Meet the Humans of the Keys

Meet the Humans of the Keys

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Joyce Nealey, Key Largo

Going Wear, a clothes closet for the Upper Keys
“I have lived in the Keys for almost 27 years. Michael and I got married in October of ’89 and we moved down after we got married. Michael didn’t think he would ever get married again, and then he met me!
Michael had been coming to the Keys since he was 15. He had bought a house down here so he could go fishing and such, and have a home for his parents. He traveled a lot then and bought it as a ‘home’ base. When we got married, we made it our home.
My parents are missionaries and I grew up in India. I have always had a heart to serve people, it is in my nature. I am a nurse and have worked at Homestead Hospital for 22 ½ years. I knew when I was 8 years old I wanted to be a nurse, I just knew it and there has never been a doubt.
My parents lived up in Pennsylvania and their church had a clothes closet. My dad was a visiting pastor at the church and every time I would go up there, he would let me go to the clothes closet and check out the cloths. That idea always stuck in the back of my mind.
Down here, we have a lot of food opportunities. We have food banks, but there aren’t any clothes opportunities. Islamorada has a little clothes closet, but there is nothing here in the upper Keys. The idea from my father’s church was still in the back of my mind, and was then in my heart.
I tried to start a clothes closet in Tavernier down by the airport. The logistics didn’t really work out; being by the airport and it was too far south. One day, on the way home from church, Michael said he had an idea; why didn’t we get mom’s motor home and use it? She had wanted us to have it anyhow and it wasn’t in great shape so she couldn’t really sell it. We had a friend who was a ‘jack of all trades’ so he fixed it up, gutted it for us, and set up hanging bars and shelves. ‘Going Wear’, was born.
I had been talking about it and had been receiving cloths donations and organizing. Well, life happens, I brought my mom to live with me and I worked on the closet, but it was delayed for a year. After mom passed, I started moving forward with Going Wear again. ‘Resource Magazine’ is doing a story about the clothes close, so that was my kick in the pants to finish the details.
Michael saw a man one day with ripped, tattered jeans on and invited him to come by and pick new jeans and a couple of t-shirts. It is great to be able to do that. I met a mom and daughter in the hospital who didn’t have anything and were being discharges; I took them some clothes, but I don’t want to pick clothes for people I want them to make their own choices. I am taking Going Wear to them.
I made my official debut at First Baptist last week. My plan is to take Going Wear to First Baptist Church (on MM 99) every first Wednesday of the month and to Burton Memorial on Thursdays, when they serve their meals. My schedule will expand and I’ll go to more places, but Going Wear is a baby right now, it will grow and we will take it to more locations. Eventually I want to be at a different location every evening of the week. I have a dream for Going Wear and am so excited to execute. I have a tendency to go 100mph right out of the gate and I am trying to slow myself down and ease into this.
My goal is to go back to school for nutrition. I help people in the hospital and have for 22 years. It’s time to start helping them out of the hospital.
Right now though, Going Wear is where my heart is. I know this is what I am supposed to be doing and I am excited to do it.”
To donate clothes, please email Joyce at
Be sure to put ‘CLOTHES’ in the subject line.
Baby and Kids clothes/shoes are her greatest need right now.
If you would like to express a need or someone in need, you can email her or PM HOK and we will extend her phone number.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Wayne Geib, Key Largo

"My family moved to Homestead from rural Maryland when I was 17. Early on, I worked for a computer manufacturer based in Ft. Lauderdale. For the first few years, I was a field rep in the Miami-Dade and Broward area, but I transferred up to Ohio to get back to a country environment. I was a field rep in the mid-Ohio Valley for 20 years. I raised my family up there. But, then I started driving back and forth once a month from Ohio to Homestead trying to take care of my elderly parents. That was killing me, so I decided to come down to stay. I retired, and moved down to Homestead to care for my parents. They later ended up moving into an assisted living facility.
I had always thought that if I ever lived in south Florida again, I was going to own a sailboat! When I moved down to Homestead, I cashed in what little bit of retirement money I had and bought a sailboat; I kept it at Manatee Bay Marina for a while. When I decided to move on to it, I came here to the Hideout Restaurant at Key Largo Undersea Park, Jules Undersea Lodge and school. I’ve been here three years, I think...You know, you get on island time and lose track of how long it’s been!
I started working at Publix about three years ago, but last October, I found out that I had serious cancer issues. It was colon cancer. That just about did me in. They discovered it in the nick of time. I thought I had a hernia, but then one day I was in unbearable pain and my daughter, who was living with me at the time, said, “Daddy you have to go to the hospital.” I told her if I still felt that way in the morning I’d go. The next morning I was still in terrible pain, so I went to the Good Health Clinic. They immediately carted me up to Homestead and did an emergency operation that weekend. That was last October and I’m still kind of reeling from it. I had to go through chemo therapy and that ended in May; I’m still recovering from that. They told me I wasn’t just going to bounce back from all this, and I still feel effects from it. They caught it just in the nick of time because it hadn’t metastasized. The Good Health Clinic directed me to some good doctors. I really owe them a lot. They saved my life.
I went to the Good Health Clinic because I needed health care. Both my daughter and I qualified back then and they’ve been taking good care of us. I just turned 65 in July and got Medicare so I don’t have the Good Health Clinic available to me now. I’ll miss them, but I keep in touch with Karen. They are all sweethearts there, and they took good care of me. I said before, they saved my life. I put off going too long, until I couldn’t put it off any longer, and they were there for me.
When I got sick, I had to stop working at Publix. I’m not sure what I’m going to do about that. While I was going through treatment, I got some help from the Upper Keys Cancer Foundation. They helped with rent. I’ll be seeing my oncologist this month. The surgeon felt like he got all the cancer, but he still strongly recommended the chemo therapy. I just take it one day at a time and try not to worry about it too much.
Right now, this is where I’m at. I have a cat. It’s my daughter’s cat, but I seem to have inherited it somehow. She’s a pretty good cat; she’s my bunk mate, I guess you could say! I’m working on my boat a lot because I have aspirations of doing some serious sailing. But, it seems like one thing or another keeps getting in the way…you know like cancer, or finances. I would like to sail up the U.S. Coast. I have family in the Chesapeake Bay area. My pipe dream is to sail on up to Nova Scotia and back. I just about have my boat ready to go on the high seas. This is a vintage boat, built in 1968 by a man named Charlie Morgan. Back then they didn’t know a lot about fiberglass, so it’s a very well put together boat. It’s a classic. It keeps me well. I’m hoping to get through the winter and get things squared away, and head out to sea in late spring or early summer next year.
We’ll see what happens. The Keys are where I’m at right now, and it is a sail boat paradise. It’s also a great place to live. Working at Publix, I got to know a lot of locals and business owners, and there is such a small town core community here. It’s a tight knit community, and I’m a country boy from Maryland so I like the small town feel. Here on island time, nothing is rushed.
My philosophy is kind of a cliché saying: “Don’t sweat the little stuff, and it’s all little stuff.” I tend to be a worrier, and that is simply a waste of energy. If I’ll take life one day at a time, it makes it a little bit easier to deal with. I just enjoy my dock here and try to make the most of the day at hand. That’s what I’m learning. Of course there will always be things that come up, like cancer, which you can’t prepare for, and there is nothing you can do about that. Don’t worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of its self. You got enough to worry about today."

Friday, August 26, 2016

Johnny Lamana, Key West

“I am the longest running street performer in Key West. I’ve been out here longer than anybody; about 35 years. 30 years on this exact corner; Fleming and Duval. My last dog sang with me; this one sits with me. I play the flute.

I have played flute for Hulk Hogan, his wife and his daughter. I have played for Clinton, Dennis Rodman, lots of famous people.

I hitchhiked here from Massachusetts in the 70’s for no winters. I like hot weather; I hate cold weather. My body doesn’t work right in cold weather. I love Key West. I was born in Massachusetts, but I belong here.”

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Sasha, Key West

“I am 27 years old here in the United States by myself. I am from Serbia. I like it here. I have been in the U.S. for 3 years already and have been all over; Alaska, Cape Cod, Vegas, New York. I have some friends here and a few cousins.

I like Key West because there is a lot of opportunity to work and a lot of party. I like the night life. I am a night bird, wait, a night owl. I like the harmony of the place, everybody just lives together, you have a lot of nations here. It is a little community for a lot of different people.

I am proud of myself. I have done a lot of things since I came here. I am moving forward, working on my school.

My hero is my dad. He is an awesome man. He taught me and put me in the right direction. He showed me how life can be hard and how it can be easy. He showed me a lot of things. He is a good person, I like him. I miss him a lot.”

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Maggie Gutierrez, Key West ***RIP***

Keys attorney Maggie Gutierrez (51) suffered fatal injuries after being swept to sea by a rogue wave in Cabo San Lucas Aug. 19, while vacationing with her partner Lisa Kaminski. 

Gutierrez remained on life support in San Diego on Tuesday morning, but friends said that is only because she is an organ donor. "Typical of Maggie," said friend Patty Ivey. "Even in death, she's helping people."

The couple was hiking the arch of Cabo San Lucas, a rock formation at the southern tip of the resort city, when a spontaneous large wave swept them into the ocean.

Kaminski, who managed hotels in Key West and recently in Marathon and now works for Delta, was treated and released from a hospital in Mexico and accompanied Gutierrez to San Diego, friends said.

Gutierrez is remembered by friends for her sharp wit, generosity and commitment to public service through Rotary and the local animal shelter. She adopted several dogs over the years who were either seriously injured or older, like Oscar the schnauzer who was thrown from a moving car on Duval Street.

Photo: Kaminski and Gutierrez.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Christy Stiglitz, Big Pine Key

“I was born in Marathon and have lived all 37 of my years on Big Pine. My dad is a commercial fisherman and has a boat he named after me, ‘The Overdue’, because I was overdue in my mom’s stomach. He still has that boat in Marathon. My mom works here at No Name Pub with me. My whole family is here. My mom, my dad, my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, all of them!!
I left one time, I went to Naples with my brother, who also commercial fishes. I lived there for 6 months and did not like it there; I wanted to come home, so I called my boss here at No Name Pub and told him I was ready to come home. Doug said ‘I knew you’d come home, you start Saturday.’ I have worked here for 15 years!
I have a 17-year-old daughter, Chyanne, a 15-year-old son named Peder, and a 9-year-old daughter named Ciara. I love raising my kids here; it’s easy going and slow paced. They all play sports and they are all good kids. I am so proud and excited right now, by oldest is about to graduate from high school!
My son Peder, who is 15, is a commercial fisherman with his cousin, Demi. They have a little boat and 500 traps. They are putting their traps in now. The boys wanted to put traps out. I asked them how there were going to do it. They said, ‘on the kayak!’ I didn’t know how they were going to do it, but they did it; they started out with 5 traps each and a kayak when they were 10 years old. After a year of them pulling their traps on the kayak my brother bought them a boat. The boys bought more traps. Now they have a T-Craft with even more traps!
What I loved about growing up here is having lots of close friends and family around all the time. I love everything about here. My heart is here. I’m not a water person to tell you the truth. My family is but I was born and raised on boats; I think I’ve had so much of it that I’m done. You have to live somewhere and I choose here.”

Friday, August 19, 2016

Rita Rose Renedo Stormm, Big Pine Key, and Key West

“I was born and raised in Key West. I am what they call a true Conch! I've attended middle and high school here in Key West and throughout that time, I thought I was going to be a professional soccer player; but that didn’t really work out to well because I injured my knee. From that time on I changed gears and really focused even harder on school. I graduated from high school with my AA degree from Florida Keys Community College. I had to make a choice whether leave right away for college or stay and work. I decided to stay, work, and figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I had a gift and a passion for teaching and in the meantime, I was presented with the opportunity to do an internship at the Big Pine Academy as a paraprofessional.

Teaching is one of the hardest jobs out there that isn't given enough credit. I once read a statistic about what the three most stressful jobs are and the third one was being a school teacher. Being able to inspire and be a light to others through teaching and education is one of the most rewarding feelings you can imagine. The best thing about being a teacher is that it matters. Just like being a nurse or firefighter or a police officer matters; teachers help shape and inspire what you want to do in life. That's pretty big if you ask me. I can't thank my past, present, and future teachers enough for helping me learn and grow throughout my life. And now I get to give the same opportunity to others.

Waiting for a year and a half before going back to college for my Bachelors was one of the best decisions I could have made. It gave me time to grow and experience life more; as well as give me more time to enjoy living on this beautiful island called paradise.

I leave at the end of August to Gainesville, FL to attend my dream university, University of Florida (GO GATORS!); I am going for my Bachelors in Education with a minor in Business, and I am so excited!!

I love the Keys, it’s my home! But I know there is so much more out there to explore. So after I finish my degree I want to travel as much as I can. I can't wait to get out there in the world and see what challenges lie ahead for me. I would like to go out of the country to teach too.

I don’t know if I’ll come back to the Keys to live, but the keys are where I started my life and it's where I've experience life's hardships as well as miracles.”

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Hank Brown, Islamorada -- **RIP**

Hank Brown, revered as one of the best light-tackle fishing guides to ever prowl the flats of Islamorada and the Florida Bay backcountry, died late Monday. He was 86.

Capt. Brown’s list of happy anglers includes former President George H.W. Bush, First Lady Barbara Bush and former Islamorada resident Ted Williams, who also played a little baseball with the Red Sox.

“Hank was a great tarpon fisherman, one of the best ever in my opinion,” said Charlie Causey, an Islamorada angler who won the prestigious Don Hawley Invitational Tarpon Tournament in 1986 with Brown at the helm.

“Work ethic got him where he was, but being a great guide is more than just experience,” Causey said. “To be really good, you need a feel for the fish. And Hank could feel the fish in his bones.”

The Hawley was the first major tarpon tournament to require releases, a position strongly supported by Capt. Brown.

He was considered among Islamorada’s elite fishing guides, coveted by anglers as their skipper for limited-entry fly-fishing contests. Capt. Brown often is ranked among Keys fishing legends Jimmy Albright, Billy Pate, Cecil Keith and Eddie Wightman.

“Hank was a fishing pioneer and a legend,” said Mike Forster, Mangrove Mike’s restaurant owner who considers Capt. Brown “my Keys father, mentor and friend.”

“He was a great all-around guy who made time for everybody, especially children,” Forster said. “On his charters, he’d help people get fish and also teach them about preserving the Keys resources.”

A Maryland native, Capt. Brown left the business world to devote full-time to his fishing career that lasted for four decades. In 1982, he started selling his Hook Up lures, jigs specially designed for light tackle on flats and “skinny water.” The business continues under owners who sell the popular line of Capt. Hank Brown’s Hook Up Lures.

Capt. Brown’s willingness to explore new waters of Florida Bay and chase fish anywhere earned him the good-natured moniker of Run Aground Brown.

He was a longtime member and officer of the associations that worked on behalf of fishing guides and protection of the local waters.

“It takes a long time to be considered a top guide, and Hank Brown was,” Causey said. “Hank had a great sense of humor and it was great to be in a boat with him. But when it came time to fish, he was all business and expected you to do the things that needed to be done.”

Hank Brown is survived by wife Joy, son Michael and daughter Michele. Details of a memorial service will be announced.

Story courtesy of:

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Mindy Conn, Sugarloaf Key

I’ve been in the Keys for 15 years. I grew up and spent most of my young life in Long Island, New York, and after graduating law school I moved into New York City and worked as an attorney. I met my husband there. He’s in federal law enforcement and in the military. Right when we met, he was planning a move to California with his job. We did the long distance thing for a while, we got engaged and then I moved out to southern California and we got married. We lived there for about 5 years, and had our daughter there. We always knew we wanted to get back to the east coast, so he put in for a transfer to a number of cities, and Key West was the first one we got! The rest, as they say, is history!

We moved in 2001, right after 9/11. I love it here. You can’t beat the weather! And, I love the small town feel. We moved to a home on Sugarloaf, near the school. Within a month, I found out I was expecting. When I was 7 months pregnant, we found out that my husband was being deployed to Afghanistan for the first time. It was right when the war started. He was a Major in the Army at the time. He was actually supposed to leave on my due date. We had a talk with the doctor and he agreed that as long as the baby was healthy enough to be born 2 weeks early, we would induce at that time so my husband could be here for the birth. That’s what we ended up doing, but then he left when my son was 10 days old, and my daughter was 3 years old, to be gone for 12 months.

We had literally just moved here and I didn’t know many people, and didn’t have any family down here. I really needed help, so I moved in with my in-laws in New York. They had a house and my parents were in an apartment in the city, so it worked out well. We just closed up our house down here, and I went up there. It was good for the grandparents because they got to spend a lot of time with the kids. Plus, my husband, his father and his brother all have very similar voices, and I think it was good for my son to get to know that voice, so when his dad came home it sounded familiar.

Communicating was very difficult back then. We had to use these time delay phones, where we would speak and then just wait for his reply. It was crazy. It’s amazing how much things changed by the next time he was deployed; it was a completely different experience in terms of staying in touch. When he came back after 9 months we were nervous about how my son would react to him. But it was like he had never been gone, it was fine. So we came back home, opened the house back up, and life was great.

He was deployed 2 more times. The next time my son was 3 and my daughter was 6; he was in pre-K at Sugarloaf School and she was in kindergarten. That second time he left we had skype and satellite telephones, so it was so much easier to communicate. But, that was a long one (he was gone 14 months) and it was probably the hardest one. Because of the age of the kids, it was really tough on them. But we had a good support system. He came back and life was good again for quite a few years.

Then we got the call that he needed to go again. I think that was right after he became a colonel. My son was in 5th grade and my daughter was in 8th that time. The kids were easier to take care of because they were older, but it was still hard. I say, “Kudos!” to single parents. At least I knew he was returning (well, I prayed that he was returning.) I really admire parents who do it alone. It’s unimaginable to me. During that time, a radio station contacted me and interviewed me about him being gone. They wanted to give me passes to swim with the dolphins. It was a really nice offer, but I wanted them to give the passes to somebody who really needed them. I said, “Right now I’m lucky. I know my husband is coming home. Give them to somebody who has lost a spouse or doesn’t have help and support.” They did and that made me happy.

My kids graduated from elementary and middle schools while my husband was gone that last time. He’s missed a lot of milestones, but he didn’t miss that one! The principal of Sugarloaf at the time, Harry Russell, set up a computer and screen with skype so my husband could be there from Afghanistan. He was so happy he could watch! Everybody was crying! I was crying, the whole room was crying! It was very special. He actually flew a flag for the school while he was over there, and when he came back he gave it to them. It was fabulous. We are thankful now that it is unlikely he will get deployed again. Of course, anything could happen, but hopefully he will not have to go away again.

Life has settled down a lot since then. The kids are growing. I’ve always been active at the school. It started during the second deployment. At 3 and 6, my kids really needed me around during that time. Just knowing that I was in the building at school helped them, I think. Since they were both at the same school, it freed me up to help out. I had been teaching as an adjunct professor at FKCC; they had been developing a para legal program, so it was perfect for me with my law background. But, they discontinued the program right around the time my husband was leaving that second time. Sugarloaf School just seemed to be the natural progression; it was where I was meant to be so I could be closer to my kids. I worked as a substitute teacher. Our teachers work very hard and very long hours, and not just during the school day. So, substituting was the perfect fit for me. I could do as much volunteering as I wanted, I could be class mom for my own kids, and work as much or little as I wanted. Then I started volunteering in classes my kids weren’t even in. I help out every year with a great school fund raiser, our Walk a Thon. It has turned out to be a big success and we have raised a lot of money for the school!

I joined the School Advisory Committee as a member, and after a few years became the Chair. Then Harry Russell asked me to do the District Advisory Council on behalf of Sugarloaf. I had some ideas, so I thought perhaps District would be the way to approach them. The superintendent seemed open to what we had to say. It was a great learning experience for us all to get together and share ideas. I really enjoyed my time on the District Advisory Committee. When the superintendents changed, I was asked to be part of the Strategic Planning Committee. I was also asked to be on the Superintendent Hiring Committee. I met so many good people district wide.

A lot of people do the district stuff, and then they run for office. But I had never really thought about running for School Board. I had great relationships with the School Board members, and I was happy. But after a while, a lot of people started telling me that they wanted me on the School Board. They said we needed a woman on there, and someone who knew the district up and down. And I said no. I was happy! I could get most everything done that I needed to get done. Why would I want to do that to myself?! But the more I thought about it, the more I thought about where we are and where I want us to be, and I decided to talk to my family about it. We agreed that we would do this race. I want to be that person on the School Board that people aren’t afraid to contact. I have a lot of good ideas and want to help get things done.

The community here is incredible and supportive of any good cause; any person or family that needs help. It’s just incredible. I think that ultimately is the reason we’ve stayed here. You can go elsewhere and live in a bigger house with less inexpensive insurance, and no hurricanes, but to have this wonderful community makes it worth the challenges. We do need more affordable housing down here. Since I’ve been traveling up and down the Keys, it’s really opened my eyes to how badly we need it. Every part of Monroe County could really use the help. If we don’t do something, eventually we are going to price out regular people and the Keys will only be for the rich and famous.

We also need to take more steps to protect the environment. Mike Forster and Elizabeth Joiner have started Florida Bay Forever to address the problems that the Keys are facing with the Florida Bay, and they asked me to be on the board. I am very passionate about the problems in the bay. People in general tend to ignore issues if they aren’t right in their face; as long as their bubble is good, they aren’t even aware of the problem. I feel like the Florida Bay is one of those things that we know we have to do something about now before it is right here in our face. It’s like the affordable housing problem - the longer we wait, the worse it’s going to be. And it’s not that far away. We are being affected already. It’s not at our shores, but we are affected. We have to stop it before it gets worse and/or closer. I’m really excited about being part of doing something to help.

I’m a College Success Coach for Take Stock in Children. I handle schools from Big Pine to Key West. I started as a mentor with the program. I was assigned a 7th grader at the time, and he graduated last year. He’s headed to Poly Tech. I get goosebumps just talking about him, because his was such an incredible transformation from where he started to where he is now. I’m so proud of him. He always thanks me and says, “I wouldn’t be here without you.” I tell him it was a great partnership. He was in high school when a position opened with the program, and I thought it was the logical next step. It’s just another aspect of school and helping kids that I’m proud to be part of. The tagline for Take Stock in Children is “Scholarships, Mentors and Hope.” And it really is all 3 of those things. No matter what I do in my future, I will continue to mentor students.

I am so proud of my family. I’m incredible proud of my children and my husband; of his service to our country and how he is such an amazing dad. The Keys are our home and this community is my extended family. I applied to Leadership Monroe this year, and they want you to talk about your awards and recognitions, and I don’t really garner awards. I don’t need awards. I just want to know that what I’m doing matters and that it means something to my family, my friends and my community. I don’t want or need the awards or the recognition. I just want to do what needs to be done.

My philosophy is “Respect people.” Respect who they are and what they are trying to do. When you have respect for everybody, you can respect yourself. And when you respect yourself, you can do anything. I really believe that giving and showing respect, and receiving respect in return, will help anybody be successful.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Leila Dylla, Islamorada

I’ve been a traveling yogi for 4 or 5 years now, and I came down to the Keys 2 years ago to see someone I was dating at the time. That didn’t work out, but I ended up staying in the Keys. That was just the catalyst to get me here!
What is a traveling yogi? Well, I’m from Gainesville, Florida, and I went to the University of Florida and studied exercise science. But I was already studying yoga. I think the movement of the body is good on so many levels, physical as well as the spiritual aspect. And, I was always interested in travel. My parents fostered that spirit in me, and as soon as I was old enough I started to go on small trips, and then bigger and bigger ones. I had some friends in New York City so I’ve gone up there to teach some classes, and I’m back and forth to the Bahamas a lot. I can teach anywhere, so that’s how it started; as a way to make money while traveling and pay for the trip. It has matured from there, with a more rigorous teaching schedule and hosting my own retreats. But I love coming back to the Keys between my trips. It’s where I touch down and regroup.
I’m proud that I haven’t been afraid to travel and get outside of my comfort zone. It has added quality to my life and I think will continue to add quality. I’m very happy with where I am. I feel like I’m affecting a lot of lives and that’s my goal…to inspire people. I’m also proud of the beautiful friendships I have in my life. I have been truly blessed with a wonderful family and inspiring friends and teachers. Every relationship I’ve ever had has created the life I live today, which I am proud to say is full of adventure, passion and happiness!
My retreats are my biggest highlights. I went to Costa Rica for my first yoga retreat when I was 18, and it changed my life. There was no electricity, we were just on a mountain top doing yoga and it really changed my perspective of what life is about. We are so much more than what our daily lives make us think we are. It opened my eyes and spurred on this desire to bring that experience to other people, which is why I host the retreats and teach yoga in places you wouldn’t expect like breweries! Yoga can be anywhere you are. That just means being connected and remembering to be yourself, and not be all the things that we get distracted by. I think that’s the reason I’m here, to teach that to people.
Usually my retreats are all inclusive with yoga, lodging, food and transportation, everything you need. In the Bahamas I rent a house and I bring a chef in for the meals. We all live in a house together doing yoga and connecting. I want people to be able to turn off their stressors and think about what it really means to be themselves right here in this moment without all the distractions, just being fully present in the moment.
Everybody needs to get a dog as great as mine. I have my Folly. He follows me around. He is amazing. He co-teaches all my retreats and he is at every yoga class I teach; he lays on my mat until I’m done. He has followed me around the world. Everyone should be lucky enough to have a dog like him.
If I could impart anything to people, it would be to encourage them to travel more, to be nicer, and to remember what it was like to be a younger version of themselves before they got distracted by reality.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Joe Pinder, Islamorada **RIP**

Joe Pinder, a Florida Keys native, passed away last Sunday at age 86. He survived two major hurricanes and spent six years as the only Monroe County Sheriff’s Office deputy in the Upper Keys. He also served 17 years as a board member of the Monroe County Mosquito Control District. He and wife Roberta, best known as Bobby, were married for 63 years.
Pinder was from a Keys pioneer family that traces its Islamorada roots back 146 years. His son Buddy said, “The stories my dad could tell! Once President Harry Truman asked him to drive Bess Truman from Key West to Miami for a shopping trip. Truman leaned into the car and asked him to take care, because he was carrying precious cargo.”
Mr. Pinder was 5 years old when the deadly Labor Day hurricane devastated Islamorada in 1935. He escaped when his father put him on a floating bed mattress. His mother was hospitalized after being hit by a collapsing building.
He was a deputy when he rode out Hurricane Donna in 1960, a storm that washed out Keys bridges. Mr. Pinder also worked at Cheeca Lodge and ran an appliance business when air-conditioning was new technology.
Survivors include wife Bobby; sister Alma Pinder Dalton; sons Jack (and daughter-in-law Teresa), Buddy (and daughter-in-law Cerise), and Henry ( (and daughter-in-law Barbara); seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren; and numerous nieces and nephews.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Carla Lee, Key West

Hairdresser at ‘Headlines’ on Duval Square
“I had always wanted to come to Key West because I have always been passionate about the water. I was working in West Palm Beach for the longest time and a lot of my clients were coming down for Fantasy Fest and what have you. There is always something going on down here.
I told my husband I wanted to go to the Keys and I wanted to go now. We came down and it turned into a 3-day expedition. I said ‘They have pink houses and people are wearing tutu’s, and people are body painted. I want to move here; I have to be here; my eccentricities would be so accepted here.’ I think I’m a gypsy as it is. I fit in here, and I blend in like a chameleon. Anywhere else you go people think your nuts, but people here are understanding, want to get in. Once you start opening up, others open up too and realize they are not crazy, they are unique, we are all unique.
I became a better hairdresser here, I sharpened up my skills. I found true friends here.
My husband and I didn’t make it; he went off the deep end with the drinking and the alcohol just carried him away. He got Keys disease really bad.
I have the gift of intuition, of vibes; I have a crystal ball in my house. Every year that passes that I get older and wiser I get more and more of those gifts.
I am on my way. Next year I am going to enter the Queen Mother Pageant, it’s the day after Mother’s Day. I think they need a real woman to enter the competition, so here I go. Nothing is stopping me now!
I am looking forward to Fantasy Fest this year. I am looking forward to a great season. I am looking forward to the Queen Mother Pageant. I feel, since I got here, that there is nowhere to go but up!! Great people and blessings are just coming in and out of my life like waiters go through doors in a restaurant kitchen!
It’s all about positivity, good energy, and staying healthy. I feel like I can make a difference in other’s days, even if it’s just a word or two.”

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Julie Cali Austin, Tavernier -- SUPPLEMENTAL STORY

HOK: There have been several requests for a follow up to yesterday's story on Julie. She described her wedding in the Cook Islands, and some folks have asked for more information and pictures of them on the beach in their sarongs. Julie was kind enough to oblige...
JULIE: We got married in Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands (South Pacific.) Scott said we could get everything we needed for our wedding, including clothes, when we get there. We went to the local fabric store and wrapped up in a yard of their finest. Mine wasn't enough because my belly was growing (I was 5 months pregnant!) so we had to go back for 3 more yards for me, which now double as curtains for my front door!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Julie Cali Austin, Tavernier

I met my husband down here on vacation in 1999. Actually my Mom had met him a few months earlier when she and my brother were down here. They went to Bud & Mary’s and met this guy, and she brought home pictures of him, and I told her to leave me alone because I was dating someone. So she left me alone for a while. A few months later she offered to take me on a trip for my college graduation. She asked where I wanted to go, and I had this whole plan for going to Australia. But she said “Reel it in, we’re not going to Australia.” So we came to the Keys instead. I had never been, but she had been down here a lot. Of course, she took me straight to the dive shop where the guy, Scott, worked! Yes, she had ulterior motives!
Our actual first date is a pretty funny story that a friend of ours, we call him Uncle Woody, likes to tell. My mom had set up a snorkel/dive trip with Scott that week while we were here. When we got back in and I went to tip them for the day, I asked if there was a good place to go see live music that night. They said we had to go to the Lorelei. I said that sounded good, and Uncle Woody said, “Great then, we’ll see you there.” I hadn’t realized I was making a date! So, we go back and I’m trying to get all cute, and I’m so nervous because I can’t believe I agreed to meet this guy. We were late, and by the time we got to the Lorelei they had gotten tired of waiting for us. They had a table on the beach, but had gotten up to leave so we met on the bridge, just as the sun was setting. I had my mother with me, and her sister who is a Dominican Nun. Uncle Woody says it was like a scene from a movie, with the mother and the nun handing off the virginal daughter in white, right at sunset! We went back to the table, and right away everyone was sharing food off each other’s plates; it was just so comfortable, like family, immediately.
That was June of 1999 and I moved 3 months later. I moved to Cudjoe Key first and worked at Wyland Galleries down there. I wanted a little distance from him at first; I was just checking him out! But, it didn’t take long for me to move up to Islamorada. And now 2 kids and several pets later, here we are! We got married in 2001. When I found out I was pregnant with Dominic, Scott dropped down on one knee and proposed. We had gotten pregnant while in the Dominican Republic for my sister’s wedding. That’s why we named our son Dominic. He’s our souvenir!
When I had decided to move down, we had planned for Scott to drive up to Ohio and then we would drive back down together with all my stuff. I was packing and quitting my job…I had a lot to do! Well, a hurricane was threatening the Keys so he called and said he was coming early. I wasn’t ready! But he came and everything was fine. We had a wonderful drive back down, stopping in Savannah. Our daughter is named after the city and our time there on that trip.
Scott had traveled a lot before we met, and he always said if he ever got married it would be in the Cook Islands in the South Pacific. He said it was the most beautiful place on earth. So, when he popped the question, I said, “Only if we do it in the Cook Islands!” It was amazing. We did things very traditional for the islands. There I was, 5 months pregnant, and we were on the beach wrapped up in sarongs made from local fabric. We had 8 guests that went with us. The people there are so friendly. They speak English; it’s a New Zealand protectorate. The people treat us like family, because we’ve been twice now. We renewed our vows there after 10 years so the kids could see where we got married. We had 20 guests for that one. We had 3 villas right on the lagoon. There were purple starfish everywhere. It was so beautiful. I want to go back! We sealed our vows by planting the “uto” or coconut palm tree when we got married, and we got to see it when we went back 10 years later.
I have my own photography company. I photograph weddings so I am around this crazy happy love all the time, and it carries with me when I get home. I’m just so happy to have my husband and my family. It really helps me keep it all in focus. Dom is 14 now. He plays soccer. Savannah is 12, and she’s the ballerina. They go to Treasure Village Montessori. They are great kids. They are interesting, smart, funny, sarcastic…just good kids. And they still like me! They still want to spend time with me, for now! I’m proud of my kids and I’m proud of my marriage. It will be 15 years in October!
I teach photography too. When I met Scott I was working in Ohio doing etchings on headstones; people’s portraits, or their John Deere tractors, or their dogs; whatever they wanted on their grave stones. So I’ve been working as an artist for a long time. My degree is in art education. I work at Ocean Studies School and it is wonderful. We have a photography program. It’s been 4 years, and this past year, I got my students work exhibited at the Everglades National Park for the Centennial Celebration. The kids do writing along with their photos; that’s part of the assignment. They were so impressed at the gallery. The curator came up to me when we had the opening and said, “You know, the photos are great, but I keep finding myself coming back to read the kids poems.” I was thrilled! Yay! That was the whole point. The photos inspire them to write. The whole thing was actually a writing exercise. The last 2 years, their end of year show has been at Ocean Sotheby’s. It is so beautiful in there! These kids are so lucky and spoiled! But, they all get dressed up, the boys in their bow ties and the girls in nice dresses; it is a really nice event.
It really was easy just to pack my stuff and move down here. I just did it. If there is something you want to do, you just have to do it. Do what makes you happy. I love living in the Keys. This is home. I used to get so excited that there were palm trees in the parking lot of the grocery store! Every day, no matter where I go, I see the ocean. The sunsets are amazing… even the thunder storms down here are beautiful. Some days after dropping the kids at school, I’ll drive down to Harry Harris Park and just sit and look at the ocean. I never regret moving down here. For the most part, I’m very positive. I don’t get hung up on the negatives, it takes too much energy. Being positive is so much easier. If there is anything that you want to do in this life, just say it out loud, make a plan and do it. You’ll never regret it. Like packing my car to come down here; I never thought I would move away from my family, but when the time was right, it was so easy. Just do it!

Monday, August 8, 2016

Ken Lohmann, Tavernier

90 years young Monday, August 1, 2016!!

“I arrived in Florida in late 1978 and bought a home in Ft. Lauderdale. We would come to the Keys for weekends starting in about 1980 to Tarpon Basin; it’s now Swim with the Dolphins. They had a few bungalows in there and a friend of mine and I kept our boats there. The bungalows cost $15.00 a night.
We ventured out, explored the area, and I don’t know what brought us to Hammer Point, but we found it and we looked at trailers in the old section of the neighborhood. There weren’t any homes, it was just zoned for trailers. The builder tried for 13 years to get permits to build homes in Hammer Point. He originally dug the canals all 17’ deep and used the fill to build up the area. In order to get the permits, he had to refill the canals and re-dig them to no deeper than, something like, 6 ft.
At that time, there were 2 houses, but they were on the other side of the neighborhood. We looked at the 2 houses and we bought one of them. That was the beginning of the newer section of Hammer Point, back in 1986, and our weekend home for years to come. We moved to the Keys permanently, ten years ago, when I was 80 years old! I have always been handy so I was able to enhance and build onto my house during the past 30 years.
I bought a house in the Keys because I wanted to have a place that my kids and grandkids would want to come and visit. If I lived in the Bronx I would not have these kinds of family reunions! My family just threw me a 90th birthday party at Bumby’s. My entire family of 23 was there...children, grandchildren and spouses!
I lived in Brooklyn as a young man. A friend of a friend had just lost his father tragically. My friend and I would visit him often in his 3rd floor walk-up. One day while we were visiting, there was a knock on the door. Bernice (“Bunny”) lived across the hall and was locked out of her apartment; I managed to open the door for her. That was the first time I met my future wife.
She told my friend I was cute, or something like that and she expressed that she wanted to go out with me. He said I would never go out with her; I had just broken up with a Bernice! They made a bet. She bet my friend that I would take her out within 3 months. He told me about the wager he made with her, so I played hard to get.
I had a 1942 Buick at the time; that was unheard of, nobody had a car. That was the last car made during the war.
She flirted with me and I didn’t react. After the bet had expired, I asked her out.
I accumulated $500 so we could get married. Our parents did not approve; I was Catholic and of German decent, she was Jewish. It was right after WWII.
We stayed at the Waldorf the first night of our honeymoon. In the morning she put on this beautiful cowboy outfit; black top, black pants, all detailed and embroidered nicely. Really beautiful outfit. They wouldn’t let her into the lobby of the Waldorf. “Ma’am, you cannot go into the lobby dressed like that.” She had to go upstairs and change into a skirt, they wouldn’t allow her in the lobby in pants. It was 1949.
After a little adventure in our trip, and staying in less expensive places, we finally got into Florida and pulled up to the Fontainebleau: it was $16 a night. No way! We couldn’t afford that! We stayed at the Atlantic Towers, which was $7 a night.
We were married just short of 65 years when I lost her. She was a wonderful wife, mother and grandmother. She was an angel on this earth. We had 4 kids and 10 grandkids.
I joined the Navy at 17. They made me an electrician. I served 2.5 years.
After our honeymoon, I started a furniture business in New York. I built the business from the ground up, and ultimately, employed 22 people, 4 full time designers, and a factory. We showed and made furniture no one else had. Everything was custom finished. It was called Arista.
When I came to Florida in 1978, I started a furniture company here, Lohmann’s Furniture. I love wood working and finishing and am very good at it. I made furniture for many famous people, like Tim Hardaway and PJ Brown. I built an 8’ round bed for PJ Brown!
My greatest accomplishment, at this age, is the enhancements I made to the canal markers out in front of my house. Before, there were just sticks and tin cans marking the rocks. At 89 years old, I designed and cast 5 markers, cemented them, transported them to the canal markers, and set them into position. I am very proud of my project and the results!
I taught the kids how to water ski, all my kids and grandkids, plus friends and neighbors. For my 80th birthday, I went knee boarding, but my kids won’t let me anymore. They won’t take me, my son who is an orthopedic surgeon, says it isn’t a good idea!
I am very fortunate my life turned out the way it did. We loved our children. We loved our life. I don’t have any regrets!”
From Scott, one of his sons: “Mom and Dad are all about family. All 4 kids have college degrees or better, all 10 grandkids have college degrees, and 6 of the 10 have further degrees. Everything they did was all about the family; while other parents were sending their kids to sleep away camps, mom and dad were taking us camping. They did everything for us.”
Note from HOK: I spent, maybe, an hour and a half with this gentleman. He had his son Scott, and granddaughter Stacey there still with him from the weekend’s activities with their spouses. This man is a hero to his family and for his family. They brag about him; to the point he is uncomfortable. That is an amazing accomplishment! We should all strive to be as loved, admired, and respected by our kids and grandkids as this man is!

Friday, August 5, 2016

Gary Mitchell, Key Largo

I was born in Key West.  I’m a conch!  I’m 63 years old and I’ve been a captain for 40 years.  They call me Captain Mitch.  I work as a fishing guide; I own Reel Chaos Charters.  But then the economy took a dump, and then there was the oil spill…times have been tough.  The charter business is down. Some months, I’m lucky to get 2 or 3 charters the whole month.

My wife and I have both been going to the Good Health Clinic in Tavernier for our medical care for 3 years.  We love the staff there.  I don’t know what we would have done without them.  We don’t have health insurance.  It’s a real shame that anybody should have to choose not to get medical care because of financial problems.  We are so thankful for the Good Health Clinic.

I had double cataract surgery there.  I was legally blind in one eye and half blind in the other.  Now I have 20/20 vision in one eye and 20/25 in the other!  I would call that success!  And I also had problems with my knee.  It was so bad I had to stop doing charters for a while.  They did a scope and it’s like new!  I was back to work 10 days after the procedure.

I can’t say enough about the Good Health Clinic.  Karen takes great care of us, as do the doctors and all of the staff; they have become like family.  We are lucky to have them.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Sky Fabel, Key Largo – “Captain Slate is my Dad”

I was born and raised here in the Keys and I don’t plan on leaving. I work at Slates Dive Shop, for Captain Slate, who is also my father. I started when I was young, working in the shop and helping out. I got certified as a diver under him when I was 11. Now I have my 50 ton captain’s license, and my plan is to continue the business.

I want everyone to know what a great man Captain Spencer Slate is. He’s my dad, my boss, he does so much for this community, and he is the best man I have ever known. One of the reasons I think he is such a good man, is not only has he had a successful business for 40 years, but he is also a wonderful father. I’m actually his step daughter, and now my parents are divorced, so I’m not even legally his step daughter. But he’s still my dad. He had me since I was 3, and he’s been the best parent I could ever have asked for. I turn to him for everything, from girl issues to business issues; he’s the one person I have always been able to rely on. And, I’ve tried to follow in his footsteps. I decided I wanted to be just like him!

My Dad says he grew up watching ‘Sea Hunt’ in the late 50's early 60's and like most kids at the time, he became mesmerized watching the wonderful mostly never before seen underwater world. He got a paper route in Jr. High to save money and buy a regulator, and then rented tanks from a farm supply store, and in 1963 he jumped into a local rock quarry in North Carolina that was 90 feet deep. He says he was hooked from the first breath underwater and continued diving in N.C. until he moved to Florida in 1972.

When he was asked for a dive card at a dive shop in Jacksonville, Florida, he said he didn't have one. They said he had to have a certification card, so he signed up for his first class and became an open water diver. From that moment on, he was diving every weekend and within three years became a SCUBA instructor and was given the job of SCUBA Training Director at the Jacksonville YMCA.

He was a high school teacher in Jacksonville and dove all the north Florida Springs as well as offshore. When he got his USCG Captains License, he ran a friend's dive boat. But, whenever he could, he dove in the Florida Keys. He would drive down pulling his 18' boat, camp out and dive every Christmas and Easter break and all summer long. In 1978, he quit his teaching job and borrowed $50, 000 from the SBA and opened Captain Slate's Atlantis Dive Center in Key Largo.

He has served as the Chairman of the Board of Directors for the YMCA SCUBA program for 17 years, been a member of the BOD of NAUI for 4 years and has written dozens of articles and stories about diving with his critters and how we must protect our seas and all it creatures. He was the project manager for the Spiegel Grove for 8 years; he brought the ship from Norfolk, VA to Key Largo and sunk her in 2002. He was a founding father of the Keys Association of Dive Operators in 1984 and the founding father of the Florida Association of Dive Operators in 1986, and currently serves as president. He was inducted into the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame in 2004, and it is my goal is to do the same one day!

Captain Slate says, “Those of us who were founding fathers in our wonderful diving industry have a mandate to do all we can to introduce all generations, past and future to the unbelievable, wonderful, vibrant underwater world; a world that all can enjoy, love and protect. There is no more beautiful a place to be than underwater.”

Even after 50 years of diving, unlike most dive operators, he still dives and drives the boats. I admire him for everything he’s done in the community. He has such a big heart, and he has been so great to me. I don’t know what I would do without him. He really took me under his wing. When I told him I wanted to be a boat captain, he said “Ok, work on my boats.” And I did! He was always tough on me, but he taught me so much. I can change my own oil; I can work on a diesel engine. He is a great role model!

Unlike most "normal" families my brother and I HAVE to go out diving every Easter and Christmas. At Easter, my dad dresses up as the Easter bunny and hides eggs around the reef for all the children! And, on Christmas Day he dresses up as Santa Clause and we all go out to the Christ Statue. That is just a normal holiday for the Slate family! My mom and Slate are also best friends for the sake of the kids. We are very lucky to have him in our life, as well as our beautiful mother, of course!

When I was 8 or 9, I would get in trouble for talking back to my mom or to Slate, and I would get grounded for it. My “grounding” was to work on the dive boat. That was my punishment, to be stuck out on the dive boat all day! It’s funny that it was my punishment and it turned out to be my career and what I love! My Dad definitely helped form me as a woman. I’m very confident and I owe that to him. He has guided me on my path to becoming who I am. We are a lot alike, and we do butt heads sometimes! When we are out on a charter together, it’s pretty obvious that I’m his daughter! He picks on me, but it’s all good. I’m a Daddy’s girl. We are a good team!

A few weeks ago, we were out on a dive, and he was doing his Creature Feature, which is where he plays with the animals wearing chain mail. Well, I was showing off…I was free diving and kept going in his bait bucket, and I got bit by the moray eel. It was pretty bad, I had to get stitches. When I came up on the bridge of the boat after it happened, I was thinking he was really going to yell at me, but instead he said, “There she is, there’s my girl. You finally joined the club!”

I just want everyone to know what an amazing man Captain Spencer Slate is, and that I am so proud to call him Dad. He deserves recognition for everything he has done and continues to do every single day.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Michelle Bennett, Islamorada – Stella’s Story

I’ve been in the keys full time for 10 years. My husband, Travis, and I met down here. We have two children. Our 5 year old son, Reef, is just going into kindergarten at Treasure Village this year. He is amazing. He is an amazing big brother. It’s like God knew what was in the cards for us when he gave us Reef. He has a huge heart, is super sensitive, compassionate, an animal lover (he wants to be a vet)…just an amazing kid. He is wise beyond his years.
And, we have a daughter, Stella, who is 3 ½. In my heart, I knew that something wasn’t right from her first cry in the hospital. It sounded like a pain cry to me, and I just felt something wasn’t right. But all the tests coming out of the hospital were normal. Everything seemed to be okay. There was nothing out of the ordinary, except that maybe she wanted to snuggle with me a little extra.
But, she cried a lot from the beginning. It seemed like something was wrong in her stomach and she cried a lot. At 9 months she wasn’t rolling over; she would scream if you put on her on her stomach, and hold her body stiff as a board. She startled easily, she was non-verbal, she was spitting up a lot, losing weight. So at that point, Dr. Zuba (who is amazing! We have a dream team!) suggested we go up to Miami Children’s Hospital. To be told that your daughter needs to see a neurologist and a geneticist at 9 months old is crushing. You want everything to be perfect. But at the same time I wanted to know.
After about a month we got in and they started running every test you could imagine. I’ve seen more sticks in her in her 3 ½ years of life than I’ve had in my whole life. But nothing came back. The doctors were saying that something was still not right. I was told that they would do this last test; it was a full genetic breakdown and chromosome mapping. The wait was 6 months for results. So, the 6 months go by, and I’m thinking that she’s doing better, and that they aren’t going to find anything. She’s just Stella; she’s just going at her own pace. I went up to Miami to get the results; my husband had to work, so I just went up alone thinking it would be nothing. I remember it was March 12, 2015. I remember it so vividly. The doctor came out and said, “We have a MECP2 gene mutation, which is considered Rett Syndrome. It’s not pretty; it’s not going to be easy. Just go home. Don’t look it up until you get home. Just take her home, and try to keep her comfortable and happy.”
Well, of course I look it up while I’m waiting for my car. I cry just thinking about that moment. It was the worst punch in the gut. The worst I ever felt. This is my littler person. All I wanted was this little girl. I had dreamed about the dances, the proms, all the things that she would never have. There is no cure. All you can do is treat the symptoms, which is what we are doing with therapy.
It was such a tough day, but every moment of it is so vivid. And Reef wrote his name for the very first time that day. It was completely over shadowed by the diagnosis of his sister. He was so excited, but I was crushed. I still feel guilty over that. And his whole life is going to be like that. That’s another side of the Rett family. It’s not just the Rett child, not just the parents; it’s the siblings as well. That’s why I am fighting so hard to cure this disease. If I can keep one family from having to deal with this, keep one brother from having to face what Reef has to face, keep one parent from having to feel this gut wrenching pain we’ve had to feel. That is my goal.
It’s comparable to ALS. Where ALS starts to take away your functions as an adult, Rett, does it as a child. They progress fairly normally up until the first 6-18 months of age, and then they start losing the skills they already had. Stella seems to be rewriting history right now. We’ve worked so hard with her she is actually progressing, not regressing. She does not have words right now, at 3 ½ she’s non-verbal. Communication is with cues, she speaks with her eyes. But, she and I communicate; I usually know what she wants. She is in there. She is this beautiful, amazing, funny, charismatic person…she’s a stinker! She’s just trapped inside a body that doesn’t work.
Because of Rett Syndrome, a protein in the brain doesn’t go to the muscles to tell the muscles what to do, and if you think about it, your body is run by muscles - your heart, your lungs, everything... It’s very common for these girls to have a completely normal day, and then not wake up because that protein didn’t go to the lungs or the heart, and they stopped working. So every morning that she wakes up is a blessing. And every morning that she sleeps in, I lay in my bed with my heart pounding in my chest praying to God to let me hear her on the monitor. Then I hear her, and I breathe. And it’s like that every day. It’s been like that every day and it will always be like that every day. But I’m not complaining because she has opened our eyes to so much. We find ourselves being so much more loving and perceptive to others feelings and problems and situations. Her story is one that everyone needs to hear. It’s so positive. Our lives have certainly been changed by her.
As a family, she has made us stronger. But, it’s not easy. I think, in some ways it’s harder on Travis, my husband. He is such a “fixer,” and he can’t just “fix” her. But, he is so strong, and we are each other’s rock through all of this. We both refuse to give up on Stella. And, right now, Stella is doing really well with all the therapy. We are hammering in muscle memory with her. We do physical therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy.
We recently did 3 weeks at Island Dolphin Care. She is doing amazing with that. We have seen so much improvement in the 3 weeks. She has her own dolphin, Sarah, who has taken to her and Stella loves her. We took Stella there for a visit with her school a week before, and while we were there, there was one dolphin that kept swimming around with one eye out of the water, watching Stella. There was definitely some kind of connection there. A week passed, and then they invited us to come for a swim. Well, Stella had her2 dolphins, but there was this one dolphin that kept leaving her “clients” and swimming over and booting out one of Stella’s dolphins. We found out it was Sarah and she was the one who was watching Stella the week before! They have a special bond. She does things with her that her trainers have never done. Stella will hop up on her back and put her hand right next to her blow hole to hold on, and that’s something that’s never done. It’s unheard of. But Sarah parades her around the lagoon and Stella rides like a princess. Yesterday, Sarah offered up her tail for Stella to sit on. And again, that’s unheard of. It’s been great for Stella.
I try my hardest to give her every opportunity humanly possible. Everything any other kid can do, she can do. I’m not going to take no for an answer. We’re going to try, try, and try. She might be slower than other kids, but she’s going to do what she wants to do. The fact that she is walking is a miracle; the doctors told us she would never walk, and she has been walking for a year now. They said she would never feed herself with her hands, and she feeds herself with a fork. She’s learning sign language. Everything they said she would not do, she is doing. The sky is the limit for her.
We were advised not to send her to school because her immune system is weakened, but of course I sent her. Before her diagnosis I had started her at upper keys Montessori and I left her there. It’s challenged her in every way. She is out there walking around the playground with friends every day. They say Rett Syndrome is the most severe form of autism. Many autistic kids don’t connect to friends, but she definitely connects. They come to her. They take care of her. She is teaching this new generation compassion. I hear from other moms that their kids, boys and girls, come home talking about Stella. There is something about the beautiful spirit trapped inside this little girl…she’s bringing people together in such a way. She has rallied this community. That’s where the Purple Pumpkin Gala comes in.
We had 6 months of pretty dark days immediately following the diagnosis last spring. I remember it was October and we were getting ready to go on vacation, when I decided, “Enough.” I knew we needed to figure out how to move on and make something positive of this. So I decided on purple because it’s the Rett color. And it was October so I thought of pumpkins. October is Rett Syndrome awareness month, and I decided to bring it all together and the Purple Pumpkin Gala was born. I texted my friend Stephanie and she said “Let’s do it.” I really just wanted to have some silly little pumpkins for people to put in their window sills. For every picture that was posted of someone with one of the purple pumpkins, we donated a dollar to Rett Syndrome. By the time I got back from vacation, Stephanie had all these pumpkins, and she was going around town telling people what Rett Syndrome was… Without my friends, this would not have happened. By the end of the month, we had over $2,000 donated, and then we matched what was donated. It was amazing.
Last year I wasn’t even thinking about the money as much as I just wanted to raise awareness. But we decided that next year we would concentrate more on raising the money. “Next year” is coming up in October. We have pumpkins that have been painted by 12 of our local artists. They have created 3D master pieces. We had a Sponsorship event, and the pumpkins were all up for sponsorship and every single one got sponsored. Over the next few months, the pumpkins will be on display in local businesses and you can cast your vote for your favorite. The ones that get the most votes will be up for live action at the gala. 100% of donations go to research.
Early intervention is the answer. Some doctors tell us that we are a lucky case. But I think it’s because of early diagnosis, and working so hard with her. That’s why awareness is so important. We are so close! She is in there, and she is trying so hard to break through! She works harder than anybody I know. She is my hero!
And, they are on the verge of a cure for Rett Syndrome. They are in stage 2 clinical trials right now with a drug that is getting funding because it has broken the brain barrier. It could benefit not only Rett Syndrome, but Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, serious head injuries and so much more. It’s huge. We are sitting here talking about a disease that hopefully won’t even exist 10 years from now.
For now, we live every day like it’s our last, while constantly preparing for our future. Our son Reef is absolutely amazing with Stella. The other day she was swimming in the pool. For the first time I was able to let her go. Of course she had her inflatables on, but before that her head would tip forward or she would roll over if I let go. But, last week she started swimming on her own. Reef grabbed her hands and started spinning her. He was able to dance with her in the pool! He said, “I’m just spinning, Mom, she’s dancing.” He loves her so much. He said to me, “I’m gonna spoil the rotten out of her!”
You can’t live every day being sad. Just rejoice in every moment. Every day that we have with our daughter we celebrate. She is the inspiration behind the Purple Pumpkin Gala, but the community is what made it happen. We live in a magical place. It has renewed my faith in a lot of ways.
The Purple Pumpkin Gala will be held October 1, at the Islander Resort. We got some exciting news recently… country entertainer Kevin Black, older brother of Clint Black, and a father of a Rett angel, will be attending the gala to share his story of life and loss with Rett Syndrome, as well as to entertain at the event.

To buy tickets for the gala, make a donation or just find out more, go to: