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By Phyllis Hodges, Apollo Beach

My husband, Bill, and I left Dayton, Ohio, in a blizzard and arrived in Apollo Beach on a sunny Christmas Day in 1999. From the first day, our neighbors made us feel we really were home and have become our family.

With a dazed Northern mind-set, we watched the New Year's fireworks barefoot and wearing shorts. We were delighted as dolphins found their way past our dock and manatees flocked to a nearby channel. On Halloween, our first trick-or-treater appeared _ a 4-year-old in a grass skirt and sandals. We recalled our Ohio grandchildren in coats over (or under) their costumes.

We soon learned that the lack of hope for a "white" Christmas does not dampen the holiday spirit here. The spectacular boat parades warm our hearts, as does the Santa Claus who navigates the canals on a water scooter Christmas morning. Our own boat beckons on warm sunny days and serves as a constant "pinch" to tell us we aren't dreaming.

Apollo Beach is small, under 10,000 residents, and we enjoy meeting people who become friends. One memorable evening at the Alpha House, we met the Somervilles, who introduced us to the Sun City Center ballroom dance community. The value we place on our Sun City Center friends is priceless.

Apollo Beach welcomes newcomers, and Bill and I feel so blessed to be a part of it, to contribute to the community. I'm active in the Apollo Beach Woman's Club _ 116 fantastic ladies _ and currently serve as president. Bill hosts a TV outreach program, East Shore Today, on cable Channel 20, to benefit area residents. As veteran Toastmasters, we recently helped form the South Shore Toastmasters.

We often reflect on when we began our home search in the Tampa Bay area; we wanted a place within an hour of the airport and with boat access to the bay. We had decided that, after our wedding in December, we would move to Tampa to pursue opportunities for our training company, Hodges Seminars International.

We were discouraged after looking north of Clearwater, down the coast and around the bay. Then by the grace of God and some luck, a Tampa Realtor mentioned that Apollo Beach still "had some affordable waterfront property," and we arranged to take a look.

As we drove down Apollo Beach Boulevard, it was love at first sight. We knew that this tropical paradise was where we wanted to start our new life together.

_ Hodges lives on Spindle Palm Drive.