-year-old Wildwood High School student. “I race motocross because I can do what I want and whatever decision I make out there is on me.”
It’s taken awhile for Bradley to find his new sense of independence. Over the years, he faced his fair share of challenges off the track. Diagnosed with autism at a very young age, Bradley didn’t react well in social situations.
“He wouldn’t look at or talk to people,” says Jennifer Leachman, Bradley’s mom. “Then for a year, he lost his hearing and had to relearn how to talk.” To compound the situation, Bradley was bullied and his anti-social behavior worsened.
When he discovered motocross at age 7, no one expected him to fall so much in love with the sport. Though it started out as a causal way for Bradley to spend quality time with his father Dwayne, motocross quickly turned into a full-fledged, full-time commitment with annual races around the state and hours of training. “My father and I would go riding on the weekends,” he says. “Then it turned into racing every weekend.”
Currently, Bradley practices two nights during the week and on the weekends. Additionally, he follows a strict diet consisting of large amounts of protein and carbohydrates, and he works out every night to build up his strength and endurance.
Having such a high level of dedication means little time for a social life, which Bradley admits doesn’t bother him much. With three major overall championship and five mini series championship wins under his belt, Bradley is staying focused on his ultimate goal: going pro.
Nevertheless, while he concentrates on becoming the next motocross superstar, his mom is more proud of the big change she has seen in her son — a change that has him calling people on the phone, making eye contact and communicating with teachers, and having fun with other boys his age.
“I always would tell him, ‘You were born to be exactly who you are,’” Jennifer says. “He’s been through a lot of adversity, but he has come a long way. He is certainly not a quitter.”