Holiday Gala helps raise funds for special children, the director says.

LOUGHMAN – There are folks who just can’t contain their excitement when they go to a major theme park like Disney, and act like they’re reliving their childhood all over again.

Then there’s the ones who save up all year to take a theme park vacation, and spend the entire time complaining about the long lines, crowding parking, and ticket prices.

For Rich Mergo, watching one young boy visit Disney recently turned out to an experience he’ll never forget. The boy couldn’t have been happier at the theme park.

“He was the happiest he could be,” Mergo said. “It was great to see him smiling and having fun.” 

Rich Mergo, director of development for the Sunshine Foundation's Dream Village, says their recent holiday gala raised more than $30,000 to help children.

The boy had come to Central Florida to visit the Sunshine Foundation’s Dream Village, where Mergo is the director of development. The Sunshine Foundation is a charitable organization that answers the dreams and wishes of chronically ill, disabled and abused children. This one young boy, though, left a very strong impression on Mergo.

“This little boy was really special,” he said. “He had come down with swine flu, and had both legs amputated on Christmas Eve last year. Since then, he’s been dealing with the depression and trauma of what he went through.”

The boy’s family brought him to Dream Village in the hope that a trip to the local theme parks would allow him to forget, however briefly, the agonizing medical challenges he was facing. And it seemed to work perfectly, Mergo. He was no longer a physically challenged child coping with a tough medical condition, but an excited boy ready to have fun.

“Everyone treated him like a normal kid,” Mergo said. “We let him ride every roller coaster there was. Some theme parks won’t let kids with prosthetics go on roller coasters, but this time they did. And it was great to see him so happy.”

The Dream’s Village recently held its first formal Holiday Gala on Dec. 4 at the Reunion Resort & Club, an event that Mergo said proved to be quite festive, with live and silent auctions for items that included an XBOX 360 with Kinect, round trip airfare on SouthWest Airlines and AirTran Airways, a ride for four people on the GoodYear Blimp, and dinner for two with a Limo ride and tickets to the upcoming Brad Paisley concert at the Amway Center in downtown Orlando.

It was also a fund-raising event for the non-profit agency, with a special Dream Auction that raised $5,000. That amount, Mergo said, was “enough to answer a dream” of another child hoping to visit Disney.

“There were 70-plus auction items, and overall we raised a little over $30,000,” Mergo said. “It was a great first step for us.”

He offered a special thanks to “all the volunteers that helped plan and run the gala. Without their help, this event would not have been possible. It was challenging  …  and turned out really nice.”

The event was attended by several members of the Kissimmee/Osceola County Chamber of Commerce, including Mary Ellen Kerber, who manages the Formosa Gardens shopping plaza on U.S. 192 in Four Corners. Kerber said the gala gave the guests a truly unique opportunity to meet some of the children being helped by Dream Village. Anyone who attended the gala and took part in the auction, she added, knew their support was going to a great cause.

“It really touched our hearts that night,” she said.

Mergo said the “number one dream of the children we serve is to visit the Central Florida theme parks,” and that the folks who supported the gala also helped those kids.

“Since opening 20 years ago, the Dream Village has welcomed over 20,000 special children,” Mergo said.

For more information on the Sunshine Foundation’s Dream Village and its future events, email Mergo at, call 800-457-1976, or log on to

Business leaders question the message, delivery behind two sales tax defeats.

CHAMPIONSGATE – For municipal leaders in Osceola and Polk counties, it all seemed to make perfect sense: create a special taxing system to help fund much-needed road improvements and to expand mass ransportation to help people find jobs.

There was just one challenge: county leaders were asking voters to approve ballot referendums to raise taxes for these projects. With the economy still struggling and the unemployment rate stubbornly high, voters in both counties solidly defeated the two referendums, sending elected officials back to the drawing board. Where they go from here is still an open question. 

Cars and trucks zip along U.S. 27 in Polk County, but don't expect to see buses anytime soon in this area near Davenport and ChampionsGate.

Doug Guetzloe, leader of the grassroots anti-tax group Ax the Tax, noted that a third ballot referendum to raise taxes for a rail project also lost in Hillsborogh County, making it three in a row. Ax the Tax was involved in fighting all three referendums, Guetzloe said. 

“We did some direct mail and some robo calls down there in Polk,” he said. “We figured it would go down anyway, but we helped add to that.”

The Polk County referendum would have imposed a half-cent sales surtax to create a single mass transit system that would serve the entire county. It lost solidly, 62 percent to 38 percent.

Tom Harris, a member of the Polk County School Board, said it was proposed because bus systems exist in cities like Lakeland and Winter Haven, but do not reach out to more rural parts of Polk County.

“There’s not a countywide bus system, so it’s real difficult for people in remote areas to get around,” he said.

Creating a bus route that serves all of Polk County, he said, would make it easier for residents to find jobs, regardless of where they live.

“If you solve the transportation issue, you can help solve the economic issue,” Harris said.

Polk County leaders also pushed the referendum because the county’s mass transit systems are now funded by the federal government. But solid population growth in Polk County over the past decade means Polk is now classified by the federal government as an urban county, while the federal transportation funding it gets are intended for smaller, more rural counties.

Harris said Polk’s municipal leaders are looking at the possibility of putting the issue back on the ballot in 2012.

“There is a conversation in Polk County on addressing it two years from now,” he said.

But Guetzloe said the defeat of all three measures should send a pretty loud signal to county commissioners that voters already feel taxed enough and don’t have faith in these proposals.

“Look at Osceola County,” Guetzloe said. “They lost. In Osceola, it was 72 percent again. We had an active Ax the Tax effort down there, too.” 

Doug Guetzloe says Ax the Tax delivered the right message: No new taxes!

Sonny Buoncervello, a Realtor in the Celebration area, said Osceola leaders didn’t get the message out that if voters raised their sales tax, tourists would pay a good share of the tax hike, and that the road improvements are desperately needed.  He noted that the business community actively campaigned against a statewide referendum, Amendment 4, which would have required voter approval before land use plans could be altered to allow more commercial development. Amendment 4 lost statewide in a landslide.

But business leaders were not as vocal in supporting the Osceola road tax, Buoncervello said.

“Amendment 4 had a lot of exposure, and we all knew to vote against it,” he said. “But I don’t think there was a strong enough effort to get the average voter to understand  (the Osceola tax hike referendum). You really had to get into people’s psyches to explain it. I don’t know if we really educated the public that tourists would pay a large share of the tax.”

Gene Terrico is the manager of Street Outdoor-Osceola County, a program founded with the West 192 BeautiVacation Project to address advertising needs along West U.S. 192, from Four Corners to Walt Disney World to Kissimmee. He said while road improvements are needed in Osceola County, the timing of the referendum couldn’t have been worse.

“It was a bad year for a tax,” he said. “No new taxes, it’s a one liner that works. It’s awkward, because I’m not sure there was a listening side to the message. People were just not interested, and that’s the day we live in now.”

Harris said a new law prohibiting elected officials from spending money to promote or defeat a ballot referendum has made it more difficult for county leaders to get out the message about how the tax hike would help the community. That means they have to rely more on private sector supporters to get the message out.

“Legislatively, the landscape has changed,” Harris said. “It kind of ties our hands.”

From hair styling to charitable work and Awapuhi treatments, Lunatic Fringe does it all

Lunatic Fringe opened at the Uptown Altamonte mall in March 2009.

ALTAMONTE SPRINGS – Lunatic Fringe, the upscale salon at the Uptown Altamonte mall, is known for their “Fringe Trims,” hair coloring, facial waxing and more.

Now the salon has also devoted one day to giving something back to the community – in particular, to the parents of children who are undergoing a painfully difficult and challenging time.

On Nov. 21, the staff from Lunatic Fringe – nine stylists altogether — were at the Ronald McDonald House at Alden Road in Orlando. Their aim: to provide a service to the parents of these seriously ill or injured children.

“We’re going to give haircuts to the families of the children there, to the moms and dads,” said Jennifer Flores, manager of Lunatic Fringe. “This is a free service.”

 The mission of Ronald McDonald House Charities is to create and support programs that directly improve the health and well being of children. As the charitable organization’s Web site notes, it would be much harder to promote their central mission — focusing on the critical needs of children – without the help of the “staff, volunteers and donors who make them possible.”

That includes volunteers like the staff at Lunatic Fringe, who were at the local Ronald McDonald House to lend their skills with scissors, clippers and other hair styling tools to the parents of the children staying there.

“We just wanted to give something back,” Flores said. “We’re a salon that likes to give back to the community. That’s something in our culture, the Lunatic Fringe culture.”

Lunatic Fringe first opened its doors in 1999 by husband and wife team Shawn Trujillo and Angie Katsanevas in Salt Lake City, Utah. They were successful enough to expand to three local salons, a school and a beauty supply store, and eventually to new salons in Central Florida and Boise, Idaho. The Altamonte Springs salon opened in March 2009.

Part of their mission, Flores said, is to be players and contributors in their local community.

“Paul Mitchell has the kind of culture where we give something back, where we’re friendly people,” she said. “We’re all about opportunity. A lot of salons do stuff like this, and in the Paul Mitchell culture, they always do this.”

That includes the Altamonte Springs salon, which has already been involved in the Children’s Miracle Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to saving and improving the lives of children by raising funds for children’s hospitals.

“It was one of the biggest charity events here in Florida,” Flores said of the event that took place two years ago. “It was a big

The staff at Lunatic Fringe is like a family.

experience. We got to touch people’s lives. We see these kids going through tough times, and it’s very hard. But we’re here to give them support and make them happy.”

That also extends to touching the lives of the parents of those children.

“We’re basically there giving them our time, and helping them out,” Flores said.

Flores also credited her staff,  a group that the salon culture often refers to as “artists” –who, Flores added, are happy to be on this mission.

“We’re a team,” she said. “We’re not a staff, we’re a team. We work together as a team. We’re constantly getting educated. We treat each other as a family, and when people come here, they feel that.”

Lunatic Fringe offers Paul Mitchell products in addition to scissor work, stylist work, coloring, and textures that include perms and straightening, make up, brows, and eyelash extensions. Flores said her staff has cultivated a loyal customer base because they go the extra mile for their guests.

“We have great customer service,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons we have the guests that we do. It’s all about the guest experience here. We give them everything we have.”

New to Lunatic Fringe this holiday season: Awapuhi, imported to the Altamonte Springs salon from the Paul Mitchell Systems Awapuhi Farm.

Awapuhi Wild Ginger is a Keratin Intensive Treatment concentrated protein blend, designed to provide strong, healthy hair. Paul Mitchell Systems notes that it’s ideal for hair that is naturally dry and brittle, sun-damaged, and lightened or chemically treated. It’s created from the fragrant juice of the Awapuhi ginger plant, which Hawaiian natives have used for centuries to moisturize skin and hair. Each plant is harvested and processed by hand to preserve its special hydrating properties.

Lunatic Fringe Salon is at Uptown Altamonte, 293 E. Altamonte Drive. To learn more, call 407-862-HAIR (4247) or log on to

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