VHA Makes Positive Community Impact
Keith Pearlman, Daily Sun Specialty Editor
The largest homeowners advocacy organization in The Villages continues to find new ways to make a positive impact on the community.
The Villages Homeowners Advocates made its presence felt throughout the community in numerous ways in 2023.
From its well-known philanthropic efforts, to launching new initiatives aimed at improving the health and wellness of residents, to supporting local first responders, The VHA had a tremendous impact in The Villages and beyond.
“It was a fantastic year,” said Peter Russell, who just completed his first term as VHA president. “We made a lot of changes, but they were all intended to help us with our goal of highlighting all of the positive things that are happening in the community.”
Here’s a look at some of the issues the VHA tackled in 2023.
Hurricane Ian Response
To help others in need, especially seniors, impacted by Hurricane Ian in 2022, the VHA ventured outside of The Villages community.
The organization followed reporting by The Daily Sun on the slow recovery process for victims of Ian in Lee County.
In response, The VHA activated an online Hurricane Relief fund in September and within two months raised $6,700 in donations from Villagers that it donated to assist four Lee County community organizations with their missions to serve vulnerable senior clients.
The additional funds came after the VHA raised about $13,000 in the weeks after Hurricane Ian slammed ashore in September 2022.
“We put almost $20,000 into helping out that part of the world,” Russell said. “I saw one of the thank you letters that came back recently from one of the organizations we were able to help. They were just amazed that people in The Villages would recognize they still had needs. With those funds they were able to reestablish services they provide that had been cut off after the storm.”
It’s not the first time the VHA stepped outside to help others and it won’t be the last. Following Hurricane Katrina, the VHA adopted Ocean Springs, Mississippi as its sister city.
Anyone may contribute anytime to this tax-deductible fundraiser, said Russell. Just go online to the VHA’s website, thevha.net, then click on the “Donation” and “Hurricane Relief” hotlinks.
“Our website is set up for donations,” he said. “So moving forward, if another storm rolls in and hits somewhere we have a mechanism to collect funds and distribute it to people in need very quickly. It would be a simple process for us.”
Villages Public Safety Department
Russell, of the Village of Pine Hills, was drawn to the VHA because of its philanthropic mission. He prefers to stay out of local politics.
But the VHA saw the importance of supporting The Villages Public Safety Department when its future was threatened by Sumter County commissioners — first in 2021 when they considered merging the department with its own Sumter County Fire & EMS and again this fall when commissioners approved a budget that caused a $14 million shortfall for VPSD.
The VHA strongly supported VPSD and its effort to create a dependent district that allows VPSD to manage its own finances to ensure it can grow along with the community, while remaining under county authority.
“As an organization, we were 100% behind the creation of a dependent fire district,” Russell said.
His passion was driven by his own experience of nearly 30 years in the fire service in Hopkinton, New Hampshire where he began as a volunteer firefighter in 1971 and eventually served 10 years as fire chief.
“I will always fight for the fire service because it is an integral part of any community,” Russell said.
The VHA helped vet a slate of candidates for the initial board members for the VPSD dependent district, with four of their recommendations earning appointment from Sumter County commissioners.
At the first public meeting of the new VPSD board, Russell again pledged help from the VHA.
“I would like to offer our services to you, whatever we can do to make this easier from a communications standpoint,” he told supervisors. “Anything at all, our organization would provide some positive and constructive dialogue for our members and members of the community.”
Health & Wellness Expo
Russell is a firm believer that The Villages truly lives up to one of its popular slogans of being “America’s Healthiest Hometown.”
So he and other VHA leaders created a concept to help ensure that ideal remains a reality.
The VHA hosted its first Health & Wellness Expo on Nov. 14. The event was a huge success with hundreds of residents attending and positive reviews from community health care partners who participated in the expo such as The Villages Health, UF Health The Villages Hospital, K2 Medical Research, The Villages Grown, Humana and Florida Blue.
The concept aligned perfectly with the organization’s mission, said Peter Moeller, VHA board member.
“This goes to the core of what the VHA is all about, and that’s being a positive force in the community,” he said. “In this case, it’s looking out for the health of the residents of The Villages. We’re always looking for ways the VHA can contribute to the lifestyle and the well-being of residents.”
The VHA called on presenters to address issues everybody faces when aging, the risks of not addressing those issues and what actions a person can take to correct or live with those issues.
“We want to create a toolbox so that you can open a drawer and find a resource that will help you with whatever you need,” Russell said. “Whether it’s to help your physical health, your mental health or emotional well-being, I really want to focus on quality of life.”
Getting Involved to Make a Difference
In addition to the funds raised for those in Southwest Florida, the VHA Foundation distributed more than $18,000 to 11 organizations in Sumter, Lake and Marion counties in 2023.
The VHA’s Helping Hands program, which provides durable medical equipment, such as wheelchairs, crutches and walkers, to residents who need help, once again experienced record volume this year.
The program had recorded over 9,000 transactions through the first week of December, and Russell estimated it could top 10,000 for the year.
The VHA also offered more than 40 educational events such as its monthly Resident Night and Golf Cart Safety Clinic as well as other special events to provide overviews of topics such as how local governments work and golfing in The Villages.
There’s much more to come in 2024, Russell said.
“You’re going to see two catch phrases from us next year,” he said. “The first is ‘Get involved’ and the other is ‘Make a difference.’ They’re two phrases, but really they go together. It’s the getting involved that makes a difference.
“And together that is what continues to allow us to have this vibrant community. And that’s the heart of our mission — to keep this community as vibrant as it can be.”