Meet the Humans of the Keys

Meet the Humans of the Keys

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.

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