Meet the Humans of the Keys

Meet the Humans of the Keys

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Hillary Cassel and Martha Loizeaux - Ocean Studies Charter School, Tavernier

“We both applied for the Teachers under the Sea Program through the Aquarius Program at FIU (Florida International University). Teachers from all over the world can apply; you have to send in an application and a video. There were 4 spots available but they chose 5 teachers.
We were both chosen! We were awarded 2 of the 5 spots. We were so lucky!!

The Aquarius Program is ran by FIU from their Islamorada location; Aquarius Underwater Habitat, the world’s only undersea research laboratory which is located 60 feet below the water surface in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Scientists will go on missions down there to study for longer periods of time underwater so they don’t have to surface for hours. Astronauts also use the Aquarius as a space analog training facility.
FIU thought it would be a cool idea to invite some teachers to participate while some scientists were doing their research so the teachers could become more educated and help out, you know, Citizen Science. We also did skype sessions with schools all over the world while we were there. We were either helping the scientists, or holding the skype teaching sessions. Having the teachers help and teach from Aquarius was to also help raise marine research awareness, get kids excited about it, and give more teachers information to share with their kids.
We were scheduled to spend one night inside Aquarius, but it was canceled due to bad weather. They have to seal the doors and lower the pressure inside to atmospheric pressure for us to stay without all the training usually needed. They are going to reschedule the overnight stay.”
Hillary – “For me, this program was the culmination of all my life’s experiences into one. I was a zoo keeper, I am a scuba diver and instructor, and now a school teacher. This experience combined my passion for animals, the environment, the ocean, scuba diving and teaching; it rolled them all into one experience for one week. We got to see fish, sting rays, sharks (not as many as we would have liked), so many beautiful creatures! We got to participate in a study that can really improve our oceans and I got to teach kids about it and hopefully get them excited about it at the same time! It was everything I love rolled into one!”
Martha – “I had a similar reaction to the experience. Before I started teaching at a school I was a dive instructor and taught environmental education out on boats. That has always been my passion. I got more into the educational side after I had children. It was an opportunity to combine both my passion for the ocean and teaching; and in an intense way. It was all day, every day for a week, and we were able to make these connections with the scientists and other teachers. The fact that this happens here, at home in the Keys, made me remember why I wanted to live here in the first place.
While we were skyping with our own school, there was this feeling of wholeness. I could see my son’s face watching and listening with the rest of the students we love so much. We were underwater sharing the experience and information with the kids. It was wonderful combining all the things we love together instead of having to sacrifice one or the other.”
Hillary – “We literally got on the boat every morning at 7 am and didn’t get off the boat until about 6pm; then we would have exactly 1 hour to shower and eat, then we would go to the base in Islamorada to help the scientists analyze their data and watch the research videos that were recorded from the day. It was about midnight when we were able to get to bed. It was so exhausting, really intense, we were delirious, but it was so much fun and the people were amazing. The scientists were a blast. This experience inspired me to want to go back and get my master’s degree; it was so interesting and exciting to experience what the scientists do first hand.”
Martha – “It inspired me to get more involved in science. Right now, I am really wrapped up in teaching, and we have so much science happening right here in our school! It has inspired me to get out and volunteer during my summer and get more involved in the science happening right here.
The study they were doing while we were there was about the impact sharks have on the coral reef’s eco system. They were looking at how the presence of the sharks impact the fish and how much the fish would feed on the algae; the algae is what is actually taking over the coral reefs and smothering it. The thought was that maybe, because there is a lack of sharks in this area, the feeding behaviors of the fish is changing, the fish aren’t eating the right algae so the algae is over growing. It is called ‘trophic cascade’’; one thing stems from another. The scientists were looking at how the fish ate when sharks were present verses when sharks were not present.”
Hillary – “We got so lucky, it was, like, the only 5 consecutive days with no wind in months. Our dives were beautiful. It was amazing, and going into the habitat was the coolest thing I have experienced in my whole life. It is like an out of body experience.”
Martha - “I think the cool thing about it is, you’re in your normal realm but you’re not confined; you can move around and you can see everything you can normally see, but you’re not confined with the tanks and all of that. It is a new kind of freedom.”
Hillary – “When you’re showering off in the habitat and you look out the window and see fish swimming by, it’s such a strange, amazing feeling. We were sitting at the table and a Goliath grouper decided to swim by and we were sitting right there! I got a picture with him and it was like I was sitting at my kitchen table with that Goliath grouper. It’s just the coolest thing ever!”
Martha – “Yea, I think if we could do that every day, we would!”
Hillary – “I could do that every day!”

Friday, January 29, 2016

Tiki Fiorentino, Islamorada --PART 1--


My parents met at the port in Charleston, South Carolina. My mother worked at a local tavern, and my father was a sailor on a submarine tender The Bushnell. My father was shipped to Key West as the Cuban Missile Crisis began; my mother followed by land and I was born a little more than a year later in Key West on Dec. 24, 1963. I’m a true "Conch." My parents decided to stay in the Keys, favoring the climate to any they had known previously. They were both used to much colder weather, mom being from Crossville, TN and dad from Long Island NY.
Early on I remember we lived on Lowe Street in Tavernier, in one of the Red Cross houses. I recall walking to the end of the street with my little sis Donya in tow and always ending up in the ocean. We had these two cats we adopted when they were stray kittens. We dressed them in doll clothes and carried them around like rag dolls; we even went into the water and swam with them! We climbed trees like they were our monkey babies, and they began to cling to us wherever we went. They would even jump into the sea when we were there walking in the shallows collecting starfish. (I remember back then the small half dollar sized brown starfish were everywhere!)
Once, on an inshore breezy day, the man-o-war were drifting ashore, and Donya (4) and I (8) thought they were pretty so we collected a bucket full and carried it back to mom. We suffered for days from the stings of their brightly colored tentacles! That was one of many lessons we learned about the beauty and danger of sea life. Dad and mom would teach us many more; taking us on outings regularly to Tavernier Key, Elliott Key, Nest Key and many more adventurous places where we would "skump" around the mangrove hammocks searching for treasures like sea beans and old bottles. Donya and I had the best times out there on the water.
My mom then had another child, my brother, Joseph. It was then that my parents decided to purchase their first piece of property in Hammer Point. It was one of the first sold and groundbreaking had not yet begun. Daily we would go to Harry Harris Park for showers and fill gallon jugs with water to take back to our bay front property for drinking, cooking, cleaning, etc. until the county came to hook up the utilities. It was like camping.... For months, with the best sunsets, swimming and fishing ever… for a kid!!!!
Me and sis fished off the dock and caught little snappers and Mom would cook them for us. In the evenings we would hop the boulders on the shoreline with our gigs, flashlights and buckets and gig lobsters for dinner. I actually purchased our first boat from Mr. Herald Albury, founder of the Tavernier branch of the Post Office, with lobsters! Grandpa Herold, as we called him, had this small old wooden vessel in his garage alongside his home and I would always eye it on my parent’s frequent visits. One day he caught me eyeing the boat and asked if I wanted to buy it?
I said, "Yes Sir, but I don't have any money."
"Well," he said, “I believe I'd like some of those lobsters your mama has been telling me about you girls gigging."
So there an accord was struck for our first ship! A fee of 100 lobster tails to be paid as we could catch them; when the number 100 was met, the vessel was ours! I upheld my end of the deal with a big help from my sis. Soon, Donya , Joe and I were venturing offshore on our own behind Hammer Point, exploring little islands as far off as Pigeon Key. Mom made us snacks in bags; dad would get gallon jugs of water, throw cushions, oars, etc. and lash everything together. That was a great idea because on one outing, the entire transom, engine and all, fell off the boat! It was only attached by the gas line! I made Donya (6) & Joe (2) get to the bow of the boat for weight, while I jumped in the bay, retrieved the small engine, and then rowed the kids all the way home! We brought lobster home though!
As we grew older and went to different schools, our lives seemed to become different as well. At 13 I decided to get an after school job; so my first job was at Tavernier Town in a new store called "Island Silver & Spice." It was originally where the Dollar Store is today! My little sis Donya (8) continued alone every night hunting the lobsters.... She was relentless and a great hunter!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Chad Gardner - Chad's Deli, Tavernier **RIP**

Keys beloved Chad Gardner left us this week. Our little community has been hit too hard lately...we have suffered a lot of losses. One thing I am sure of, they will be eating well at the big table in the sky today.

FROM Alicia Lauren:
As a history major, I am used to writing about difficult topics but this one will be by far the worst post I will ever have. My uncle, Chad Gardner, on Monday January 18th, 2016 collapsed at his restaurant due to a massive heart attack. After 4 days of being in two different hospitals, running tests, trying procedures to reduce swelling in his brain, we finally have received a new scan and information from the doctors which have confirmed what we were most dreading. Chad has sustained severe brain damage because oxygen was not being pumped from his heart. The loss of oxygen to his brain and swelling has caused there to be no more brain function. Multiple tests have proven that he is no longer with us. Chad is an organ donor and his organs will be used to help other people. At this time our family is thankful for the prayers and well wishes from the community but would like to be given a few days to process this information and make arrangements. We will be planning a community celebration of life in Chads honor and that will be announced at a later date. Thank you for you understanding. He's riding off into the sunset.

FROM Suzi Youngberg:
One of my favorite Chad stories happened in late October 2014. Scott had finally finished his last round of radiation treatment in Boston and I was bringing him home for good. We were very public with the joy of that occasion and the road trip home from Boston, which included a stop in Atlanta to pick up our cat, SugarBear, who had been fostered for 6 months while we had been in Boston. We finally arrived in the Keys; it was late, we were tired. As soon as we got off the stretch, Scott called Chad's so we could pick up a late dinner on the way home...we had been gone so long, we knew there was no food at the house. Chad had been following the details of the road trip on Facebook, and as soon as he realized it was Scott, he said, "Am I your first stop after getting back into the Keys?!" He was tickled.
When we pulled into the deli parking lot, I stayed in the car with SugarBear and Scott went in to pick up dinner. Well, Chad knew that we had the cat with us, and he had packed up an order of raw tuna for him along with our dinner! He even followed Scott back out to the car to meet SugarBear (and say hi to me!) We never told Chad that SugarBear is a weird cat and won't eat anything except his cat food...not even raw tuna! So, Scott and I put a little soy sauce on that tuna and it was delicious!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Kathy Ets-Hokin, Key Largo

My aunt brought me here 24 years ago. I lived in Pennsylvania, and graduated college in November 1991 with an education degree. I struggled for a while trying to find a teaching job. I really didn’t want to substitute up there. Then my aunt offered to bring me down here. Actually, I had an aunt in Rochester, NY, and one down here and they both offered to help me out. So, I said, “I think I’ll go to Key Largo, but I really don’t know where that is!”
So, I moved here January 1, 1992, and by February, got a teaching job. My aunt was a teacher at Key Largo School. I started there and was there for 8 ½ years. While there, I bounced around a little bit, middle school, kindergarten, 2nd grade, but I always worked with special education and special needs. My certificate is in special education. My heart is and always has been with special needs kids.
In 2000, I went to Coral Shores High School, and now work with the severely handicapped kids there. I love my job and enjoy going to work every day. They are good kids, they love me and they love the classroom. But, there are challenges. Autism itself is a challenge. These kids are with me full time. There are a lot that are non-verbal. They can communicate in their own way, with gestures or pointing or other physical ways, and it’s my job to learn how to communicate with them. Social skills are very difficult for them, and there are personal space issues. I have to push them past their comfort zone and that can be difficult sometimes.
I’m teaching them functional skills like how to eat with utensils, how to load and unload a dishwasher, how to wash and dry clothes. We used to have a bed in our room and I taught them how to make the bed. When it rains, I would say 90% of my kids don’t know how to use an umbrella…so, we try to teach them functional skills like that.
I’ve been blessed with a great classroom. It has a kitchen, a laundry room, three bathrooms, an academic room, an office. Every year, we prepare Thanksgiving dinner with the kids and we invite their parents, therapists, and school board members. Most of my kids have some form of autism, so it’s good for them to be in a social setting and around large groups. I teach them how to sit at the table and be part of things. We work closely with the parents. These kids are like family to me. This is my calling. I believe that, if given the right resources, every kid can learn.
In 2009, I was awarded Teacher of the Year. That was a nice recognition. As part of the award program, they made a video, where they came into the classroom and filmed me teaching. The day they filmed, we were making Christmas cookies in the classroom, so it really depicted how “hands-on” the teaching is with these kids.
Every single one of these kids has touched somebody’s life in some way. There is one girl in my class right now who is just so happy all the time. She’s always smiling and she wants to hug everybody. Her smile is just infectious. But, everyone is different. I have to learn each one’s needs and try to help them; get to know the child inside and out, and learn their strengths and work with those.
Before I was married, I worked with Special Olympics. I started out as a volunteer, and then a coach, then the upper Keys coordinator. When I moved to the high school, I was also the head volleyball coach, head girls basketball coach, and I was a referee as well. It all became a little overwhelming. Then I got married and we started having our kids, and it was just too much. I would like to go back to coaching when my daughter and son get a little older. Sports have always been a big part of my life. Now my kids are active in sports as well. I think it helps you to be a well-rounded person, and that’s important.
I love it here. I love the weather. We go boating, fishing and lobster-ing with the kids. It’s great being part of a community where everybody gives back. Families get together to clean up the highway, or clean up the beaches. Our community gives millions of dollars to our graduating kids in the form of scholarships every year. And anytime someone is sick or something happens, they have a benefit and raise money for them. It’s just a great place to live. Life is good down here. When I was growing up in Erie Pennsylvania, playing in the snow drifts, I never would have dreamed I would end up living in Key Largo, Florida. God takes you where you are meant to be, I believe that.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Kipp and Maegan Reda (2) - Island Time Pools

Maegan: When we met, Kipp was working for Steve at the Pool Company. He had been there for about 10-11 years. But, we had been talking about starting our own business. I was working as a bartender, but most of my paycheck went to pay day care. It just didn’t make sense to spend all our money to pay someone else to raise our kids, so I made the decision to stay home. When Steve decided he was selling the pool business, we talked about buying it. But it wasn’t practical for us; we didn’t have the money to make that initial investment. So, we just decided to take the plunge and do it on our own and it’s been the best decision we could have made. We started our own pool cleaning business, Island Time Pools. That was a year ago in November.
Kipp: We just pieced it together. We started with 8 accounts, and an old beat up pickup truck. My old boss helped us with some equipment. We were finally able to get a trailer, then got a little bit nicer truck and better equipment. People have been very supportive and helpful, and seem to want us to succeed.
Maegan: Now a year later we have 36 customers. We’ve been so fortunate! So far it’s mostly been word of mouth. We really haven’t advertised or anything. I haven’t even made us a Facebook page yet! Thankfully, we haven’t really needed to do anything like that yet. It’s been very rewarding seeing our business grow.
Kipp: We do a lot of residential houses, lots of vacation rentals, but now we’re licensed to do commercial pools too. We just picked up the Ragged Edge pool. That’s a nice spot. So far all the people we work with are nice and friendly. We like to make people happy. When they’re happy, we’re happy and everybody is happy.
Maegan: And we get to work together. It works for us. I saw my parents working together in the store my whole life. But, it’s different because we aren’t in an office together. He’s out working and not here a lot, so we talk on the phone a lot.
Kipp: Or we talk business at 11:00 at night after the kids are in bed.
Maegan: I like to go with him on the weekends. I enjoy it and it gets me out of the house. I’ve even cleaned a pool by myself, so I know I can do that. I’m interested in learning more and helping more.
Kipp: And, we have our son Bryce. He is already thinking about saving money for a car, so we pay him by the hour to come work with us. Ideally I would love for this to stay family owned and operated. Because, you know, you can trust your family.
Maegan: I saw my parents have a lot of trouble with employees. It’s hard to find good, trustworthy people.
Kipp: Some of the houses we go to are multi-million dollar homes. We’re at some really high dollar places. I wouldn’t want anyone working for me that I didn’t feel was completely trustworthy. So, I like the idea of a family business. The clients need to know they are getting someone they can trust.
We clean all the pools once a week. Even in the rain, sleet or snow!... but seriously, no matter what, I’m there once a week. Even after dark sometimes. You can always turn the pool lights on. You just have to watch out for crocodiles! There is one pool I clean with a grotto, and the only way to clean it is to get in there. I just know one of these days there will be a croc in there and I won’t know it. The owner told me not to worry about the croc because it wouldn’t attack unless I threatened it somehow. I said, “Oh, you mean like coming at it with a pole and backing it into a grotto?!”
Maegan: Lots of people don’t realize how difficult it is to keep a pool cleaned and the chemicals balanced.
Kipp: Pools are human fish tanks.
Maegan: We had a weird thing happen at one of the rental
houses a while back. There was a shrimp hatch in the pool, and then sand fleas, and they just took over the pool and the filter. It was stinky! You just never know what you might have to deal with. Simply letting dogs swim in the pool can really mess things up. At these vacation rentals especially. We’re always learning more. We are going to start going to trade shows this year to learn more about what’s going on in the industry.
Kipp: We just want to keep cleaning more, growing the business, and build our own little Key-sey empire. But we want to keep it manageable. I don’t want to grow so large that we can’t do a good job because we’re too stretched out.
We get to see some of the most beautiful properties, a lot of them on the ocean or the bay. And working with the rentals, we meet interesting people from all over the world. The regular homeowners are all super nice too. For most of them, it’s their second home, or third home or fourth. I would love it if in 10 years these girls are working with us and helping run the business. We don’t want to live anywhere else. The Keys are home. With us both being born and raised here, we know a lot of people. That’s been a huge help to us getting the business going. I’ve been doing this for 14 years. We are just a good Keys family, trying to raise our family and make other people’s time here fun. We like to make people happy.
Maegan: We just got six new pools in the last month. We can just hope that will continue.
(To contact Kipp & Maegan about Island Time Pools,
call 305-741-7375, or email

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Bob Smith, Key Largo

Sent from a reader:
I met a man named Bob at work. He is in his 70s and he is very sweet. Bob and I got to talking yesterday and he told me that he is one of the people that travels around Key Largo feeding the stray cats.
"I never had cats growing up, just dogs" Bob told me. When he began there were just 5 cats. Up until December 12, Bob fed 70 cats each day and knew every one of them by name. One day Bob went to his daily stops to feed the cats around Key Largo and to his surprise there were 17 cats missing.
Apparently when cats are captured, they are supposed to be taken to the local humane society or shelter in case someone has lost a pet, however Bob has checked the local shelter and they claimed that there have been no cats released to them. Bob wants to know what happened to his cats. He is under the impression that they were taken illegally.
During Bob's routine feedings, he told me that he has been stalked, harassed, spit at, and even dealt with physical altercation with a young man in his 20s.
Bob is absolutely devastated that someone could possibly be so hateful in destroying his cats. He claims that some of the cats are neutered/spayed and "they aren't harming anyone."
Bob wrote a letter to get his word out. He speaks of one cat in particular, Heidi. I think he wants people to see that these aren't just stray cats to him; they are family. Bob feels and an obligation to look after the cats.
Bob would like his letter to be shared as much as possible.
"Over the weekend of December 12, 2015 at least 17 cats disappeared from the Tradewinds Plaza Shopping Center at Mile Marker 101. . No one at the plaza knows who did it or why. One of the missing cats is Heidi. I fed Heidi every night for the last four years. When she would finish eating, she would look up at me and meow.
I felt that she was saying thanks for feeding her.
I will never see this beautiful cat again because of the hatefulness of others. If anyone has any information regarding the cats, please call me at 305-451-4798.’’
Thank you,
Bob Smith, Key Largo