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Bay area community gives ranch makeover in woman's memory

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 06:28 PM

Hey, Rach, let's fuel up, James Lavine called out to his bride of 19 months. They'd had a good night, enjoying a lively dinner with family at Lee Roy Selmon's in Tampa. Now it was time for James and Rachel Lavine to strap on their helmets, get on their Yamaha sport bikes and head north to their new home in Hudson.

As they turned onto West Boy Scout Boulevard toward Dale Mabry Highway around 11:30 p.m. on July 20 – just the way they always rode, with James out front and Rachel following behind him – something went terribly wrong. To his right, from the corner of his eye, James saw his wife's motorcycle swerve to miss a sudden curve, then cross the lane to the left in front of him and veer over to a turn lane.

In a flash, the bike hit another curb and Rachel catapulted through the air. Heart pounding, James pulled his bike to a sliding halt and raced to the crumpled figure on the ground 50 feet away. As a firefighter-paramedic for Pasco Fire Rescue in Port Richey, he had seen his share of horrific accidents. But this was different. The victim he was trying desperately to save was the love of his life.

James first saw Rachel in October 2009, at the Dallas Bull, a honky-tonk nightclub in Brandon. The 22-year-old surgical tech from Venice was doing what she loved best: kicking up her heels and line dancing to country music. She needed a partner, so she grabbed his hand, pulling him in the circle. 'Round and 'round they went, switching off with other people but keeping eye contact. Finally, they ended up together again, dancing in sync center stage.

"She was beautiful, all right," recalls James of the blue-eyed slender brunette. "But it was her smile that hooked me. She lit up the room." They had a lot in common. A strong Christian faith, close family ties, a lust for adventure and outdoor sports. He fell in love with her goofy laugh, her sassy free spirit and her selfless nature. She was taken by his sweet, romantic ways, and how he made her feel as if she was the only person in the room.

James, a 2003 graduate of Jefferson High School in Tampa, was only 25, but he was steady and solid. Rachel felt safe around him. They didn't let distance separate them.

Some days, Rachel would drive all the way from Venice to Dade City where James was stationed at the time. She would bring his crew goodies she made from scratch – cupcakes, pies, cookies and brownies – and after a short visit, head back home. "It was obvious that it was meant to be, right from the start," says Ashli Butler, one of Rachel's best friends, who was there the night the couple met. "Once they found each other, that was it." Six months into their whirlwind romance, James took her to a public horse stable in Tampa. Wear your boots, he told her. We're going riding.

Nothing could have delighted Rachel more. She was an avid equestrian, participating in barrel racing as a teen on her own beloved quarter horse, Beau. The guide – who was in on James' plan – took them on a trail ride to a lake. Then he excused himself, saying he would be back shortly. They got off their steeds to take in the pastoral setting. James reached into his pocket, got on one knee and offered her a ring he had fashioned out of grass and hay. "Will you marry me?" he asked her. She broke down and cried, nodding her head and cherishing his homemade gift as if it was a 10-carat bauble. Then he pulled the real thing out of his other pocket. He couldn't have scripted it better. "It was just perfect," James says.

They married six months later, in early December before 250 guests at The Lange Farm in Dade City. Her parents, Robert and Paula Bodi, gave away their middle daughter to a man they had grown to love as a son. Rachel wore cowboy boots under her white wedding dress. Life was full of promise. Rachel got a job at St. Luke's Cataract and Laser Institute in Tarpon Springs. Last March, they moved from Tampa and became homeowners, buying a multilevel country house on 1.4 acres in Hudson.

It had enough space for the eventual children they wanted and their growing menagerie – two dogs, a goat named Chewy and several chickens. There was room to add a horse or two, which Rachel vowed to do one day. In the meantime, she got her equine fix just a few minutes down the road at Hope Youth Ranch, a faith-based, nonprofit residential facility for foster and at-risk youth. The ranch's horses are used for therapy, for both the residents and those enrolled in a day program for autistic and hurting children. She kept carrots and apples in her car, stopping to give the horses a treat on her way home from work.

Rachel was passionate for horses and kids. As soon we get settled and can make some time, she told James, I'm going to volunteer there.

In the minutes before Tampa Fire Rescue responded to his 911 call, James went into paramedic mode and frantically worked on his gravely injured wife in the dark. But in his heart, he knew she was gone. She was taken by ambulance to the trauma center at St. Joseph's Hospital. The cause of death was a broken neck. Except for a few scrapes, Rachel looked as if she was just taking a nap.

Those were numbing days between the accident and the funeral at West Broad Baptist Church in Tampa, where James once served as youth director. Faith was all family members could hang on to. Robert, the grief-stricken father, fought through his own devastation to comfort his son-in-law, telling him, "God is never too late. He is never too quick. He is always on time." It was Rachel's time, he said. "This is something you would not wish on anyone," says Robert of losing a daughter. "You go through every emotion, and then you go through it again. "What keeps us going is knowing she's with Jesus and her grandfather in heaven. She's gone home, and we will see her again one day."

Someone asked James where people could donate to a favorite cause of Rachel's in lieu of flowers. He honestly didn't know what to say. How about Hope Youth Ranch? He said. Rachel never made it there as a volunteer, but it was on her mind. They put the suggestion in her obituary.

Ampy and Jose Suarez, who left successful careers to open the ranch in 2004, didn't understand when checks started arriving in Rachel's name. They would find out soon enough the story of their benefactor.

A few weeks after the funeral, James stopped by the ranch to introduce himself to the Suarezes. I'm Rachel's husband, he told them. They were overwhelmed by this unexpected gift from a stranger, but saddened that it took a tragedy to make it happen. The three bonded immediately. When asked if they had any needs at the facility, Ampy replied: "Everything."

Like a lot of nonprofits, the ranch was struggling to keep up with repairs, vet bills and other expenses. Other than state reimbursements for contracts and some private funds, Hope Youth Ranch depends on donations and support from the community. The program's wish list kept getting longer.

The couple gave James a tour of the sprawling 10-acre property. He surveyed the old barn with its peeling paint and damaged roof and thought: We could do something here. He told the Suarezes to put together a list of projects, and he would find some volunteers to get work done with the donations. Beeson "Moose" Mustafa, a fellow Pasco firefighter and former Army Ranger, offered to help his friend organize a two-day "extreme makeover" on the property, spreading the word through social media such as Facebook and Twitter. It was the first time he had asked people for help and couldn't believe the response. "Nobody said no.

They didn't know Rachel, they didn't know James, they didn't know the ranch, but they wanted to do something," he says. "It was so amazing and, for me, it was life-changing. I saw firsthand how God works." Mustafa spoke to area businesses, and he got the same reaction. What can we do? Equipment, supplies and food for the volunteers were all donated, from Home Depot, Lowe's, Wal-Mart, Suncoast Water Gardens, Coastal Rentals and others. The three major Tampa Bay area sports organizations – Rays, Bucs and Lightning – also pitched in. A woman Mustafa had met when he served in Iraq sent a $1,000 check.

Still, he had no idea how many people would actually show up on the makeover days. Turns out, Mustafa had no reason to be concerned. The outpouring of firefighters from counties all over southwest Florida – along with other friends – was staggering. In all, more than 300 people responded, working in the hot August sun in Rachel's memory.

Lindsey Johnson and her firefighter husband, Adam, were good friends of the Lavines. She came out to help honor a woman she will never forget. "We're all better people for having known her," says Johnson, a nurse. "She had an incredibly sweet spirit and giving nature.

That James would take such a tragedy and turn it into such a selfless act is something Rachel would appreciate." James isn't taking the credit. He says he couldn't have orchestrated such a massive effort without the support of friends like Moose. He also knows that Rachel played a role.

"I know she was smiling down from heaven," he says. "And she was probably a little mad, because she would have been putting up wood with us and playing with the horses. Her spirit is definitely right here."

James doesn't play the "What if?" game. What if they hadn't gone to dinner that night? What if they had taken another route? What if they had been in a car instead of their motorcycles? None of that will bring her back. And his faith tells him that she's in a perfect place now, anyway.

Some days, he's OK; other times, he shuts down. Every waking moment is a hurdle, from hearing a song that Rachel loved to giving extra attention to the dogs, the pit bull Bailey and Zaida, the Husky. They didn't eat for a week after she was gone. After taking time off, he is back on the job at the station with his second family. He tries not to think of the night when all his emergency medical training could not save the person he loved the most. Instead, he focuses on Rachel's legacy at the ranch and the work that still needs to be done.

It's a changed place, with an estimated $100,000 of improvements: Fencing for the pasture, a cover for the equine therapy arena, a rebuilt barn, a wash-down area for the horses, a serenity garden with a waterfall, privacy fencing on the back end of the property.

The Suarezes are grateful for the deepening friendship they have with James.

Their only regret is the bittersweet circumstances that brought this blessing, and that they never met the woman who made it all possible.

"This project came at a time when we needed it the most," Jose says. "It's energized the whole place. Things we only dreamed about are happening."

On Saturday, a special memorial for Rachel takes place at Hope Youth Ranch. All the improvements will be unveiled at the public event. James says this is the place he will continue to support and visit because her presence will always be here.

As a reminder, he'll only need to look at the sign they're placing on the property's central building: Rachel's Barn.

RACHEL LAVINE MEMORIAL

When: 11 a.m. Oct. 27

Where: Hope Youth Ranch, 17933 E. Road, Hudson   

Includes: Remembrances of Rachel, tours of the property, dedication of the barn, refreshments

Information: (727) 232-0119

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