Archive for the ‘Articles’ Category

Four Ways to Ensure You Are Ready for Opening Day

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

A buck reacts to stimuli it picks up while moving through a small opening in the forest. Deer have keen senses of hearing, sight and smell. Reportedly, a deer can smell a human a half-mile or more away. © iStock/qualityimagepro

Zone A archery and crossbow seasons have come and almost gone, but most deer seasons are weeks or months away. That means there is still time to prepare.

Here are four tips beyond the basics to get you ready for hunting season.

• Incorporate new technology into your preseason scouting routine. Don’t settle for scouting an area just on foot when you can use a drone to get an aerial view, too. Use online topographic maps and aerial photos to study the terrain remotely if you live too far away to scout in person.

• Practice everything. Most hunters take time to hone their shooting skills before hunting season, but few practice other skills or routines. For example, if you use a tree stand, practice setting
it up and taking it down in order to increase your speed, stealth and efficiency. Limit the potential for injury by practicing setups close to the ground.

• Make camouflage more than visual. Wearing clothing that is quiet and patterned correctly is important. However, there is more to blending in than just looking the part. Wash your hunting
clothes with no-scent soap. Store the clothes in a paper bag with materials—such as dirt and vegetation—gathered from the area where you plan to hunt. Avoid using dirt or vegetation from another area, since it may not have the same scent profile as where you hunt.

• Get in shape. This serves two purposes. First, it prepares you for the rigors of hunting. Second, it helps minimize sweating. Sweat is your enemy, since it can alert deer to your presence.

Fall Bass-Busting Tip
Bass become more active in fall, as water temperatures cool and the seasonal influx of baitfish begins. Take advantage of this critical period. Use crankbait to fish shallow,
where most bass will be found. Focus on structure, as well as gathering and choke points that funnel baitfish, such as weed boundaries, creek trickles and where backwaters enter deeper water.

Outdoors 101:Find the Perfect Campsite
Real estate is all about location—even when it comes to finding the right spot to pitch a tent. The key to camping in undeveloped
areas is to use the high ground, where you stay drier in torrential rains or when other water events occur. Additional things to look for include a site close to water, firewood and a windbreak. Avoid camping near standing deadfall or under trees with widow makers.

Something is Always On Sale
Preseason and postseason are the best times to buy gear, no matter the outdoor pursuit. For example, the best times to buy fishing gear are the fall for postseason bargains, and late winter and early spring for preseason doorbusters. Retailers use preseason sales to compete for customers, while postseason sales move out old merchandise.

Got a Tip or a Whopper?
Send us your favorite outdoor tip, photo or story. If selected for publication, we will send you $25 for one-time use of the item. When sending a photo, identify people and pets, and tell us the story behind the picture. Email your submission to

Many of Curtis Condon’s fondest memories involve outdoor adventures with friends and family, whether fishing with old school buddies, backpacking in the mountains of the Northwest with his sons, or bird watching along the Gulf Coast with his wife. He feels fortunate having the opportunity to write about the outdoors and other subjects for more than 30 years.

Surf City, Here We Come!

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

Surfers head out to catch a wave during an exhibition put on by the Ohana Surf Shop of Stuart, as a drone flies overhead.
Photo courtesy of Sally Stanley-Benton/

Summer does not officially end until September 22 when the Autumnal Equinox arrives at 4:22 p.m., but for Floridians, it can always be summer in the Sunshine State.

Case in point: Surfing schools across the state teach private and small-group lessons for all ages year-round.

Most out-of-state tourists have headed home and the kids are back in school, thinning out the crowds. Surf shops along Florida’s 663 miles of beaches still are eager to teach you how to hang 10.

The granddaddy of all surf shops—Ron Jon, with more than 140 locations across the country—was founded in 1959 in Cocoa Beach, where the company still operates the largest surfing shop in the world.

Check out these surfing lessons around the state:

Many of these shops also offer paddleboard instruction.

Your Bucket List
Dry Tortugas National Park ( 70 miles west of Key West made the bucket list of Florida destinations.

Only accessible by boat or seaplane, the 100-square-mile park comprises seven islands, sandy beaches and Fort Jefferson on Garden Key—one of the country’s largest 19th-century forts.

You can camp at a primitive site, snorkel, swim, scuba dive and boat in designated areas. Be prepared to be self-sufficient. The island offers no concessions or other services.

Affordable Stay-cations
Two Florida destinations made the U.S. News & World Report list of affordable vacation spots in the United States.

Daytona Beach has 20 miles of public beaches and plenty of hotels close to the ocean. It also offers the Museum of Arts and Sciences (, among others. Daytona International Speedway ( has races and tours.

Jacksonville offers free attractions with a downtown Riverside Arts Market ( every Saturday, Kingsley Plantation ( in the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, and free beach access at Amelia Island, Ponte Vedra Beach and Atlantic Beach.

Money Talks News named Lake Tohopekaliga— known by locals as Lake Toho—as the best vacation lake in Florida.

The 18,810-acre lake near Kissimmee is a haven for wildlife, offers airboat tours and is known for bass fishing.

While there, check out the Osceola County Pioneer Village at Shingle Creek ( or Makinson Island Park (

It’s All in a Name
Have you heard of Burnt Store? Reader’s Digest says it is the funniest town name in Florida. An internet search turns up several explanations for the name of the town located in Lee County near Punta Gorda, but most of the lore references a trading post that was burned in the mid-19th century.

Florida native Pamela A. Keene is a freelance journalist who specializes in travel, gardening, personality and feature writing. The avid traveler also is a photographer and accomplished sailor. Her website is

It’s Not Just ‘The Kiss’

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

Riccardo and his girlfriend, Federica, who have been together only a few months, prepare to kiss before a full moon on the romantic Michelangelo Plaza above Florence, Italy. They awkwardly worked up to a moonlight kiss.
Photos by David LaBelle

One of the things I have learned about wedding photography is you can miss many moments during the ceremony —the cutting of the cake, the tossing of the garter, even walking down the aisle—but you better not miss “the kiss.”

For me, “the kiss” picture is predictable. It is the apex of the ball being tossed in the air, and barring somebody jumping in front and blocking your view—which has happened to me more than once—it is usually difficult to capture.

It isn’t that “the kiss” picture is not important. It is a sort of public consummation of the marriage vows. But if one is so focused on one time or one act, they will likely miss many other wonderful, spontaneous, revealing, storytelling moments often occurring seconds before or after the awaited moment.

Sometimes the anticipation of the kiss or the awkward satisfaction following produces the most surprising and memorable pictures. And often rehearsals produce better pictures than the actual wedding because people are relaxed.

Going early, staying late and watching for these storytelling gems before or after “the kiss” allows you to record small, subtle, unplanned happenings missed by all of the other cameras at the wedding.

Before I leave the subject of wedding photography, indulge me this rant: Why, if people care so much about wedding pictures, are so many weddings held in the worst possible lighting conditions? How is it wedding planners are allowed to schedule ceremonies at high noon, under harsh, deep-shadowy sunlight?

Unless there is the forethought to assemble large white sheets or diffusion panels to soften sharp and intense sunlight and keep the wedding party from sweating and squinting, I think wedding planners should be required to take a basic photography course before getting a license or permit. At the least, they ought to consult with the photographer at the outset of planning the wedding.

Whether big or small, most events consist of numerous small, subtle moments that reveal the richness of the happening. By staying alert with a hunter’s mentality, you will see rich, funny, revealing moments most miss.

Too often I watch people put the camera down before or after an event, photographing only the predictable or staged moments.

Lately, my wife and I have been working with a student who shoots a plethora of “near misses.” We are challenging him to identify storytelling moments from events he covers instead of just making “record” pictures that do little more than say, “I was there”—to be thoughtful and deliberate before pressing the shutter.

He is a hard worker, up early, working late, always eager to cover any event. Looking over his work, I asked, “What was happening before you shot this picture? What happened afterwards? And how did the people in the pictures feel? How did the participants and spectators react?”

If you want to capture those wonderful moments others miss, challenge yourself to go early, stay late and look in the shadows of life—beyond the lighted stages for those story-telling treasures that say so much about us as humans.

David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit

Tips to Building a Masterpiece of Sand

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

Alfonzo shapes the top of his sandcastle during a lesson in Destin while visiting from Kansas. Photo by Pam Blair

All you need to create a sculpture are sand and water. But not all sand is the same.

The bigger the pieces, the harder it is to get them to stick together. If you cannot brush it off your skin easily, you have fine sand. Because it has the most surface tension—which is what water needs to hold sand together—it is ideal for sculpting.

While you must use the sand you are dealt, you can improve your odds of success by following these tips from Capri and Rick Mungeam of Beach Sand Sculptures:

  • Spray WD-40 or a similar lubricant on buckets so sand does not stick to the sides and will release when overturned.
  • Remove air pockets. Fill a 5-gallon bucket about one-quarter full of sand, add water, tap to compact it and repeat.
  • Keep it moist. Use a spray bottle to make sure your sand does not dry out.
  • Use a portable pneumatic device—also known as a straw—to blow out fragments after cutting fine features and lettering into your creation.
  • Be creative with tools. You can use anything to carve sand: a stick, the end of a straw or plastic silverware. A flat spatula is a good overall tool.
  • Enjoy yourself. You might start out with one idea, and it doesn’t quite work out the way you planned. Stand back and take another look. Be flexible. Let your design evolve.
  • Know it is an ephemeral art that is here today and gone tomorrow—but that doesn’t matter. The value is in working with the sand and maybe other people, and the memories created.


Tools of the Trade
To make a 31/2-foot sandcastle, it helps to have a few tools. A Beach Sand Sculptures kit includes:
Two 5-gallon buckets, with the bottom cut out of one so it can be used as a form.

  • A 1-gallon bucket
  • A paintbrush
  • Two straws
  • A melon baller
  • A spatula
  • A small shovel
  • A spray bottle

See You Later, Alligator

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

Tim Williams coaxes Chester—who weighs more than 1,000 pounds and is more than 13 feet long—out of the water. After 26 years working with and studying alligators and crocodiles, Tim understands the importance of never getting complacent.

Tim Williams retires after a career spent using humor and excitement to highlight the fascinating lives of alligators and crocodiles

After 26 years at Gatorland, head gator wrangler Tim Williams has learned a thing or two about alligators and crocodiles, as he has handled their care, feeding and showing, and trained other park employees. He has had a great time, too.

“You’ll notice on my shirt it says, ‘Dean of Gator Wrestling,’” Tim says. “Somebody once asked, ‘Wow, you’re that good?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m that old.’”

Tim’s sense of humor, excitement, experience and ability to strike up a conversation with just about anyone at Gatorland—and elsewhere, for that matter—make him uniquely qualified to speak on behalf of two of Earth’s oldest surviving species. It is a job he takes seriously, in his own way.

“When people walk out of here, I’d like to see them walk out of here saying, ‘Wow, these are really fascinating animals’—especially the alligators and crocodiles, because there are so many misconceptions and wives’ tales about them,” he says. “I try to dispel a lot of that.”

Tim says the park is a great venue for an entertaining and educational day out with the family. He enjoys spending time with the park’s guests. As he finishes a discussion with one group, he often turns right to another and begins answering questions and joking around.

That is one of the things Tim most enjoys about his work. Interacting with guests and seeing them enjoy their time at the park are two things he says he will miss when he retires in September.

“People aren’t coming here to see Tim, Chris or Brandon, they’re coming here to see these alligators,” he says. “If I drop dead five seconds from now, the only excitement that will cause is when someone has to drag me out of here. People will still buy tickets to see the alligators, and that’s the way it should be.

“Even here in Florida, where we have gators in our backyards, people want to see, touch and hold an alligator. They’re fascinated by them.”

Tim works with TV and film crews to get the word out. He has been featured on Letterman, Leno, Good Morning America and The Today Show, and has done work with BBC-Natural, among others.

He takes his show on the road locally, too, including multiple trips to Peace River Electric Cooperative’s annual meetings. He jokes with PRECO Communications Coordinator Mark Sellers that he has done enough shows there now he should just drop off the animals.

Tim’s work today is a far cry from his service during the Vietnam War, and when he and a friend sold rattlesnakes to reptile farms and researchers. During a sales trip, Tim met alligator expert Ross Allen—a world-renowned herpetologist and wild animal handler who starred in several short films.

Ross offered Tim work. He gladly accepted. Tim worked with snakes at first, but the alligator handler at the time was hurt in an accident. Tim was told to head on out and get to work on the gator show.

From then on, it was all about the crocodilians for Tim.

“I was scared to death of the people,” Tim says with grin. “Didn’t worry about the gators. I’d been handling them. And then I started doing the shows. The rest is sad history, I guess.”

Tim is still fascinated by the animals, and continues to have a healthy respect for their power—even if his stories are somewhat exaggerated.

In 1991, Tim joined Gatorland. He doesn’t wrestle the gators anymore, but enjoys interacting with longtime co-workers and watching the park grow. He credits the board and leadership for the park’s success and happy employees.

“The board’s theory is that employees are the ones who make the place go,” he says. “If you take care of your employees, they take care of your customers. We have a lot of people with a lot of years in this park. It’s hot work, but you love what you do. You work with such great people and great animals, and you get to meet these great folks that come to visit.”

While Tim is happy to see guests enjoying their time, he also sees Gatorland as a kind of second home and an important part of his life.

“Gatorland has always been the place that picked me up, brushed me off and held on to me,” Tim says. “I may leave the park, but it will never leave me. It’s been a wonderful 26 years.”

Building Dreams in the Sand

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

Rick Mungeam puts the finishing touches on a sandcastle he created on a north Florida beach.
Photo by Capri Mungeam

Rick Mungeam repurposed his skills designing upscale resort homes and became a beachfront architect, creating works of art that come and go with the tide

As an architect based in Winter Park, Colorado, Rick Mungeam put on a golf shirt, khakis and loafers, went to an office and designed glamorous custom resort homes meant to last.
Today, he puts on shorts, a comfortable shirt and a hat, heads to the beach barefoot and finds satisfaction in the creative process rather than the longevity of his work.
Rick knows that what he builds today will last a week or less. If people do not destroy his handiwork, time will take its toll and Mother Nature eventually will wash it out to sea.

That is, after all, the natural progression for a castle built on the sand.

What is not so natural is the evolution from architect to sand sculptor.

Rick and his wife, Capri, live and share what they call the “sandcastle effect”—the delight that comes from having fun while creating memories in the sand—and they have spread that joy to thousands of delighted customers.

Based on Florida’s Emerald Coast, Beach Sand Sculptures offers 800 to 1,000 lessons a year, making it the world’s largest sandcastle lesson company, Capri says.

Rick also uses his skills drawing up plans and then executing one-of-a-kind sand sculptures for families and businesses.

“I treat our business as a business, not a hobby,” says Rick. “There are sand sculptors who offer lessons, but none do the quantity we do. We are an industry leader.”

The Mungeams not only make a living shaping sand on the beach, but offer an economic boost to the community by training and paying coaches to follow their model of teaching others how to have fun building with sand.

“It’s amazing to me that we can make a living at this, and hire a manager and coaches,” Capri says. “It’s scary exciting.”

Scary might be an apt description of what led Rick and Capri to Florida and a livelihood encouraging family fun.

For more than 20 years, Rick had a successful business. Capri was a stay-at-home mom who homeschooled their two boys. Their life was comfortable.

But when the economy took a nosedive in 2008, so did Rick’s business.

“It wasn’t a good time,” he says, noting his services no longer were in demand.

Capri waited tables. Rick couldn’t get a job. He applied at The Home Depot and elsewhere, but was overqualified.

“We drained our retirement fund,” Capri says, noting that in the winter of 2010—one month before their home was to be foreclosed—they sold it.

They used the proceeds to buy a motor home and drove south, looking for warmer weather and a new direction.

“We knew we weren’t retiring, that we had to go back to work,” says Capri. “We were on a short-term hiatus, figuring out what to do.”

“We were journeying,” adds Rick. “We didn’t know where we were going. We had no goals. We were just having fun.”

A stop at South Padre Island, Texas, proved pivotal. It was there Rick met Andy Hancock, who taught him sand-sculpting basics—and he was hooked.

“He came back and said he had to get some tools to play with in the sand,” Capri says. “Ironically, he had been collecting sand long before that.”

The couple continued traveling along the Gulf of Mexico, taking all the beach roads, which gave Rick the materials he needed to practice his newfound interest.

“We crossed the Okaloosa Island bridge into Destin and saw the beautiful blue-green water,” Rick says.

“We were in love,” Capri declares.

The couple spent two weeks at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, where they learned about a state parks program in which volunteers work in exchange for a space. They submitted an application and headed to Atlanta to look after friends’ kids while they were away on a trip—and a volunteer opportunity opened up.

“We spent three months at Topsail,” Rick says. “When I wasn’t working, I went to the beach and was playing in the sand like when I was a kid. I was being creative, but in a different medium. I was getting better, and building bigger. I was honing my skills, and really enjoying it.”

A fellow volunteer saw Rick’s work and asked him to do a program for kids. As part of his volunteer hours, Rick would head to the beach, put up a sign, and have 30 to 40 people in a class.

“I had a hard time talking to people, but that didn’t last long,” he says. “I had a paradigm shift. I wasn’t talking, but sharing.”

When the Topsail commitment was up, the Mungeams volunteered at other parks: Eden Gardens, Grayton Beach, Bahia Honda, Lovers Key and Koreshan.

They scheduled sandcastle lessons around their volunteer commitments.

“It just kept growing,” Rick says. “We were turning people away. I built a sandcastle with a big heart on it on Grayton Beach. A wedding party asked if they could use it. A bunch of other photographers were using it.”

At that moment, Rick says he realized, “Maybe we can turn this into a business.”

Beach Sand Sculptures soared from No. 97 on TripAdvisor to No. 2—and the phone kept ringing.

“In the summer of 2013, we were turning away 25 families a week,” Capri says. “We could only do 10 to 12 lessons a week. It was really heartbreaking.”

Capri knew they had to train others, but Rick was reluctant.

“We had to replicate in a way that kept things going the same way,” Capri says.

In 2014, Beach Sand Sculptures hired a human resources company, added online booking and had seven people trained and doing lessons.

By July, the business ranked No. 1 on TripAdvisor for outdoor activity in the Destin area. It has never surrendered the top spot, earning mostly 5-star ratings.

“We’re trying to build something that will last,” Rick says. “We have already grown substantially. Our goals are to continue to expand and develop business systems. It is not ‘franchise-able,’ but we can take this model and drop it someplace else. When we go north and south when we travel, we look at it from a business aspect. We look at the sand.”

Demand for lessons ebb and flow based on the tourist season. Northwest Florida is flat in January and February, bumps up a bit in March for spring break, dips a little in April and May, then takes off on Memorial Day through August. South Florida’s tourist season is just the opposite.

As Rick or his coaches unload a cart filled with buckets and implements, people on the beach watch with interest. He orients his students so they are facing the water and tells them, “See those people behind me with hands on their hips? That’s sandcastle envy. You guys are going to be the rock stars of the beach.”

Moving sand and water is hard work.

“You might be sore and tired, but once on the beach with people, being creative, you forget about that,” Rick says. “When I’m carving, I can visualize what I want a sculpture to look like. I have an eye for design. It just flows. That’s the fun part.”

That is due to his skills and experience as an architect—an interest built from Rick’s days as a kid playing in the sand at Martha’s Vineyard on Cape Cod.

In the early days of the business, Capri says Rick bemoaned that now he is “just a sandcastle builder and sculptor, but I told him that being an architect helped him become a great sandcastle builder.”

When Rick finishes a work, he says he takes a picture and walks away, knowing it will not last—and is at peace with that.

“This is so much more than a sandcastle lesson,” says Capri. “It is a family experience. We pull in the adults, who have as much fun—or more—than the kids.”

Playing with sand and water “touches people,” Capri says. “It makes them happy. It truly is magical.”


Turtles to the Sea

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

A Loggerhead Marinelife Center staff member holds a baby loggerhead. Guests are not permitted to hold hatchlings.
Photo courtesy of Loggerhead Marinelife Center

August is a busy month for turtles in Florida. It’s a time when hatchling loggerhead, green and leatherback sea turtles continue to make their way to the ocean and begin their lives of adventure.

Organizations such as the free-admission, nonprofit Loggerhead Marinelife Center ( in Palm Beach County are dedicated to educating the public about sea turtles, protecting and rehabilitating them, and furthering sea turtle and ocean conservation.

As part of its mission, Loggerhead Marinelife Center’s staff monitors 9.5 miles of beach along the Atlantic, offers behind-the-scenes programs for the public, and operates a hospital for injured or sick sea turtles, nursing them to health until they can be released back into the wild.

Florida’s beaches are natural habitats for sea turtles. During nesting season, they are protected by federal law from human interference except by permitted professionals in centers across the country.

You can learn about sea turtles by visiting other state-permitted facilities.

Options include The Turtle Hospital in Marathon (, the Sea Turtle Preservation Society in Indialantic ( and Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratories in Panacea (

For additional listings of permitted facilities, see

“Loggerhead Marinelife Center is adjacent to one of the most densely populated sea turtle nesting beaches on our planet,” says Hannah Deadman, the center’s public relations and communications coordinator. “We encourage people to visit the center to learn about sea turtle and ocean conservation, and learn how simple steps—such as opting for reusable bags or water bottles—have the power to make a difference for our world ocean.”


Out of this World lists the latest launch information from Florida’s Space Coast.

On August 3, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket will deploy a communications and data-relay satellite for NASA. On August 31, the alliance is sending up another Atlas V with a classified spacecraft payload.

United Launch Alliance is a 50/50 joint venture between Lockheed Martin and The Boeing Company. offers mobile apps for iPhone and Android that show the best locations to view launches.

The app is part of the Space Coast’s program to promote space-related tourists—also known as Vacationauts.


Be An Airport Insider
Hungry in the airport? Want to know real-time security waits? Check out these free mobile apps.

Florida native Pamela A. Keene is a freelance journalist who specializes in travel, gardening, personality and feature writing. The avid traveler also is a photographer and accomplished sailor. Her website is

A Promise to Never Forget

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

Two Pensacola firefighters climb some of the 110 flights of stairs during a past Panama City Beach Memorial Stair Climb.
Photo courtesy of the Panama City Beach News Herald

Firefighter pays tribute to those who died on September 11 with annual stair climb

For Panama City Beach Fire Captain Terry Parris, the events of September 11, 2001, were a defining moment.

A fireman since 1991, Terry watched the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center along with millions of other Americans, and promised himself the lives of the 343 firemen who died that day would not be forgotten.

In 2011, he fulfilled that promise.

“A few years after 9/11, I read an article about firefighters in Denver who climbed 110 stories to honor the first responders who died at Ground Zero,” says Terry. “That climb helped to support the mission of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, and I felt that a similar event here in Panama City Beach would be well-received. It took a lot of time and effort from a lot of caring people, and on September 11, 2011, the first Panama City Beach Memorial Stair Climb took place.”

Initially held at the 22-story Laketown Wharf Condos in Panama City Beach, participants climbed up and down the height of the condos five times—the equivalent of the 110 stories of the World Trade Center. This year’s event is at the Edgewater Beach and Golf Resort, with activities beginning Thursday, September 7. The climb is Saturday, September 9. The event is open to anyone who wants to climb. More than half the participants come from out of state. Last year, 545 people climbed.

Firefighter Cody Cothran of Hoover, Alabama, is one of them.
“I was a senior in high school on 9/1l and saw the attacks on the World Trade Center from a classroom,” says Cody. “For the next few months, I volunteered at the local fire department, and after graduation, I passed the firefighter exam.”

He has worked in fire service for 14 years, the past five in Hoover. Cody has participated in the Panama City Beach Stair Climb since its inception. He drives 250-plus miles south to climb in honor of fallen 9/11 firefighter Lt. Michael Quilty, who was in Tower 2 when the first plane hit.

A member of Ladder 11 of Brooklyn’s Borough Park firehouse, Quilty had been a firefighter for 20 years. He earned two unit citations, including the Fire Marshals’ Benevolent Association Medal in 1997. In an odd twist of fate, Quilty once visited Panama City Beach.

“In the late ’90s, Michael Quilty and his son were taking scuba diving lessons during a family vacation in Panama City Beach when a woman on her first dive panicked and began to ascend too rapidly,” says Cody. “Despite having known this woman for less than 10 minutes, he didn’t hesitate to risk his life and bring her to the surface. It was the same type of selfless act that would be repeated over and over again at Ground Zero.”

Hundreds of courageous acts were performed on 9/11 by first responders and civilians alike. Many of their stories will never be told. They were silenced forever when the twin towers fell.

The horrific death toll that day—2,606 in the World Trade Center, 265 on the four planes and 125 at the Pentagon—continues to increase 16 years after the attack due to the toxic dust spread and inhaled as the towers fell to the ground.

Just days after the attacks, firefighters, EMTs and civilians began arriving at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital with severe respiratory problems.

“The symptoms these patients had were terrifying,” says Dr. Michael Crane, director of the hospital’s World Trade Center Health Program. “They would suddenly wake up and find they couldn’t breathe. Although we will never know the exact composition of the cloud of dust they inhaled, what we do know is that it had all kinds of god-awful things in it including jet fuel, plastics, metal, fiberglass and asbestos.”

In addition to respiratory problems, those who inhaled the toxic dust have suffered a number of other debilitating illnesses, including cancer. In 2014, an FDNY study revealed that cancer incidence among New York City firefighters at Ground Zero had increased by nearly 20 percent compared to firefighters who were not exposed.

The World Trade Center Health Program was reauthorized for an additional 75 years December 18, 2015.

“We must remember that the events of 9/11 have continued to exact a toll on every firefighter and first responder who was at Ground Zero that day, as well as the families of the 343 firefighters who died when the twin towers collapsed,” says Terry. “That is why we are committed to continuing the Memorial Stair Climb. Last year, nearly $30,000 was raised and submitted to the National Firefighters Foundation and First Responder projects from donations and climb registration fees.

“The incredible courage of the New York Fire Department in the performance of their duties on 9/11 is the reason the Panama City Beach Memorial Stair Climb began and the reason it will continue. Our goal is to ensure that the sacrifices these individuals made on that day will never be forgotten.”

To register for the 2017 Panama City Beach Memorial Stair Climb, visit

A Visual Love Letter

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

I watch for small, quiet moments that speak to the goodness of man and individual character rather than loud, decorated “religious” acts often performed to be seen. This tender scene of a young man walking two elderly women to their cars from a restaurant is such a moment.
Photo by David LaBelle

For 50 years, I have dreamed about photographing God.

In the past, I even kidded that when I died, I wanted my family to place a Nikon F camera loaded with 100 ASA film in the casket with me.

I figure I won’t need a fast film with a high ISO because there will be plenty of light, and I’d sure like to be the first to photograph heaven.

Indirectly, from the first days I picked up a camera, I have tried to photograph God by photographing His creation—be it the natural wonders of the world or the wonders of human creations.

Just as we photograph stunning rock formations in Utah, Arizona, Colorado or South Dakota—whose majestic cliffs have been shaped by countless years of breathing winds—we photograph an invisible God by photographing the influence of His Spirit on His creation.

Each of us carries the genetics—the DNA of our father.

I realize I must walk softly and carefully with this subject, and do so with sensitivity, recognizing there are many who do not share my beliefs. Please accept that this column is not meant to be a sermon, but a personal observation and ambition.

I do not mind admitting that when I witness humbling acts of altruism and love, my throat tightens and my eyes fill. In these quiet acts of compassion, I see my God every bit as much as when I behold a beautiful sunrise or sunset.

I have always been drawn to these genuine, not performed, moments. In them I see the goodness of mankind and the loving influence of God. In these mini stories, I feel the greatest joy and hope for humanity.

While some are drawn to photographing action sports, portraits or nature, I am drawn to quiet relationship scenes of love and compassion—things I often lack in my own life, but continually aspire to own.

My wife and I try to make pictures that reinforce the beauty and love of God on His creation, and try to avoid promoting the opposite.

For me, life looks very different at 65 than it did at 25. I’m confident it is a natural thing as we age to grow more introspective and more deliberate with what time we have left. In my youth, life was a smorgasbord and, like most, I wanted to sample everything.

I have loved many types of photography—from sports to nature, breaking news, celebrities and even some fashion—but lately, more than ever, my heart seeks to capture and share positive pictures that reinforce love and goodness and encourage hope, while glorifying our Creator.

It isn’t that I have not always tried to do this from the time I picked up a camera, but now with the acute recognition of the limited time I have left on this earth, there is an urgency not present 25 years ago.

I am forever reminded and keep this passage from Psalm 90 on the sleeve of my heart: “Teach us to number our days, that we might apply our hearts to wisdom.”

I photograph God when I record the golden morning light raking across the red earth or prairie grass of Oklahoma, or when evening clouds turn from white to yellow to crimson. I photograph God when I see birds drink the dew of the leaves or eat the crumbs left by man.

Mostly, I photograph God when I see His Spirit working in the lives of His children.

I don’t always love as I should, but often what I see through my lens challenges me to love more purely.

I wish every photograph I make to be a visual love letter to my God.

David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit

Appreciating Their Experienced Guide to Change

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

Visiting Washington, D.C., is a new experience for many Youth Tour students. Thankfully, they are led by someone who has been there before and is dedicated to making the trip a life-changing experience for them.

Edie Beiner, director of statewide services for the Florida Electric Cooperatives Association, is the longest-serving Youth Tour director in the nation. She has coordinated the trip for 35 years.

“The main thing I’m concerned about is the kids are learning and having fun,” says Edie, who leads quietly, gently and compassionately.

While Edie downplays her contributions, students and chaperones know and appreciate the hard work she puts in year after year.

“As a 2015 alumnus, Youth Tour was a turning point, giving me the motivation to create change in my own life,” says Cale McCall.

“The sticker on my car says ‘Future president of the United States.’”

Youth Tour occurs at a time when students are still finding their true selves and their calling, and uncovering their passions, he says.

“At the center of any great program is a person developing, sharing and inspiring people with the message of change,” says Cale, who is studying public relations. “For the Florida Youth Tour program, that is Mrs. Edie.”

Kaitlynn Culpepper, community relations specialist for Tri-County Electric Cooperative, made her first Youth Tour trip in June. Candace Croft, communications and public relations coordinator for West Florida Electric Cooperative, has chaperoned many Youth Tour trips. Sabrina Owens, manager of marketing for Escambia River Electric Cooperative, also has chaperoned. All commend Edie for the countless hours she invests to make sure students will never forget their Youth Tour experience.

“Even in the midst of the chaos that is Youth Tour—the last-minute schedule changes, lost cellphones, hot, humid weather and more—Edie works through each challenge with grace and is extremely patient with the students,” adds occasional chaperone Mark Sellers, communications coordinator for Peace River Electric Cooperative.

“Thanks to Edie’s dedication, more than a thousand students have experienced the trip of a lifetime,” says Kristin Evans, vice president of marketing and communications for Gulf Coast Electric Cooperative.