DUNEDIN — For some people, a stretch of sand next to an expanse of water turns into a powerful and personal place. Maybe something happened there — the snook catch of a lifetime, perhaps. Maybe some significant moment was shared there — a wedding, for example. Maybe someone just enjoyed the view. Whatever the reason, outdoor places sometimes take root inside a person.
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Honeymoon Island State Park was that kind of place for Winnie Holesha. When the cancer returned in 2006 and was found in her upper spine, Winnie knew about the fight ahead. The Palm Harbor woman was an advanced nurse practitioner working with cancer surgery patients at Tampa General, and she had beaten breast cancer herself in 2004, when she lived in Chicago.
After work, Winnie often would go to Honeymoon Island, sip a drink at the café or stroll the sand until her husband, Jim, could shake loose from work and join her for the sunset. She always told Jim and her daughters that going there "recharged her batteries."
Though she died at 57 on Good Friday 2007, Winnie hasn't completely left Honeymoon Island. Jim spread her ashes in the gulf near Marker 4 coming out of Hurricane Pass, and he and his daughters donated money for a memorial bench and had it placed on the beach overlooking the pass. The inscription reads, "Winnie … Mother, Wife. Enjoy the sunset. Recharge yourself."
Jim, now a guitar-playing entertainer, sits on the bench from time to time to compose songs. With a glance to his left, he can see the marker. His daughters, who live in Chicago, enjoy visiting the spot their mother so loved. One has a photo of the bench, sand and water as the wallpaper on her computer.
"We don't have a grave site," Jim said. "It started out as her place, but it became a family place."
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More than 100 benches dot Honeymoon and Caladesi islands, most bearing routered-in inscriptions or plaques celebrating someone's life.
"Betty's point of view."
"In memory of Jim Dorrier. Gone Fishing."
"Jill's bench 7-23-00. Sit a spell. Enjoy God's creation."
The wood benches, along with picnic tables and large swing seats, are donations to the two state parks coming from folks as far away as Germany.
Donors usually fit into one of three categories, according to Scott Hood, the public point person for the Friends of the Island Parks when the volunteer organization took over administration of the memorial bench program in 2007:
• In memory of an adult child from the parent. "These are very emotional," Hood said. "Usually, the person loved the island and brought the kids here."
• In memory of a spouse. Many people, such as Winnie and Jim Holesha, have such requests written into their wills. Hood said the bench usually provides a sense of peace.
• In memory of a deceased parent or parents. Hood recalled a donor who had a bench built in his father's name. They used to go birding together on the island. "It's the perfect setting to sit and remember, to celebrate the life of someone," Hood said.
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The memorial bench program began simply enough in the late 1990s. Someone would approach park staff about adding a bench along the beach in memory of a loved one.
Because the state park service cannot directly accept cash donations, these early donors bought home improvement store gift cards of about $100 to cover the cost of lumber, screws, nuts and bolts. The benches were assembled by park staff members whenever they had time, inscribed with a router, then placed.
Sometimes the donors had specific sites in mind, such as the Osprey Trail or Pet Beach. But mostly they went anywhere overlooking the water. As more requests came in over the years, the park staff wanted to stem the tide, so it raised the donation cost. That didn't deter too many. Up it went again. Still, the requests came.
During this time, Mother Nature, too, kept park staff busy with the benches. Rangers pulled benches and swings from the dunes and fished them out of the gulf after storms. Sometimes, a bench required repairs. The informal program was taking on a life of its own.
Enter the Friends of the Island Parks, a volunteer organization formed in 2002 to assist the local state park staff. The Friends, as they are called, took over the administration and labor of the bench program in 2007.
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The two Georges — George Skalkeas, 63, and George Fischer, 71 — have built more than 35 memorial benches, swings and picnic tables together.
They know exactly what they need from the store for the benches (seven 12-foot lengths of pressure-treated 2 by 6 boards, about 88 3-inch wood screws, 16 bolts and nuts) and what tools to have on hand while working in the park's workshop. The measurements for most of the cuts are stored in their heads.
"We don't even have to talk that much anymore," said Fischer, though they do because it takes about 16 man-hours for each 125-pound bench.
The two volunteers estimate the materials run less than $100.
After a bench is assembled, the inscription is routered in the wood or affixed on a 3- by 6-inch plaque that comes from a foundry. The approved location is readied, and four holes are dug 2 feet deep.
About a year ago, Skalkeas was returning from the north sand spit on Honeymoon Island after repairing storm-damaged benches. He came across a man who thanked him for fixing a bench he donated in his father's name.
But the man asked why it had been moved. He told Skalkeas the original location was the exact turnaround point for the man and his father when they went for runs together before his death.
"That's when I started to get a sense that it's not just pay $1,000 or $100 or whatever and walk away," Skalkeas said. "People have an ongoing relationship with these things. So we moved the bench."
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Bob Meadows, the current bench program coordinator, is up to nine benches, a picnic table and two swings for this year. Twelve were planted in 2009.
"We do the best we can," Meadows said of honoring requests. "I can't make any promises. We have to go to the park manager for approval."
That's Pete Krulder, who has been in charge of the area's five state parks for four years. He juggles keeping the park people-friendly, but natural, all the while being approached with plea after plea from would-be donors.
"I get a couple of calls a month," Krulder said. "You don't want to say no. At what point do you say this is all we can do? We are very close to running out of room for additional benches."
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Whitney Pelszynski was just 22, studying at St. Petersburg College to be a veterinarian and working full time with one, when she died from complications from diabetes.
"Whitney was always an animal lover," said her father, Jeff, who lives in Spring Hill with his wife, Robyn. "She used to take her dogs to Pet Beach."
Along with Whitney's brother, Jason, the Pelszynskis decided to donate a picnic table near Pet Beach on Honeymoon Island. It went in just before Whitney's July 4 birthday in 2009, and the family gathered there that day and again this year.
"Whitney, every animal's friend," the plaque reads.
"That really summed up Whitney's life," Jeff said. "It's a good memorial. She was way too young to celebrate her life in a cemetery. If her spirit is there, she'd be happy."