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March 12, 2020

Penny Shaffer found herself surrounded as she was painting the frame around patio doors at a home in South Florida.

There were a couple of first responders painting the ceiling right above her. Nearby, people were changing the home’s yellow exterior walls to white. Not far away, there were folks building a pergola and others adding new landscaping. To make the cramped area feel even tighter, there were ladders and paint buckets everywhere.

(Image: Lacy Evans, her daughter Summer and Penny Shaffer)

And it was all being captured by film crews from “Military Makeover,” a cable television show that features renovations at the homes of military personnel and their families. This time it was for the family of veteran Chris Hixon, the athletic director at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland who died two years ago trying to save students from the shooter.

The fast pace and multiple crews at the home made it seem like a six-ring circus, said Shaffer, who is Florida Blue’s South Florida market president. “A wonderful six-ring circus.”

She was one of about 30 Florida Blue employees who worked on the family home where Hixon’s widow, Debbie, grew up and where she and Chris raised their two sons. One of the sons still lives there with her. The team of employees was a mix of people from across the company, including president and CEO Pat Geraghty.

(Image: Pat Geraghty)

It was a chance to do something good for the Hixons, one of 17 families who lost a loved one in the shooting on Feb. 14, 2018. A Valentine’s Day that should have been focused on love was instead marred by an act of hate. It’s a day well-remembered by so many, including the Florida Blue employees who helped during the renovation.

Living the Mission of Helping Others

Herman Koch is a kindred spirit, of sorts, with Chris Hixon. Both served in the military: Koch in the Marines, Hixon in the Navy. Koch was filled with a range of emotions the day of the shooting. Anger when he heard about the shooting and the many lives lost. Pride when he heard Hixon had spent the last minutes of his life trying to protect the students.

(Image: Chris Hixon, provided by the Hixon Famly)

“It made me very proud of one of my own,” said Koch, who is the South Florida regional representative for VetNet, a Florida Blue employee resource group.

Marilu Flores was in Washington, D.C., the day of the shooting, lobbying for marine science on Capitol Hill. She is a social media strategist for Florida Blue, and also has a certificate in marine science and volunteers as regional manager for the Surfrider Foundation. Debbie Hixon is a marine science teacher and has attended Surfrider events, which is how Flores met her.

It wasn’t until late the night of the shooting that Flores learned Hixon’s husband had been killed. Flores said she postponed her speaking engagement to focus on helping with Florida Blue’s messaging and resources for those impacted by the tragedy.

Chief Marketing Officer Lynn Rossi was working for another company in New York City when the shooting happened. There were a few native Floridians on her team, including one who attended Stoneman Douglas High School.

Rossi had witnessed tragedy before. She was 10 blocks away when planes flew into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. But there’s something uniquely tragic about shootings in a school.

“I have children. When I hear about a shooting in a school, I get sick to my stomach,” she said. “There’s sadness, not understanding how these things can continue to happen in our schools.”

Shaffer, who was horrified by the shooting, said the company’s priorities quickly shifted that day to helping the community. One of the injured students was the son of a Florida Blue member. Care managers were quickly assigned to help the family. The boy had multiple surgeries and will probably have challenges the rest of his life, Shaffer said. But he survived.

There were several Florida Blue employees who knew children who died that day. Other workers had strong ties to Stoneman Douglas High School. The company provided free mental health counseling at no cost for the entire community through a 24-hour toll-free helpline and in person.

Helping people and communities achieve better health is what Florida Blue is about. “That’s not always flu and blood pressure,” Shaffer said.

That mission of helping people is what drove the company to participate in the Lifetime network show, hosted by Montel Williams. The episode featuring Florida Blue premiered March 12 and will be repeated on the network. Episodes can also be seen on YouTube. Click here to watch a video of the team working at the Hixon home.

From the moment Charlie Joseph heard about the opportunity, he thought it was important for Florida Blue to be there. It didn’t matter that it came at a very busy time for the company. It was a chance to support the community, the military and the Hixon family, said Joseph, who is executive vice president for corporate affairs and chief legal officer.   

Working Together for a Common Purpose

The work to transform the house straddled the delicate line between showing respect for the history the Hixons built over the years, while setting the scene for future memories to be made. There were parts of the house that Debbie Hixon didn’t want touched, like the red walls in a bedroom that Chris Hixon had painted. And some items, like the quilt the Hixons used, had to remain, said Doug Bartel, Florida Blue’s senior director of business development, media and external relations.

He viewed the project as a way to help the Hixon family keep moving forward, but not moving on. Bartel was able to secure a special addition for the home: a signed print from the Guy Harvey Foundation to match the new beach décor.

Joseph said there was a great spirit of togetherness at the site, with a common purpose of helping the Hixon family and doing something important in the community. He focused on painting while he was there. When asked if he was a good painter, Joseph smiled and said, “Well, I think so, but others may have different opinions on that.”

Then, he added, “I will say I did my best not to miss any spots because we all had this incredible sense of responsibility to do it the right way for this extraordinary family.”

(Image: Chris & Debbi Hixon with their sons, provided by the Hixon Famly)