Every year, the community comes together to honor one resident who has gone above and beyond to be considered the annual Citizen of the Year.
This is the 62nd annual ceremony and Sandee Sytsma was shocked when she realized she received the high honor on Wednesday. Her family hid behind the stage to surprise her on her big day and the joyous announcement was cheered on by a large crowd of well-wishers.
The award was created decades ago to highlight civic-minded Plant City-area residents who have dedicated their lives toward giving back to their community. They must have a strong character, a humble spirit and carry the virtues of Plant City in their bones.
Sytsma received her recognition from last year’s recipient, Jim Scott. Scott didn’t have to try very hard to unearth a plethora of reasons Sytsma was the perfect fit to receive this year’s coveted award.
“Our recipient is the embodiment of an ‘outstanding citizen,’” Scott said. “Her contributions to Plant City are significant both in ways that can be seen outwardly by the community and what they do privately behind the scenes.”
Scott went on to list a variety of causes Sytsma has supported via committees including Relay for Life, Diamonds & Denim, Veterans Memorial Park and the Plant City Mural. Sytsma has been recognized as the Good Egg by the Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce, serves with her congregation at GracePoint Church, was the first woman to serve as chair of the Florida Strawberry Festival and has represented the festival and the community in countless talk shows and publications over the years.
Sytsma is the daughter of Roy and Helen Parke, legends in the community for both their strawberry farm and their civic mindset. Their dedication toward making Plant City a wonderful place to live was passed on to her and she has spent her entire life pouring back into this community. She got involved as an associate director and then later a director of the Florida Strawberry Festival and has served on a variety of committees the festival organizes. She also volunteered as the Strawberry Court coordinator for 13 years before stepping down to be vice president of the festival board. She served as chair in 2018.
“Her family attests to the fact that she never slows down,” Scott said. “She fills her days, constantly looking for ways to help people, and I’m told that she enjoys making soup and chicken salad. And whenever she hears someone’s going through a tough time, the food just tends to magically appear at their front door.”
Sytsma appeared to be shocked and blown away by the fact that the community considered her to be worthy of the award. Scott summed up her list of accomplishments with a saying anyone who knows Sytsma will have heard her say a thousand times.
“She follows her vision of doing what you’re passionate about,” Scott said. “She said, ‘If your heart is right and your intentions are pure, that will shine through.’”
After thunderous applause, Sytsma humbly accepted the award and kept her speech rather short. She thanked the community as a whole and told them she greatly appreciated the gesture. She then said that her husband, Hank, is her rock and encourager. Her family looked on with pride and joy as she thanked the room once again for the honor.
“You have got to be kidding me,” Sytsma said in surprise. “Oh my gosh… this is too much. It’s an honor. I’m humbled. I’m beyond shocked. I’m thankful, I’m grateful for our community and the opportunity to serve our community.”