I'm sitting in the Fantasy Forest after a cooling summer shower. A butterfly settles on my shoulder. Goofy faces peer from the trees. Cartoonish toads, gnomes and ladybugs relax in tiny tires and wheelbarrows near brightly colored mushrooms.
Music flows from rocks, a clever disguise. Soothing flutes and chirping crickets — in stereo, no less. And it occurs to me: Imagine the Yellow Brick Road without the yellow bricks.
In the Fantasy Forest, the pathways once were sand and mud, no place for a wheelchair. And then along came a few dozen men and women on the rise in Pasco business and government, leaders sharpening their skills and searching for a project to help the less fortunate.
They found the Angelus, home to 32 profoundly handicapped people who depend on a community's generosity for survival. And these young executives worked like dogs. They hauled dirt and planted flowers that will bloom and attract butterflies. They created a magical forest, a stimulating, entertaining oasis.
And most important, they recruited a man from Blanton, near Dade City, who is known for his soft heart, a man who built the Christmas float for Habitat for Humanity, a man defined in part five decades earlier when, as a 5-year-old playing with a cigarette lighter, he caught fire.
Harold Wagner paid a visit to the Angelus in Hudson. He walked around the 17 acres with director Joe Neri. He met the residents, most of them twisted and helpless from cerebral palsy. He flashed on his childhood, when he endured years of skin grafts and cruel kids made fun of his disfigurement. And like virtually everyone who ever visits this wonderful place, Wagner was smitten.
"I was really and truly touched,'' he said. "I wanted to help them.''
Wagner, whose Gator Transport & Setup Inc. builds houses and barns, among other things, decided what this project really needed was a yellow brick road. Okay, so the bricks weren't really yellow, but they were beautiful, the kind you would find dressing up a pool or driveway at an expensive home.
When the 33 members of the Leadership Pasco Class of 2008 rolled up their sleeves and started on the project, they were amazed to see truck after truck arrive to drop off the pavers. Wagner donated 10,000 of them for a 3,000-square-foot winding pathway. The gift of supplies and labor was worth about $15,000.
Alan Herring, chief administrative officer at the Pasco Sheriff's Office, ramrodded the group, which relocated a wishing well, planted, mulched, trimmed and raked. And when all was said and done, the Angelus "kids'' arrived in their wheelchairs, beaming from ear to ear.
They now had full access to the most special place in their neighborhood, a place to meditate and enjoy nature.
"I'll always remember when they came rolling down the path,'' Herring said.
Some days later, Neri got a visit from a much different group wanting to help. He had met members of a motorcycle club from Tampa during a recent fundraiser, and now here was a guy named "Lucky'' knocking on his door.
Lucky gave Neri a leather vest with the words "Knight Ryder: Bikers for Handicapped Kids.'' Eight members with beards and tattoos, including a large guy named "Gore,'' added some finishing touches to the Fantasy Forest, including archways and latticework. They left with a promise to maintain the Fantasy Forest.
"They couldn't have been nicer,'' Neri said.
And so it is at the Angelus, where you could easily get bogged down in heartbreak — if there weren't so many heroes around.
Bill Stevens is the Times' North Suncoast editor. You can reach him at (727) 869-6250 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.