Paying it Forward From Florida to Highlands

November 16, 2012
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By Michele J. Kuhn


The municipal workers in Punta Gorda, Fla., know what it’s like to continue working as the community around you tries to recover from a disaster – even if you and your family have suffered significant losses.

Employees from the Highlands Department of Public Works continue to clear debris from borough streets. City workers in Punta Gorda, Fla., are holding a car wash in Florida over the weekend to benefit Highlands borough employees hit hard by Sandy.

Because of that experience, the employees of the southwestern coastal Florida city will be holding a car wash in Punta Gorda on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 17-18, for four hours each day and will be sending the proceeds to Highlands borough employees impacted by Super Storm Sandy. Dona­tions of a minimum of $5 a car and $10 for vans, SUVs and trucks are being sought.

The idea came about during a recent city directors’ staff meeting when employees asked how they – as a group – could help those affected by the devastating storm.

The reason was, according to Howard Kunik, the Punta Gorda city manager, “When we had Hurricane Charley in 2004, it was pretty bad … It was a Category 4, almost 5, when it hit directly here. Everything got damaged, some things completely. Our employees, who had to work through the whole event – even though their houses got damaged – got help from other communities.

“The public works folks had the idea about what we could do as an organization to help out some town in the northeast, a town like Punta Gorda, small, coastal, fishing, with tourism and a lot of history to it,” Kunik said.

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The idea for a car wash by city employees, using the city’s car washing facility, was brought up and accepted.

Then, the city employees had to decide which municipality to help. Kunik told them he “could think of one, kind of like a Punta Gorda … a place called Highlands, N.J.”

Kunik’s wife Helen, whose maiden name is Dempsey, grew up in Highlands. Her sister and brother live there as do many of their relatives. “The public works folks looked it up on the web and, sure enough, it’s a town that got really severely damaged and needs some help … It was a town, like Punta Gorda after Charley,” the city manager said.

“The thing about it was, I just happened to mention the possibility of the place,” Kunik said. “It was the employees who were going to decide which community it would be, not me. They looked it up and said, ‘Hey, this could fit.’ So they jumped on it on their own.”

Timothy Hill, Highlands borough administrator, called the car wash a “tremendous show of support.

“We’ve gotten great support from the whole region … It has been an incredible response. We have a long way to go but this is encouraging,” he said.

Hill estimated that the homes of 80 percent of the borough’s employees and emergency service volunteers were damaged during the storm.

He said the fact that the Punta Gorda employees made the connection between the help they received in 2004 and the help they are now offering to borough employees is amazing. “When I received the email (about the Flordia fundraiser), it was like …these folks are wonderful, He said. “Words can’t describe…”

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The Punta Gorda city manager said he isn’t sure how well the car wash will do, there’s a lot going on in the city during the weekend, but another car wash or fundraising event could be planned to help Highlands municipal employees in the future. “We’re going to play it by ear,” Kunik said.

“We’re trying to give back to a community that’s small, that face the same obstacles that we did after Charley for the employees,” Kunik said.

“Hopefully, we’ll do well,” he said.

Though Punta Gorda is larger than Highlands – Highlands has a population of about 5,000 in 1.3 square miles while Punta Gorda has about 17,000 people in 20 square miles – both municipalities have a tradition of supporting the fishing industry, have some tourism and a longstanding town history. Parts of Punta Gorda were settled during the 1800s.

“It’s not a new Florida town,” Kunik said.


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