Photo Gallery: Sisters Celebrate Holi Festival at Riverfront Park in Tampa with Flying Colors

Two sisters experienced the Holi Festival of Colors together for the first time. The Holi Festival is a Hindu religious event that involves wearing white and decorating people with colorful dust and water.  It is the festival of color and love, so everyone is encouraged to decorate one another as well as eat, dance and play.

Sheranjeet Dhillon mentally prepares herslef as her and her sister Teranjeet walk towards growing crowd of participants. "Lets stay together because It's going to be hard to find you considering every other person here is also wearing white."
Sisters Sheranjeet and Tarenjeet Dhillon mentally prepare themselves as they walk toward the growing crowd of Holi festival participants at Riverfront Park in Tampa on Saturday, March 14, 2015. “Lets stay together because It’s going to be hard to find you, considering every other person here is also wearing white,” said one sister to the other. (Photo Credit: Briana Solan) 
Without hesitation Sheran and Teran throw themselves into the event by redecorating each other with as many colors they could find.
Without hesitation Sheran and Teran throw themselves into the Holi festival at Riverfront Park in Tampa on Saturday, March 14, 2015, by redecorating each other with as many colors as they could find. (Photo Credit: Briana Solan)
Packet after packet each try to find the most creative way to decorate the other.
Teran blows color powder into the air at Riverfront Park in Tampa to celebrate the Holi festival on Saturday, March 14, 2015. Packet after packet, each sister tries to find the most creative way to decorate the other.  (Photo Credit: Briana Solan)



Dust stained feet and flip-flops remind Sheran  why she was advised against wearing sneakers to the festival.  "Real shoes would have been a bad idea."
Sheran’s dust-stained feet and flip-flops show why she was advised against wearing sneakers to the Holi festival at Riverfront Park in Tampa on Saturday, March 14, 2015. “Real shoes would have been a bad idea,” said Sheran. (Photo Credit: Briana Solan)


Each empty packet is immediately followed by laughter.
Each empty packet is immediately followed by laughter at the Holi festival at Riverfront Park in Tampa on Saturday, March 14, 2015. (Photo Credit: Briana Solan)


"Why isn't my hair always this beautiful shade of purple?" Sheran admires the beauty of something as simple as dust kissed hair.
Sheran admires the beauty of her dust-kissed hair after the Holi festival at Riverfront Park in Tampa on Saturday, March 14, 2015. Sheran asks, “Why isn’t my hair always this beautiful shade of purple?”  (Photo Credit: Briana Solan)


Sheran takes a moment to watch others try to coat themselves and others around them in colorful dust.
Sheran watches others try to coat themselves and the people around them in colorful dust at the Holi festival at Riverfront Park in Tampa on Saturday, March 14, 2015.  (Photo Credit: Briana Solan)


"Now we eat and reflect." Sheran and Teran each take the time to enjoy food prepared for the festival.  They take this time to enjoy the music and the atmosphere as they reflect on the memorable experience that they shared together.
Sheran and Teran enjoy food prepared for the Holi festival at Riverfront Park in Tampa on Saturday, March 14, 2015. They enjoy the music and the atmosphere as they reflect on the memorable experience they shared.  (Photo Credit: Briana Solan)


Photo gallery: New Bakers Ranch venue mixes the best of elegant and modern decor

Bakers Ranch opened their doors to vendors in the Tampa Bay area to help put their new location on the map. Vendors enjoyed dancing the night away and viewing the numerous set up options available at the ranch to use later for their clients. From a starry night scene outdoors to aerial artists performing above, the night was enjoyed by all.


Bakers Ranch opened its doors to vendors in the Tampa Bay area to help put its new location on the map. Vendors enjoyed dancing and viewing the myriad options available at the ranch for their clients’ events. From a starry night scene to aerial artists performing above guests, Bakers Ranch hosted a memorable evening.

Photo gallery: Tabanero Cigars craftsmen keep art of handmade cigars alive

Tabanero Cigars in historic Ybor City produces some of the finest handmade cigars. Cigar manufacturers originally founded Ybor City, making cigar production an important aspect of the city’s history. The highly skilled Cuban artisans who work at Tabanero Cigars keep the almost-lost art alive.

Photo Gallery: Florida Lottery, Florida Aquarium unveil new scratch-off tickets

On March 12, the Florida Lottery and the Florida Aquarium unveiled their collaboration for the new $25 scratch-off ticket. The Secretary of the Lottery, along with the Aquarium’s president and CEO, put on the event to showcase the new commercial that they filmed in the coral reef exhibit. The event consisted of 10 minutes  of speeches followed by a private tour of the Aquarium’s new learning facilities.

Photo Gallery: Florida City community lays beloved member of the community, Veronica Ann Mills, to rest

Veronica Ann Mills, affectionately known as Ann, was the neighborhood mom in Florida City. After she retired, her family discovered she was chronically ill with hypertension. Mills passed away after a stroke that left her with a failing heart and severe brain damage. This is the story of a community and family who came together to give Ann the goodbye ceremony she deserved.

Founder of Tampa Bay Advocates Against Human Trafficking to speak at USF in April

Pamela Woody rolled down her window as she drove through the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks.

“This restaurant is one of Rachael Ray’s favorite places,” said Woody, pointing to a crowded Greek restaurant. “And that building up ahead, that’s where my friend was sold to different men by her own father.”

Woody is the founder of the Tampa Bay Advocates Against Human Trafficking, a non-profit organization that seeks to prevent human-trafficking movements and assist survivors in the Tampa Bay area.

Woody was exposed to human trafficking in 2007 when a law enforcement officer visited her church. He was hoping to find support and encouragement for a 12-year-old girl who was impregnated by her trafficker.

“We had a shower for her and she didn’t attend — but we didn’t expect her to,” Woody said. “Other churches that were asked to help were putting restraints on her. They would say, ‘If she did this, we will help her,’ which is really no different than what the traffickers were doing to her.”

In 2010, Woody went on to work with World Relief Tampa, an anti-trafficking organization, as a mission mobilizer and helped raise local awareness about human trafficking.

“When I worked with World Relief Tampa, I saw a lot of organizations that were fighting against the same thing, but they weren’t coming together and funneling their efforts together,” Woody said.

Tampa Bay Advocates Against Human Trafficking works to connect volunteers, churches and organizations such as the No More Foundation and Be a Voice Outreach.

“I hope we’re able to raise awareness to the devastation of human trafficking and change laws so they’ll protect the victims and prosecute the offenders,” said Deedee Larreau, a volunteer with Tampa Bay Advocates Against Human Trafficking. “We want to help all of the agencies of the Tampa Bay area work together to end this travesty.”

Woody: “In the community, we are contacted to do presentations. We’ve gone with survivors and had the opportunity to speak at a high school all the way in St. Augustine.”

Woody manages Tampa Bay Advocates Against Human Trafficking’s social media accounts. She uses them to encourage and support other organizations while also posting updates on important legislation.

“There is a bill before the senate right now that will require businesses to post human-trafficking posters in all businesses,” Woody said. “It’s similar to the Workers’ Compensation posters you see, which would be an amazing accomplishment.”

HB 369 is currently before Florida state legislators. The bill will require the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline number to be posted in public areas such as schools and airports.

According to the U.S. Department of State and the Bureau of Public Affairs, people can be taken into trafficking by many means, including physical force, marriage and false job opportunities.

“When you go to parties, take your own drink that has a lid, and when you go to the bathroom, take it with you,” Woody said. “It seems gross, taking a drink to the bathroom, but someone could put something in there, with or without a lid.”

College-age students, male and female, are at a high risk of being trafficked, according to Woody.

“If you have a roommate, keep track of each other. Keep common sense because you never know what’s going to happen.”

Woody will speak at USF Tampa on Monday, April 13, at 6 p.m. in the  MSC Oval Theater. The event will be hosted by Sigma Delta Tau and Pi Kappa Phi.

Entrepreneur’s healthy Let’s Date Bars fly off shelves of Tampa-area health food stores

More people are becoming health-conscious and concerned about what foods they are putting into their bodies.

Monique Frisco has been busy in the kitchen since her organic, GMO-free and natural date bars are selling in health food stores around Tampa. Let’s Date Bars have been flying off of the shelves.

“When you are consuming products that are genetically modified, our bodies are not necessarily made to adapt to that,” said Frisco. “We are wonderfully made, but our bodies are can only handle so much chemicals and those kinds of things. Today, it’s more straight-cut to the table and there’s a lack of preparation in our food that tears up our intestinal tracts, thus leading to things like fibromyalgia and gout that people come across.”

Adults and children alike enjoy the tasty flavor of Let’s Date Bars over typical processed foods, Frisco says.

“I have one friend that gets a bar every weekend and tears it up in less than a minute, then it’s completely gone,” said Frisco’s son, Everett. “He thinks they are delicious.”

Let’s Date Bars can be found at Abby’s Health & Nutrition, Nutrition Smart, and Jem’s Natural Living.

Video: For Thelma Thompson, family is top priority

Thelma Thompson has demonstrated during the past three decades that family is the most important thing in her life.

Without hesitation, the Temple Terrace resident has seemingly always put her needs aside to help the ones she loves.

It started, Thompson said, after realizing her two grandchildren were not being cared for properly. Thompson — along with her late husband — decided to take on the challenging task of raising them.

But it wasn’t easy.

In 1985, when her husband became paralyzed from the neck down, Thompson faced the difficult reality that she would have to be the sole provider for the family in addition to raising the two children and caring for her husband.

“A lot of worry went through my mind,” Thompson recalled. “How was I going to take care of him? How was I going to meet my bills, since his pay was no longer there? How was I going to take of these two babies? But it all seemed to work out.”

Despite the struggles she faced, Thompson continued to help those in need. Her loving demeanor also drew in several troubled children outside her family.

Thompson received financial and physical aid from her daughter and son-in-law.

“I’ve always taken in kids who seemed to have problems. … ” Thompson said. “I guess it turned out to be between five and 10 kids that I have taken care of that were not mine in any shape or form.”

Nikki James, Thompson’s granddaughter, said she and her younger brother could have potentially lived drastically different lives if it weren’t for Thompson’s generosity.

“They (Thompson and her husband) were always there, and they took me in when the younger parents couldn’t handle the responsibility, and they have made a huge difference in my life,” James said.

Though there were plenty of hardships along the way, Thompson, now 80, said she always remained upbeat.

“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” she said.

Keiser student and nurse balances school with passion for weaponry

One wonders just how much Louis Garcia knows about firearms. His vast knowledge does not cover just guns — it covers all weapons, right down to the primitive bow and arrow.

“The first time I was introduced to a gun, actually, was around 10 years old,” Garcia said. “It was when I went with my father hunting, which has also been a favorite pastime and hobby of mine.”

Garcia, an outdoorsy guy, has honed his skills and developed an impressive vocabulary when speaking about weapons big and small.

“I look at weapons the same way I look at tools,” Garcia said. “They’re lethal, but they’re still tools, mechanisms. And since my father introduced me to them, I’ve been very careful with them.”

Garcia is also a full-time college student and a nurse. He loves what he does and invites the challenges that arise with the rigorous curriculum.

“As a full-time student, I do have to focus more on, of course, studies and put all of my hobbies on the back burner,” he said.

But what attracts him to nursing, a profession that requires patience, love for people and compassion?

“It’s strange to me that he can hunt and fish, but at the same time love people and really care about them and (help) them out,” said his mother, Kathy Zackal.

Garcia said: “It is a job that is not only rewarding, but I also get to be a scientist. We are scientists as much as we are caregivers.”

He plans to graduate this spring from Keiser University.

Goodwill Manasota Vice President Makes Impact in Manatee/Sarasota Area


Veronica Miller is many things. She is a vice president, philanthropist and graphic designer.  She is now the vice president of the foundation for Goodwill Manasota in the Manatee/Sarasota area. She has been working in the nonprofit sector for 25 years , four of which she has spent with Goodwill.

“I have the best job. I get to help promote the mission. That could be through talking to donors, talking to companies and getting them to want to become our partners and sponsor us,” Miller said.

For her, something crazy is always happening. Most recently, it was the Mardi Gras event held annually by the foundation.

“It was actually the 10th anniversary for Goodwill’s Mardi Gras. The former CEO’s sister runs the Goodwill in Louisiana, and after Hurricane Katrina, they lost a lot,” Miller said.

Since then, the foundation holds this event every year to raise money to help Goodwill in Louisiana, raising nearly $150,000 just this year.

When Miller is not working, she enjoys traveling and bike riding.  She and her husband have traveled around the world to places such as the city of Budapest.

Miller’s employees have nothing but good things to say about her.

“I feel like I’ve grown a lot in the short time that I’ve been here. And that’s because of Veronica,”said Kelly Strausbaugh, the marketing and PR coordinator.” Everbody loves her in the community. She’s very philanthropic. She’s good at cultivating people and getting them involved in something and making them feel a part of what we’re involved in.”


Lithia Native’s Cracker Town Gives Visitors Taste of Florida’s History

Architect, antiques collector, educator, and Lithia native Billy Wayne Allen is no ordinary 70-year-old. He has spent the past four years building a piece of Florida history with his own hands, all to preserve a dying lifestyle. His historic Cracker Town sits on the border of his yard, complete with a church, house, meal house, general store, dining pavilion, blacksmith shop, and even an outhouse.

“It’s more or less a love offering so people who are coming up nowadays can see how their grandparents and great-grandparents lived.” Allen said.

Allen’s family says this handmade Cracker Town is a reflection of Allen.

“There’s nothing plastic about him,” his sister Gerry said. “What you see is what you get. If the president were to drive up here right now, he’d be the same.”

“He’s got a real big heart for people,” his sister Betty said. “When he started building this place he didn’t know when to stop.”

Linda Allen, Billy’s wife, recalls that the project immediately took hold of her husband when it first began.

“Some people that own a saw mill across the woods from us gave him some free lumber. And he didn’t know what he was going to do with it. He said, ‘I’m just gonna build a little house out there,’ but it kept getting bigger and bigger.”

She, too, believes that the Cracker Town encompasses Billy Allen’s character.

“As they say, when he was born I truly believe they threw away the mold. Because every day of my life he says something different that surprises me that I have never heard before,” Linda said.

Those interested in visiting Billy and Linda to witness Florida’s history can call 813-758-4570 to schedule.

Future of Tampa Bay’s estuaries will be decided in the USF area

Just a few miles from the USF campus, a careful balancing act between the upper and lower portions of the dam in the Hillsborough Reservoir could decide the future of Tampa Bay’s ecosystem.

Nearly 80 percent of Hillsborough county water bodies are polluted beyond a threshold of acceptable contamination and have been classified as “impaired,” meaning local agencies have a legal obligation to keep an eye on pollution and the environment pursuant to the standards in the Clean Water Act.

But with water management agencies stretched thin, crucial reports on projects, like the efficacy of a hotly debated minimum flow requirement for the lower Hillsborough River, are behind schedule trying to keep up with enforcement and also reporting on urbanity’s impacts on the ecosystem.

Continue reading “Future of Tampa Bay’s estuaries will be decided in the USF area”

Photo Gallery: Anclote Key Preserve State Park offers family their first seaside camping experience

Anclote Key Preserve State Park is a group of four islands near Tarpon Springs that has a campsite for visitors.

The Tavo family, just beginning their 2015 spring break, camped on the beach of one of the islands, Anclote Key. Some of the family had been camping before, but never on an island right near the water.

The family rented a boat to get to the island and planned to stay for one night.

Camping is allowed only on the north end of the island. Other visitors  can anchor their boats and spend time in the water near the island.

The Tavo family was excited for the adventure of the day– and they hoped to steer clear of the raccoons that are known to pester campers.

If any USF students are looking for a weekend getaway, Anclote Key Preserve State Park is an option.

Students can rent tents and other camping gear from campus recreation for low prices.

Photo gallery: Young pastor becomes new children’s leader at Bethel Assembly of God

Andrew Tedder has been the children’s pastor at Bethel Assembly of God since the beginning of March. His second Sunday as pastor, he put new plans in place for the children’s program and took over the announcements for the adult service. His passion is teaching youth to love church and God.

Tampa clothing designer, USF grad plans launch of bikini and yoga pants line in summer

The Tampa Bay area has a new clothing company opening this summer. Business woman and clothing designer Christian Mikel plans to launch her bikini and yoga pants line.

The Tampa native developed her line, Christian Mikel Inc., from the ground up on her own.

“My first step was to get a business license, so that way I looked credible and manufacturers would want to talk to me and give me their time,” said CEO Mikel. “Then, after that, I learned that I had to not only make my designs, but also make computer-formatted designs. So, I learned how to use Photoshop and Illustrator.”

Mikel aspires to open a store in Tampa, but in the meantime will launch her website this summer.

“Currently, I’m working on getting my samples back and hopefully release this summer my bathing suit and yoga pant line,” Mikel said. “I’ve been learning how to set up my website so my website is ready to go. And once I get all the products in, we’re going to do our photo shoots with our models. Then, we’ll pick the photos we want and post them on our website and basically, we’re in business and we’re ready to go.”

Mikel graduated from the University of South Florida with a degree in biomedical sciences. However, her passion has always been in the arts.

“My daughter has always been interested in painting, and the arts and making things with her hands,” said Terri Corson, Mikel’s mother. “She’s extremely creative and, although she had a degree in the sciences, her real passion was on how things should be put together.”

After launching her yoga pants and swimwear line, Mikel wants to create and design her own jewelry line to add to her fashion empire.

Tarpon Spring’s Greek community enjoys annual dive for crosses to celebrate Epiphany

The Greek community in Tarpon Springs celebrates the Epiphany annually Jan. 5.

“Epiphany is a holiday that Orthodox (Greeks) celebrate to honor the baptism of Jesus Christ,” said Viola Kalouris, mother of one of the divers.

“We have the archbishop come and he tosses a cross into the water, and we all jump in after it,” Gregory Kalouris said.

While the community and other spectators come out to watch the ceremonious diving to recover the cross, that is not all that goes into the tradition of Epiphany.

The young men who will be diving  gather at the church to prepare about a month before the event. The teens learn about the tradition of Epiphany from the church and work together to build the boats used to get them out into the water.

“When we’re all working together, organizing the Epiphany, getting the boats together, all jumping in together — it’s really a bonding experience for all the young men,” Gregory Kalouris said.

Next year is Gregory Kalouris’ last year to dive. While he wants to be the one to recover the cross, he also believes, along with the others, that the person who gets the cross is divinely predetermined.

All are welcomed and encouraged to come out to Tarpon Springs to witness the traditional cross diving for the annual Epiphany.

Tampa Bay Jazz Association reaches out to community

Dwayne White is the education and scholarship director for the Al Downing Tampa Bay Jazz Association. He has held the position for the last several years, but jazz has been an integral part of his life since he was a child.

“I grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana,” White said. “The music is just in the air.”

When he moved to Tampa, he wanted to stay involved in the music. Joining the Al Downing association gave White more than just the opportunity to keep playing his horn.

“We support jazz; we educate people about the music. We just broaden people’s knowledge and appreciation for the music,” White said.

Learning from and listening to the pros playing jazz when he was a boy fostered White’s deep-rooted love for music. Today, he still recognizes the importance of introducing young people to professional musicians.

“We have something called the Jazz in Schools program where we go into elementary, middle and high schools and we bring live jazz musicians into the classroom setting,” White said.

White believes the state of jazz is strong in the Tampa area. He hopes the freedom of expression in jazz will keep the genre alive forever.

Donations help USF assistant professor raise money to adopt her son

Christa Haring, a research assistant professor at the University of South Florida, is a new mom. Last year, she adopted her son, Carter, who was born with Down syndrome and a cleft palate. To Haring, he’s perfect.

“People with Down syndrome are guileless,” she said.

Carter’s adoption story is full of twists, turns, and a few miracles too. In just over 60 hours, friends and family donated the $12,000 needed for the cost of his adoption. From all over the country, 587 people rallied to make it happen and, ironically, Haring was the last to know.

“It just happened in a way we didn’t expect,” Haring said. “The second night we were in the hospital, we had $12,000 and we needed $18,000. On the last night—the night the money was due — people were texting me things like, ‘congratulations, congratulations!’ And I just sat there sobbing.”

Perhaps it does take a village, as the old saying goes. Haring has people around her giving unyielding support every day, including those she works with at USF.

“I think that Carter was never, ever, ever supposed to belong to one person, and I believe that with all my heart.” she said. “He has multiple moms and siblings. Carter’s story is just about people who saw something bigger than themselves and saw something better than all of us.”

Carter will have four surgeries over the next five years to help repair his cleft palate. Haring will have a whole army supporting his recovery after each operation. Just like a USF Bull, Carter is strong, brave, and, above all else, adored by his many fans.


Video: Christopher Hethcox turns lifelong passion for cheerleading into remarkable career

TRINITY — As an aspiring male cheerleading coach, Christopher Hethcox seemingly had the odds stacked against him early in life.

“The stigma of being a male cheerleader was something that was rough in the rural parts of Alabama,” Hethcox said.

But Hethcox didn’t let it bring him down. At age 13, Hethcox knew he had a passion for tumbling and gymnastics.

Twenty-two years later, Hethcox has turned that passion into a career as an instructor with All-Star Cheerleading at the Suncoast Gymnastics Academy in Odessa.

Though the profession does not necessarily have a large salary, Hethcox said he isn’t in it for the money — he just wants to help his athletes grow.

“I think I love the process of the training, performing, watching the development over the year of an athlete that’s had this place where they started,” Hethcox said.  “And then, where they end up.”

Hethcox coaches multiple levels of cheerleading with All-Star Cheerleading and has won multiple championships.

Competing at that level, Hethcox said,  is something that can give competitors butterflies. But for him, it’s all about keeping his team calm.

Mark Sczcepanik, whose daughter is coached by Hethcox, described him as passionate and driven.

“Coach Chris has done an incredible job with our daughter,” Sczcepanik said. “She went from never cheering ever six months ago to just doing an incredible job, thanks to his fine coaching.”

Hethcox doesn’t need praise, though. He just wants it to be about the kids.

“I want them to become sisters that they would do anything for each other,” Hethcox said.

Machine Gun America in Kissimmee allows youths, adults to operate weapons

KISSIMMEE – Less than an hour from Tampa, a new attraction has opened, and it seems to be the most controversial of them all. At Machine Gun America, almost anyone older than 13 can shoot semi-automatic, and anyone over 15 can shoot fully automatic machine guns.

“A lot of that decision is made by the range safety officer on the range,”said Scott Brian, director of range operations. “If they feel that they can’t handle it, can’t safely control it, we’ll kind of switch it up to something that they can handle but still have a good time at the same time.”

Some disagree with allowing youths to operate weapons. However, a University of South Florida associate professor of psychology has another perspective.

“You would want a kid to be in a supervised environment if they are going to be learning how to use weapons,” said Joe Vandello.

According to Brian, all of the range safety officers at Machine Gun America have law-enforcement or military backgrounds. The range safety officer handles the weapon at all times until the customer is in full safety gear, inside the range and ready to shoot.

Machine Gun America held its grand opening  Feb. 7.