Holiday Harmony

by Peter Reilly

Longwood mayor’s merry band of carolers bring comfort and joy

Every Christmas for the past 14 years, Longwood Mayor John Maingot’s gift has come without ribbons. It’s come without tags. It’s come without packages, boxes, or bags.

It’s come instead with carols. It’s come with good cheer. It’s come with music, laughter, and tears.

His gift is a day of holiday harmonies, performed by the Longwood Carolers at senior care facilities.

On one special Saturday each season, John and his volunteer carolers dress up in Santa hats and festive red and green apparel. Then they bring tidings of comfort and joy to elderly shut-ins.

“The people are so joyful and so happy to hear us sing,” says John. “They cry, men and women alike.”

The group’s itinerary includes stops at Chambrel, Serenades by Sonata, Longwood Health Care, South Seminole Hospital, and the Cornerstone.

John and the Longwood Carolers perform for the elderly of all faiths and welcome people of all faiths to sing with him. The song selection is also diverse, ranging from secular classics like “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” to Hanukkah hits such as “The Dreidel Song” and spiritual hymns like “Silent Night.”

This spirit of inclusiveness was part of John’s culture as a boy growing up in Trinidad, a country made up of many different people and religions. Christmas was always a special time of year for John. He fondly remembers caroling with family and friends. When he and his wife Elizabeth came to the United States, they brought the cherished tradition with them to Central Florida.

In 1999, John ran for a city commission seat in Longwood and won. He saw caroling as an opportunity to give back to the community that had supported him.

John was especially concerned for Longwood’s elderly population. During trips to about a dozen facilities as an elected official, he was stunned to discover that many residents had no visitors.

”Caroling was my way of saying to them, ‘You know what, folks? You matter,’” says John.

During a performance, seniors are encouraged to sing along, and carolers go into the audience to interact with the residents. After the show, the carolers spend time talking and listening to their new friends.

“The people feel that the human touch is there,” John says. “Not only have we brought the spirit of Christmas to them, we also brought a personal contact.”

The first year the Longwood Carolers went out singing was 2000. In the beginning, John’s group was made up of mostly friends and neighbors. But as time went on, John (the father of eight) turned to Lyman High School for volunteers. Lynne Taylor, Lyman’s music director, recruits many of her students to carol.

The carolers like it because they get to shine like new fallen snow. Performances are punctuated with solos by standout singers and musicians. But just about everyone gets a turn in the spotlight.

“I want everyone to feel that they belong,” John says.

Carolers get free cranberry juice to keep their vocal cords in shape, but their real reward is seeing the smiling faces in the audience.

“You have to see what transpires when we are singing to realize that these young people are so happy that they have brought joy to so many people who might otherwise have been stuck in their rooms watching television,” says John. “The meaning of Christmas is reaching out to people and sharing the love of the season with them. To bring them joy and to bring them happiness. And to reestablish meaningful relationships.”

If you would like to sing with the Longwood Carolers this season, you must attend a practice session before the event. Contact Mayor John Maingot at


The People Whisperers

On a Sanford farm, horses and humans are working together to heal bodies, minds, and spirits

On a dusty summer day, a bus full of teenagers rolled down the long, picturesque driveway at Sanford’s Crooked Creek Farm near Lake Jesup. Onboard were young men and women from a nearby teen counseling center in desperate need of compassion and direction. They came to the farm to work with the staff from the Center for Horsemanship and Personal Success (CHAPS), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides “equine-assisted therapy,” a unique and emerging type of therapy that involves interaction with horses.

For the next five weeks, these at-risk teens were part of an innovative social learning program designed to teach them essential life skills such as respect, responsibility, boundary setting, and more. This particular program, directed by licensed mental health counselor Lorisa Lewis, is just one of the many programs CHAPS offers to help adults and children as young as four. During their experiential learning, the teens and their horses formed an undeniable connection, which is part of the magic of equine-assisted therapy.

At the end of the program, one of the students was overheard saying goodbye to Cody, the therapy horse she’d worked with during the lessons.

“Thank you,” the young woman whispered into Cody’s ear. “I’ve never loved anything before, but I love you, and I know you love me, too.”

“I still get choked up when I think about how this experience with our wonderful horses may have profoundly changed her life,” says Christine Mertin, a Lake Mary resident and staff member at CHAPS. Christine holds a master’s degree in counseling with a specialization in equine-assisted therapies. She is also an artist who donates a portion of the proceeds she earns selling her work on back to CHAPS. “By the time they finished our program, some of these kids were literally unrecognizable. Perhaps for the first time in their lives, they were able to care for something and care about something without being ridiculed, judged, or abused. Little moments like that are what make CHAPS and the work we do so very powerful.”

Such a profound program could not have had more humble beginnings.

“We sold some tack [the equipment used in horseback riding, like saddles and bridles] and opened our account in 2012 with around $125,” says Christine. “We really wanted to help people in our community. We started slowly and eventually grew by word of mouth. By the end of the first year, CHAPS had provided 275 therapeutic riding lessons to children and adults.”

“I love doing this work and being able to give back to the community and help so many people,” says Lori Johnson, a PATH certified riding instructor at CHAPS, who lives in Oviedo.

Working with horses to provide therapeutic riding is not new and has been shown to be extremely effective in helping individuals with physical or developmental disabilities. Such therapeutic riding is a huge part of what takes place at CHAPS, and the staff includes a passionate team of riding instructors certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International and a devoted team of highly trained volunteers.

CHAPS is unique in its application of horse therapy to help individuals in psychological and emotional distress, as well. Early on, CHAPS partnered with Lorisa to bring clinical experience and expertise to its programs. Lorisa – who has a private counseling practice in Seminole County and is the founder and director of Stable Foundations, a program that also offers equine-assisted therapy – explains just what makes horses such a source of solace to those in distress.

“As big and powerful as they are, horses are prey animals, which means they are constantly on alert,” Lorisa says. “Because of that, they are extremely in tune and remarkably adept at picking up on the behavior of other nearby creatures, including people. Since approximately 80 percent of human communication is nonverbal, working with horses allows us a unique opportunity to learn more about our own behavior and relationships with others. Engaging with horses allows people to explore how they develop trust, manage anxiety, and deal with uncertainty. Additionally, partnering with a 1,300-pound animal, whether in the saddle or on the ground, creates an immense boost in self-confidence and self-worth.”

CHAPS applies these concepts to several different therapy and educational programs, from bully prevention and self-empowerment to traditional psychotherapy and even a program to help nurses and doctors better understand the needs of their patients. CHAPS also enlists the horses’ help to honor men and women who’ve served our country.

Helping military veterans is a cause near-and-dear to the hearts of CHAPS’s founders and staff. Equine-assisted therapy is perfect for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the other psychological scars of combat, but CHAPS also offers a purely recreational riding program as a “thank-you” to those who’ve served.

“We found out about the veterans’ recreational program through an online flyer sent around our office,” says Stephanie Fahnestock, who works with her husband, Michael, at the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division near UCF. Both retired from the Navy, the Fahnestocks decided to give the 11-week program a shot, though neither had any previous experience with horses.

“I knew which end was the front and which end was the back, but that’s about it,” Stephanie says with a laugh.

Once a week, a group of six veterans representing the Navy, Army, and Air Force met at Crooked Creek Farm to work with the CHAPS instructors as members of the Dark Horse Drill Team. At the end of the program, the team put on a riding exhibition to the delight of CHAPS volunteers and supporters. Though it was all just for fun, Michael was quick to acknowledge what a powerfully emotional experience the interactions with horses can be.

“It was very therapeutic for us,” Michael says. “Building that bond with the horses, learning to trust them and vice versa… It gives you confidence and a real sense of pride. We also came to appreciate how much the team at CHAPS does to help veterans, whether it’s just for recreation or for therapy. They give a lot of time and a lot of energy, and it means a lot to us.”

CHAPS leases its space from Crooked Creek owner Anne Galliher, who runs a full-service boarding and riding lesson facility elsewhere on her property. The organization is funded completely by private donations and grants (like a recent donation from Helpful Hands in Oviedo) and by contributions from the community and other equine enthusiasts. CHAPS is always in need of sponsors and is currently looking for the right person to help with fundraising and grant writing in order to bring this unique therapy to more people.

“Doing what we do is very humbling; I’ve seen it change lives,” says Christine, who hopes to expand CHAPS’s programs with the community’s support. “To be able to see the changes people make in themselves as they interact with these magnificent creatures is, for us, a tremendous honor, and we’re grateful for the opportunity to do it.”

To learn more about CHAPS, visit

Lake Mary Dental

A visit to the dentist – for many, it’s an experience fraught with fear and anxiety.

At Lake Mary Dental, Dr. Ravi Lall and Dr. Kathleen Du Lac get it. Along with their team of hygienists, dental assistants, and office staff, the doctors go out of their way to create an environment that puts their patients at ease, and it all starts before patients ever settle into the chair for their first exam or dental procedure.

“It’s about building relationships,” explains Dr. Lall. “We let our patients know they matter to us.”

Office manager Kira Rivera has been with the practice for more than 15 years. “We get to know our patients,“ she says. “They feel like family when they come here.”

Almost instinctively, Kira, the self-proclaimed “matchmaker” in the office, knows which dentist and team members will work best for certain patients, especially those with special requirements.

Dr. Lall and Dr. Du Lac, with more than 25 years of experience between them, give patients the best treatments and cutting-edge technologies in dentistry, but they credit their team for helping provide an experience that feels comfortable and safe, making patients feel like partners in their own dental health. The doctors know that doing so increases the chances of good oral maintenance between visits.

“It’s a coordinated effort of highly skilled and compassionate hygienists, dental assistants, and office personnel,” notes Dr. Lall.

Dr. Du Lac, who joined the practice in October 2012, recalls, “Very quickly, I understood the strong bond our staff members had for one another. I see them as my work family and feel blessed to be a part of this team.”

As for her patients, Dr. Du Lac believes in treating and diagnosing them as she would a member of her own family. “I am always available to answer questions and discuss treatment options,” she says.

Both doctors work hard to build lasting relationships with their patients. Dr. Du Lac says several of her patients have followed her from her previous practice to Lake Mary Dental. Even former employees come back as patients, as they know they will receive the best in comprehensive dental care.

Lake Mary Dental prides itself on being a team of professionals that understand they are treating people, not just teeth. That’s sure to bring a smile to anyone who walks through Lake Mary Dental’s door.

– Hedy Bass

Photo: Dr. Ravi Lall and Dr. Kathleen Du Lac with the Lake Mary Dental team, always eager to build positive relationships with their patients.


With Hannah, There’s Hope

By Kristen Manieri, OWSL

A Chuluota family’s strength turns setback and grief into an opportunity for giving

Jovanna Nelson sees life differently than most of us. For her, it unfolds as a series of “new normals” that reset after each challenge comes her way. And those challenges have been huge. In 2012, Jovanna received the news that her son Brenden Salazar wouldn’t be coming home from his Army post in Afghanistan. His life had been ended suddenly and tragically as the result of an improvised explosive device.

The grief that racked Jovanna, her husband Jim, and their daughter Hannah was unimaginable, and it threw Hannah’s fragile health into a tailspin. Hannah has cystic fibrosis, a disease that’s been part of this family since Hannah was in utero.

“She was diagnosed when I was four months pregnant and stationed at Fort Campbell in Kentucky,” recalls Jovanna, who has been in the army for 18 years and is now a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve. “They saw something in the ultrasound, ran tests, and two weeks later told us it was CF.”

Like it was yesterday, Jovanna remembers coming home to her husband, who tearfully broke the news. Brenden, who was eight at the time, didn’t shed a single tear.

“He looked at us and said, ‘I don’t care what she has. I’m going to love her anyway.’ We realized he was so right. No more crying. We decided to celebrate her and give her the best life we can,” says Jovanna.

And they have. Hannah is now a bright and thriving eighth grader who spends as much of her free time as possible at a local ranch on her horse, Levi.

“Every day she wakes up, does 90 minutes of treatment and medications, and then we get to the barn between 9:30 and 10:00,” Jovanna says. Hannah has been riding Levi for three years, and they compete together all over the country in Hannah’s age category. “I like it because she’s outside and not on a computer. It’s physical, and Hannah is part of a team. She works really hard and takes good care of her horse. She’s very passionate.”

As it turns out, horseback riding is as good for Hannah’s body as it is for her spirit.

“Her physical therapist loves that she does this because it helps her sit up and breathe,” Jovanna explains. “She rides for 90 minutes, and while she gets winded, the jostling helps with her breathing. It’s very cleansing for her. She started out with soccer, but that was a little too intense. CF patients have only about 74 percent lung capacity.”

They’re also highly susceptible to germs that cause bronchitis or pneumonia, which is one of the reasons Hannah now does her schooling via Florida Virtual School. Hannah had been responding well to treatment, but when Brenden was killed, her health went downhill dramatically.

“We were in the hospital six times the month of his passing,” Jovanna says. “We were all grieving, and I think in her quiet, resilient way, Hannah was internalizing a lot.”

But Hannah still made it out to the stables to see Levi as often as possible. In fact, her coach cleared the barn’s riding schedule the morning after Brenden’s death so that Hannah could ride, and grieve, in peace.

In the two years since, Hannah and her strong parents have bounced back. Hannah rides nearly every day, and Jovanna is more involved than ever with the local chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

For more than 12 years, Jovanna has supported the organization’s fundraising initiatives by making candles and participating in the group’s many events. Jovanna took part in her first 5K with the Foundation when Hannah was still in her belly. “I think I may have walked 1K – I was so huge,” she laughs.

From there, Hannah’s Bananas was born. The fundraising team of Hannah’s and Jovanna’s family members, friends, and supporters come together at CF events throughout the year.

“What I am doing is connecting with other people, and it’s therapy for me,” Jovanna says.

She’s also helped to raise more than $100,000 through Hannah’s Bananas since her daughter was born.

“The hard part of raising money is that I hate asking people for it,” Jovanna says. “But money funds a cure. Not hope. Not faith. Otherwise we would have had a cure by now. Money is what will cure this thing.”

Jovanna has witnessed firsthand how fundraising impacts research, which leads to medicine trials and then, eventually, to treatment advancements that impact the quality of life for millions, including her own daughter. Hannah herself has participated in six different trials. Four of them resulted in the launch of a better drug that patients now use today.

“Ninety percent of every dollar raised goes to the cause,” Jovanna says. “The median age of CF patients has gone from 24 to 36 now.”

Hannah’s Bananas is far from an exclusive group. Jovanna invites anyone to join them at events throughout the year.

“Year after year, Jovanna, her family, and her coworkers commit their time and resources to the local Cystic Fibrosis Foundation chapter,” says Lisa Murphy, executive director of the Central Florida office of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. “The time and talents offered and funds raised by Jovanna and her team are the reasons individuals with CF continue to live longer, healthier lives.”

That includes Hannah, who has grown to be a very strong and self-sufficient young lady.

“She’s not letting CF define her. It’s not who she is,” Jovanna says. “She’ll tell you that she’s going to be on the Olympic equestrian team. And there’s nothing stopping her.”

Photo: The Nelson family: Jovanna, Hannah, and Jim at the gravesite of Jovanna’s son, Brenden Salazar, who was killed while serving with the army in Afghanistan.

Lake Mary Plastic Surgery

Many of us wish we could improve that certain area of our physical appearance, one that keeps us from looking and feeling more self-confident and more empowered. However, in today’s competitive market, we worry about choosing the ideal surgeon who will deliver natural-looking,safe results.

Thanks to James Shoukas, MD, FACS, at Lake Mary Plastic Surgery, we can feel secure knowing we are choosing the very best.

Whether you are considering cosmetic surgery, body contouring, facial rejuvenation, or reconstructive surgery, Dr. Shoukas offers the delicate balance of art and science to help you achieve beautiful results.

One reason Dr. Shoukas is a cut above the rest is his extensive training and education. After graduating cum laude from Boston College with a degree in biology, Dr. Shoukas studied medicine in New Jersey, then completed his surgical residency at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Jacksonville. Following his residency, Dr. Shoukas fulfilled a two-year fellowship in plastic surgery in Chicago.

Certainly, when it comes to your health and safety, industry credentials are critical. A double Board Certified Plastic Surgeon, Dr. Shoukas has been named three times as one of America’s Top Plastic Surgeons by the Consumers’ Research Council and has been recognized for excellence in Trauma by the University of Florida.

However, a main key to Dr. Shoukas’ success is his compassionate attitude and his heartfelt interest in his patients. As you can see in his countless five-star online reviews by extremely satisfied patients, Dr. Shoukas and his friendly, well-trained staff consistently treat all patients as if they were family members.

“I strive to enhance my patient’s lifestyle by listening to their objectives and then providing outstanding education about their procedure options, including the benefits and risks involved in each,” explains Dr. Shoukas, who always ensures that his patients feel confident before proceeding with any surgery.

Because Dr. Shoukas truly cares about his patients’ well-being, you can rest assured he is always up to date on the latest procedures and technology, including liposuction with autologous fat transfer.

So whether you’ve been considering eyelid surgery, a face or brow lift, nose surgery, breast augmentation, liposuction, or a tummy tuck, you can be certain that Dr. Shoukas brings excellence and safety through his world-class training and expertise in plastic surgery. After all, now is the time for you to look and feel your best!

– Crystal Lang

Photo: Dr. James Shoukas


Three Generations of Fall Ball

Local grandparents, children, and grandkids gather to share yet another “second season” under the never-ending Florida sun

by Pam Neff

The ball fields of Altamonte, Longwood, and Maitland may not have the same rich history as those around New York, Boston, or Chicago (though our fields have produced more than a few Major Leaguers). But youth baseball leagues in Central Florida do have one thing that those up north do not: a fall season. In fact, our local leagues have been around just long enough to witness the emergence of a heartwarming trend. A handful of the kids sprinting out of the dugout this fall will represent the third generation of their families to fill their spikes with clay from local fields as a player, coach, umpire, or league official. What’s more, the young players’ parents and grandparents aren’t just cheering from the bleachers – many are standing along the foul lines of their own childhood ballparks, coaching their kids (and grandkids) as they pass down the unique tradition of fall baseball to yet another generation.

The Krot Family-  West Seminole Baseball

On any given Saturday afternoon, you’re likely to find Wekiva resident Carl Krot settling himself into a folding chair behind the familiar fence that surrounds a small field at the West Seminole Baseball Complex in Altamonte Springs. Carl is there to watch his son Brian coach his five-year-old grandson, Brice, during one of the youngster’s fall season baseball games. Carl has come to the field to see Brice for a couple of seasons now, but for a very large part of his life, the park was considered a second home for Carl and his three sons. Now, as Carl watches the third generation of his family getting a start in baseball, Carl says it feels like “déjà vu.”

Carl, who grew up in New York and played baseball in high school and college, introduced Brian and his two brothers to the sport at an early age. His three sons all played for the West Seminole youth baseball league up until high school. When he wasn’t coaching and assisting on the field, Carl supported his boys from the stands.

“My dad was extremely disciplined,” says Brian. “Rain or shine, my brothers and I would be out practicing. He always made sure that we were prepared, and that we had the right gear, the right equipment, and the right training.”

And Carl’s sacrifice, hard work, and dedication paid off. Amazingly, all three of the Krot brothers were recruited to play baseball out of high school. Brian played for both Auburn and Saint Leo University.

When young Brice asked to play ball, Brian was led back to his childhood field.

“Playing at West Seminole is a very comfortable, positive, environment where you grow relationships and build athletes, preparing them for the next level,” says Brian. “There is a family feel at the park. The longer your kids play together, the more you see many of the same families. You form lifelong friendships, just as we did growing up.”

Thirty years later, it’s Brian’s turn to coach his own son.

“To see it all transpire throughout the years has been really cool,” Brian says. “I want what is best for Brice. It’s important that he has fun and is a part of the team. Baseball is a team game with values that I hope Brice will understand.”

The old dirt road and grass parking lot at West Seminole features a little more concrete these days, and the “youngsters” Carl used to coach are now the ones running the league. But despite the minor changes, the West Seminole program remains the same.

In 2012, Brian was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame at Saint Leo University. In his induction speech, he credited his success in baseball to the years of training he received from his father at West Seminole.

The Coutant Family- Longwood Babe Ruth

If you’re a part of Longwood Babe Ruth’s baseball league, you might recognize Gayle Coutant and her family. To some, Gayle is known as “Baseball Mom” to players Bryson and Chad. And to others, more specifically in the tee-ball division, she’s known as “Coach Gayle.” Gayle spends countless hours at Candyland Park in Longwood watching her sons play and, as of this season, coaching her grandson, Nolan, and his tee-ball team. She’s currently the only female baseball coach in the Longwood Babe Ruth baseball league.

The opportunity for Gayle and her husband Jeff to coach Nolan (the son of Gayle’s oldest daughter Alyssa) is quite special, but this isn’t the first time Gayle has managed a team. She also coached her oldest son Bryson’s tee-ball team when he was first introduced to the game. Both Bryson and Gayle’s younger son, Chad, began with tee-ball in Longwood and continue to play in the Babe Ruth baseball league. In addition to Babe Ruth, 15-year-old Bryson plays on the Junior Varsity team at Lyman High School. Meanwhile, Chad (13) plays on a travel-ball team. All seasons combined, Gayle and Jeff (currently an assistant coach) have been watching their boys play ball for a total of 19 years. And they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We live at the ball field,” says Gayle. “We enjoy watching the kids learn from their experiences, and it’s wonderful to watch the excitement through their eyes.”

On coaching a tee-ball team for a second generation, Gayle says it takes patience, but it’s also extremely rewarding.

“You need to think about being a teacher when you’re out there,” she says. “You have to try and put things in perspective for the kids. They are the forefront for the future of the league. I want them to have fun and have a great experience.”

Being a part of Longwood Babe Ruth since 2003, Gayle still feels the camaraderie with every practice and game at Candyland Park.

“There is always a very positive atmosphere that exists here,” she says. “Being a part of this league has given our kids – and grandson – the opportunity to learn this American sport while establishing lifelong friendships.”

The Halligan Family- Maitland Little League

While the Halligans aren’t playing fall ball this year, their story is too poignant not to share.

Growing up in Maitland, Dennis Halligan and his older brother Kevin both played for Maitland Little League in the early 1980s. Dennis played from fifth through eighth grade. Some of his earliest baseball memories involve watching his older brother Kevin play in league All-Star games.

“We rode our bikes to practice,” Dennis remembers. “It was a very family-oriented era.”

Dennis’s father, George, was also involved in the league, volunteering his time as an umpire for his sons’ games.

Once the spring season begins, Dennis and George look forward to visiting the Maitland Little League fields to cheer for the newest generation of players, Dennis’s children. Will (11) and Katie (8) both enjoy playing for the same league.

Attending the baseball games is a three-generation family event for the Halligans, and Dennis is grateful that his dad is able to make it to almost every game.

“Having my dad there is welcoming,” Dennis says. “While we enjoy seeing our kids play well, we both want to experience this moment. Youth goes by so quickly. We talk at the games, and it’s nice to have the benefit of my dad’s advice. And win or lose, it’s always a great experience.”

When it comes to giving his kids a positive baseball experience, Dennis appreciates the league’s focus on improvement.

“The coaches in the league emphasize that it’s not just about winning, but improving,” says Dennis. He also likes the fact that today’s baseball environment at the league is very similar to the environment he remembers as a child.

“I want my kids to have the same experience I had growing up with the league,” says Dennis. “There are so many wonderful families here. It’s a tight-knit community that allows you to know your neighbors. Your sports families are your closest families growing up.”

The Reece Family- Altamonte Babe Ruth

Not only is Sarah Reece active in Altamonte as the city’s district 3 commissioner, she’s been extremely involved in the city’s Altamonte Babe Ruth baseball league, thanks to her three ball-playing sons: Steven, Sean, and Seth.

“Between working full-time and raising the three boys, baseball was an activity that allowed me to participate in their lives,” Sarah says.

In addition to being a team mom, Sarah was also treasurer of the Little League board of directors. And when the program transitioned from Little League to Babe Ruth, Sarah was the first president. She left her role as president in 1999 to take her seat on the city commission, but she returned to league administration in 2006 and has since served as the assistant Florida state commissioner of Babe Ruth Baseball.

“This experience has been great,” Sarah says. “You get to meet people, coaches, and families from other sites. It is work, but it’s a lot of fun.”

This year, Sarah was the director for the Southeast Regional Babe Ruth Baseball Tournament hosted in Altamonte.

As Sarah’s son Seth finished out the baseball program, he continued to work as an assistant coach for the league while still in high school. After college, Seth returned to coach the senior Babe Ruth league.

And now, the third generation of the Reece family is stepping up to bat. Seth’s son (and Sarah’s grandson) Logan is the newest family ballplayer. Seth has coached him in tee-ball, the rookie division, and now in the minor league.

Sarah and Seth are also responsible for starting Central Florida Bambino Buddy Ball, a program created for special-needs children. They raised more than $72,000 to build accessible rubber fields for the kids. The program, which started out with only nine children, now has more than 100 players. Eastmonte Park is currently closed for the fall season due to reconstruction, and when it’s complete, the concession building will also be handicap-accessible. Meanwhile, Logan is staying busy with tournament play on other fields around the community.

Today, Sarah enjoys watching her son coach and her grandson play, even though she says watching the games is still as “nerve-wracking” as they were back when her boys were on the field. However, Sarah has loved the entire experience with the program.

“I think the experience, no matter where you are, has to do with the people you meet, the parents, and the coaches,” she says. “The fields are beautiful, and it’s a place where my sons – and grandson – have made so many positive memories.”




Stepping Through Time

By Jill Cousins, OWSL

Retracing the footsteps of his grandfather, WSHS dean Ocky Clark plans to walk from Winter Springs to Tallahassee to build a better future for local students

As a young boy growing up on his grandparents’ farm in Sanford, Winter Springs High School’s dean of students, Octavius “Ocky” Clark, fondly remembers listening to old family stories about his relatives and how they ended up in Central Florida. One of those stories explained how Ocky’s grandfather walked approximately 300 miles through Florida in 1917 to find work on the Seaboard Coastline Railroad.

Ocky thinks about that story often, and one day he came up with an idea. Why not try to retrace the steps of his grandfather, James Isaiah Bradwell, and stage a fundraising walk from Winter Springs to Tallahassee? The school’s athletic facilities are long overdue for updates and upgrades, and Ocky thought the walk could be a way to raise much-needed funds and at the same time honor his grandfather.

“I remember listening to stories about how my family migrated from Goose Creek, South Carolina, to Quincy, Florida. My grandfather got tired of working on the plantation we inherited, and he wanted to find a better life,” says Ocky, who has worked at Winter Springs High since the school opened in 1997 and also coaches the cross-country and track teams. “One day I was thinking about that story, and I thought with all the stuff we need [at the school], maybe I could tie this in with a fundraiser.”

And that’s how Ocky Clark’s Strides for Students fundraising walk evolved. Ocky ran the idea by the school’s athletic director, Steve Luppert, and got his okay to go ahead with the plan.

At 7:30 a.m. on Friday, November 21 – one week after his 54th birthday – Ocky will attempt to walk more than 250 miles in eight days, from Winter Springs High School to Tallahassee (20 miles east of Quincy). The adventure is scheduled to conclude at the football stadium of Ocky’s alma mater, Florida State University, during halftime of the Seminoles’ football game against rival University of Florida.

“For most people, this would be a crazy idea, but for Ocky, this is par for the course,” says Steve, who plans to meet up with Ocky during the walk to provide support. “He came to me with this idea about a year ago, and I loved it. I felt like it was one of those opportunities for the school and community to rally around a good cause that has personal meaning for Ocky. We jumped on it right away. I thought it was an amazing thing for him to do.”

For Ocky, who is hoping to raise $494,000 for the 494,000 strides he estimates it will take to complete the walk, this is just another way for him to give back. In addition to his roles at Winter Springs High School, Ocky is also a devoted dad to daughters Cierra, 19, and Carina, 14, and an Air Force reservist who is a veteran of wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. On the track team at FSU, Ocky was a team captain and two-time All-American. He has been inducted into both the Winter Springs High School and Seminole County Sports halls of fame.

“I’m not a rich man, but I’ve always been able to use my talent of running to get me to different places in life,” says Ocky, a Seminole High School graduate who attended Santa Fe Community College and FSU on track scholarships. “So why not use it now, at the midway point in my life?

“This is probably my last hurrah to do something,” Ocky adds with a laugh. “I guess it’s a midlife crisis thing.”

In 1917, Ocky’s grandfather was just 19 years old when he and two cousins made the walk from Quincy to Central Florida. In 1865, when slavery was abolished, the Bradwell family inherited a plantation from their former master, who had moved back to South Carolina. But Quincy was considered “the sticks,” according to Ocky, and James Bradwell wanted to create a better life for his family.

Racial attitudes in Florida were considerably different at that time, so James and his cousins avoided confrontations by walking at night and sleeping during the day on pine needles. Ocky doesn’t plan on replicating that part of the walk, opting instead to stay in hotels. He does plan to honor his military background by starting the walk in the shoes he wore in Afghanistan, and his backpack will include an American flag Ocky took with him when he served his country at war.

Even though he calls Strides for Students a “walk,” Ocky expects to do some running to meet his goal. After all, he was a star runner in high school and college. But Ocky was a middle distance runner – at FSU he set school records at 800 and 1,500 meters – and he has never run more than a 15K (9.3 miles). Ocky is working hard to get in shape, training six days a week by running, biking, and lifting weights.

“Every now and then, you find something that is bigger than yourself, like this crazy walk that I’m attempting to make,” Ocky says. “I’ll be 54 years old, walking across Florida. Who does that? But I look forward to doing it and trying to raise funds for a worthy cause.

“I’ve jumped out of airplanes; I’ve been out in the middle of the Indian Ocean; I’ve been in the mountains of Afghanistan; I’ve walked the deserts of Babylon. But this is different,” Ocky continues. “I’ve never done anything like this. Sometimes I think, ‘Can you really do this? Can you walk 250 miles in eight days?’ But once you put yourself out there, you have to at least attempt it. And that’s what I’m going to do!”

The Bionic Girl

by Diana Purutcuoglu

Local fourth grader is handpicked to test a groundbreaking new treatment for juvenile diabetes

With her school year at Crystal Lake Elementary complete, as nine-year-old Emma Lundquist packed her bags to attend a two-week summer camp, she wasn’t thinking about nature hikes or songs around the campfire. Instead, her mind was set on a larger purpose – being one of the first children in the country to use new technology that has life-changing potential for people with insulin-dependent diabetes.

Emma was diagnosed at age two with type 1 diabetes, which means that her pancreas no longer produces insulin. Emma must now manage her glucose levels manually, and she tests her blood sugar frequently with finger pricks before calculating and delivering multiple daily doses of insulin via her insulin pump.

Parents Gib and Michelle Lundquist know all too well just how time-consuming and draining the process can be.

“It is a constant challenge, and you tend to lose all spontaneity,” says Michelle. “Everything has to be planned out because there are so many variables.”

Food, exercise, hormones, and stress all have an impact on blood glucose levels.

So when Emma was invited to participate in the Boston University Bionic Pancreas Study at a diabetes education camp in Massachusetts, she jumped at the chance.

“I’m going bionic!” she told family and friends.

The developer of the bionic pancreas device, Ed Damiano, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University, has been working to ease the burden for people with insulin-dependent diabetes since his own son was diagnosed with diabetes as a child.

“The challenge is to maintain near-normal blood sugar levels while at the same time minimizing exposure to very low blood sugars, which are acutely dangerous,” says Dr. Damiano. “To have to think about the amount of glucose in your blood, day in and day out, hour after hour after hour, is an absurd and impossible task.”

Emma agrees, saying that the worst part about diabetes is “always having to get poked and testing so often.”

As a study participant, Emma spent two weeks in July at the Barton Center for Diabetes Education outside Boston in a “campground-turned-laboratory” where she and about a dozen other youths tested the bionic pancreas. Gib and Michelle admit that it was not easy being away from their daughter during the study.

“However, we knew Emma was in good hands and that someone was sitting at a computer screen watching her [blood sugar] numbers at all times,” says Michelle.

Once settled in at camp, Emma felt the excitement as she and the other volunteers counted down before turning on their devices at the start of the study. The equipment was then zipped into a pouch and worn strapped around her waist… and then promptly forgotten about, which is precisely what makes the bionic pancreas so exciting. Because the device is automated, Emma and her new friends did not have to think about testing or blood sugar levels. They were instead left to do what children do best: play, eat, and have fun.

How does it work? The bionic pancreas uses a sensor inserted just beneath the surface of the skin to monitor blood sugar levels. Every five minutes, that information is sent to a smartphone that calculates the amount of insulin or glucagon needed, which is then automatically administered via one of two injection sites. The device regulates blood sugar levels 24 hours a day, without patient involvement, which means the system continues to work when a person is sleeping or distracted.

“All that Emma had to do was make a prediction related to what size meal she wanted to eat,” says Michelle. “Otherwise, they got to be kids who didn’t have to count carbs or think about diabetes.”

“I didn’t have to test all the time, and I didn’t have to dose,” says Emma. “They also had lots of fun activities and really good dinner!”

Adults who recently participated in a similar study said that using the bionic pancreas was like taking a vacation from diabetes. The bionic pancreas has not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but the results are encouraging.

“While not a cure, the bionic pancreas will change how people live with diabetes,” says Michelle, “and if this device makes it to market, it will allow me to sleep at night when Emma goes away to college.”

Since Emma’s diagnosis six years ago, the Lundquist family has helped raise more than $80,000 for diabetes research. Emma even keeps a piggy bank on her dresser to collect funds for Dr. Damiano’s team.

“Emma spurs us on with her positive attitude and continued search to make life easier for those with diabetes,” says Michelle. “This latest technology will make diabetes a less-significant part of Emma’s daily life, and we were so proud that Emma could play a role in the history of the treatment of diabetes.”

To see a video about Emma’s experience at camp, and for more information about the many members of the bionic pancreas project team, visit

Diabetes “On Watch”

The bionic pancreas may still be several years away from mass-market reality, but many parents of children with diabetes are taking technology into their own hands – or wrists, as it were – to monitor a loved one’s blood glucose levels from afar. This means that a parent can be busy at work while still keeping an eye on a child’s blood sugar when the child is at school, participating in a sporting event, or at a friend’s house for a sleepover. Until recently, blood glucose information could only be transmitted short distances, approximately 20 feet.

Developed by parents of children with diabetes with no interest in profit, the Nightscout system sends data from a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) receiver to a Web-based server (referred to as “CGM in the Cloud”) so that the information can then be accessed by remote devices such as computers, smartphones, and smartwatches.

With a quick glance at the face of a Pebble smartwatch, for example, a user can view the real-time blood glucose level of a loved one and see if the number is rising or dropping. For a parent or caregiver of a child or loved one with diabetes, this can mean peace of mind, and it may also alert to potentially life-threatening complications if blood glucose drops too low.

While the system is not currently FDA approved or prescribed by physicians, thousands have already learned how to set it up via the Nightscout website and the fast-growing online community of supporters. While Nightscout can help caregivers monitor blood sugar statistics, it will still take a device like the bionic pancreas to automate insulin delivery to keep blood glucose at healthy, normal levels.

Photo: Emma enjoyed every minute spent with the “bionic pancreas” worn during the clinical trial. The system automates blood glucose control using an iPhone that communicates with a continuous glucose monitor and controls two injection pumps.

Shepherd’s Hope

by Nancy Callahan

Saving Lives of the Uninsured

In early 2010, 30-year-old Robert Siegrist was healthy and happy. He graduated magna cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a business administration degree and enjoyed spending time with his wife and close-knit family. But later that year, Robert’s health began to rapidly decline. Unfortunately he lost his job and his insurance, making access to healthcare seem almost impossible.

Because Robert’s mother, Kathy, had been a volunteer at Shepherd’s Hope, she knew she could steer her son toward finding the medical support that he so desperately needed – and without the burden of financial constraints. For 17 years, Shepherd’s Hope, a faith-based nonprofit, has been providing free medical services, thanks to volunteer medical providers and lay personnel, to uninsured and underserved Central Floridians at five health clinics.

“Robert was very sick,” Kathy says, recalling the deterioration of a 160-pound athlete who had plummeted to a frail 123 pounds. “I had a hard time convincing him to come to Shepherd’s Hope. It took six months of pleading to get him to come to the Longwood clinic. I don’t know if it was ego or embarrassment, but when he finally came, Shepherd’s Hope saved his life.”

Robert’s sister, Megan, wholeheartedly agrees, “My moment of hope was when Robert found this organization!”

Robert says he immediately felt comforted by the compassionate care of Shepherd’s Hope volunteer medical staff, especially that of Dr. Philip Styne, medical director of digestive health, liver services, and clinical informatics at Florida Hospital. While he recognized the severity of Robert’s condition, Dr. Styne was confident in his ability to foster Robert’s path to restored health.

“He had failure of the pancreas,” says Dr. Styne. “I knew if I could muster up the resources, we could really make a difference for him.”

Shortly after pinpointing the diagnosis, Dr. Styne did just that by calling upon Dr. J. Pablo Arnoletti, chief of surgical oncology at Florida Hospital.

“We reattached the pancreatic ducts to the intestines so that the pancreatic juice could drain,” says Dr. Arnoletti, explaining the surgical intervention made possible through Florida Hospital’s partnership with Shepherd’s Hope. “This relieved the pain and pressure and helped Robert to absorb food better.”

Robert still has a long road ahead of him, but he doesn’t seem too concerned.

“I am here today because of Shepherd’s Hope,” says Robert. “I am so blessed.

History and Impact of Shepherd’s Hope

In 1996, Dr. William Barnes, lead pastor of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, was concerned that community members were in need of medical services, but were uninsured or unable to afford care. As a result – with volunteer healthcare and faith partners – Pastor Barnes founded Shepherd’s Hope, to encompass and serve all faiths, which has since provided over 180,000 free primary care and specialty care patient visits.

Reports indicate that even with the full implementation of the Affordable Care Act, one-in-four Central Floridians will remain uninsured. In fact, demand has increased. In 2012, Shepherd’s Hope saw 16,791 unique patients, however in 2013, the quantity jumped to more than 20,963, and trends for 2014 indicate continual patient growth.

Shepherd’s Hope operates, in part, through generous financial contributions of philanthropic-minded businesses and individuals.

Support Shepherd’s Hope on #GivingTuesday

Growing steadily with online and social media support, #GivingTuesday is a global day of “giving.” On Tuesday, December 2, businesses, charities, families, and students from around the world will promote a common purpose: to celebrate generosity and philanthropy.

It’s a simple idea: Find a way for your circle of loved ones to come together to give. And inspire others by sharing your efforts using the hashtag #GivingTuesday.

Photo: Michael Foreman, stepfather; Robert Siegrist; and Kathy Foreman, mother

A Two-Wheeled Triumph

By Chip Colandreo, OWSL

As we approach the 15th anniversary of Oviedo’s Christmas Bike Drive program, we look back at one of the community’s most heartwarming (and homegrown) charity projects
About 4,000 bicycles ago, it all started completely by accident.

In December 2000, with several of their own grandchildren inbound for the holidays, Al and Linda Franks stood in the bike department of a local Walmart, eyeing a few potential Christmas presents. The couple overheard a distraught single mom pleading with the store manager a few paces down the aisle.

In her hand, the mom held a $20 bill and a coupon for 50-percent off a bicycle. The manager informed the mother that, regrettably, the coupon was no longer valid. Near tears, the mom replied that the coupon and the $20 in cash – the last bit of money she would see before Christmas – were her only hope to buy her son the $37 bicycle he desperately wanted for Christmas.

Al and Linda looked at each other and quietly debated their next move for a few moments. Al then took a $20 bill out of his wallet and approached the mom.

“We’ve had Christmases before like the one you’re having now,” Al told the mother nearly 15 years ago. “Please, take this and get that bike for your son.”

“I’m still recovering from the bear hug she gave me,” says Al, reflecting on the moment his Christmas Bike Drive was born.

The next year, Al made a deal with his friends in the real estate business. A residential appraiser, Al would occasionally do a no-cost appraisal for a close friend. They would then repay him with lunch or some other token of appreciation.

“I told them the cost of a free inspection was going up,” says Al. “The ‘friend price’ was now two bicycles for needy kids in my garage by December 1.”

Between donations from friends and their own purchases, Al and Linda collected 12 bikes in 2001.

“It was 24 bikes the next year, then 65, then 128, and I sort of lost count after that,” Al says with a chuckle. “It wasn’t the result of me doing more free appraisals, either. Everyone who donated one year came back and did it again the next, and more folks just kept joining in.”

Early on, one of Al’s closest friends, Tom Arthur, teamed up with him in the Bike Drive cause. Together, the pair would spread word of their project to Rotary Clubs, community groups, churches, and anyone else who would hear them. Tom and Al would personally buy bikes with their own money or donated funds, and then gather and store the bicycles donated directly by the community. When they used up every inch of space in Al’s garage (with room for about 100 bikes), they arranged for warehouse storage until the bikes could be distributed.

“The community donated 400 bikes last year,” Al says with pride, “including four bikes built for children with disabilities.”

Funds to buy the bulk of the bikes are now raised at an annual golf tournament for the Bike Drive. The fifth-annual tournament was recently held at Twin Rivers Country Club in Oviedo. Selecting the children who receive the bikes is decided by local churches, the Oviedo and Winter Springs police departments, HOPE Helps, school guidance counselors, and other organizations that know exactly which children will benefit most from a new bike for Christmas. In addition to underprivileged children and kids with disabilities, the Bike Drive has also helped the children of military servicemembers in recent years, especially if a parent is deployed and/or the family is facing hard financial times.

Both in their 70s and having been deeply involved in the program for a decade-and-a-half, Tom and Al say new energy and ideas are needed to help the Bike Drive grow to assist even more kids in the years to come. While Al and Tom both remain on the Bike Drive board of directors, Scott Nickerson is now leading the effort with a dedicated group of volunteers at his side.

“The program is so grass-roots and organic, and it’s helped so many people,” Scott says. “Every single penny of funds raised goes directly to the purchase of bikes, and we take pride in that. We want to expand our reach as far as the community’s support can take us.”

A Place on the Field

by Kristen Manieri

Inspire Cheerleading Gives Local Girls with Special Needs a Chance to Fulfill Their Dreams

Julie Bolton, Sandra Reddecliff, and Elise Eslinger believe a little cheer can go a long way. The trio co-coaches the Inspire Cheerleading Team for the Central Florida Youth Football League’s Lake Mary/Sanford Dolphins, a remarkable cheer squad that helps girls who’ve spent a lifetime limited by disabilities and special needs come out of their shells and beam with delight.

“When I first thought about doing the Inspire Team, I just felt it would be good for these children,” says Julie, who launched the team only last year. “But by the second competition you could see the pure joy in their faces. They were so confident and happy.”

Now in its second season, the Inspire Team is made up of eight girls ranging in ages from 8 to 16, hailing from Volusia and Seminole County. The team also includes 10 junior coaches from local high schools and from the traditional Dolphin squad.

Special-needs football teams have popped up all over the country in recent years, but special-needs cheerleading teams are both new and few. In fact, the local Inspire Team is the first of its kind in the Southeast.

Each week during the fall football season, the team meets at Lakeside Fellowship United Methodist Church in Sanford to practice skills and sharpen a routine they’ll use to compete in local, regional, and national competitions. The church donates the space and Wayne Densch has donated funds for uniforms and registration fees.

“The goal here is to just have fun and be safe,” says coach Sandra, whose daughter, Zoe, is a junior coach. As a nurse practitioner, Sandra brings her medical expertise to the team to ensure that each team member is participating safely and within her ability.

“We are so fortunate to have Sandra as our head coach because she understands the medical side and helps us in being responsive to each child’s needs,” Julie says. “We take safety very seriously, but we also want each team member to participate fully and have fun.”

That’s where the junior coaches come in. These volunteers not only make sure the Inspire Team members are being safe, but also that they’re having a great time. And the junior coaches compete alongside the girls, as well, to diminish the anxiety of the spotlight.

All girls competing in the “Inspiration” division move up automatically through the cheerleading competition tiers, and all receive medals and trophies for specific accomplishments. For example, last year’s Inspire squad received an award for most creative cheer at a competition.

“We start with a routine and then add new elements for regionals and nationals,” Sandra says. “The girls choose which music they want and which cheers they like the best, and then we combine cheering with dance and stunts by seeing what each girl is capable of doing. The junior coaches are there to help them stunt.”

Besides a sense of accomplishment, the Inspire Cheerleading Team provides several other benefits to the girls.

“There is some physical therapy, exercise, and movement, as well as the satisfaction of being part of a team,” Sandra says.

In addition to competitions, the Inspire Team cheers alongside the traditional Dolphin cheer squad at Central Florida Youth Football League games throughout Seminole County.

“The American Youth Football League has a saying that every body should play. It’s a belief that every child who wants to participate can,” Sandra says. “We have team members with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and brain injury. Some are in wheelchairs, braces, or walkers. But everyone gets the chance to join in.”

For Julie, the satisfaction of watching her team thrive has been immensely satisfying, but there’s one aspect that has truly made all her efforts worthwhile.

“Seeing the girls be so confident and happy is amazing, but that’s nothing compared to the experience of the girl’s parents who have lived with exclusions for years,” Julie says. “When they see their daughter compete and finally have the chance to shine, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.”


Audi North Orlando: Going Off Script

People erroneously assume that shopping for a car is destined to be a difficult and draining process. Today’s savvy buyers know differently. They seek dealerships that treat customers with the ultimate compliment: respect for them and their time. Top that with haggle-free pricing and VIP valet service, and you can see why Audi North Orlando in Sanford is exceeding all sales projections.

“We give our best price, first. No haggling, no drama. It’s all about the car and the customer experience,” says Shaun Laird, general manager at Audi North Orlando. “We have customers traveling all the way from Georgia just to work with our sales team. Audi owners are a unique breed. We get it, and they know it.”

Locals, on the other hand, take advantage of Audi North Orlando’s premium valet service. A professional porter handles all of the details. The porter will deliver an Audi for you to drive while your Audi is brought to the dealership for service. Want to test-drive an Audi? They’ll bring one to you. Just pick model, color, year – they’ll find it for you. These personalized processes generate the respect and loyalty of Audi customers.

The most important people in the world

“What also generates loyalty is the caliber of service they receive,” says Shaun. “We treat everyone who walks in this door as if they are the most important person in the world, because our customers are the most important people in our world.”

The words are reminiscent of those the Holler family’s grandfather wrote in his best-selling book, Step Out and Sell! He penned, “Never forget a customer and never let a customer forget you.”

Much like the loyal Audi owners they serve, Audi North Orlando employees eat, sleep, and breathe the brand. “Audi North Orlando’s brand specialists take the time to understand what each customer is seeking in an automobile,” says Shaun. “We help customers pick the best car for their lifestyle.”

What surprises customers the most?

The sales staff at Audi North Orlando is “information-rich and commission-free.” Top that with a five-day, 300-mile return policy, and you can see why this dealership leads the area in customer satisfaction. “It gives customers a great sense of trust to know that if the golf bag doesn’t fit, or the seat is too low, our return policy allows for that,” says Shaun. “People expect a return policy on a blender, but not on the world’s highest tech automobile.”

Audi North Orlando is selling all models at a rapid pace, but the A3, A4, A6, Q5 and Q7 top the list in Sanford. It was evident throughout our interview that customers in the showroom enjoyed lively conversations about their favorite Audi models. These people take their Audis seriously.

But which car is making hearts skip a beat? The 2015 Audi Q3, which first appeared in the showroom in September. The smallest of the Q-series, this “compact and nimble” luxury crossover is new to the U.S. It made its stateside debut at the 66th Emmy Awards, along with the newly redesigned Audi A3.

“Audi’s theme for the Emmys, ‘Life is more interesting when you go off script,’ couldn’t have been more perfect. Both vehicles are the epitome of what an Audi should be,” says Shaun. “Both are fresh and not a typical or scripted version of a sedan or SUV.”

The tech upgrades to the newly redesigned A3 sedan are “very Audi”: sleek and cutting edge, with state-of-the-art German technology. Touch pads, 4G wireless, Wi-Fi hotspot – the A3 is a lot of car for the money – even the base model comes with leather and a panoramic sunroof and beats most other brands’ loaded models.

What is the most “dreamy” car in the showroom? The 2015 Audi RS7 in the Daytona Gray Matte color.

“It’s an amazing machine,” says Shaun. “In its segment, nothing can compete. This car – in this color – is especially exceptional. It’s the hottest, most understated and beautiful car I have ever seen. It’s a car that is everything and has everything, but it doesn’t have to scream it.”

Keeping promises

The staff at Audi North Orlando in Sanford is as passionate about the Holler-Classic brand as they are about Audis. They can name the 12 customer promises by heart; and they don’t just know them, they live by them. Test them next time you are in the neighborhood (just off 46 and I-4 in Sanford). We did.

We were wondering, do people return Audis often? “You haven’t driven an Audi, have you?” Shaun responds with a grin.

– Lena Oakley

Photo: Shaun Laird, General Manager of Audi North Orlando (a member of the Holler-Classic family of dealerships) with the most “dreamy” car in the showroom: the 2015 Audi RS7 in the Daytona Gray Matte color.


One Senior Place

As our loved ones age, they often avoid certain uncomfortable issues related to senior care until they are forced to reach out for help. This puts them at a disadvantage because they don’t realize what services are available as they make a quick decision with incomplete information. It can be overwhelming to seniors and their families, but thanks to One Senior Place in Altamonte Springs, there’s a one-stop resource that provides information about a full spectrum of senior-care services, all under one roof.

“My wife and I had some bad experiences trying to find our parents the services they needed as they got older, and we realized there was a glaring need for a clearinghouse that could simplify what has become a very complex senior-care landscape,” says Don Kramer, CEO and founder of One Senior Place. “We consider ourselves a bridge that connects seniors to the services they need, like assisted living or financial counseling. And because of our affiliate providers, we’re able to steer them in the right direction for just about anything.”

One Senior Place opened its doors in Viera, Florida, in March 2006. After six successful years in Brevard County, the company opened a location in Altamonte Springs. One Senior Place provides options for senior-care issues including legal services, living options, senior insurance, and financial matters (Social Security, veterans benefits, paying for long-term care, etc.).

“We don’t charge seniors for our services,” explains Don. “Revenues come from senior-care affiliate businesses that either rent space here or advertise with us. We really are like a shopping center. Our care managers advise seniors and establish relationships with them. Once we identify their needs, we connect them to independent providers of senior products and services, so seniors don’t have to search all over the place for one service here, the other service there, and so on.”

The concept has drawn a great deal of recognition and media attention on the local and national level. Florida Trend magazine singled out Don in its Annual Economic Yearbook issue as “one of the innovators who [is] driving the Florida economy.” Don was also named the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Small Business Person of the Year in 2008 for the state of Florida.

“We find that when people walk in here, they’re surprised that we even exist,” says Don. “The fact is most people aren’t aware this kind of service is available, so we’re providing a service that’s making a lot of people’s lives much easier, and we’re very proud of that fact.”

Seniors come to One Senior Place for a variety of things, like education, fun events, hearing aids, and more. A well-stocked library has information on every senior-care issue imaginable, and affiliate providers present seminars and lectures on various senior-related topics in the VITAS Auditorium and Conference Center. A multitude of businesses that provide senior services are either on-site or a phone call away. Physicians, who are often the first line of contact for seniors when they are in need of services, also refer their patients to One Senior Place for both medical and non-medical related issues. Don’s biggest challenge is reaching out to seniors in need who don’t know One Senior Place is there to help.

“We’ll always have to create awareness of what we do, and we focus our efforts on educating people about who we are and the services we provide,” Don says. “It’s very friendly and welcoming here, and it’s often a Eureka moment for people when they step inside, so the goal is to get them in our doors.”

Don believes One Senior Place brings great value to the community, filling a huge void that’s not being addressed in most other regions of the country.

“Our team is very happy to help others solve their problems,” Don says. “It can be frustrating and difficult sometimes because senior-care issues are complex. But at the end of the day, we know we’re doing a good thing.”

– Jack Roth

Photo: One Senior Place founder and CEO Don Kramer


Ladybird Academy

At Ladybird Academy, family means everything. As Central Florida’s #1 provider of early learning and advanced educational childcare as voted by readers of Orlando magazine, Ladybird is trusted by thousands of families every day with their sons and daughters. Those children learn at Ladybird, and their families watch as their young minds grow.

Now, Ladybird Academy is thrilled to announce that its own family is growing, too, with a pair of new academies: Ladybird Academy of Rock Springs in Apopka and Ladybird Academy of Wekiva Springs near the intersection of East Lake Brantley Drive and Wekiva Springs Road.

“Ladybird Academy is the standard of quality and excellence for early childhood education in the area, and we’re so excited to bring that standard to the Wekiva, Longwood, and Apopka communities with these new academies,” says Linzi Hansla, training officer for Ladybird, a family-owned company that founded its first academy in Lake Forest near Sanford and has already expanded to more than 15 locations in Florida and Texas.

Construction on both the Rock Springs and Wekiva Springs locations is underway, and both academies plan to open in time for the 2015-2016 school year, if not sooner. Once the ribbons are cut, students age six weeks through pre-K will discover a world of learning inside thanks to advanced, nationally recognized curricula, such as the Saxon Math Series and McGraw-Hill’s Open Court Reading Program. Both academies will also offer before- and after-school care for children up to age 12, with the same commitment to experiential learning during every part of the day.

“We discovered Ladybird when my wife and I were expecting our first child,” says Rick Law, current owner of Ladybird Academies in Oviedo and Lake Underhill and the owner of the upcoming Rock Springs location. “We toured the original Ladybird Academy in Lake Forest and were blown away. We knew it was the perfect environment for our new child. We became so passionate about Ladybird and the amazing things they were doing with their students, that when Ladybird decided to expand for the first time, we wanted to be part of that and help bring Ladybird quality to new communities. We’re thrilled to be doing that again in Rock Springs.”


Joel and Genell Kling, owners of the upcoming Wekiva Springs location, have been active members of the Longwood community for nearly 15 years, long enough to see firsthand what Ladybird has brought to the early learning and childcare marketplace in the area.

“Moments after I walked into a Ladybird Academy for the first time, I thought, ‘My goodness. I wish my child could have experienced all of this when he was young,’” says Genell. “Every Ladybird student Joel and I saw was smiling, engaged, and happy to be there. We knew we wanted to be part of this, to give these great experiences to new families here in Wekiva Springs.”

“The Wekiva/Longwood community is in the midst of a tremendous rebirth of young families moving into the area, and those families are seeking the very best care and early education for their children,” says Joel. “It gives us tremendous pride to provide exactly that.”

When open, the Rock Springs and Wekiva Springs academies will feature Ladybird’s latest advances in security and student health and safety. Biometric fingerprint scanning of parents or guardians protects each Ladybird student during every pick-up and drop-off. Advanced sanitation throughout each Ladybird campus helps keep kids healthy and happy. Every Ladybird classroom also features a secure, password-protected Web camera, allowing parents to look in via the computer at any time to see exactly what their child is doing. The Web cameras have earned rave reviews, especially from parents of infant children and even parents serving in the military overseas.

“Knowing that your children are safe and seeing how much they enjoy learning brings a sense of comfort to every parent,” says Genell. “That’s what got us so excited about Ladybird, and we can’t wait to share it with many more families in the months to come.”

– Chip Colandreo

Photo: The Ladybird Academy team that will bring Central Florida’s #1 early learning and childcare experience to Rock Springs and Wekiva Springs: Lucy the Ladybug; Angela Maniscalco, franchise development officer; Verna Gange, business development officer; Joel Kling, owner, Wekiva Springs; Linzi Hansla, training officer; Genell Kling, owner, Wekiva Springs; Carrie Root, area director and curriculum coordinator; Rick Law, owner, Rock Springs; and Simon Hansla, vice president.


Florida Business Interiors

Those of us who have frequented offices in our community recognize when office space has been beautifully and purposefully created. More often than not, that workspace has been created by the staff of Florida Business Interiors (FBI).

The process has worked well. It has guided clients through space analysis and programming, design development, construction documents, furniture selection, and move-in management and occupancy while focusing on offices, healthcare facilities, and government entities.

What you might not know, however, is that FBI has significant expertise in the designing of automobile dealerships. In fact, the firm has completed more than 25 dealership projects throughout Central Florida and the surrounding areas. Working with independent owners and dealership groups alike, FBI has provided facility design solutions for many of the highest grossing auto dealers in the state.

“We study designs created by the world’s top architectural firms to know how to create customer-centric showrooms that have a direct effect on the bottom line,” says Pete Wilson, FBI’s sales manager.

Creating a comfortable atmosphere within a dealership is a proven method to increase sales. Even more importantly, the “mall effect” that gives waiting customers the opportunity to have fresh brewed coffee and snacks in an elegant space, along with comfortable seating, easy access to Wi-Fi, and huge flat-screen TVs, has a significant impact on service.

Colors and styles are often coordinated too. Sometimes it’s a brand atmosphere.

“If you go to your favorite car dealership in Orlando, it should give you the same feeling as one that’s located in St. Louis,” says Pete. “To achieve that effect, we will often use colors and fabrics in the design of the showroom that a customer will find in the interior of the cars that are sold there.”

“We recently completed four new dealerships with Florida Business Interiors,” says Randy Parks, owner of Parks Motor Group. “Not only have sales and service volumes increased, but, due to the ergonomic furniture that was used, employee comfort and productivity have both increased.”

Florida Business Interiors takes pride in designing state-of-the-art facilities and in the total management services that it provides for those projects.

“We are the preeminent firm in this category,” Pete adds. “The overall experience that we create for a client is what brings them back time and time again – for service on their existing cars and for new cars, as well.”

– Sheila Kramer

Photo: Randy Parks, owner of Parks Motor Group, with Pete Wilson, FBI’s sales manager


Heathrow Country Club and The Legacy Club at Alaqua Lakes

“Two for the price of one” is not a deal you usually find associated with a luxury golf and country club, but thanks to the recent marriage of Heathrow Country Club and The Legacy Club at Alaqua Lakes, a new match made in heaven is giving golf and tennis enthusiasts more access and amenities than ever before.

“Heathrow Country Club’s recent partnership with The Legacy Club has essentially turned us into a ‘super club,’” says Nate Kalb, director of operations at both clubs. “We’ve combined the clubs in a way that gives members many membership options based on the access and amenities that work for them and their families.”

As always, members get access to Heathrow’s 18-hole course, a stunning series of fairways that wind past sparkling lakes and towering palms. Designed by legendary architect Ron Garl, the challenging par-71 course has hosted scores of PGA Tour players including Chris DiMarco, Cliff Kresge, Danny Ellis, Jim Thorpe, Donnie Hammond, Lion Kim, and Fulton Allem. Considered to be ideal for all skill levels, this course has been a wonderful launching pad for junior golfers and anyone new to the sport.

Golf facilities include complete clubhouse services, a pro shop, a driving area, chipping green, and a professional instructional staff on hand to deliver one-on-one and group instruction.

Less than two miles away, The Legacy Club at Alaqua Lakes provides a more challenging golf experience, thanks to tighter fairways along 18 holes designed by golf legend Tom Fazio. Carved around a dense forest of lush, mature trees with spectacular topography, dramatic slopes, rises, and knolls, this par-72 course will challenge and delight.

“Legacy is a 15-year-old golf club designed for people who are serious about playing,” Nate says. “It backs up to the Wekiva River and makes members feel like they are out in the middle of nowhere and truly away from it all.”

Besides the meticulously manicured course, amenities include a 10-acre practice range with target greens and separate chipping, putting, and bunker facilities. Luxury locker rooms, private lounges, and meeting rooms round out the opulent offerings.

But both clubs feature much more than golf. For starters, Legacy’s 11,000-square-foot clubhouse is home to the Legacy Grille, where a full menu of lunch entrees and small bites tempt taste buds Tuesday through Sunday. Breakfast is served Saturday and Sunday mornings. With views of the ninth green and lots of HD televisions where members can catch a game or the latest PGA tournament broadcast live, the clubhouse is an ideal place to kick back before or after a round or for business meetings and luncheons.

The epicurean offerings abound at Heathrow Country Club, too, where the Main Dining Room, Sports Café, Patio, and The Grill give members their choice of gourmet eats for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Whether it’s a casual burger or upscale prime steak, chefs take painstaking efforts to ensure members are well-fed.

Members also have access to regular wine dinners, social events, family nights, and kids’ nights that dot the calendar throughout the year, including special occasions such as New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, and, in particular, Halloween – when the club hosts two parties, one for the kids and the other for adults.

“Social events are a huge part of Heathrow, and as such they have become a very popular part of our community,” Nate says. “From craft nights and summer movies at the pool to casual cookouts and lavish, multi-course wine paired dinners, we find lots of fun ways to get our members together.”

That’s all part of the plan to make the clubs very family-friendly, even for those members who don’t golf. Twelve tennis courts (with lessons and leagues), a pool, and a state-of-the-art fitness facility ensure that everyone has something fun to do.

“Heathrow is a family country club,” says Nate. “We have a lot of retirees here, and we also have a lot of young families with young kids. There is something for the whole family, including junior-friendly golf for parents who like to take their kids out on the links.

“The best part is that members can now choose the level of access to amenities that suits their passions and lifestyle,” Nate continues. “You can get dual access to both courses, or you can pick and choose a customized package that only gives you exactly what you’ll use.”

– Kristen Manieri

Photo: Want to improve your golf game? There’s no better place than Heathrow Country Club or The Legacy Club at Alaqua Lakes, now operating as “two clubs in one.”


Patriot Pride Comes In Pairs

Congratulations to Lake Brantley High School’s Juliene McDonald and Mike Gaudreau, the school district’s Assistant Principal and Principal of the Year

by Pam Neff

Mike Gaudreau

In last year’s November/December issue of

Altamonte-Wekiva Springs Life, we introduced Mike Gaudreau as Lake Brantley’s new principal and welcomed him to our community. One year later, he’s now the district’s Principal of The Year.

Well into his second year at Lake Brantley, Mike says he’s overwhelmed by the positive response from the community.

“The support from businesses and city partnerships has just been tremendous,” says Mike, who refers to Lake Brantley as the “hub” of the Altamonte-Wekiva Springs community.

Although Mike and his administration focus on improving in academic areas, as well as preparing for new exams like the Florida Standards Assessments, the team still makes sure their students are having a fun and memorable high-school experience.

“It’s important that our students want to come to school,” says Mike. “Sure, there will be tough testing days, but I hope they realize that there will be plenty of fun times, too.”

In addition to pep rallies and sports events, last year’s Homecoming and Senior Week were two of Mike’s highlights as principal.

“We all dressed up along with the students during those events,” he recalls. “It was a blast. Our students have so much school spirit.”

With numerous changes happening in the teaching profession, Mike always makes sure his teachers know that they are supported.

“I don’t want them to feel alone,” Mike says. “We will always continue to support their efforts.”

Starting out as a teacher and basketball coach at Lake Mary High School years ago, Mike never imagined he’d become a principal.

“I have been extremely fortunate,” he smiles. “Opportunities present themselves, and this has been an amazing fit for me.

Juliene McDonald

During her 26-year career in Seminole County Public Schools, Lake Brantley High School assistant principal Juliene McDonald has experienced both sides of the coin, having served equal time as both teacher and administrator.

Juliene joined SCPS in 1990. With a specialized background in teaching students with disabilities, she spent seven years at Milwee Middle School and then five years at Winter Springs High School, where she was named 2001-2002 Teacher of The Year. After 12 years as an educator, Juliene made the transition to school administrator.

“I knew I wanted to do something else in addition to being a classroom teacher, and I felt it was time,” she says.

Since her administration career began, Juliene has served as the dean of students at Lyman High School and assistant principal at Lake Brantley and Hagerty High School. Happily, she is now back at Lake Brantley for her second stint as assistant principal.

“Knowing I was coming back home to so many familiar faces was very comforting,” says Juliene.

Juliene says another perk at Lake Brantley is getting to work with principal Mike Gaudreau.

“I have been really lucky to have such a great boss and an amazing administrative team,” Juliene says. “I am also thankful to have had such rewarding experiences with my faculty and staff.”

As assistant principal, Juliene oversees the ESE Department, the Performing and Visual Arts Department, and the World Language Program, or rather, what she likes to call “amazing departments made up of incredibly talented students and teachers.” Juliene particularly enjoys working with the ESE Department, which she says has been “the hardest, but most rewarding job.”

Juliene’s goals this school year include incorporating more technology into the World Language Program, as well as developing AP classes in the program. She’s also working on including support facilitators in the ESE Department and involving more support systems in all classes.

When it comes to fulfilling her role as assistant principal, Juliene takes it one day at a time.

“At the end of each day I ask myself if I’ve done a good job,” she says, “and if I can say that I’ve tried, then I know I have.”

And typical of her style of management, Juliene always makes sure to remind her teachers each day that they, too, are doing a great job.

While receiving such an honorable award, both Mike and Juliene describe the recognition as overwhelming and humbling.

“All of the assistant principals I work with deserve this honor,” Juliene says. “I am very proud to be representing my colleagues, and I appreciate all the recognition.” Mike agrees. “I know almost every principal in Seminole County, and they all are incredible,” he says. “This award represents the amazing work that we all do.”


Lake Mary: Picture Perfect

by Jake Roth

New book tells the charming visual history of Seminole County’s “newest” city

Being a writer in Central Florida has its advantages. Among them is living in a region steeped in its own unique brand of fascinating history. Compared to other parts of America, our history may not be as extensive, but it is often unheralded, giving writers and historical detectives the opportunity to shed light on wonderful tidbits of local history hiding – quite literally – right under our noses.

Images of America, Lake Mary is a new 128-page book that unearths much of the visual history of Lake Mary. John Hope, the book’s author, describes the process of gathering these photos and collecting their stories as being both rewarding and challenging.

“It was an amazing experience,” John says, “I learned a great deal about Lake Mary, but I must admit that writing a 128-page book that contains 200 historic photos was arduous. I had to locate as many historic photographs as possible, and then I had to find out where and when they were taken, as well as their historical significance, if any. This can be next to impossible when a great-granddaughter is trying to remember the details about a photograph taken 80 years ago by her long-deceased great-grandfather.”

Nevertheless, John persevered and assembled a charming and revealing pictorial history of the town. He worked closely with the Lake Mary Historical Society, which is thrilled to have thebook published by Arcadia Publishing for historical preservation purposes.

“You learn some interesting things about a town when you dig deep,” says John. “For example, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, everyone in Central Florida owned a machete because everything was so overgrown. You couldn’t get around without one.”

John also learned just how closely connected the history of Lake Mary is to the history of Sanford. Henry Shelton Sanford incorporated the city of Sanford in 1877. He then traveled to Sweden to lure immigrants to the region to bolster the area’s labor force. Early settlers to Lake Mary included lumbermen, turpentine workers, families from Fort Reed in Sanford who had received land grants, and Swedish families who were primarily orange growers. Some of the descendants of these founding families still live in town.

“There’s a well-knit culture of people here,” explains John. “The older families still treat Lake Mary like a very small town and don’t like fanfare, but they were extremely helpful to me during this process. I learned so much from them and have grown to appreciate the small-town mentality.”

John credits A Novel Group of Writers, a Lake Mary writers group affiliated with the Florida Writers Association, with getting him the assignment to produce the book. John had just completed a historical fiction book, titled No Good, about a boy in Sanford in the 1940s, when the opportunity with Arcadia Publishing presented itself. When the Lake Mary Historical Society reached out to the writers group to find possible candidates to take on the Images of America, Lake Mary project, John was a perfect fit, given his familiarity with local history.

A software engineer by day, John considers writing his labor of love.

“I’m a writer and an engineer, so my stories tend to be very precise,” he jokes. “I love this area, my family loves this area, and I love being a writer here. The culture and history of this region offer writers some great fodder to work with. I’ve turned down engineering promotions to stay here. This is where my writing roots are and where I want to be.”

PhotoLake Mary author John Hope

Art from the HEART

Local cardiologist celebrates love and healing through art inspired by her father

by Jill Duff-Hoppes

As far as Dr. Puxiao Cen is concerned, art and her late father’s love go hand-in-hand.

“When I see art, I think that’s how my father loved me,” says Dr. Cen, a cardiologist with Florida Hospital’s Florida Heart Group in Altamonte Springs. “To me, it represents my father’s love.”

Zebo Cen was an orthopedic surgeon and professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He was also a self-taught artist who was fond of painting and calligraphy. He died suddenly in 2009 at age 73.

“My father’s role in my life is the most important one,” says Dr. Cen, who lives in Casselberry.

Like her dad, she chose a career in medicine. Dr. Cen is also a self-taught artist, just like her father. Her only formal art training came from Chinese calligraphy classes taken when she was a teen.

When she was a very young child, Dr. Cen recalls, her dad sketched simple pictures as a way to communicate with her. She learned about watercolors, charcoals, and oils by watching him create art.

“I observed him, and of course he critiqued,” Dr. Cen says.

After school, she often went to her father’s classroom to watch him teach. He instructed his students in part by drawing surgical images and anatomies on the board.

That inspired her to begin drawing as a means of self-expression.

“With art, I can let my imagination go wild,” Dr. Cen says.

“It’s liberating.”

However, once she began her medical career, Dr. Cen didn’t have much time for her hobby. Then everything changed in 2007, when she was diagnosed with stage II ovarian cancer. Dr. Cen went on medical leave for a year, during which time she endured surgery and chemotherapy. While cooped up at home, Dr. Cen devoted many hours to painting with oils and drawing with charcoals.

Making art helped her cope with the physical and emotional trauma of being sick. She believes wholeheartedly in the connection between art, mind, and body.

“Art is very healing,” says Dr. Cen, who is 46. “I have a personal experience with how strong the healing power of art is.”

When she returned to work, Dr. Cen’s time for art became limited once again. However, she still finds time to create several paintings a year and enjoys drawing on weekends.

Her cozy study at home doubles as an art studio, as does her son’s room when he is away at college. Steven, 21, is a pre-med student at the University of Florida. On occasion, Dr. Cen even sketches at her office after finishing the day’s paperwork.

“I draw anything I see. Sometimes I just take off my socks and draw my feet,” she says with a laugh.

Dr. Cen exhibits her paintings in quarterly shows at Florida Hospital Altamonte’s Art of Healing Gallery.

“Her work has been in every show since we started in 2010,” says Josie Foranoce, gallery administrator.

“And if someone purchases her work, 100 percent of the money goes to the Florida Hospital Foundation. Dr. Cen doesn’t take any money for herself.”

Dr. Cen’s work decorates not only her office building, but also hangs in several rooms and hallways at Florida Hospital Altamonte and Florida Hospital Orlando. Dr. Cen also has paintings on display at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine, where she is an assistant professor.

Her artistic subjects are varied, from the scientific to the romantic. Hearts are a recurring theme, which is fitting for a cardiologist. Some are big, colorful designs representing love and devotion, while others resemble medical illustrations.

Each year, Dr. Cen donates paintings to local fundraisers for the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, and Florida Hospital’s Golden Gala. This year’s Golden Gala will be held Sunday, November 23, at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort. Kristen Jacobs, a coordinator for the event, says Dr. Cen’s art will be included in the silent auction.

“This year’s painting is gorgeous,” Kristen says of the large piece, which is a replica of a breast cancer awareness stamp.

Dr. Cen also uses art to honor her father, the man she most admires and emulates. Her work includes a pastel portrait of him and a stained glass box designed to hold seashells they collected together.

Recently, Dr. Cen labored intently on a piece of repoussé art, which is an ancient metalworking technique. She crafted the copper artwork as a special gift for her mother’s 75th birthday and to memorialize her beloved father.

“I modeled myself after him, in every aspect,” Dr. Cen says. “That is how much I adore and respect him.”

Photo: Dr. Puxiao Cen with an oil painting that she donated to Florida Hospital’s Golden Gala fundraiser, which will be held in November. The painting, a replica of a breast cancer awareness stamp, will be included in the event’s silent auction.

Park Jewelers

You don’t stay in business for 30 years without doing something right, especially if you’re selling jewelry, an industry in which customer care is at least as important as the gems on display.

For Tony Tsirigotis of Park Jewelers in Lake Mary, September 13, 2014, marked his 30th anniversary providing high-quality diamonds, precious gems, and superb customer service. Jewelry has been Tony’s infatuation for more than half his life, a profession he entered a day after arriving in the Orlando area from New York. A product of hardworking Greek immigrants, Tony was taught at an early age how to treat others with respect and was instilled with a strong work ethic.

While Tony understands jewelry is not something everyone needs to survive, he does recognize the allure and personal attachment people have to his craft. Jewelry leads to conversation. There is always a story. It makes people happy.

“I have a total passion for this,” Tony says with a smile. “Happiness keeps me in business. I love making people happy.”

Tony remembers his first sale 30 years ago like it was yesterday.

“I made my first sale…for $350,” he recalls, noting the transaction was the catalyst that launched his career. “The customer trusted me to help choose the right diamonds. I realized that I could do this.”

But a business does not thrive for 30 years on passion alone. Unwavering consistency, offering a quality product, and exceptional customer service are the true cornerstones of Tony’s longevity.

Tony is so consistent and reliable, in fact, some of his customers have no qualms waiting until the last minute to make a purchase before a special occasion.

“You will always see Tony Tsirigotis behind the counter,” Tony says, referring to himself in the third person. “A customer may come in the day before or the day of a big event for that special gift, and they know I will guide them in the right direction.”

Selling quality merchandise builds trust and keeps customers coming back. That’s why Tony only sells diamonds that are rated to be the best in the industry.

Tony’s personality and his passion for his chosen profession are on full display when it comes to taking care of his customers. For one thing, there is no upselling at Park Jewelers. You won’t even find the term in Tony’s vocabulary. Whether your budget is $200 or $10,000, Tony will show you only items in your price range.

“We want people to come back and to come back for generations,” Tony says, noting it’s a thrill when a client who purchased an engagement ring returns with a son or daughter about to do the same. “What a feeling that is for me.”

When Tony’s customers return, they’ll always find the latest trend-setting pieces in the glass cases at Park Jewelers, but they are also welcome to drop in anytime for cleaning or maintenance or to have a new, custom piece designed from existing jewelry. Besides Tony, Park Jewelers has a full-time jeweler on staff with more than 18 years of experience to assist customers with jewelry maintenance and repair, watch batteries, pearl cleaning and restringing, appraisals, and ring resizing.

Diamonds, specifically, need maintenance as settings inevitably start wearing away.

“We do diamond settings while you wait,” says Tony. “It’s a relief for everyone. The customer doesn’t have to worry about leaving their precious stones behind. If a ring is being custom-made, we make the ring and then ask the customer to bring in the stone at the end. I only need it for 45 minutes.”

A by-product of Tony’s longevity is his enormous customer base. He not only remembers names with mind-boggling accuracy, but Tony also relishes the stories behind each particular customer’s visit to his store. They drive him. Tony revels in the gift-giving aspect of the business and the smiles it puts on faces.

He also understands the magnitude connected to each diamond engagement ring that leaves the store. Tony wants each one to be perfect.

“It’s a huge step, financially and emotionally,” he says. “It’s the next step in life. To me, that’s what has kept me in this business – happy occasions.

“People love jewelry,” Tony continues. “They need it. It’s insane what it does for people. I sold an engagement ring, then weeks later, the bride-to-be comes in with her fiancé and gives me a big hug and thanks me… Thanks me! How could you not love that?”

– Kevin Fritz

Photo: Thirty years and thousands of diamonds ago, a young Tony Tsirigotis stands behind the counter at his first job in the jewelry business (circa 1984, Altamonte Springs). Three decades later, legions of loyal clients (and their children… and grandchildren) rely on Tony for his unmatched expertise and customer service.