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Riverwalk project fully funded after state antes $3 million

The King’s Bay Riverwalk project is now fully funded and construction slated to start in 2023.

Legislators earmarked $3 million for the project in the state budget announced Monday.

Crystal River City Manager Ken Frink thanked Sen. Wilton Simpson, Rep. Ralph Massullo and all the legislators “for investing in Crystal River and the entire Citrus County.”

The additional money, he said, can be used for lighting, parking and other public improvements directly related to the Riverwalk. The entire project will cost an estimated $8.6 million.

“We are in the final stages of permitting for the Riverwalk through the state,” Frink told the Chronicle. “Once that and the federal permits are secured, we can start construction at the conclusion of the 22/23 manatee season.”

Crystal River Mayor Joe Meek also thanked Simpson, Massullo, House Speaker Chris Sprowls and the entire state Legislature for all the projects receiving state dollars through the budget.

They include:

The King’s Bay Restoration Project: $10 million

The Homosassa River Restoration Project: $10 million

The Academy of Environmental Sciences Septic-to-Sewer project: $250,000

The Citrus High School Canes Construction Academy: $162,200

Crystal River Airport runway extension and environmental assessment: $7.1 million.

Crystal River Turkey Oak bypass: $20.7 million.

Habitat for Humanity at Citrus Springs: $2.5 million.

Fort Island Trail multi-use path: $9.25 million.

“These projects will have a major impact on Crystal River, Citrus County, and the state of Florida,” Meek said. “We have a strong partnership with the state government and are very appreciative for all their support.”


Local
Woman's ancestry search reveals more than she even imagined

Every family has its skeletons in the closet, those things no one talks about except in whispers, if at all.

For Rose Brechka’s family, it was her father, John Lester.

Sometime before she was 4, her father went out for a pack of cigarettes and never returned.

John Lester was Pattie Cilen’s father too, although she hadn’t know anything about Rose or Rose’s younger brother, Jerry.

Pattie knew about the family of four boys she sometimes visited, the boys who lived with John Lester and a woman who wasn’t her mother.

The boys even came to her house for her birthday party, but Pattie didn’t know that the boys were her half-brothers.

And she certainly didn’t know about Rose and Jerry and their mother.

No one knew, or no one talked about, the fact that Pattie’s father and the boys’ father and Rose’s father were all the same man, John Lester. (If that was even his real name.)

That information wouldn’t be known until after 2018 – 66 years after John Lester had died.

This is the story of how Rose Brechka, now 89, learned about at least some of the skeletons in her family’s closet.

“I don’t remember him at all,” Brechka said from her home in Pine Ridge. “My mother was pregnant, and she and my father got married a month after I was born. That was a disgrace on the family back then.

“After he left, my mother never said anything, never mentioned him,” she said.

When she was 6 or 7, Brechka, her mother and brother moved from Jersey City to Carteret, New Jersey, to live with her grandmother.

“It was a very small town,” she said. “I was told, if anyone asked about my father I was to say he was dead. When I was 10, that’s when I learned he had walked out.”

Her brother, Jerry, was a troublemaker, and one day he was called into the principal’s office for fighting with another boy.

When the principal told him she wanted to talk to his mother, Jerry told her that his mother was busy working.

When she said, “Then I want to see your father,” Jerry replied, “You can’t see him because he ran away.”

“I was in the fourth grade and my brother was in second grade, and he knew about our father but I didn’t,” Brechka said. “I was called into the principal’s office because she wanted to know the story, but I didn’t know anything about it.

“So, when I went home that day I asked my grandmother, and that’s when I found out he left us. It was a shock,” she said.

The hunt begins

All through Brechka’s childhood, she was never curious about her father. She went on to graduate high school, get a job, get married and have two of her own children, Jill and Gary.

Nobody ever asked about her father; nobody gave him a second thought until 1983, Brechka said.

“My mother died in 1983, and I had to go through her papers,” Brechka said. “I found a picture of my father, and I knew right away it was him. His name was on the back of it. I also found their marriage license. That was the day I decided I wanted to find him.”

This was before the internet, before Google, even before Ancestry.com.

She searched the old-fashioned way, by going through phone books and calling every Lester that was listed.

She contacted the Social Security office, looked at death records.

“I searched for 36 years,” she said. “I never thought of stopping, although I did slow down at times.”

She joined Ancestry.com, the Utah-based genealogy company, in 1998 or ‘99, but it wouldn’t be for another 20 years for her to get the answer she was looking for.

On Mother’s Day 2018, Brechka’s daughter, Jill, gave her an Ancestry.com DNA kit as a gift.

“I thought, ‘This is a wonderful gift. Maybe I’ll learn something.’ I sure did,” Brechka said. “I hit the jackpot.”

A year later, Brechka got a message from someone named Kim, who lived in New York: “Your father was my grandfather.”

Here’s where the story gets a little confusing.

Kim’s father was one of the four boys who lived in New Jersey, the boys Pattie knew, but Rose Brechka didn’t.

“Kim said that my father never kept secret the fact that he had another family,” Brechka said. “He left my mother for another woman and then he left her for someone else, which was Pattie’s mom.”

At that point, Brechka was elated just to find Kim and learn that she had four half-brothers.

One of the brothers had six children, two of whom lived in Land O’Lakes and who came to visit their newly found half-aunt a few years ago.

But Brechka still didn’t know she also had two half-sisters.

‘Who’s Pattie?’

Pattie Cilen had lived in New Jersey, as did all of John Lester’s families – apparently, he hadn’t strayed far, at least not geographically.

She moved to New York and then to Coral Springs, Florida, where she lived for 31 years before moving to The Villages two years ago.

While in Coral Springs, Pattie’s son, Erik, met Debbie and her husband, Ritchie – more about them in a minute.

Erik moved to Tennessee where he opened a restaurant, NYPD Pizza, where Debbie’s son, Mike, and daughter, Danielle, worked.

Debbie is Kim’s sister.

In 2021, Erik took an Ancestry.com DNA test, which triggered a message to Brechka that a “close match” to her was found, a man named Erik who lived in Tennessee.

Since Brechka knew that Kim’s sister, Debbie, lived in Tennessee, she assumed Erik was Debbie’s son.

“I messaged Kim and told her I had found Debbie’s son, Erik,” Brechka said. “Kim said, ‘That’s not Debbie’s son.”

Kim messaged Erik who told her that he’s Pattie’s son.

“Who’s Pattie?” Brechka wondered.

Brechka connected with Erik who told her about his mother. She asked him to find out if his mother was willing to talk to her.

Yes, she was willing, and the two half-sisters finally met a few months ago.

“It’s crazy,” Pattie Cilen said. “I’ll be 70 in May and she’ll be 90 in May, and that’s a lot of years that we missed out on.”

The two have now banded together to find out more about their elusive father.

“There’s a lot of unanswered questions,” Cilen said. “We can’t find him. I have a death certificate – he died in 1956 at age 53. But there’s no cemetery record for him, no census record. We don’t even know if John Lester is his real name.”

Brechka said she learned of a John Lester with her father’s same birthdate who had committed suicide with a shotgun.

She had planned to visit the man’s grave in Arkansas until she learned that the man’s mother was not her paternal grandmother, whose information she had earlier discovered.

Her paternal grandmother, also named Rose, was the first in the family to immigrate to the U.S. in 1900, followed by Brechka’s great-grandmother Feige, her great-grandfather father Jechiel and great-aunt Anna, in 1914.

“I have never learned the whereabouts of my grandmother, Rose,” Brechka said. “She was on the 1930 census, but that was the last place I found her name.

“I know that she was alive in 1942, since one of my cousins sent me a picture of her in a nurse’s uniform taken during World War II.”

Great-grandmother Fiege is buried in a Jewish cemetery in Ferndale, Michigan.

“I didn’t know we were Jewish,” Cilen said.

The sisters have also discovered their ethnic heritage is Eastern European, originally from Czernovitz, Romania.

They’ve found distant relatives in Nevada, Tennessee, Florida, Washington state and New York.

“It’s like we’ve always known each other,” Brechka said of her connection to distant kin. “I was able to talk to one of my brothers, John, and we were going to get together…but a year ago he had a stroke and died before we could get together.”

Epilogue

One day, when Rose Brechka was in high school, her mother told her she thought she saw Rose’s father.

He worked as a window trimmer, and as Rose’s mother passed a drugstore on the bus ride home from her job, she thought she saw the husband who had walked out on her all those years before, working in the store window.

“She said she got off at the next stop and went back to the drugstore,” Brechka said. “By then he was gone. That was the only time she ever talked about him.”


Local
Construction Academy set to get share of state budget
  • Updated

The Citrus Construction Academy at Citrus High School (CHS) is slated to receive $253,200 of the $112.1 billion budget passed by Florida lawmakers at the 2022 legislative session.

Citrus County School District spokeswoman Lindsay Blair told the Chronicle the funds were requested to purchase new equipment to get the academy up and running at CHS.

“The first task is to find a teacher for the academy, then the money can be used to start putting equipment in place,” Blair said.

The funds will take effect July 1 and Gov. Ron DeSantis has line-item veto power. However, Citrus Construction Academy president Harold Walker said he feels confident they’ll receive the funds. “We feel our project is pretty safe.”

Walker said he pitched the idea for the academy in 2016. Since then, it’s come a long way, but there’s work to be done.

Quoting a Chinese proverb, Walker said, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

“Today, we’re going to be planting these trees,” Walker said.

With classes set to start during the 2022-23 school year, the district is tasked with finding a teacher, solidifying the curriculum, preparing the classroom and purchasing additional tools.

When students walk into the classroom, Walker said he wants them to say, “This ain’t my dad’s woodshop.”

As for instruction, Walker said he doesn’t want to find a teacher. He wants to find the teacher.

So far, Walker said more than 125 Citrus County students are interested in the program. Students who participate will get hands-on experience in construction and will be eligible for various industry certifications.

Ultimately, Walker’s goal is for academy students to learn “the why,” rather than “the how” of construction.

“People that know how will always work for those who know why,” Walker said.


Local
COVID-19 cases in county down, but some fear rise looming

Citrus County deaths and new coronavirus infections have fallen to rates not seen for months as the pandemic winds down here and throughout Florida.

The drop in cases and hospitalization was, in part, behind the Florida Department of Health’s decision to roll back the public release of COVID-19 cases and deaths to once every two weeks rather than once a week.

The number of new coronavirus cases in Citrus County fell to 56 for the week ending March 10. That was a steep drop from 129 during the week ending March 3, according to COVID-19 data from the Florida Department of Health.

The number of local deaths due to the pandemic also fell to six for the week ending March 13. The was down from 11 during the week ending March 3, according to the Centers for Disease and Prevention.

That now brings the county’s cumulative cases to 29,503 since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. In Citrus County 950 people have died from the virus.

Florida is seeing a similar trend.

There were 8,835 new cases during the week ending March 13, according to the CDC. That was a 28 percent drop from the previous week. There have been nearly 5.83 million COVID-19 cases in Florida.

During the week ending March 13, Florida saw 72 deaths due to the pandemic. That puts Florida’s cumulative death count at 72,039.

Just as new cases are declining, so are hospitalizations linked to the virus.

COVID-19 hospital admissions in Citrus County for the week ending March 12 fell to only five. That represented a 27 percent decline from the previous week, according to the CDC.

COVID-19 patients accounted for 6 percent of utilized intensive care unit beds, about the same from the previous week, according to the CDC.

Vaccinations against the virus in Citrus County remained at 61 percent of those eligible to be vaccinated. The Florida average is 74 percent During the week ending March 10, 42 people in the county were newly vaccinated.

The plunging number of COVID-19 cases can be seen across the US.

As of March 14, there was an average daily 33,854 new cases of the virus, according to the New York Times, which collects COVID-19 cases. That was a 47 percent decline over the 14-day average.

Nationwide, there have now been nearly 79.5 million cases.

Hospitalizations are also down in the US.

There was a daily average of 27,901 new hospitalizations as of March 14 due to the virus. That was down 43 percent.

Deaths are also declining.

As of March 14 there was an average of 1,260 deaths per day because of the coronavirus. That was a 32 percent drop over the 14-day average, according to the New York Times.

As of March 14, 963,926 people have died in the U.S. because of the virus.

While Florida health officials will no longer be making COVID-19 data available weekly on the state’s DOH website, they announced they will continue to send the information to the CDC.

FDOH spokesman Jeremy Redfern announced the change Friday using his personal Twitter account. The tweet included a popular meme featuring World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Vince McMahon reacting to the news.

The Florida Department of Health then retweeted Redfern’s announcement adding a cat meme.

Although cases are down across the country, we may see another hike.

That’s because the CDC also monitors a wastewater network which the federal agency checks for coronavirus. In a recent Bloomberg analysis of that data reported this week, concentrations of the virus in the wastewater in various areas of the U.S. are up.

More than a third of the CDC’s wastewater sample sites across the U.S. showed rising COVID-19 trends during the 10 days leading to March 10. The number of sites with rising concentrations is double what is was the same period a month ago.

There are other indicators that we may see a new wave.

Daily cases of the coronavirus are rising in more than half the countries in the European Union, according to CNN.

The increases are due to the BA2 variant of omicron, according to health officials, and account for more than 50 percent of all new cases in Germany and the United Kingdom.

The number of COVID-19 cases in the UK was also up 48 percent last week compared to the previous week. Hospitalizations were up 17 percent over the same period.

In the Netherlands, cases increased 48 percent and 20 percent in Germany, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Typically, cases in the U.S. tend to follow those in England and Europe by several weeks.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a recent interview that cases in Europe are up because the BA2 variant is more contagious than the omicron variant, societies are reducing mask restrictions and people are gathering more indoors, and vaccinations and immunity from prior infections are waning.

The CDC reported the new BA2 variant now accounts for 12 percent of new cases in the US and is growing. In the UK it’s 50 percent.

Once it reaches about 50 percent we will see its effects in the US, according to health officials.

They also note that UK’s vaccination rate for those eligible to be vaccinated is about 86 percent, while in the US it is 69 percent, so the BA2 variant could be more damaging here.


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