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.

Muslim Students at USF Face Additional Scrutiny and Hardship

For third-year student Majid Almasri, being international has never been easy. Being Muslim has made his journey even harder, especially considering the recent rise in terrorist events.

“I came here three years ago to study, and being an Arab made it hard,” said Majid Almasri. “How you’re treated here depends on the community and your level of education.”

Being raised in the small country of Oman, not far from Dubai, Almasri was often warned about what to expect from Americans and their limited knowledge about his country. Although he took heed, he remained optimistic and hopeful about his journey.

“My family and friends warned me every day before I left that things were going to change, but of course you can’t be sure until you experience it for yourself,” said Almasri.

If being stereotyped for being Muslim wasn’t hard enough, Almasri and others like him now have to deal with possibly being looked at as a target and not just as a threat. Even though the Muslim community as a whole is not responsible for terrorist acts, some feel the results of unjust scrutiny and judgment.

“I think if it was role reversed, no one would be saying it was over a parking spot; it would be a hate crime,” said Jessica Brightman, adviser for international students.

The lack of coverage may raise some concerns, leaving some wondering whether college campuses are safe for Muslim students anymore.

“Campus was the one place I was comfortable. Now I see hate can happen anywhere,” said Almasri. “I’m not afraid, but I am aware.”

With so much going on and so little knowledge as to how or why, all there is left to do is seek justice and from there hope to gain equality.


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: USF student government hosts Pastries with the President

On March 12, USF Student Government Association held “Pastries with the President,” where students  not only enjoyed baked desserts but got to meet with  USF President Judy Genshaft and talk with future and current SGA leaders.



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.

USF dance major pushes past back injury, other obstacles

At 3 years old, Tatiana Quintero couldn’t resist the temptation to move to the beat. According to her mother, Janet Cano, her little girl would wiggle and dance to music anywhere she went. Cano enrolled her in a traditional Colombian dance class where Quintero would begin the study of her life’s calling: dance.

At the University of South Florida, 21-year-old Quintero is pursuing her dream of being a dancer. As an adult, she is learning how difficult it can be to reach her full potential.

Dance is not about just dancing anymore. Every movement is perfectly orchestrated. The world of dancing is all about technicality, an obstacle that Quintero feels holds her back. She didn’t start to learn technical dancing until she was 12 or 13.

“Even that was only hip-hop, not ballet,” Quintero said. “Being here, I see everyone with their legs high and stuff; obviously it takes time to get there.”

Since high school, her biggest dream has been to go out to California and join the Diavolo dance company. She says that at Diavolo they move with big props and aren’t afraid to push the limit. The company is about risk-taking, which is what attracted her to it. Only the most technical dancers belong to Diavolo, and Quintero still has a lot of work to accomplish.

At the university, she puts in an average of six to eight hours of rehearsal a day. It can be a strain on her body, but it is more important to Quintero to be prepared for anything.

In August 2011, Quintero was involved in a car accident in Miami-Dade County that hurt her back. The injury still prevents her from dancing to her full ability. Quintero refuses to let this injury hold her back, though some days the pain often keeps her from even reaching her toes.

“It’s still hard, because I come back to dance and you know you can’t do stuff,” she said. “So, you have to hold yourself back, but I didn’t care. I just danced.”

There are times when Quintero feels like giving up. The pressures of time management and dealing with her injuries sometimes make her doubt whether she can continue a career in dance. She worries whether this career will give her the ability to provide for herself and possibly a family in the future. It is important to Quintero to have a backup plan.

She is pursuing a minor in nutrition as part of her plan to open and own a dance studio. By day, she wants to teach the technical art of dance. By night, she hopes to teach her students about the importance of what you eat, and also teach aerobic dance classes like Zumba.

Her inspirations come from feeling she has God by her side and from the support of her parents. Quintero’s father has kept her grounded, and her mother has always pushed her to keep doing what she loves.

“I know that she is accomplishing everything she set her mind to,” Cano said. “She knows that she can do anything.”

USF senior with passion for China wins Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship

Hiram Rios is a senior at the University of South Florida majoring in economics and international studies with a minor in Chinese. In his time at USF, Rios has received some of the most prestigious national scholarships, including his most recent, the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship.

Rios was the first finalist for this scholarship in USF history, and he will begin the fellowship this summer.

“I’ll start work in the China office at the State Department this summer,” Rios said. “I’ll be working to coordinate a strategic and economic dialogue between China and the U.S.”

His interest in the Chinese culture began in 2008 when he traveled to the Beijing Olympics to play violin in an orchestra.

“As a 14-year-old at the time who had never left the country, to try and process all of this, it was a lot, and what it turned into was this obsession,” Rios said.

Rios has been able to merge his love of the Chinese culture with all of his scholarships. These scholarships gave him the opportunity to study abroad in China, fluently learn Mandarin, and teach English to Chinese students.

His passion and great work ethic are also seen while working in the Office of National Scholarships as a student assistant and peer leader.

“He takes initiative; he’s extremely hard working,” said Lauren Chambers, Interim Director of the office.

With the Pickering Fellowship, Rios will receive $80,000 to study international affairs in a graduate degree program of his choice. He will also receive one domestic internship and one internship abroad before starting his five-year post as a diplomat in the Chinese Embassy.

“It’s been an amazing feat for me,” Rios said. “I’m just so proud to be able to have this space to represent Puerto Rico, the Hispanic population, the Latino-American population in the State Department.”


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.

Florida Focus 03-12-15

In this Florida Focus News Brief: Tampa International Airport expects to see a massive increase in passenger traffic, Pinellas County beach brawl went viral, Tampa teens charged with animal cruelty, and Tampa Police are going from four wheels to two wheels to keep downtown safer.


Florida Focus 03-05-2015

In this Florida Focus Military Brief: Florida lawmakers may be called upon to determine if confederate soldiers are eligible Florida Veterans Hall of Fame, Support the Troops and Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay are partnering to refurbish veterans homes and CareerSource is helping out-of-work veterans find work.