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The Lifeline

Bringing you the best local stories in and around our community.

CommUNITY

Featured Photo from CommUNITY

We’re all in this together – even when we’re a-p-a-r-t

“Look for the helpers,” Mr. Rogers said. So we did, and we didn’t have to look far.

From every corner of our community, help and compassion poured out in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Families, businesses, neighbors, friends, and total strangers banded together – or as close as social-distancing rules would allow – to help each other and help those who needed it most.

The acts of kindness on display were sometimes simple, sometimes elaborate, but always appreciated. We could canvas the community for the rest of time and never give proper thanks to everyone who answered the call to help, but these are just a few of the good deeds we found. In a dark and scary time, we hope these stories of selflessness help restore your faith in the world, in humanity, and in your community.

#EATOVIEDO Fills Bellies and Hearts

For decades, Oviedo residents dreamed of a town full of culinary options so they didn’t have to travel outside the city for a great meal. Thanks to recent developments and initiatives like Oviedo on the Park and the Stonehill Plaza, the dream is now a reality, but COVID-19 showed up just in time to ruin the fun. Oviedo’s new restaurant scene wasn’t going to take that lying down, though, so the #EATOVIEDO initiative was born.

With the endorsement of Mayor Megan Sladek of Oviedo, residents were encouraged to support their favorite home-grown restaurants in any way they could throughout the pandemic, and in perfect Oviedo fashion, a charitable campaign sprung up around the initiative to turn the good food into good deeds.

Diners were prompted to post pictures of themselves at local restaurants showing off the #EATOVIEDO hashtag. Local business Optigrate promised to donate $10 per picture, up to $3,000, to HOPE Helps, Inc., which has continued its work throughout the pandemic to provide food and other services to families in need.

It’s the perfect win-win-win for businesses, residents, and the community!

Lockdown Cheer at Watermark

The COVID-19 lockdown was especially challenging for our neighbors in senior-living communities. For the safety of this particularly vulnerable population, visits from family and other guests were off-limits, making social isolation even more pronounced for those who often need interaction the most.

At The Watermark at Vistawilla community in Winter Springs, the staff knew how painful the lockdown would be, and they were determined to go above and beyond to keep residents engaged and connected with loved ones, even if those connections were virtual.

The Watermark at Vistawilla team organized special Easter celebrations, roving coffee carts, regular happy-hour gatherings, and even provided technical support to help residents video-chat with family. A special shout-out goes to Mackenna Jensen, The Watermark at Vistawilla’s community life assistant, whose never-ending smile could be seen even beneath her face mask.

Italian Hospitality

Two owners of Italian restaurants in the Oviedo-Winter Springs area partnered up to say Mangia, Mangia! to local healthcare workers. Alejandro Martinez, owner of Stefano’s Trattoria in Winter Springs, and Phil Innamorato, who owns Santino’s Pizza-N-Wings in Oviedo, teamed up to deliver stacks of pizzas and other Italian favorites to the staff at Oviedo Medical Center. 
Like all local restaurants, both eateries have been hard-hit by the coronavirus crisis, but tremendous community support has kept their doors open and as many staffers as possible on the job. Alejandro and Phil wanted to pay that goodwill forward and help feed those on the frontlines. Grazie, gentlemen!

Harley’s Birthday Lives Up to Its Name

Birthday drive-by parties have become a new, safe way to wish friends and family Happy Birthday during these socially distant times. But when your name is Harley, the standard parade gets kicked up a few notches. When Chris and Cassie Quagliani (a teacher at Evans Elementary School) decided to organize a drive-by celebration for their seven-year-old daughter’s birthday, they sent a message to a few friends and asked them to casually drive by their house around noon on a Sunday. One of those friends contacted the Orlando Harley-Davidson dealer, and the results will likely be something little Harley will never forget.

Before Harley’s friends and family drove by (in decorated cars) to wish her a Happy Birthday, 73 Harley-Davidson motorcycles surprised the birthday girl with a loud and enthusiastic drive by.

“Before they came around, I thought someone was getting pulled over,” giggles Harley. “But then I was wrong – they were coming for my birthday. It was a really awesome day and the best birthday surprise.”

Motorcyclists included off-duty law-enforcement personnel from Orange County, the City of Orlando, and Florida Highway Patrol as well as members of various Harley Owners Groups. They got the call that little Harley needed some cheering up on her birthday, and they decided to take time out of their day to come celebrate.

“It was so incredible to see complete strangers celebrate our daughter’s birthday – especially during these times,” says Cassie. "We are beyond thankful for the acts of kindness and generosity. It was above any expectations we had, and we are very appreciative of all the people who participated. It was a birthday we’ll never forget!”

Five-Alarm Friendship

Right in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown, lightning struck twice in Oviedo. During a major summer storm over Oviedo on the Park in late May, a lightning bolt set the roof of the Park Place Apartments ablaze just as most residents were turning in for the night. Witnesses from nearby restaurants saw the strike and the flames and rushed into the building to warn those inside. Oviedo Firefighters got the inferno under control, but they didn't stop there. Off-duty first responders returned days later with other volunteers    to help displaced residents from the nearly 60 destroyed apartments to gather their belongings and move out. It's a perfect testament to the strength of the Oviedo-Winter Springs community in times of crisis.

Veggies Are Good for Everyone

Karen and Mike Zielke have called Chuluota home for 24 years. When unemployment began taking its toll on their community, the couple was desperate to help. At the same time, they saw a Facebook post from a Mount Dora farm saying the spring harvest was in full swing, but the farm’s commercial clients were unable to place their usual orders and surpluses of fruits and vegetables were piling up. Mike and Karen put two-and-two together and devised a great way to help everyone.

They travelled to the farm and used their own money to buy crates of produce. Then, they partnered with the East Seminole County VFW Post 10139 in Chuluota to set up tables and tents to give the food away. The first event on May 9 was a success, so the couple decided to do it again. This time, the community had their back. Cash donations poured in, and Karen and Mike were able to place another big order with the farm and serve about 75 more families the very next week. They hope to continue weekly produce giveaways as long as the need remains and community support holds strong.

A COVID Baby Milestone at OMC

COVID-19 can't stop the sun from rising, and it can't stop babies from being born. The children who came into the world during this global crisis will always have a special place in history, and Oviedo Medical Center decided to double-down and create some extra history of its own.

Just as the crisis was shutting down our community, the 1,000th baby was born at Oviedo Medical Center's Memorable Beginnings obstetrics suites. Baby Michael was born to mom Rhonda, and both received extra fanfare for the extraordinary event. Congratulations to mom and baby and everyone at Oviedo Medical Center.

Breaking Barre Puts COVID-19 Grant to Good Use

To support women entrepreneurs during the COVID-19 crisis, the GlobalGiving team and The Spanx by Sara Blakely Foundation teamed up to give $5,000 grants to 1,000 women-owned small businesses across the country. From hundreds of thousands of applicants, Oviedo's Breaking Barre fitness studio was one of the lucky recipients, and owner Laura Clark is paying the grant forward for the health and safety of her clients.

Laura used her $5,000 to install a HEPA air-purification system throughout the studio, set up touchless hand-sanitizer dispensers, install a front desk sneeze guard, and improve the quality of Breaking Barre's virtual class sessions. Leftover funds were used to help keep employee payroll intact.

Sikh Society Continues to Help

In continuing with its tradition of helping those in need, the Sikh Society of Central Florida (SSCF) donated meals, groceries, and masks to the community throughout the crisis. From their Oviedo location, volunteers fed thousands of people vegetarian meals, handed out bags of groceries, and provided surgical and cloth face masks.

“Right now, everybody is hurting,” explains CJ Sodhi, treasurer of the SSCF. “There’s so much economic insecurity. We’re seeing people of all backgrounds. We’re helping anyone in the greater community, whoever needs it.”
The SSCF, which is a nonprofit organization completely dependent upon community support, plans on continuing this program as long as there is a need.

“We intend to make this an ongoing program,” explains Amit Pal Singh, SSCF chairman. “We are working out those details – as long as the need is there, we want to keep going.”

For more information, visit OrlandoGurudwara.com or Orlando Gurudwara Oviedo on Facebook.

A Sweet Act of Kindness

The Greenwald family – Jeff, Michelle, Xander, Garrett, and Micah – decided to brighten their neighborhood with care packages for each of its 58 houses. The delicious treats inside included granola bars, gum, candy, nuts, and chocolate, as well as a note.

The note read, “The past six weeks have surely been something that none of us could have ever imagined. This has tested us in ways that we rarely experience. Our lives are so different now, and what the future holds is unknown. We have chosen in our house to use this time to find things each day that we are thankful for. We have our health, we have each other, we have a roof over our heads. Many people do not have those things. Please stay safe, be well, and we wish the best to each of you. Your neighbors, The Greenwalds.”

Residents in their Longwood neighborhood were definitely touched, taking to the community’s Facebook page to thank the Greenwald family for their act of kindness. There’s no doubt that 58 families smiled a little more on the day their delectable box arrived.

Sweet Dreams, Sabal Point

While distance learning was in full swing, teachers at Sabal Point Elementary were missing their students and knew their students felt the same way. The staff decided to connect with the kids by reading bedtime stories on social media so students could see their smiling faces. Teachers recorded videos of themselves reading the stories, sometimes accompanied by pets and their own children. Each night at 7:00, a video was posted on Facebook for students and their families to enjoy.

“We know that a bedtime story can be calming, develop imagination, and encourage a love of reading,” explains Maura Olvey, math teacher at Sabal Point. “When schools moved to distance learning, our teachers thought it would be a treat for the kids and parents to hear a bedtime story from one of us.”

Happily Ever Allbut

Jessica Corcoran and her fiancé Taylor Allbut were supposed to get married on April 4. Due to social-distancing restrictions, they had to put their nuptials on hold, but that didn’t stop the first-grade teacher at Bear Lake Elementary School from celebrating in style.

“Taylor is from the UK, and they put a travel ban in place the day of our wedding shower,” explains Jessica. “We knew we had to postpone the wedding because his family and friends weren’t going to be able to make it.”

So the couple made the most of their day, dressing up (face masks and all) for a fun photo shoot. Jessica surprised Taylor with a toilet paper themed cake from their wedding cake bakery. The couple ordered Olive Garden to go and enjoyed the meal safely at home.

“Our new, official wedding date is October 31,” says Jessica. “We’re still keeping our fingers crossed on that one.”

First Responders Parade To Honor Healthcare Workers

Longwood

In April, the Longwood police and fire departments organized a surprise parade of lights and sirens to honor the healthcare heroes at South Seminole Hospital and show their appreciation. A caravan of cars, fire trucks, and motorcycles paraded around the hospital building as healthcare workers and first responders waved from afar in mutual respect and admiration.
“Hospital staff was waving to us from the fourth floor, and they actually made thank-you signs for us!” says Sergeant Derek Chenoweth. “It was very humbling for us. We were there to honor them, but they were honoring us, too.”

City of Longwood first responders have also escorted a nursing home parade to allow family members to see their loved ones from a distance, and they participated in a two-hour long parade for Longwood Elementary School’s students, teachers, and administrators.

“We’ve also had the community support us in many ways,” says Sergeant Chenoweth. “We’ve had so many people making homemade masks and dropping them off for us or sending catered lunches. It’s been awesome, and we are so grateful.”

Lake Mary

At the height of the pandemic in mid-April, Lake Mary police officers and firefighters came together in a convoy to honor local healthcare workers at Orlando Health and AdventHealth emergency rooms. Blaring sirens and waving from a distance, the caravan of more than 20 vehicles was one of many ways the city demonstrated its support for those on the frontlines.

“These healthcare workers are exhausted mentally, physically, and emotionally,” says Zach Hudson, public information officer for the Lake Mary Police Department. “The parade is our way of saying we care; the city cares. We are public servants, and it’s an honor to be in a position where we can serve people. This was a really impactful moment for all of us.”

The parade included the owner of Filomena’s Pizzeria & Ristorante who made dozens of pizzas – enough to feed both the fire and police departments, city employees, and the healthcare workers.

Zach says the police and fire departments have also been on the receiving end of community goodwill with a constant flow of food donations and acts of kindness from residents and local businesses.

“It’s remarkable what kind of community we live in,” says Zach. “We’re very service-oriented. That kind of love from the community makes our police officers feel like a million bucks!”

Local Organizations Rally To Support SafeHouse of Seminole

At the height of Seminole County’s shelter-in-place order, many area restaurants were struggling to survive, and SafeHouse of Seminole was in need of prepared food for its residents who are escaping domestic violence and abuse. Longtime community partners Central Baptist Church and Lake Mary Church came up with the ingenious genius idea to raise money to purchase meals from local eateries and donate the food to SafeHouse of Seminole.

So far, coordinated deliveries have come from Tijuana Flats, Chick-fil-A, Texas Roadhouse, Sanford Brewing Company, MC Catering, and Sam’s Club. Orlando law firm Morgan & Morgan continued to fund monthly pizza nights and, despite the baffling toilet-paper hoarding issue, Sanford’s Resolute Tissue donated several boxes of toilet paper to keep SafeHouse properly stocked.

“The support we’ve received has been an amazing blessing,” says Mary Ryan, SafeHouse of Seminole’s chief operating officer. “We feel loved, cared for, and valued. Today, more than ever, we need those connections.”

Mary says her greatest concern is the adverse effect of the pandemic on survivors of domestic violence still trying to get to SafeHouse. For many survivors, the organization’s Domestic Violence Hotline has been the safest way to reach out for support whether it’s over the phone or through video chats. The outreach center, which is staffed by advocates and attorneys, has also seen spikes in reported cases of violence. If you need more information about support programs for victims of domestic violence, call the 24/7 Domestic Violence Hotline at 407-330-3933.

Walk on Water Steps Up

From the moment COVID-19 concerns hit home, Roxane Mann, owner of the Walk on Water Boutique in Lake Mary, felt the need to step up and help. In true Roxane fashion, she and her devoted staff have made it their mission to uplift those who are struggling, support other small businesses, and honor local healthcare heroes on the frontlines.

Roxane first sprung into action by sharing tips for healthy living and thoughtful, positive messages through Walk on Water’s social-media channels as well as her blog, Roxane’s Reflections.

“I want to share faith instead of fear and create a community for everyone to be there for each other,” says Roxane. “If this can help anyone in any way, then I’m living my purpose. We’re all in this together. We need each other now more than ever.”

Like most of us, Roxane is taking life one day at a time. Her store has added face masks to its retail selections and customers are helping keep the positivity alive by engaging online and in-store and supporting Walk on Water’s fundraising initiatives, including a COVID-19 small-business relief fund, which is funded by the sale of T-shirts featuring the word Fearless. The word was carefully selected by Roxane and references an inspirational scripture.

Walk on Water is also selling T-shirts that say I’ll Be There For You. One hundred percent of those proceeds will benefit Colton Wainwright, a local five-year-old boy fighting cancer.

To recognize local healthcare workers in the medical community, Walk on Water also selects a weekly hero nominated by their peers to feature on social media and shower with special gifts. Recipients of the Who’s Your Hero? recognition have included a Publix checkout clerk, an ER doctor, new parents to a baby  born with complications, and a female ER hospital director.

“We are so grateful for their sacrifices and beautiful hearts,” says Roxane.

A New Kind of Odyssey

Odyssey of the Mind is a wonderful arts and academic competition program, and of course, we love celebrating local teams that go far.But this year’s Odyssey of the Mind event was truly unique!

As you can imagine, the typical local, regional, national, and worldwide in-person competitions around the country were impossible to stage due to the lockdown, so Odyssey of the Mind 2020 went virtual. That didn’t stop local kids from shining, however.

Twenty-five teams of students from across Central Florida recently competed in the first-ever Odyssey of the Mind Virtual World Finals, including four teams from Seminole County Schools. The teams from Lyman High and Sanford Middle both won first place in their divisions and age groups, while teams from Wilson and Woodlands elementary schools finished second. 
Congratulations to everyone!

An Outpouring of Love

So many important events and traditions were disrupted by the quarantine, but none of the cancellations were more heartbreaking than the memorial services for those we lost during the crisis. We know many families around the world suffered this unique and unprecedented pain, and we’d like to share the story of one (with a heartwarming moment only our incredible community could deliver):

As we were all adjusting to life in quarantine in mid-March, the McCracken family of Longwood was saying goodbye to their beloved father and husband, Padraic, better known as Pat. After more than two years battling aggressive brain cancer, he passed on March 25. Pat was a naval officer who spent his post-military career as a pilot for Delta. He and his wife Kelly had two children, Fiona and Liam, who are both high-school students. In March, no more than 10 people could gather, making a traditional funeral out of the question. While the McCrackens craved to be with their friends and family, it just wasn’t possible.

“It was just surreal,” explains Kelly, who is also a licensed mental health therapist. “Our kids are teenagers. They needed their people. When someone passes away, you typically get the necessary distraction from loved ones with sadness, sharing funny stories, and gut-wrenching tears. They didn’t get that, they just had gripping sadness every day.”

That’s when friends of the family organized a drive-by parade to show their love and support. Seventy-five cars honked, waved, held signs, and played music. The family was completely shocked.

“The parade was the first smile that I saw from my kids and their first happy tears,” says Kelly. “We were all crying. It was a connected cry, it wasn’t a sad cry. We were feeling cared for, appreciated, and loved.”

Hindu Society Opens Their Hearts

Meal deliveries to frontline workers were a popular display of love and support during the crisis. And leave it to the Casselberry-based Hindu Society of Central Florida to put a unique twist on the heartwarming act by making and delivering more than 200 freshly cooked vegetarian meals to healthcare workers and first responders. 

Recipients at Orlando Health South Seminole Hospital, the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, and the Coalition for the Homeless in Orlando were treated to cuisine that included a burst of fresh Indian and Asian flavors to delight the palates of those keeping us safe and healthy.

Sunshine Pharmacy Puts Community First

Dr. Paul and Channi Sodhi, owners of Sunshine Pharmacy in Sanford, were among the many community advocates to answer their call to serve during the pandemic. Over the last few months, they’ve supplied much-needed goods and a whole lot of love to those in our community most in need. 

Sunshine Pharmacy donated medical-grade hand sanitizer made in-house to the Sanford and Lake Mary police and fire departments, as well as the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office. In partnership with a nonprofit organization called United Sikhs, the Sodhi family also shopped for more than $2,000 worth of food and donated it to the Seminole High School food pantry. Last, but certainly not least, Paul and Channi delivered dozens of pizzas during a night shift to AdventHealth Altamonte Springs as a gesture of thanks to our local healthcare workers.

“We understand there is a lot of loss and difficulty for people all over the community, and we wanted to be there and show that we’re all in this together,” says Channi. “We want to help our school children, our first responders, and our medical community. If everybody does a little bit of their share, we will be stronger. It’s important to us to be an example of what we want society to look like for our kids and our community.”

The Mask Crusader

All that Conner Schoneck wanted in 2017 was a 3D printer. He had heard about the technology, researched it, and begged his parents to get him one for Christmas. Thankfully, his parents Lauri and Erik obliged, and the now-15-year-old rising sophomore at PSI High has been putting that printer to good use during the  global pandemic.

“Mr. Hepburn from my high school reached out to me a month after we got quarantined and asked me if I thought we could team up and use my printer to make face shields for those in need,” Conner explains. “I did some research to make the most efficient and cost-effective shields and started printing.”

Each headband for the shields took 47 minutes to print and was then attached to a transparent face cover purchased by the school. One hundred and thirty shields were assembled and distributed to SCPS Red Apple Dining cafeteria staff, MDA (Muscular Dystrophy Association) families, and doctors.

There are 130 students at PSI High, and Conner thought that was the perfect number to demonstrate his school’s support for those on the front lines.

“I thought it was a really cool thing that I could go out there and hand some face shields to local professionals who are struggling every day with the crisis,” says Conner. “It was a great experience to work with PSI High and get out in the community and use my resources to help.”

The story of this young do-gooding entrepreneur traveled far beyond Seminole County. Conner was featured internationally on NowThis News and Apple News.

Conner, who also runs his own 3D-printing business, Third Dimension Prints, isn’t quite sure what he will do to fill his days at home this summer, but he definitely plans on designing his own face shields (the schematic he used for the PSI High project was a shared design) and making even more of them.

After distributing the shields, Leyon Hepburn, business strategist from PSI High, got an email from a hospital thanking the school for its contribution. The hospital sent a photo of doctors and nurses wearing the shields, and Leyon forwarded that email to Conner.

“I got to see them being used by pediatricians in the hospital,” says Conner. “It was really cool that as a 15-year-old from home, I could print these face shields and be able to work with my awesome school and go out there and help the community with what I have. I thought it was an enlightening experience – to see the need and get it done in really troubling times.”

Drive-By Art

Artist Mike Bisceglia has come up with a creative way to bring beauty to his neighborhood during the pandemic. The former head football coach at Lake Howell High School – now an award-winning watercolorist – has been displaying his colorful paintings in the driveway of his Winter Springs home.

The varied themes of the displays have included flowers, animals, buildings, landscapes, abstracts, and sports. For Memorial Day, Mike exhibited paintings that paid tribute to veterans and first responders.

“I’ve gotten many positive comments from neighbors,” says Mike, who is vice president of the Sanford Seminole Art Association.

Lake Mary Firefighters Bring Birthday Surprise

Nine-year-old Lake Mary resident Ty Webb was in for a treat during his recent quarantine-tinged birthday celebration. The Lake Mary Fire Department stopped by in their bright red fire truck to wish him a happy birthday.

“It was a surprise and a way to make his day special and cheer him up despite everything that’s going on,” says Ty’s mother, Vennessa. “They responded so quickly when I sent out the request for a visit. We were super happy they made it happen.”
Ty, who attends a private school in Longwood and has friends scattered throughout the county, was unable to host a party – not even a playdate due to the strict quarantine in place right around the time of his birthday on April 18.

As the LMFD fire truck made its way down his street, Ty and a few family members and neighborhood friends greeted the firefighters and were gifted with plastic fire hats and goodie bags. Even after the short-but-sweet visit, neighborhood kids kept the celebrations going by writing “Happy Birthday” in chalk outside Ty’s home.

Thank you to our LMFD for making Ty’s special day a memorable one!

Good as Gold

What was the #1, most important commodity during the COVID-19 crisis? Food? Water? Shelter? Netflix?

Let’s not kid ourselves, we all know the answer was good old-fashioned TP. Right or wrong, there’s a reason many store shelves are still devoid of toilet paper even as this magazine reaches your hands. Toilet tissue became so cherished, restaurants were giving away rolls from their stock as incentive to place take-out orders. Neighbors traded rolls like stocks and bonds, all while keeping an eye out for dastardly hoarders.

One local company was determined to do its part to help. Sanford-based Resolute Tissue makes TP (which means they might as well have made gold and diamonds), and the company donated tens-of-thousands of rolls to those in need throughout our community.

To ensure the toilet paper made it to those who needed it most, Resolute Tissue worked with the City of Sanford, the Sanford Chamber of Commerce, and other community groups to distribute the TP the right way. At press time, nearly 100,000 rolls had been donated.

Even better, Resolute Tissue wants the community to know it is hiring! If you or someone you know needs a job opportunity, email HRSanford@ResoluteTissue.com or visit ResoluteFP.com.

Lake Mary Is #MadisonStrong

When Lake Mary High School freshman Madison Godinho was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the end of April, her cheerleading team rallied the community for a lockdown-friendly parade to show their support. Right before Madison started her chemotherapy, hundreds of cars drove by with signs, decorations, and well-wishes, all themed #MadisonStrong.

Her mother Tara Godinho, a teacher at Idyllwilde Elementary, couldn’t believe the breadth of support. It came from LMHS, Legendary Athletics (where Madison is also a cheerleader), and Madison’s middle school plus all three schools at which Tara has taught.

“We stood in the driveway for at least an hour watching cars drive by,” says Tara. “We never thought in a million years the number of people who showed up were going to come.”

Madison, who is in the middle of four rounds of chemotherapy, which will be followed by radiation, felt so much love and support from family, friends, and the community.

“Watching the parade, I felt that the journey would be easier because I know I’m not fighting alone,” Madison says. “They gave me hope.”

Clap Your Hands!

Each May, on the final day of school, Lake Mary Elementary staff and students line the halls of the school to recognize the graduating fifth-graders with a celebratory Clap Out as they exit the campus one last time after six years as an LME Dolphin. This year, despite the school closure, graduates still got the celebration they deserved – with a safe and socially-distant twist – as a drive-through parade. Keeping with tradition, teachers from all grade levels and staff from every department lined the Lake Mary Elementary parking lot and bus circle to honor the fifth graders and their families as they drove by for a final farewell.

Tutoring Comes to You

Several local high-school students, including two Sanford residents, wanted to help kids keep their minds active and sharp during school closures, so they banded together to form Orlando Student Tutoring. Sanford students Maneesh Rajulapati and Abhi Kunamneni worked with other founders across Central Florida to deliver free tutoring sessions via the internet. Their good deed was a local hit, and the team has since expanded its operation to five states with more than 100 volunteer tutors.
Even better, Orlando Student Tutoring is continuing its work over the summer by hosting free, online summer classes in art, coding, science, and other subjects. The organizers’ goal is to help kids stay busy and explore new horizons if in-person summer camps are no longer an option.

All the free classes are accessible at OrlandoStudentTutoring.com, and everything is free of charge!

Great work, Maneesh and Abhi!

CenterState Bank Pays It Forward

Every month, each branch at CenterState Bank spends $125 to perform random acts of kindness in the community. Among the bank’s 158 branches, that’s nearly $20,000 per month being put to good use. In May, the Lake Mary and Sanford branches decided to combine their dollars and donate $250 worth of food to the food pantry at Goldsboro Elementary School, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“Recently, we had a customer in need, and we were able to give her a $125 Publix gift card,” explains Maureen LaRocca, Lake Mary branch manager. “We also made her a basket with toilet paper and other necessities she might not be able to get her  hands on.”

The bank expects to continue these donations to food banks, with the food pantry at Pinecrest Elementary as their next stop.

COVID Can’t Stop Kiddie Academy

During the coronavirus, the owners of Kiddie Academy in Sanford-Heathrow and Longwood-Lake Mary were focused on their employees just as much as they were focused on the students. Even as many students stayed home, Ted and Hilda Cockram were committed to keeping employees at work, engaged, and focused.

“We’ve been able to weather through this period without any layoffs,” says Hilda. “We had to get creative.”

They also spoiled their teachers during staff-appreciation week with a cruise theme. For Mother’s Day and VPK graduation, the staff offered muffins to go and organized a family parade.

“We continue to try to provide everything that comes with being a part of the Kiddie Academy family under these circumstances,” Hilda says.

LMHS Teachers Appreciated, Drive-Thru Style

Not even a global pandemic could stop the administration at Lake Mary High School from showing their teachers they are appreciated! During Teacher Appreciation Week in May, the staff was invited to drive by the school where the admin team had set up a series of celebration stations. First, teachers drove into a disco dance party where costumed dancers held signs and waved as they drove by. 

The second stop was a car wash, where teachers were treated to gift cards, LMHS swag, and a windshield wash. 
Teachers then drove through a makeshift pep rally where principal Dr. Mickey Reynolds and several others cheered, yelled words of encouragement through megaphones, and held signs. On their way off campus, teachers picked up hamburgers and hot dogs, all donated by Morris Family Farms.

Kindergarten Pop 

What do you get when two kindergarten teachers are trapped together in their house during a pandemic? You get a lot of creative teaching techniques, that’s what.

Alyssa Costanza and Terri Thompson, both Goldsboro Elementary kindergarten teachers, were trying desperately to connect with their students while everyone was stuck at home.

“We were bored out of our minds and going stir crazy,” explains Alyssa. “The most important part of teaching, especially in kindergarten, is the relationship with the students. The only way to get their attention is to put on a show. We are on stage seven hours per day during the school year, and we realized that was the part the kids were missing the most.”

So put on a show they did. Terri and Alyssa made a number of fun videos for their students. They acted out characters in books, presented math lessons outside in the rain, and they even got Terri’s dog Tenley in on the fun, putting him in a shirt and pretending that he was reading a book to the students.

The kids loved it, and while Alyssa and Terri were happy to provide some education and entertainment for their students, they agree that nothing can replace that actual in-person connection.

“We are hoping and praying to get back into the classroom,” says Alyssa. “Teaching is hard, but the part that keeps me here is that face-to-face with the kids, those relationships. Before academics, in my classroom, we focus on how to be a good person, building character, kindness, and social/emotional skills. That’s my favorite part, it’s what drives my passion.”     

Sanford Deltas Celebrate National Nurses Week

The Sanford Alumnae Chapter (SAC) of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, an organization dedicated to academic excellence and providing assistance to those in need, recently celebrated National Nurses Week by hosting an educational conversation about the coronavirus crisis. The SAC also provided lunches for 45 staff workers at a COVID-19 testing site and donated 100 lunches for healthcare workers at the Florida Department of Health in Sanford.

“We were delighted that the Sanford Deltas chose the Florida Department of Health in Seminole County as the site for their salute to National Nurses Week,” says Donna Walsh, health officer for the Florida Department of Health in Seminole County. “I applaud the many initiatives led by the sorority that support our community, and I am in awe of their commitment to public service.”

The goodwill was all part of May Week, a national program of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority that includes a week of daily public service. The Sanford Alumnae Chapter celebrates May Week with public service projects every year, but the impact of the pandemic required a different kind of response this year.

“I am very proud that our May Week Committee, chaired by Kammi Berry and Lajuana Miller as co-chair, was not deterred by the pandemic and created an innovative approach that enabled us to still be quite impactful for the community,” says Rhonda Combs-Jenkins, SAC president.

Heathrow Country Club Hosts its First-Ever Microwedding

Longwood residents Jacki and Brian Heitz were determined to get married on April 18 at Heathrow Country Club, and nothing was going to stop them. Despite the challenges and limitations of the pandemic, the couple forged ahead with a very intimate guest list of 10 people, the maximum allowed during the quarantine, including the bride and groom and their closest family members, the officiant and photographer, and Toni Curlin, Heathrow Country Club’s wedding and event specialist.

“Our wedding date was very special to us, and we always wanted to be able to follow through with getting married on April 18,” says Jacki. “We did not set our expectations high because there were so many drastic changes to everyone’s lives as a result of COVID that we did not think a wedding ceremony was going to be an option. Toni and the Heathrow Country Club were so empathetic and accommodating, ensuring we were able to make a memorable experience regardless of the circumstances. They performed our wedding in the safest, most beautiful way possible.”

Toni worked her magic and found creative ways to ensure the Heitz wedding was safe, fun, and undoubtedly one for the books! Family and friends unable to witness the couple’s love in person were able to partake virtually and watch Jacki and Brian walk down the aisle, share their vows, and cut their wedding cake. 

“It was so special, and all of their guests online did get to enjoy the wedding and be part of something truly unique,” says Toni. “We do what we have to do to make a couple’s dream come true! Anything is doable. The Heitz microwedding was a first for us, and it was perfect. It gave me chills.”

“We were able to share the special moment with our family over the Web, and we had the best support from everyone who was a part of making it happen,” adds the newlywed Brian. “In retrospect, there are so many more things to remember and cherish with the way this turned out than had everything been normal!”

The couple’s reception will take place over the Fourth of July weekend so as many people as possible can attend. 
In addition to making wedding dreams come true, Heathrow Country Club is also showing its support during the pandemic by delivering box lunches, snacks, and pizza to area hospitals including AdventHealth Fish Memorial.

Teachers Are the Stars at StarChild

This May’s Teacher Appreciation Week was a very different celebration. Nearly all the teachers in Seminole County were literally locked out of their classrooms, but many educators at early-learning academies like StarChild Academy in Lake Mary continued to teach kids in person, often because their parents were essential workers who could not stay home to care for their children. 

For those StarChild Academy students who could quarantine at home, their teachers did the same and delivered StarChild Academy’s award-winning curriculum virtually. This special dedication was celebrated at StarChild Academy during Teacher Appreciation Week. The staff organized a drive-by barbecue in the academy’s parking lot to safely serve on-campus teachers on their way home and virtual educators from their cars.

Bringing Healthcare Home

Lake Mary siblings Hannah Verma, currently a rising senior at Yale University, and Arjun Verma, soon to be a junior at Lake Highland Preparatory School, saw firsthand how the coronavirus pandemic affected the entire healthcare system, and not just for those who were infected. Both their parents are physicians who, like nearly all doctors, had to quickly switch to tele-health for virtual patient care when COVID-19 made in-person doctor’s visits unsafe. The problem, Hannah and Arjun noticed, was that patients who needed contact with doctors most were often least-equipped to connect with their physicians online.

Seniors, especially, rarely had modern smartphones or tablets with capable cameras. Even if they did, they often didn’t know how to use the popular tele-health and video-conferencing apps.

While home from school, the brother/sister pair decided to do something about it. Beginning in their own Lake Mary neighborhood, they collected new and used smartphones and tablets and worked with local doctor’s offices to distribute the devices to seniors and other patients who needed them. Hannah and Arjun also provided one-on-one tech support to help patients install the necessary apps and sign up for the appropriate accounts to connect with their doctors.

The program was an immediate success, and the siblings quickly created a network of volunteers across the nation to scale up their efforts. Within weeks, Hannah and Arjun rallied more than 100 volunteers across 50 clinics in 26 different states. They formed an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and raised $10,000 in addition to collecting more than 450 devices.

A grassroots effort born in a Lake Mary neighborhood has now blossomed into a nationwide campaign that is connecting hundreds of at-risk patients with their doctors at a critical time. Way to go, Hannah and Arjun!

To learn more about the initiative and find out how you can help, visit TeleHealthForSeniors.org.

Breaking News

Working from home has become standard operating procedure for many of us throughout the pandemic. It’s not unusual to be distracted by children or pets while on a Zoom call, but not many of us have to broadcast the TV news live from our homes.
Lake Mary resident Martha Sugalski, an anchor for WFTV Channel 9, managed hundreds of broadcasts from a spare bedroom in her home. Five of her six children were residing with her at the time, including then-six-year-old triplets Heaton, Wilder, and Holden. Throughout the work-from-home situation, the triplets have been very well-behaved. Wilder has even become somewhat of a producer, setting up and turning on equipment for his mom before her broadcasts.

One day, while Martha was live on the air, Heaton got spooked when his older brother Max, a college student, knocked on the front door. Heaton ran screaming through the broadcast much to Martha’s (and the viewers’) surprise. Martha, ever the professional, apologized for the disturbance and kept on reading her story. The clip was aired on Good Morning America and appeared on The Daily Mail.

“In the back of my mind, I always have two thoughts going – the TV world and the mom world,” says Martha. “I could hear the pitter-patter of feet racing down the stairs. There’s no lock on the door. Sure enough, it was Heaton who just came barreling through while I was on camera. I was, like, ‘OK just keep going.’ My viewers know I’ve been working from home. I am doing what thousands of parents are doing. I’m a mom first, then an anchor. The viewers love him, and I love him, and it’s all OK. The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. We all need a little bit of a break, and we got one.”

Later on during the broadcast, Martha brought Heaton on the air to assure her viewers that he was OK and to assure Heaton he wasn’t in trouble – and that he would indeed still get dessert after dinner.

Putting Their Hearts in It

Even though the Florida Cardiopulmonary Center may be located in Orange City, the doctors and staff made quite an impact on the Seminole County community during the crisis. Doctors Ratan and Karuna Ahuja used their own personal funds to start a grocery drive at their office, assembling bags of food and other essentials that any family in need could come to the office and pick up. The doctors quickly realized, though, that many of those who needed the food most weren’t able to make the trip.

So, the Florida Cardiopulmonary Center took its charitable show on the road to distribute the grocery bags to a number of families and organizations in their own community and several here in Seminole County. The office delivered food and supplies to SafeHouse of Seminole and Goldsboro Elementary School, where staff coordinated with the school’s regular Friday food drives to help local families in need.

In all, the office gave out more than 1,700 bags of groceries!

Toilet Paper Galore Thanks to Local Rotary Club

Erika Benfield, owner of FLQ Interiors in Lake Mary, is the president of the Rotary Club of Deltona-DeBary-Orange City and also serves as the vice mayor of DeBary. Her extensive involvement in the local community has been instrumental in helping those in need in Seminole and Volusia counties during the COVID-19 crisis.

The Rotary Club purchased more than 3,000 rolls of toilet paper from a commercial distributor and worked alongside the City of DeBary and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8093 to host a four-hour-long distribution event.

Hundreds of residents received toilet paper for free, and no one was turned away that day, says Erika.

“I would like to acknowledge all the volunteers and smiles we received back,” she says. “Hopefully, we can inspire others to safely help their citizens, neighbors, and families in need in other cities.”

Giving Is in Her Blood

Lake Mary native Alexis Calderone was living in New York City when the spread of the coronavirus began to worsen.

“Things were getting pretty scary in the city, and nobody really knew what this was going to be,” says Alexis, who made a game-time decision to leave the city and fly home in mid-March, mask and gloves in tow. Within hours of touching down at the airport in Orlando, Alexis fell terribly ill.

“I felt fine in New York, but my symptoms came on so quickly,” she says. “I made a beeline for my bedroom and went straight into quarantine mode.”

Alexis eventually visited the Orlando Health ER in Lake Mary and waited a week for the verdict: She tested positive for COVID-19. After several days of severe body aches, fever, and loss of taste and smell, her health began to improve. 

“I felt so useless watching the world crashing around me,” says Alexis, daughter of Seminole County School Board member Dr. Tina Calderone. “I’m no medical doctor, but if I can do one good thing to help, I will.”

Fully recovered and with a negative test result in hand, Alexis now has antibodies in her blood plasma that can attack the virus and potentially help treat current and future COVID-19 patients. Thanks to the help of doctors at Orlando Health, Alexis recently coordinated her first (and thankfully painless) plasma donation through OneBlood. She plans to donate her plasma every month.

“I think this time has been a great reset of priorities for a lot of us,” says Alexis. “I’m fortunate to have been able to come home, get the treatment I needed, and donate my plasma. I think we can all see that a lot of good happens when our communities come together.”

For more information about COVID-19 plasma donations, visit OneBlood.org.

Meals on Rotary’s Wheels

Like so many groups and organizations, the Rotary Club of Lake Mary was forced to bring its regular meetings and operations to a halt in March, but that didn’t stop Club members from continuing their efforts to help neighbors in need.

Lake Mary Rotarians worked together virtually and in small, socially-distant groups to organize a food drive for the Orlando Rescue Mission and to help feed frontline workers and first responders at the Lake Mary Fire Department.

Every Thursday morning, like clockwork, the Club recreated its usual meetings at Heathrow Country Club with big, group Zoom calls. Though the members couldn’t be together, they were still able to catch up and plan the Club’s good deeds. At press time, in-person meetings were scheduled to resume in mid-July with plenty of COVID precautions in place.

Porch Love & Happiness in Sanford

In late March, local organizations Sanford Porchfest and Sanford365 joined in collaboration to create Porch Love & Happiness, a unique contest inviting residents to decorate their front porches with scenes of hope, happiness, and neighborly love. The weeklong showcase of decorated Sanford homes was a way to unify the community during times of self-isolation and uncertainty, says Shelly Allen, one of four cofounders of Sanford Porchfest.

“We are a strong and bonded community, no matter what we face,” says Shelley. “That’s something Sanford has always had going for it. Our goal was to bring cheer and sunshine during this time and acknowledge that we’re apart, together. We will be together again as neighbors soon.”

The Porch Love & Happiness contest challenged porch decorators to get creative by using items and festive décor already available at home. A frequently updated map of the decorated homes was also made available for residents to walk, bike, or drive by to admire from afar while maintaining social distancing. Fifteen incredibly colorful and cheerful homes entered the contest, which were judged by a panel of six volunteers to determine the top three winners. Even after the contest, the movement continued to spread, sparking creativity beyond the historic Sanford district and into neighboring areas. 
“All our participants did such an amazing job,” says Shana Gorondy, Porchfest cofounder. “I was blown away by the creativity – one home had a full-on Dr. Seuss display! The response was great. I even had a resident drop off a letter saying how much joy this event brought them. It was awesome.”

Some Coffey for Everyone

You might remember our previous stories about Jeff Coffey, a musician from Longwood who became a member of the famous band Chicago and toured as their bass player/vocalist for nearly two years. Since his departure from the band in 2018, Jeff has been performing and working on his new album, Origins, which was released in December. Jeff planned on touring the United States this year to promote the album, but that plan was obviously put on pause.

Jeff had already been performing virtual concerts as a way to stay in touch with his fans while he worked on his album, but after the quarantine started, those concerts became even more special.

“It’s just a nice distraction for people, and very therapeutic for me,” explains Jeff. “The worst thing for a musician is to be told not to play for people. This way, everyone can tune in, I can get my thrill playing music, connect with the audience, and I don’t have to leave the house.”

Fans tuned in to the online shows from all over the United States as well as France, Germany, and Spain. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and Jeff (who tries to do at least three concerts per month) will continue to do them until he can hit the road for real once again.

“Nothing beats face-to-face interactions and that kind of fun,” Jeff says. “But the internet is a great resource for musicians, and a great way to connect with our fans.”

Concerts can be found on The Jeff Coffey Music Page on Facebook, on his YouTube channel, and at JeffCoffey.com.

Puppet Power!

When school closures and social-distancing measures were in full effect, local nonprofit organization MicheLee Puppets launched Live Puppet Chats, a virtual program to connect its fun-loving puppet characters to children everywhere at no cost. Families simply signed up online for a 10-minute session to chat, sing, dance, or read together with a puppet character.

“We know how much a one-on-one interaction with a puppet can help children express themselves,” says Tracey Conner, the executive director of MicheLee Puppets. “It can be isolating for children to be home all day, and there is a lot of extra stress in our country that is weighing heavily on everyone. Children are being affected, too, and our puppets are great at opening the door for children to lead the conversation and feel comfortable and safe.”

Skilled at making conversations fun and engaging, the puppeteers were also specially trained by child and family therapists on how to manage difficult conversations with children if they came up. While working from home, each puppeteer also found creative ways to decorate their backdrops for their performances.

MicheLee Puppets and its traveling team of puppeteers typically hosts live performances at schools on a variety of topics and lessons throughout the state of Florida for children in pre-K through 12th grade. Due to the pandemic, however, many shows have been cancelled. Nevertheless, the organization managed to film several performances in their Orlando studio and share them with the schools.

For more information, visit MicheLeePuppets.org/Live-Puppet-Chats.

Central Florida Zoo Delights from a Distance

For animal lovers everywhere, the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens launched its virtual Zoo To You program in March to continue engaging visitors and keep them connected from afar after closing its gates due to COVID-19.

From the comfort of their homes, children and adults tuned in to Facebook Live videos for behind-the-scenes access with zookeepers and to meet the Zoo’s residents, like Coral the two-toed sloth and Marley the American crocodile. In addition to daily videos, The Zoo To You program featured Wild Crafts & Activities, a special segment for kids to learn how to make everything from a stethoscope to bird-watching binoculars. The Zoo’s education staff also hosted a special Zoo yoga session encouraging viewers to get outside and pose like their favorite animals. The virtual educational program, sponsored in part by the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs, and the Florida Council on Arts and Culture was a huge success.

“We are so proud of the Zoo staff and animal departments that jumped right in when we started the Zoo To You program,” says Stephanie Williams, Zoo director. “We want you to know that we’re here caring for the animals loved by our                   entire community.”

The Zoo reopened in mid-May and is currently following safe guidelines to manage social distancing while offering visitors enjoyable onsite experiences. All animal videos and craft activities from the Zoo To You program can be found at CentralFloridaZoo.org/ZooToYou.

OsteoStrong Keeps LMPD Running Strong

Bryan Repple and Cheree Burgess from OsteoStrong in Lake Mary wanted to do their part to support frontline workers during the COVID-19 crisis, so they ordered as many pizzas as they could carry and delivered them to Lake Mary Police Department headquarters.

The hungry cops were grateful for the grub, and the OsteoStrong team was glad to help in any way they can.

Don’t Press Pause on Prom

Prom is a high-school rite of passage that every student deserves the opportunity to experience. Unfortunately, for high schoolers everywhere, this year’s dances were cancelled, but several local students didn’t want to skip the milestone entirely. They celebrated what would have been their prom nights by making the most of it – doing their hair, dressing up, eating a fancy dinner at home, and enjoying a virtual celebration with their friends. Let’s join some of them for the festivities:

Jacqui Gerber 
Lake Brantley High School
To have the best-possible at-home prom experience, Jacqui did her hair and makeup while her mom made a delicious dinner. She put on her dress to get the full effect and accompanied the cutest date ever... her dog Milo.
“Prom wasn’t what I expected,” Jacqui says, “but that’s life nowadays.”

Jonathon Goldberg 
Winter Springs High School
During a family dinner around prom time, Jonathon talked about how the meal felt like prom in an alternate universe, so the family decided to make it official. They encouraged Jonathon to get dressed and do a prom photo shoot. As luck would have it, Jonathon was planning to wear his dad’s tuxedo to prom, anyway, so a trip to the closet was all it took. The Goldbergs played some dance music and took photos to remember the occasion.

Sami Weiss
Lake Mary Prep
Sami decided to don her dress from last year’s prom and take some photos with her dad, Sheldon.

Olivia Nycz
Seminole High School
Olivia’s entire neighborhood got into the prom spirit on what would have been her prom night. The LMHS senior went outside for a photo shoot and was surprised to see her neighbors playing music and dancing in the streets. Photo by Paul Shepherd. 

Jacob, Joely, and Josh Donovan
Lake Mary High School
The Donovan siblings at the stay-at-home prom the family threw for Joely, a LMHS senior. Jacob (class of 2018), Joely (class of 2020), and Josh (class of 2022)

Ava Casey and Mason Tate
Lake Mary High School
These seniors couldn’t be with all of their classmates on prom night, so they decided to spend the evening with their friends on Zoom, instead. They got dressed up, took photos, and ate dinner while on the call (while one friend played deejay).
“It was definitely different than what I expected senior prom to be,” says Ava,” but it was still perfect.”

 

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