A new start | After eviction
LARGO — Last month, Darren Combs and his family were afraid they'd be homeless.
Like seven other families, they were uprooted from their trailer park after their landlord failed to pay the park water bill at No Go Largo Village.
Eighteen adults and 16 children went without running water for about a week in early October.
Combs, a handyman who suffered a heart attack in September, lugged 20-gallon drums of water from a vacant trailer a block away so his wife, Cheryl, and five kids — ages 1 to 12 — could drink and bathe.
"I tried to help out as much as I could and it was very stressful for us because we didn't know what we were going to do," said Cheryl Combs' son, Joshua Tuzzolino, who turns 13 next month.
City workers contacted social service agencies and brought Combs and other families water, soda and hoagies.
Catholic Charities found them a new home, a three-bedroom duplex in Rainbow Village.
Today, Combs, a former grill cook, plans to whip up turkey, stuffing and "smashed" potatoes.
"I believe without divine intervention, we'd be out on the street," Combs, 48, said.
Lorri Helfand, Times staff writer
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LARGO — In many ways 2008 has been a tough year for Tara Bickler and her son Johnathon Ferland, but the 37-year-old mom is not complaining.
In January, Johnathon, then 11, was on his bike at a busy intersection in Largo when a blue Chevy pickup lost its brakes, rolled down an embankment and toppled two metal sign poles.
A yellow pedestrian sign sliced the boy's neck, just missing a major artery. A heavier, 40-pound walk signal pole, struck Johnathon on the head.
Had he not been wearing a helmet, police said, he would have died.
After intensive treatment, the boy recovered, only to be struck again while on his bike a month later. This time, the Largo Middle School student escaped without major injuries.
But things got worse. The man with the blue Chevy did not have insurance, Bickler said. And on her nurse's salary, she's unable to pay for insurance while keeping up with her mortgage and other bills.
The price tag for her son's care was about $26,000.
With creditors at her heels this holiday season, Bickler faces the prospect of having to declare bankruptcy. That's grim, but her son's welfare trumps any financial worries.
"As long as Johnny is in one piece and is happy and healthy," she said, "that's all that really matters. We are grateful for that."
Will Van Sant, Times Staff Writer
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Fire survivor | Rescued by police officers
LARGO — Wilma Bayer lost virtually everything five months ago.
The early morning fire at her condo ravaged her mother's poetry, cards from old friends, even her beloved parrot, Maxie.
Bayer, 81, also came close to losing her life. Two Largo police officers were awarded medals of valor for saving her.
After a month in the hospital and two months in rehabilitation, her broken shoulder is healing. But it still aches a lot.
In September, she moved into a new Largo apartment complex.
"I won't get another parrot, but I'd get another finch," said Bayer, who also lost two finches in the blaze at Belleair Oaks.
Since the fire, her outlook and her taste in entertainment has changed, she said.
She used to love Law and Order. Now, she can do without the drama.
"I want something to make me happy, not to bring me down," she said.
Lorri Helfand, Times staff writer
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House with dogs | TLC helps their recovery
EAST LAKE — Lilly's life changed April 7.
That's the day Palm Harbor's Suncoast Animal League entered the East Lake home where Lilly and 120 other dogs were living in crowded wire cages. The dogs were wallowing in their own urine and feces. Many appeared to be malnourished.
"Every day since April 7th has been a better day for them," said Rick Chaboudy of the Animal League, who placed the 121 dogs in foster homes. "They were afraid to be picked up, held and would not walk on the grass."
Teresita Hughes, the owner and breeder of the dogs, was charged with 46 counts of animal neglect. A court hearing is scheduled Dec. 3.
Lilly is a white Pomeranian whose age could not be determined because her teeth are in such horrible condition.
About two months ago, she had to have emergency hernia surgery. During surgery, Lilly almost died and she had to be revived, Chaboudy said. The operation could not be completed, but a second surgery a few weeks later was successful.
Lilly is now being fostered by Apryl Riley, 51, of Holiday.
"Now she's fine," Riley said. "She just needed some tender loving care and her medicines."
Demorris A. Lee, Times staff writer
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Lifeguard stung | Back in the water
CLEARWATER — One day in late May, Cameron Moeller found himself in a tug-of-war with a man-of-war.
With little going on that day, the 23-year-old Clearwater Beach lifeguard had been doing some training exercises just offshore when he came into contact with what he believed was a harmless tangle of seaweed.
Then he felt something like a hot knife piercing his skin.
It was a Portuguese man-of-war, and it gripped Moeller's chest, back and arm. The beast stung him so badly he passed out and was in Morton Plant Hospital for two hours.
But the experience hasn't scarred him for life. Other than sporting rash-like marks for a week and a half afterward, he said he suffered no ill effects.
Except unwanted fame.
"People come up to me and say they've seen me in the newspaper,'' he said. "They say 'you're the man-of-war guy.' ''
As for the man-of-war, which was a little smaller than a football: another lifeguard slapped on a pair of gloves, bagged it and took it to the hospital.
Officials there said the "remains were disposed of."
Eileen Schulte, Times staff writer
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Epiphany cross finder | Blessed year
TARPON SPRINGS — Tradition has it the young man who retrieves the epiphany cross from Spring Bayou enjoys a year of good fortune.
Chris Kavouklis counts himself as no exception.
"It's been a great year," Kavouklis said this week.
The 19-year-old, who emerged with the cross in January after failed attempts the previous two years, said 2008 has been filled with memorable moments.
He graduated with honors from Jesuit High School in Tampa, took third place in the state wrestling tournament and fulfilled a longtime dream to play college football.
Kavouklis is a redshirt fullback at Elon University in North Carolina, majoring in business and keeping his grades up, he said.
The Tampa resident, who was anxious to escape the dorms and get home for Thanksgiving, said his family has always been a source of strength and support.
"I think I'm always blessed, but going to a good school, having a great family and I'm getting to play football?" he said. "Yeah, it's been a blessed year."
Rita Farlow, Times staff writer
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Fire survivors | In new home on same site
CLEARWATER — Duke and Geni Tieman, community activists in South Greenwood, were always quick to help a neighbor in need.
But after a fire took their home late last year, the outpouring of help was for them.
On Dec. 14, an electrical fire sent smoke through their Kingsley Street home. Geni went back for pets and Duke pulled her out. They lost Max, a parrot with a 500-word, and Ying-Yang, a Shih Tzu-poodle. Geni, who inhaled more smoke, was in critical condition that night.
They rented a home nearby, donations helped them with immediate expenses and Geni slowly recuperated. Then in October, they moved into a home rebuilt on the same site. They invited supporters to their 55th anniversary fete on Oct. 29. They renewed their vows and said thanks.
"We did a lot of crying," Duke said. "It was an unbelievable evening."
Theresa Blackwell, Times staff writer
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Fire victims | Life remains far from normal
PALM HARBOR — Life has settled into a routine for the Chaboudy family. But 11 months after a fire destroyed the family's condo in Palm Harbor, things remain far from normal.
Parents Jim and Linda are hopeful for a homecoming and are thankful for all the help they've received.
At the moment, they live in a rental property, given to them at a discount rate, but they've been struggling to make both rent and mortgage payments.
Still, they're resilient. In 1996, their daughter Heather, received a heart transplant.
"We've had so many take-it-to-the-edge-of-your-mind experiences," said Linda, "It just made me realize how much we don't have control over."
The Chaboudys didn't carry fire insurance, which makes the recovery more difficult. They hope to recoup some losses in court from the neighbor on whose property the fire started.
Heather, 12, is healthy and won a gold medal in bowling at the U.S. Transplant Games last summer. Older sister Tamber, 19, is a freshman at Florida Gulf Coast University.
"We're trying to cope," said Jim Chaboudy. "Progress is being made but you're still not sure if you see an end in sight."
Jonathan Abel, Times staff writer