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Jeff Vasilinda becomes the Vasilinda Family’s first published author!

Municipalities Seek More Local Control Over Pandemic Policy

November 23rd, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida is on track to become the third state in the country to hit one million cases of COVID-19, likely within the next week.

Across Florida, mayors and others are growing frustrated by their lack of enforcement power of pandemic policies.

When the pandemic began, Governor Ron DeSantis shied away from enacting certain across the board pandemic policies like a face mask mandate, instead favoring local control.

“Each region in Florida is very distinct and some of these things may need to be approached a little bit differently,” said DeSanits in March.

But as State Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith explains, that local control was largely stripped away in the Governor’s most recent pandemic executive order.

“Now local leaders feel handcuffed because Governor DeSantis signed an executive order saying that they were not allowed to enforce their own mask mandate,” said Smith.

As cases rise across the country, 31 states have enacted tighter COVID restrictions in recent weeks.

Florida has not.

Now Mayors in Miami, Miami-Dade, St Petersburg and county commissioners in Palm Beach are asking for the Governor to return some of the local control the were given at the start of the pandemic.

The Florida League of Cities also weighed in telling us in a statement: “We believe the Governor should allow cities to take the actions they believe are necessary to protect their citizens. When our state and local governments work together, we are better equipped to manage this public health crises.”

“Governor DeSantis needs to lead or he needs to get out of the way,” said Smith.

Health professionals with Physicians for Social Responsibility prefer statewide action over a patchwork of local regulations.

“This virus is like a bird. The bird doesn’t recognize when it flies from Tallahassee to Thomasville that it’s entered another state,” said Dr. Howard Kessler.

The Governor has been absent from the public eye for nearly three weeks now, only releasing a YouTube video touting the rollout of a vaccine by the end of the year.

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Florida Stands Ready to Receive Vaccines

November 20th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida added another 9,000 COVID cases Friday, bringing the total to more than 914,000 since the start of the pandemic.

However Florida leaders are optimistic for the future, with hope two vaccines may be ready to roll out before the end of the year.

“I don’t believe we’re going to a dark winter,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson.

Governor Ron DeSantis said while its not clear how many vaccine doses the state will get or exactly when they’ll arrive, once the FDA gives the go-ahead, the rollout will move quickly.

“They will then go out within the next 24 hours,” said DeSantis.

Five Florida hospitals will receive the first doses, including Tampa General Hospital where Dr. Jason Wilson has been on the front lines on the pandemic.

“You know there’s been some frustrations in the sense of, you know we don’t have a lot of tools and things to offer,” said Wilson.

He said news of the vaccines and the approval of a monoclonal antibody treatment are a game changers.

“These vaccines give us some light at the end of the tunnel. These vaccines give us the idea that all these efforts we’re making are paying off,” said Wilson.

Nearly 2,000 long term care facilities are also slated to receive vaccines.

“It gives us hope,” said Kristen Knapp with the Florida Health Care Association.

Knapp said for residents, it couldn’t come soon enough.

“They really have undergone so much with the visitation restrictions early on and just the different challenges for them. In a home-like environment that they were so used to for so long and everything really turned upside down for them,” said Knapp.

While the vaccines signal a light at the end of the tunnel, health professionals say now is not the time to let your guard down.

“This is, you know, not the year to have a big Thanksgiving holiday gathering. It’s not going to be the year to travel for the holidays,” said Wilson.

Hospitals and long term care facilities will still have to develop plans for distributing the vaccines to patients, residents and staff.

Another challenge will be educating the public about the importance of vaccine.

The Governor has said vaccines will not be mandatory.

It’s expected the vaccine could be available to the general population as early as April according to Dr. Anthony Fauci.

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Sixth Straight Month of Florida Job Growth

November 20th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s unemployment rate continues to fall.

Numbers released Friday show it was at 6.5 percent for October, down seven tenths of a percent from September, but there are still 659,000 Floridians looking for work.

Between February and April, Florida lost nearly 1.2 million jobs.

More than half, just under 700,000, have returned.

“Florida’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in October 2020 was 6.5 percent. This represented 659,000 individuals out of a labor force of 10,101,000,” said DEO Chief Economist Adrienne Johnston.

More jobs came back in October.

“Up 61,100 jobs, or point eight percent from September 2020,” said Johnston.

Friday’s release marked the sixth straight month of job gains in the state.

But the figures do show 14,000 people became discouraged and stopped looking for work in October.

That means they aren’t counted as unemployed.

Seven out of ten industries gained jobs in October.

“Leisure and hospitality gained 29,600 jobs over the month, driven by 21,100 jobs gained in accommodations and food services. Profession and business services added 13,000 jobs,” said Johnston.

Job losers were education, health care, information and government.

Still, 19 of 24 job markets in the state saw job growth last month.

“The Tampa metro area gained the most jobs with 5,800 and Cape Coral grew the fastest at 1.8 percent,” said Johnston.

At 10.4 percent Osceola County, the home of Disney, continues to have the highest unemployment rate in the state.

That’s before Disney’s announced 18,000 lay offs next month.

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Retailers Send Plea: Shop Local

November 19th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The pandemic has put Florida retailers in a precarious place.

Now they are asking everyone to shop local this holiday season or risk not having a place to shop in the future.

The pandemic has already taken a toll on how much shoppers are expected to spend this year.

Overall holiday spending is expected to be down an average of $50 per person, making a tough year for retailers even tougher.

It’s why the Florida Retail Federation is launching a Find it in Florida campaign.

“One in five jobs here in Florida is tied to the retail industry, and its been a tough year, so we’d like to see you support your neighbors,” said Retail Federation President Scott Shalley.

A survey from the National Retail Federation shows the drop in spending would be even worse, but for fewer people traveling this year and are diverting their travel budget to gifts or goods.

Online sales have skyrocketed during the pandemic and the retailers are okay with that, so long as the items are purchased from Florida businesses.

“You can go to the store, you can meet them at the curb, or you can even shop online . But if you shop online, we’re just encouraging you to shop with people who have businesses that have a Florida presence,” said Shalley.

Earlier this week, state lawmakers signaled they are likely to change a Florida law that requires internet buyers to voluntarily pay sales taxes.

Instead, they plan to require out-of-state retailers to collect the tax.

“They still owe the same tax. We just use the honor system to collect that tax. And I can assure the honor system doesn’t work very well,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson.

Retailers feel the move is vital to their survival.

“You know, we’ve always felt it critical for our local retailers to have a level playing field, but even more so now its critical for the State of Florida,” said Shalley.

First they have to survive this holiday season, which normally accounts for about 20 percent of their annual revenue.

The National Retail Federation found consumers will spend slightly less on gifts and a touch more on decorations, but will cut spending on non-gift purchases by almost 30 percent this season.

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Environmental Group Calls For Climate Change Committee

November 19th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

A conservation advocacy group is calling on the new legislative leadership to create committees dedicated to battling climate change.

While the House Speaker and Senate President have both spoken out about the need to mitigate the effects of climate change, activists argue they’re not focusing on the underlying causes creating climate change.

The House Speaker and Senate President authored an op ed earlier this year, focused on the need to protect coastal communities from sea level rise.

The Speaker made similar comments during his speech Tuesday

“We need to bring the same long range planning and strategic discipline to our environmental programs that we bring to our transportation work plan,” said House Speaker Chris Sprowls.

But environmental groups argue mitigation is only part of the puzzle.

“The talk so far is about addressing the symptoms of the problem and not addressing the underlying illness,” said Aliki Moncrief, Executive Director of Florida Conservation Voters.

In a letter sent to both legislative leaders earlier this week, Florida Conservation Voters called for the establishment of climate change committees.

“To talk about what climate solutions are available,” said Moncrief.

Democratic State Representative Anna Eskamani sees potential for such committees to help address some pandemic related issues like unemployment.

“Prioritization and investment in both energy efficiency and renewable energy production are two opportunities to retrain unemployed people and get them rapidly rehired,” said Eskamani.

This is the second year Florida Conservation Voters have called for a climate change committee.

They didn’t get one last year and so far they haven’t gotten a response this time around either.

How much lawmakers will be able to accomplish on the climate change front is up in the air.

The Legislature will be looking to cut the state budget by as much as $5 billion next year, and in the leaders’ op ed on sea level rise there is an emphasis on ‘cost effective’ solutions.

In his first speech as House Speaker, Rep Chris Sprowls suggested the state deemphasize land acquisition in its conservation plans and instead put more resources into beach re-nourishment, septic tank conversions and flood mitigation.

Florida Conservation Voters argues land acquisition plays a key role in flood mitigation strategies.

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State Employees Honored for Saving Taxpayers Money

November 19th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The hard work of some hard working state employees saved Floridians 300 million tax dollars this year according to that state’s lead tax watch dog.

Florida TaxWatch honored some of those state employees in a virtual award ceremony Thursday.

There were 179 TaxWatch Productivity Awards handed out this year spanning 19 state agencies and four universities.

The four top awards went to the Department of Elder Affairs for a program that partnered with restaurants to deliver fresh meals to disabled senior citizens and the Department of Transportation for creating a new strategy for detecting wrong way drivers and improving the speed and lowering the cost of building street lighting.

The Department of Environmental Protection was also honored for its creation of a water quality dashboard.

“After this incredibly challenging year, Florida TaxWatch is so proud to recognize the good work of so, so many public servants as we often say are unsung heroes,” said TaxWatch President Dominic Calabro.

Because awards are awarded to both individuals and also teams, Florida TaxWatch says the total number of state employees honored this year is likely in the thousands.

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Lawmakers Face COVID Up Close

November 18th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

After sitting on the sidelines for eight months, the Florida Legislature met for a one-day session Tuesday, but nine of the 160 lawmakers were absent because they tested positive or were exposed to COVID.

Both the human and financial toll of the virus will be front and center when lawmakers begin meeting in January.

The nine absent members, seven from the House and two Senators, hail from one end of the state to the other.

None came in contact with anyone who entered either chamber.

“I want to pause to recognize those who lost their lives as a result of COVID-19. Join me in a moment of silence,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson during the Tuesday organizational Session.

Both the House and Senate will have COVID related committees.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls said the virus and related issues will occupy the majority of lawmakers 60-day session that starts in March.

“Making it easier to start a business out of their home. Many Floridians have now worked from home where they have never done that before. Making opportunities for barriers go down, such as occupational licensing,” said Sprowls.

The budget is going to get most of the attention when lawmakers come back.

They expect to cut up to $5 billion.

“What we’re going to do is review what the 08-09 Great Recession did through 2010. We’re going to review what is important to our budget to this current Legislature,” said Simpson.

But the co-leaders of House Democrats took aim at what they called a lack of specifics.

“I would say Coronavirus was pretty much glossed over in the House Chamber. The reality of the situation,” said Representative Evan Jenne.

Masks were not required for members or the several hundred visitors.

Afterwards few were paying attention to social distancing.

We have been told that everyone in the crowd had tested negative before entering, lessening the possibility of spreading COVID.

Only one of the nine lawmakers who were out Tuesday has been hospitalized, newly elected State Senator Ray Rodriguez of Ft. Myers.

A spokesperson said he is improving.

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New Emergency Order for Schools Coming Soon

November 18th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Parents can soon expect more clarity about how Florida schools will operate in January.

The current emergency order is set to expire at the end of the year, but the question on administrators minds is whether the new order will still give districts full funding for virtual students.

The State Board of Education opened its Wednesday meeting with a presentation from Florida’s First Lady, who emphasized the need for in-person learning.

“It is invaluable for our students’ development and wellbeing,” said Casey DeSantis.

Shortly after, Florida’s Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran addressed the elephant in the room: His emergency order set to expire at the end of the year.

“The Governor will take nothing less than full parental choice,” said Corcoran.

The current order allows districts to receive the same level of funding for students who opt for distance learning as those attending in person, as long as they also provide brick and mortar options.

Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar said that flexibility has been critical.

“If that funding goes away there’s no way districts can offer that option and parents will either have to use a traditional virtual platform such as Florida Virtual School or what districts have in their own virtual programs. Or they will have to send them back to brick and mortar,” said Spar.

The Commissioner said his next emergency order will still provide parents the option of virtual learning, but he didn’t commit to continue funding virtual students the same as those attending class in person.

“We’re going through that right now and working with the districts,” said Corcoran.

That lack of commitment troubles the teachers union.

“Districts need the flexibility. Parents need the flexibility,” said Spar.

Corcoran did mention he wants to ensure students who fall behind in virtual learning can easily transition to in-person classes, or at the very least get additional help.

“If they’re going to stay for medical reasons in that modality. What are the interventions? And we want to see them and know them,” said Corcoran.

The Commissioner also said standardized testing will go forward next semester to identify achievement gaps the pandemic may have widened.

How or whether those test scores will impact school funding is still an open question.

The Commissioner said he hopes to have the order finalized before Thanksgiving, or at the latest by the end of the month.

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Where’s Governor Ron DeSantis?

November 17th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Ron DeSantis made his first public appearance in thirteen days on Tuesday.

It has been more than two weeks since he has answered reporters’ questions and he didn’t end that streak during the Legislature’s organizational session.

The Governor last appeared before reporters on the Wednesday after the election.

“We’re now being looked at as the state that did it right,” said DeSantis during the November 4th press conference.

He also criticized the national media for calling some states and not others.

He didn’t take questions, but promised he would soon.

“I’ll be back to take questions probably sometime before the week ends,” said DeSantis.

It didn’t happen.

Fast forward 13 days, a major tropical storm and still nothing.

But Tuesday he first appeared in the Florida Senate where he watched new Senators and officers sworn in.

“I am convinced your early actions to protect our elderly and our our most vulnerable populations helped avoid thousands of deaths. Governor we thank you,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson.

As he walked across the Capitol’s fourth floor to the House chamber, we tried to ask what he’s been doing.

He didn’t answer, again promising more later.
“After. On the way back,” said DeSantis.

But he was another no show, seen leaving the chamber through a back entrance.

Democrats were happy to fill the void on why he’s been avoiding questions.

“The Governor has not made one public appearance to talk about COVID-19 or unemployment in weeks and I feel like he’s trying to avoid the press. He doesn’t want to address the fact that Vice President Joe Biden will be the next President of the United States, and he’s tying to avoid any type of conversation about that,” said State Representative Anna Eskamani.

While the Governor was praised during Tuesday’s session, he was also rebuffed by lawmakers.

He had hoped lawmakers would have taken up his tough anti-rioting package, but he was told that will have to wait until next year.

The Governor also chose to meet via phone to certify this year’s election results instead of in person Tuesday morning.

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Single Child Victim At Center of Human Trafficking Bust Yielding 178 Arrests

November 17th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

178 have been charged in a major human trafficking bust in the state’s capital city.

The arrests are part of a two year long investigation between local, state and federal agencies.

106 have been charged with felonies and 72 with misdemeanors in this case, including a grade school PE teacher.

Police say others charged come from all walks of life.

“All economic levels and backgrounds. It’s very widespread,” said Tallahassee Police Chief Lawrence Revell.

Shockingly all of the arrests are connected to a single victim who was just 13 years old when the investigation began.

Hundreds of pages of arrest records detail grotesque communications between the victim and alleged offenders.

TPD Investigator Elizabeth Bascom first uncovered the victim being sold online.

“The sheer number. The all day, every day, all the time solicitation and sexual activity and talk about cash for money and clearly meeting. I had never seen something just that prolific,” said Bascom.

She says she believes these arrests only scratch the surface of the human trafficking industry in Florida.

“When you can go online and order a pizza and a girl at the same time and the girl shows up to your door before the pizza, our society is in trouble. Okay, that’s where we are. It is unbelievably accessible,” said Bascom.

While identifying information about the victim is confidential, officials told us she is on the road to recovery and doing well given the situation.

We were also told the prosecution phase of this case will likely take many months.

Florida ranks among the top five in the nation for human trafficking.

In 2019 alone 1,887 victims, 427 traffickers and 243 trafficking businesses were identified in Florida in 2019 by the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

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Legislative Power Shift

November 16th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida lawmakers return to the State Capitol Tuesday after an eight month hiatus.

The constitution requires they return to organize and select new leadership, but nothing else is on their agenda.

The Senate President and the House Speaker are the two most powerful people in Florida behind the Governor.

Both exercise total control in their chambers.

Prior to the mid 1960’s most presiding officers were from north and north central Florida.

Because of a poorly apportioned Legislature, which was fixed by a court in the mid 1960’s, the majority of votes lived in north Florida’s rural areas.

This time, they both hail from the Tampa Bay Area.

The last time lawmakers were paired geographically was in 2011.

Before that, 1983, which may have lead to agreement on the Moffit Cancer Center.

That both presiding officers come from the same area of the state is very rare, but so is legislators being tested for COVID before they can enter the building.

No lobbyists will be allowed in the Capitol Tuesday.

Reporters who enter must also be tested.

At 36, former prosecutor Chris Sprowls will be handed the House Gavel on Tuesday knowing it is on of the most difficult times in state history.

“So we are going to have significant budget challenges that we are going to have to work through to get Florida back on her feet. And a priority is going to be making the the tough choices now so we can recover faster than the rest of the country,” said Sprowls.

54 -year-old Senate President Designate Wilton Simpson hails from Pasco County.

Simpson is a successful egg farmer with a net worth of $25 million.

“People say, you’re so nice, how are your going to be a legislator, because you have to be mean or sometimes you have to be tough, so I tell them that..don’t mistake my kindness for weakness,” said Simpson.

What lawmakers won’t do while at the Capitol Tuesday is look at Florida’s unemployment system or the state’s COVID response.

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AMBER Alert System Getting an Upgrade

November 16th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The next time you get an AMBER Alert on your phone, it will look a little different.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is rolling out upgrades to the system that will hopefully lead to more children returning home safely.

When you get an AMBER Alert on your phone, it normally includes a brief description of the missing child, where they were last seen and a few bits of information about the suspect.

Chad Brown is the Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the Missing Endangered Persons Information Center at FDLE.

“It’s limited to 90 characters. So the information that is provided in that alert is an abbreviated version of all the information that law enforcement currently has and is able to include,” said Brown.

In hopes of better informing the public, FDLE is making upgrades to its AMBER and Missing Child Alert systems.

Now, when an alert comes through it will include a link that will take you to a more detailed summary of the case with photos of both the child and suspected perpetrator.

“And so now we’re able to provide them with all the details through this clickable link that is provided,” said Brown.

This year alone there have already been 18 Florida AMBER and 28 Missing Child Alerts.

Since its inception in 2000 AMBER Alerts have led to the safe recovery of 77 children.

And since 2003, 65 have been recovered thanks to Missing Child Alerts.

“We appreciate everybody taking the time and not ignoring those alerts. When they come across your phone take the time, take a look at it and you never know, you could be responsible for saving a life,” said Brown.

In addition to the AMBER Alerts sent to your phone, FDLE is also encouraging Floridians to sign up to receive e-mail alerts by going to missingchildalerts.com.

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Attorney Running 160 Miles to Raise Money for Legal Aid

November 16th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Mike Freed, a business attorney with Gunster Shareholder, began a 160 mile journey from the Florida Supreme Court to the Duval County Court House Monday morning as part of an effort to raise money to pay legal bills for low income and vulnerable patients.

This is the fourth year Freed has made the run and by the time he completes this year’s six day journey he will have run the equivalent of 24 marathons.

In that time Freed has raise more than $1 million for the Jacksonville Area Legal Aid’s Northeast Florida Medial Legal Partnership.

He’s hoping to get to $2.25 million.

“People that are dealing with these challenges have a lot of problems as well. Physical, financial and others, so for me it’s just a manifestation of what they experience and the little bit of sacrifice that I do to run for six days straight is nothing compared to the challenges they have to suffer. So I’m happy to do my part and it gets peoples’ attention and instead of having people give a little bit, they give a lot,” said Freed.

You can donate at freedtorun.com.

All donations will be matched at 125 percent by Baptist Health up to $1.25 million.

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High Election Turnout Raises the Bar for Future Citizen Initiatives

November 13th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida voters overwhelming rejected a plan to make it harder to amend the state constitution this year, but the near record turnout means it will still be harder to get an amendment on the ballot in the coming years.

The number of signatures a citizen initiative needs to collect to make it on the ballot is equal to eight percent of voter turn out in the last presidential election.

Citizen initiative guru John Sowinski with Consensus Communications said historically, the number goes up, not down.

“Every time we have a Presidential Election we have A, more population. B, as of late much higher turnout. So that drives up the number that’s required,” said Sowinski.

Since 1970, the signature requirement for citizen initiatives has risen by an average of 12 percent every four years.

Citizen initiatives had to collect 766,200 signatures in order to make it on the 2020 ballot.

After this election, the requirement will rise by roughly 15 percent.

Early calculations suggest campaigns will have to collect in the ball park of 880,000 signatures to get amendments on the 2022 ballot.

Make It Legal Florida’s proposed amendment to legalize recreational marijuana is best positioned to make it on the 2022 ballot, having already collected more than 550,000 signatures.

“Obviously we knew going into 2020 that this was going to be a high turnout year,” said Make It Legal Florida Chairman Nick Hansen.

Hansen said he’s confident they’ll be able to meet the new threshold.

“It is our hope to be done with this by mid-2021,” said Hansen.

But more signatures means more money.

Sowinski estimates the projected signature increase will cost campaigns about $1 million extra.

“For a campaign that would already be spending three to five million dollars to gather the signatures,” said Sowinski.

On top of the increased signature threshold, recent laws also limit signatures’ validity to two years and require paid petition gatherers to register with the state, making direct democracy in Florida harder and more expensive than ever before.

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K9s for Warriors Stays on Mission Through the Pandemic

November 11th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

When veterans come home from from battle, transitioning back into civilian life can be a daunting task.

On average, 20 veterans die from suicide each day according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, but groups like K9s for Warriors are working to bring that number down by training service dogs to help veterans cope with the physical and mental scars from service.

“You know I’m a graduate of the program in 2015 and I came back and I started working here and I can see how this program affects the warrior and their family,” said Greg Wells, Manager of Programs with K9s for Warriors.

The program has been able to continue its work through the pandemic, training 90 dogs and pairing them with veterans.

“We were in a state where we could keep going. The doors were still open. And you can’t Zoom train a dog. You can’t Zoom train a warrior,” said K9s for Warriors CEO Rory Diamond.

Working at a limited capacity has come at a cost.

The program’s wait time has doubled from two to four years, with 391 veterans on the wait list.

“Our biggest fear is to lose a warrior on our wait list. Our warriors, 82 percent of them have attempted suicide before they come here and we have an almost perfect record in stopping it after a warrior comes here, but we’ve got to get them through our doors first,” said Diamond.

But the program has plans to expand to meet the growing need.

“We’re going to break ground next year on what we call a ‘Mega Kennel’. The world’s largest rescue dog training center. So we’ll get much more dogs like Angel here through our system,” said Diamond.

K9s for Warriors is 100 percent free to veterans and while the Florida Legislature approved $600,000 for the program this year, private donations provide most of the funding.

If you want to help their cause, you can donate at k9sforwarriors.org.

K9s for Warriors has a 10 year history of helping veterans and currently operates in 47 states.

In that time it has trained and paired 641 service dogs with veterans.

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