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Tragedy survivors reflect on Thanksgiving after year of loss

Mass shootings, hurricanes, fires — for many people across the nation, 2018 was a year of loss unlike any other. As the quintessentially American holiday of Thanksgiving approaches, some will abandon traditions or choose not to mark the holiday at all. Others will celebrate new friendships forged in the wake of tragedy.

Here's how some of the survivors will spend Thanksgiving:

PARKLAND, FLORIDA: "A HARD WEEK"

Fred Guttenberg will start his Thanksgiving morning at a cemetery.

His 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, was one of 17 people killed in the Valentine's Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

"This Thanksgiving is about loss," said Guttenberg who will visit Jaime's grave with his wife, his son and their two dogs. "It's my first Thanksgiving without my daughter, and we're not going to leave her out of it."

After that, the family has no plans to celebrate or eat a turkey dinner. None of their past traditions seems appropriate. Jaime loved the holidays, her dad said. She looked forward to decorating the house and helping her mom with the cooking.

"This is going to be a hard week," Guttenberg said in a phone interview. He's been a vocal advocate for stricter gun laws and started Orange Ribbons For Jaime, an organization that raises money for gun reform and for causes that were important to his daughter, including animal welfare and dance scholarships.

The grieving father made national headlines when he was one of the first parents to speak out after the shooting at a candlelight vigil. During his gut-wrenching recap of his last moments with Jaime, he worried whether he had remembered to say "I love you" as she rushed out the door for school.

"I sent her to school yesterday. She was supposed to be safe. My job is to protect my children," he told the crowd.

Now, nine months later, Guttenberg says his family is facing a season of firsts without Jaime, whom he described as the energy in the room. He had a request for families who have not lost any loved ones to gun violence.

"Remember those who maybe aren't there this holiday and be part of the change that needs to happen in this country so it doesn't happen to them next."

PITTSBURGH: "WE MUST NOT FORGET"

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers had just begun Shabbat service at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh when the shooting began. Now, less than three weeks after the deadliest attack on Jews in the United States, he plans to celebrate Thanksgiving and encouraged others to do so too.

"People are looking forward to Thanksgiving because there is a lot to be thankful for," he said.

The day of the attack, Oct. 27, "will remain a constant wound," Myers said of the shooting that killed 11 people. But in his weekly blog post to his congregants, he wrote: "For me, just being able to sit in the same room with my family is immensely rewarding, something I was not certain I would ever have the opportunity to do again. That is why something so simple is so powerful and meaningful for me."

However, that is not enough, Myers said. He urged people to be aware of the less fortunate, those in the community who need food and shelter. And he suggested "one simple, yet meaningful gesture" that would make an impact. He asked people to count the number of friends and relatives gathered around their tables at Thanksgiving and donate that sum to charities that feed the hungry. People could also give more, or less.

"It is called tzedakah for an excellent reason: The root word, tzedek, means 'righteousness.' It is the right thing to do, and you know that. The needs of others did not disappear on Oct. 27. They remained, and we must not forget them."

CALIFORNIA: FACEBOOK ANGELS

Athenia Dunham and daughter Natalie will spend Thanksgiving at the home of a woman they met less than two weeks ago, surrounded by new friends. Athenia call them "angels."

The Dunhams barely escaped their home in Paradise, California, on Nov. 8 as a deadly wildfire swept through. They were awoken by their pitbull, Luna, and flames were already burning the home next door. They made it out and to a hotel in nearby Redding, paying for the room with money from a homeowner's insurance payout.

On a normal Thanksgiving, Athenia said, she would be cooking for a few friends and preparing to "pig out and veg." But this year the holidays are the last thing on her mind.

"To be honest, I really don't even know what day it is — it feels like this just happened yesterday," she said Tuesday.

But an army of super volunteers who connected via Facebook have come together to help give the two women as normal a Thanksgiving as possible.

Beyond providing a meal, the volunteers have provided the mother and daughter with clothing, gift cards and a laptop computer so Natalie can keep up with her education. One volunteer even did their laundry.

"They're our angels — and angels have been with us since we left our driveway," Athenia said.

MEXICO BEACH, FLORIDA: THANKFUL TO BE ALIVE

The Rev. Eddie LaFountain of the First Baptist Church in Mexico Beach, Florida, plans to welcome 300 people to the parking lot of his storm-damaged church for Thanksgiving dinner.

He's held worship services in the lot since Hurricane Michael destroyed most of the community on Oct. 10. Since that Category 4 storm, the church has become one of the town's hubs for supplies, necessities and love.

Thanksgiving Day is no different, LaFountain said.

"We just felt like we wanted to open it up to everybody that's here. Because some don't have ovens, some are here volunteering. Anybody's invited," he said. "Just to be thankful that God's given us life."

LaFountain's other job as a landscaper dried up since the hurricane, as did his wife's job cleaning condos. But he feels blessed that his apartment was unscathed, his children are safe and that he has firsthand evidence of the good in people every day.

Just a few days ago, volunteers put a new roof on the church. Inside, the donations of shoes, groceries, clothing and other items are free for the taking.

"We can barely walk through the church sometimes," he said.

Volunteers from Wild Olive, a Panama City restaurant, are cooking the Thanksgiving meal for the hundreds expected to stop by.

"We're going to pray with them and love on them," LaFountain said. "If you ever want to experience God, he's here."

___

Associated Press writers Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Ramesh Santanam in Pittsburgh; and Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento, California, contributed to this report.

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The Latest Headlines You Need To Know

  • >> Read more trending news Check back for updates to this developing story [Summary]
  • There is a major development in the works for Orlando.  It’s called the Packing District and it will transform a long-forgotten part of the city. Planners say the Packing District will honor Orlando’s rich history and ties to the citrus industry by revitalizing an area of the city once used for packing citrus to be shipped around the U.S.  It will be built just west of Orlando’s College Park neighborhood near the intersection of Princeton Street and Orange Blossom Trail. This week, one of the architects on the project released details of what’s coming to the southeast corner of that intersection.  Dr. Phillips Charities has chosen dap design as the architect for one of the centerpieces to the Packing District, a Food Hall.   The 22,400-square-foot project will be anchored by a historic building once owned by the Great Southern Box Company.  The building was used to build shipping crates for citrus. The Food Hall will be located at the southeast corner of Princeton and O.B.T. and will keep many of the features of the original Great Southern Box building which dates back to the 1930s. “It’s an honor to be a part of this transformational project that recognizes the history of this building and area,” said Joel A Setzer, AIA, dap design. “The food hall design approach will celebrate the existing buildings form and utilize its large structural bays as a passive connection to outdoor green space. The project will be tightly woven into the fabric of what The Packing District will be and have a strong connection to its larger context and community.” Amenities of the Food Hall will include a micro-brewery, 4,000 square feet of event space, a restaurant and bar, parking, 14,000 square feet of retail space and 10,000 square feet of office space.  The project will also include a monument sign intended to greet people to the Packing District . Once it is converted, the Southern Box building will feature an elevated plaza, outdoor greenspace and additional seating for the Food Hall.  Construction is slated to begin early next year and should be complete by the end of 2020.   The total estimated cost for the Packing District is somewhere in the neighborhood of $500,000.  Overall, the 200-acre project will take about 10-15 years to complete in four phases.    
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  • Violent storms and tornadoes slammed Missouri late Wednesday, leaving three people dead and pummeling the state's capital, officials said. >> Oklahoma flooding: 2 barges break loose, could hit dam, officials warn According to The Associated Press, a 'large and destructive tornado' hit Jefferson City before midnight, National Weather Service officials said. The twister caused several injuries, trapped residents, destroyed homes and buildings, and knocked out power to nearly 13,000 people, KOMU-TV reported. >> Read more trending news  No deaths have been reported in connection with the Jefferson City tornado, police said in a news conference early Thursday. >> Watch a video from the scene here >> See photos from Jefferson City The news came after officials said three people were killed when a 'suspected tornado' struck Golden City, NBC News reported. >> See the tweet here Tornado damage also was reported in Carl Junction, where several people were hurt, according to NBC News. One social media user shared a dramatic video of the twister sweeping through the area.  >> Watch the video here Earlier this week, storms were blamed for three more deaths – including two in Missouri and one in Iowa – and a possible fourth in Oklahoma, the AP reported. Read more here. – The Associated Press contributed to this report.
  • An Obama-era plan to feature Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill is crumbling. On Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the 2020 unveiling of the note, timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of a Constitutional amendment that granted women the right to vote, has been canceled. >> Girl, 3, reaching out to mural of Harriet Tubman caught in emotional photo He pushed back the redesign of the $20 bill at least nine years, offering no guarantees that it will bear the likeness of the celebrated abolitionist. “The primary reason we have looked at redesigning the currency is for counterfeiting issues,” Mnuchin said in response to questions by Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass. “Based upon this, the $20 bill will now not come out until 2028. The $10 bill and the $50 bill will come out with new features beforehand.” Pressley said it is time for America to better reflect who built it. “People other than white men built this county. And Secretary Mnuchin agrees, yet he refuses to update our currency,” she said in a tweet. “Harriet Tubman, Marian Anderson and Eleanor Roosevelt are iconic Americans and it’s past time that our money reflects that.” >> See the tweet here Andy Ambrose, executive director of the Tubman Museum in Macon, Georgia, called the decision “unfortunate” and noted that Tubman was long denied a military pension before Congress approved a $20 monthly payment. “Harriet Tubman deserves this national recognition that has been long delayed, as she is one of the most courageous, inspiring women in American history,” he said. “But this is part and parcel of the history of this country and the way in which African American women have been, and continue to be, treated and unacknowledged.” Susan Ades Stone, the executive director of the organization that initially proposed putting Tubman on the $20 bill, said Mnuchin’s punt is a calculated political move directed by President Donald Trump. She called for Congress to intervene. >> Read more trending news  “We’re not surprised that Secretary Mnuchin may be kicking the design reveal of the $20 bill to sometime beyond the potential interference of a Trump presidency,” Stone said. “The Tubman $20 design was supposed to be unveiled by 2020 and, even under the most optimistic timetable set out by the Obama administration, was never expected to be in our hands before 2026.” It was in the waning days of the Obama administration that then-Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced that Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the redesigned bills. Stone’s group, Women on 20s, had submitted a petition to the White House in 2015, urging Obama to consider replacing Jackson on the $20 bill with the image of the former slave. Women on 20s also had considered Rosa Parks, who sparked the beginning of the modern civil rights movement; former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt; and Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation. The initial plan was to replace the image of Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill as part of the Treasury’s redesign of bills to make them harder to counterfeit. That thinking began to change, in part because of the Broadway smash “Hamilton.” With the play’s success, the profile of Hamilton, the country’s first treasury secretary, began to climb. The focus then shifted to the $20 bill. >> On AJC.com: How much did Tubman get in her monthly pension for serving as a Civil War nurse? Tubman would have been the first African American on U.S. currency and only the second woman. Martha Washington appeared on the face of the $1 Silver Certificate of 1886 and 1891, and on the back of the $1 Silver Certificate of 1896, according to the U.S. Mint. Known as Moses, Tubman escaped slavery in Maryland then spent a large part of her life returning to the South as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, a secret network that helped fugitive slaves get to free states. Tubman rescued approximately 70 people on more than 13 trips back to Maryland, according to Kate Clifford Larson’s 2003 biography, “Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero.” It has been nearly a century since one of the faces on U.S. paper currency has changed. In 1928 — for reasons that remain unclear — Grover Cleveland was replaced on the $20 bill by Jackson, America’s seventh president. Ironically, Jackson opposed the use of paper currency. Those who wanted to see him replaced pointed out that he owned hundreds of slaves who worked his Hermitage plantation in Nashville. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 authorized Jackson to grant unsettled land west of the Mississippi River to southern tribes who agreed to give up their ancestral homelands. The mass removal of the Cherokee tribe to Oklahoma became known as the Trail of Tears. >> On AJC.com: Trump White House putting the brakes on Tubman on $20 Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump praised Jackson, whom he considers a hero and is said to have modeled his populist administration after. A portrait of Jackson hangs in the Oval Office, and Trump placed a wreath on his tomb to mark Jackson’s 250th birthday in 2018. He has said that the decision to put Tubman on the currency was “pure political correctness” and proposed putting her portrait on the $2 bill, which has the lowest circulation volume of any bill. Stone rejects that idea. “Now it is up to Congress to act on the Harriet Tubman Tribute Bill that is presently before the House Financial Services Committee, to compel the Treasury Department to accelerate the timetable and at the very least show us a Tubman bill design in time for the centennial of the 19th Amendment in 2020,” Stone said. “As we’ve been saying for years, symbols do matter.”

Washington Insider

  • For the second time in three days, a federal judge rejected arguments by lawyers for President Donald Trump, refusing to block subpoenas issued by a U.S. House committee for financial records held by U.S. banks which did business with the President's companies. 'I think the courts are saying that we are going to uphold the rule of law,' said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, which has subpoenaed information from the Mazars USA accounting firm. Wednesday's ruling from federal Judge Edgardo Ramos, put on the bench by President Barack Obama, related to subpoenas by two other House panels to Deutsche Bank and Capital One, for records related to Mr. Trump's businesses. Lawyers for the President, the Trump Organization, and Mr. Trump's family had asked that the subpoenas be quashed - the judge made clear that wasn't happening, and also rejected a request to stay his ruling to allow for an appeal. As in investigative matters involving the President's tax returns, and other subpoenas from Democrats, Mr. Trump's legal team argued that there is a limit on the investigative power of the Congress. 'Congress must, among other things, have a legitimate legislative purpose, not exercise law-enforcement authority, not excess the relevant committee's jurisdiction, and not make overbroad or impertinent requests,' the President's lawyers wrote in a brief filed last week. But as with a case in federal court in Washington earlier this week, that argument failed to sway Judge Ramos, who said Deutsche Bank can turn over in the information sought by the House Financial Services Committee and the House Intelligence Committee. In the halls of Congress, Democrats said the legal victories were clear evidence that the resistance of the White House to Congressional investigation could only succeed for so long. 'The White House has attempted to block Congressional oversight, but the law is on our side,' said Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT). And Democrats also were pleased by the quick action of both judges this week, amid worries that multiple legal challenges by the President could cause lengthy delays. 'We should not be slowed down in our work simply by a clock that goes through judicial processes,' said Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-PA). The legal setback for President Trump came several hours after he cut short a White House meeting with top Democrats on infrastructure, saying he would not work with them on major legislation until the House stopped a variety of investigations. 'Get these phony investigations over with,' the President told reporters in the Rose Garden. Mr. Trump seemed especially aggravated by statements earlier on Wednesday by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who accused the President of resisting subpoenas and other document requests for a reason. 'And we believe the President of the United States is engaged in a cover-up, in a cover-up,' Pelosi told reporters at the Capitol.