Mote’s Next-Generation Scientists

Bright Minds Shed Light on Protecting Earth’s Oceans

By Sue Cullen

One of the key pillars of Mote Marine Laboratory’s vision for its future is securing the next generation of marine scientists dedicated to responsible stewardship of the world’s oceans. Supporting these young scientists is a major goal of Mote’s 2020 Vision and Strategic Plan and is key to helping protect ocean habitats and sustain fisheries of vital importance both worldwide and much closer to home.

“At Mote, we continue to strengthen our focus on the next generation of world-class scientists who are finding solutions to the grand challenges facing our oceans today,” said Dr. Michael P. Crosby, Mote President and CEO. “Our Mote Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program is an innovative initiative to recruit, nurture and keep the next generation of the best and brightest minds in marine science, and it is funded entirely through philanthropy.”


Already these bright minds are finding ways to support native fisheries and save the world’s coral reefs from disease and the stresses of climate change. The work of four of these marine scientists highlights the profound worldwide effects possible if they can help Mote achieve another 2020 goal, which is to ensure its science and technology make a positive impact on society and the environment. Three of these young scientists are in Mote’s postdoctoral research program.

It is no exaggeration to say as the oceans go, so goes the world. Three billion people worldwide rely on seafood as their primary source of protein, according to the World Wildlife Fund, and as populations rise, so will demand. The impact on Florida’s economic health is also substantial. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries data shows the economic impact in Florida of commercial and recreational fishing in the Gulf of Mexico alone to be $25.8 billion in sales, 172,000 jobs, and $11 billion in value added impacts.


Mote postdoctoral scientist Dr. Ryan Schloesser’s main projects aim to make an impact on snook, a key fishery that is under stress. Schloesser’s work is important because snook populations have been drastically reduced by two extreme cold events in 2001 and 2010 and by red tide. Commercial snook fishing is prohibited and recreational fishing is strictly limited. He wants to understand the habitat preferences of juvenile snook and determine how to restore depleted snook populations responsibly.

“We use passive integrated transponder tags to monitor the habitat use of the juvenile fish we release in Phillippi Creek to determine what are quality habitats for this recreationally and commercially important fish,” he says. “We use the latest technology available to get all the information we can to improve release strategies and develop responsible guidelines.” Eight arrays set up along Phillippi Creek identify where juvenile fish prefer to spend their time, comparing natural shoreline with mangrove and marsh habitat, clear areas of seawall, and seawall with aquatic plants.

“We are using these juvenile fish as an ecological probe to find what habitat is used most commonly so we can support that,” Schloesser says. “One of the key findings is that vegetation with shoreline, hardened or not, provides the best survival. If people are concerned about the impact of coastal development and wonder what they can do, promoting vegetation along hardened shorelines can help.”


Another postdoctoral scientist, Dr. Philip Gravinese, is studying the effects of climate change, ocean acidification and low oxygen levels on another crucial Florida fishery–stone crabs. Gravinese’s doctoral work focused on how stone crab larvae are affected by climate change, which elevates ocean temperatures and increases acidification because more atmospheric carbon dioxide is absorbed into seawater. His work with Mote builds on that by looking at how those stressors impact post-larval and juvenile stone crabs.

“Fishermen are interested because they are seeing changes; less catch and they know temperatures are going up. We should be able to shed some light on what will be impacting future yields,” Gravinese says. “The ultimate goal is to identify the tolerances of the different life stages to these changing variables and find ways that reduce the impact of some of these stressors. That might give stone crabs better chances and the opportunity for stability in the future.”


Dr. Erinn Muller, who was hired as the first Mote Postdoctoral Fellow in 2011, is now a Staff Scientist and Coral Health and Disease Research Program Manager, and has received two National Science Foundation grants that support her work to understand coral health and responses to disease. One five-year grant of more than $575,000 allows Muller to study the effects of major environmental stressors on threatened staghorn coral such as disease, high water temperatures and ocean acidification. She focuses on genetic varieties that may be more resistant to, or more able to recover from, those stressors.

The second grant is aimed at better predicting how corals react to disease exposure and how that will influence the coral community of the future. The study is based on immune response and disease resistance and will quantify how susceptible coral species are to disease by examining their immunity through a series of novel experiments and approaches.

“Reefs are worth $6 billion to Florida’s economy.”

Muller’s work builds upon the game-changing discovery at Mote’s Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration on Summerland Key that coral can be repopulated more quickly than thought possible by a process of micro-fragmentation and re-skinning. To further that work, the lab is home to about 60 different coral genotypes. “I see how these different strains respond to major stressors that they will continue to be affected by in the future, which are high water temperature, global climate changes, diseases and ocean acidification,” she says. Understanding which genotypes better survive changing conditions will help scientists worldwide restore coral reefs more effectively.

“If we lose coral reefs, we lose the biodiversity of our ocean environment. Reefs protect shorelines and are a great source of new pharmaceuticals to fight antibiotic resistant bacteria, and they impact our economy as well. Reefs are worth $6 billion to Florida’s economy and support 70,000 jobs,” Muller says. “We need to take bold steps in research and restoration to be sure we have coral reefs 10 years from now.”


Postdoctoral scientist Dr. Rob Nowicki studies the intricate relationships at play between the living creatures and the environment within an ecosystem. “My focus is what happens when you lose it all, and my research is on what makes a system resilient when bad things happen,” Nowicki says. “That fits with Mote’s focus on restoring coral because we want to make sure the biological interactions of healthy reefs are there.”

Nowicki currently is setting up a study to determine the impact of “halos” of bare sand separating reefs from seagrass beds where many reef fish spawn. He aims to discover whether these barren stretches present barriers to returning to the reef where many of these fish perform important functions such as eating algae that can outcompete coral. Nowicki is establishing artificial seagrass corridors across bare patches to determine whether – by offering them shelter from predators – more fish will return to the reef.

“The big picture goal is to get reefs back to how they looked in the 1960s before everything started to look terrible. If we find reef connectivity is important, it means maybe we should choose reefs that are already connected to restore. It adds a restoration tool to our toolkit,” Nowicki says. “Even if not, it’s still important because we’ll know it’s not a factor in deciding where to restore corals.”

One thing is clear. With dedication, devotion and enthusiasm for their work, these young marine scientists are already making significant contributions to their field, to the local area, and to the world.

USF-Sarasota Manatee: A Great Choice For Long-Term Success

By Ryan G. Van Cleave

In the fall of 2013, the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee enrolled its first freshman class of four-year students. Prior to that, USFSM served primarily as a two-year finishing school, meaning only juniors and seniors attended, mostly coming from State College of Florida and other state colleges. success

Dr. Terry A. Osborn, Interim Regional Chancellor, says, “Our decision to add freshmen and sophomores came about after lengthy discussions and feedback from community leaders. It was important for our community to have a university where local students could earn their degree and a place that the community could look to for increasing their highly-skilled workforce in areas of strategic emphasis. Our four-year offerings also keep bright students local — they learn here, they live here, and hopefully they stay right here in our community after graduation. Our transition helped us meet the needs of the community.”

Close to home

One of the most surprising effects of the transition is how the campus has changed. Before this shift, USFSM was known as a commuter school for working professionals who sought to earn their degree at night, course by course. They’d come to campus for class and then go home. These days, the level of campus life and student engagement is constantly high. It’s a lot more like other traditional four-year schools — students are having fun at the beach volleyball court, they’re sipping coffee outside the Sudakoff Pavilion, and they’re studying in the newly renovated Student Commons. success

“Who wouldn’t want to live here while they earn their degree?”

The students on campus have changed as well. They’re no longer a standard type. “This is another thing that makes our campus great — there is no typical student,” Osborn says. “We have students who join us straight from high school and we have students entering USFSM with credits from dual enrollment. A large portion of our students came to us as transfers from State College of Florida and we also have working professionals and non-traditional students who earn their degrees at night or online. We have a terrific blend of all types of students, but what unites them is their thirst for knowledge and their love for this area. Who wouldn’t want to live here while they earn their degree?”

Generousity as a key to success

Part of what made the first four-year class a success was the generosity of donors such as Drs. Richard Wharton and Lou Bertha McKenzie-Wharton, who funded a freshman scholarship to cover all the unmet needs of the first 100 freshmen from local high schools. About that commitment, they say, “When we were asked a little more than four years ago to make a contribution toward providing scholarships to the first freshman class at USF Sarasota-Manatee, we did so because we, as educators, recognized the important relationship between education and such factors as socio-economic success. Perhaps, more importantly, we looked at our contribution toward providing scholarships to the first freshman class at USFSM as an investment in persons who will hopefully make a difference in our society by contributing their talents to what is often called ‘the greater good.’”

Sarah Bradtmueller, a USFSM student who is part of the May 2017 graduating class, is an elementary education major whose goal is to teach at a local elementary school, preferably kindergarten through fifth grade, she notes. “The scholarship I received played a significant role in my choosing USFSM. However, I also loved the idea of going to a university and not having to uproot myself. Staying in my hometown has been wonderful, as I’ve been able to save money as well as spend a lot of time with my family.”

She explains that the average 13:1 student-to-faculty ratio at USFSM is wonderful. “It allows relationships to grow between professors and students. It creates a comfort level where you feel ok with asking a professor for help. I also loved that I could walk down the hallway and have professors, the dean, and even the regional chancellor walk past me and address me by name. You just don’t get that at big universities.”

Osborn wants more local students to enjoy similar experiences. “We want to provide access to higher education to our entire area and are excited to see how large that number becomes,” he said. “We would like to have quality growth over time while we ensure that each of our students will be successful. We hope that everyone considers USFSM as an option.” Student demand has already created a good problem for the school — it’s in need of additional space. Osborn explains, “We have plans to add a new academic building, specifically for our STEM programs, but in order to meet the current demands we will need the support of everyone in the community. We hope their desire to keep students in this area will translate to the type of support we need to build that facility.”

“17,000 USF alumni live or work in our area.”

A community endeavor

That support might be easier to find than one might expect. Why? Walk into any business or organization in this community and ask how many employees graduated from a USF campus. The response might surprise you: 17,000 USF alumni live or work in our area, and that number is growing each year. As USFSM’s first freshman class graduates and enters the workforce, those alumni will put down roots in this area. “That’s what we hope for,” Osborn admits. “We want to keep our most talented students here, so they can become the next wave of business and community leaders. Our transition allows them to do that.”

He adds, “I’d like everyone to encourage young people to consider USFSM for their higher education. Come visit us at an open house. Give us a call. Come walk around our beautiful campus by the bay, or visit our Culinary Innovation Lab in Lakewood Ranch or our laboratory facilities at Mote Marine. Once people hear about our terrific programs and world-class faculty, we know that they will realize how much money they can save by staying local as they fall in love with their university. Our campus is the best place for your long-term success, and we welcome the opportunity to tell you why.”

For more information about the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, please visit or call 941.359.4200.

Sarasota Ballet Expands Its Educational Reach

By Steven J. Smith
Raising the barre

Sarasota Ballet has “raised the barre” over the last year in its educational efforts by bringing in former dancer Christopher Hird, who trained at the Royal Ballet School in England and toured Europe with internationally acclaimed ballerina, Sylvie Guillem.

Hird now serves as Sarasota Ballet’s director of education, overseeing all of its programs. Among them are the Margaret Barbieri Conservatory — a full-time, pre-professional program designed to prepare 11- to -18-year-old students for a performing career in classical ballet and the Sarasota Ballet School, which provides professional instruction to students between the ages of 3 and 18.

“Our ballet school now includes adults as well,” Hird said. “I’ve added some extra classes for our adult students to get them engaged with the organization.”

Those classes, he added, include Intro to Ballet, a five-week course designed for beginners or those who are returning to ballet after a break; Adult Open Classes, offering those with some previous ballet experience several levels of technique to choose from and the flexibility to drop in whenever they like; and Weekend Workshops, providing special opportunities for adult students to dance over a long weekend and including a ticket to see the Sarasota Ballet perform. educational
“We also have our Dance — The Next Generation program, which is set up for those who are most at risk of dropping out of school to participate in a 10-year, full-scholarship program in dance,” Hird said. “I also oversee all outreach work, which entails going into schools to perform or having school groups come to us for matinees.”

Hird added the main purpose of Sarasota Ballet’s educational programs is to train future dancers for its company as well as to give anyone the opportunity to experience the joy of dance. This includes mastering not only the range of skills needed to perform ballet, building a work ethic that serves students in life outside the classroom. “Our classes help students in their academic work as well, because it gets them to develop time management skills,” Hird said.

He added another aspect of the ballet’s education expansion lies in recruiting new talent at dance competitions.

“We need to continue to build on the quality of the work that we have already,” he said. “I want to increase the quality and accessibility of what we offer. When a school is attached to a professional company, it can often be intimidating to a potential student. For our school, you don’t have to have any experience or dance training. Our expert faculty will develop you into whatever kind of dancer you want to be, whether it’s aspiring to be a professional or someone who just wants to enjoy dance for the rest of their life.”

To that end, Hird has also brought in guest artists — a member of the Paul Taylor company, former principal dancers with the Martha Graham company and the New York City Ballet and a teacher from the Boston Ballet School, for example — to give students opportunities they might never have had before to listen to and work with some of the best dancers and teachers in the business.

“We have about 350-400 students studying with us now,” he said. “Tuition fees can range up to about $5,000 a year, but if you compare that with schools like the IMG Academy in Bradenton, for example, which charges $30,000-$40,000, it’s not very much. We also offer scholarships and financial aid to those with merit who are struggling financially. We don’t want a lack of money to be a reason for not coming to us, so we’re always trying to find a way to support anyone who needs our help.”

Unprecedented Educational Collaboration

The Sarasota Ballet will offer two children’s programs this summer — Step Into Ballet, a one-week camp for kids 4-6 years of age from 9 a.m. to noon, June 12-16 and the Children’s Summer Workshop for 7-10-year-olds from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., June 12-23. The Ballet’s International Intensive will run from June 25 to July 29, during which students will have an opportunity to study with guest teachers from Birmingham Royal Ballet, Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, Elmhurst Ballet School and The Sarasota Ballet. This collaboration of four major dance organizations is the first of its kind in America and offers an unprecedented opportunity for talented young dancers.

“If anybody wants to try ballet with us for the first time, a summer course is the best way of trying that.” – Christopher Hird 

For more information on classes and registration fees, call 941-225-6520 or visit

The Circus Arts Conservatory at the 50th Anniversary Smithsonian Folklife Festival

By Ryan G. Van Cleave

I lived in Washington, D.C. when I was working as the Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington at George Washington University, and while there, I used to visit the nearly endless attractions like the museums, theaters, historical sites, and events. Who doesn’t love the National Cherry Blossom Festival, or seeing a Bosch (or Degas, Picasso, Rembrandt, or Seurat!) up close at the National Gallery of Art, or witnessing “Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story” at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum? Smithsonian

Yet, one of my fondest memories of my short time there (alas, it was a one-year opportunity) was attending the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. This summer is the 50th anniversary of the two-week “international exposition of living cultural heritage” that takes place on the National Mall, and imagine my surprise and joy to learn that our very own Circus Arts Conservatory of Sarasota is one of the major partners for this year’s Circus Arts theme.

A solid background

The Circus Arts Conservatory was founded under a different name in 1997, but the spirit of the organization has stayed the same — preserve and promote the circus arts. Its stated mission today is “to engage and educate students using unique and innovative learning programs; to measurably improve the quality of life for individuals in care facilities; and to advance the extraordinary legacy and heritage of the circus.” It’s no wonder that they’re a major player in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival! The Circus Arts Conservatory (CAC) appeared on the Smithsonian’s radar in a big way when co-founder Dolly Jacobs — daughter of famed circus clown Lou Jacobs and former New York fashion model-turned-circus-performer Jean Rockwell Jacobs — won both a Florida Folk Heritage Award in 2012 and then a 2015 Folklife Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Jennifer Mitchell, Managing Director of The Circus Arts Conservatory, says, “That pair of awards for Jacobs spurred a lot of opportunities. It was the first NEA ever given to a circus artist!” She notes that the NEA is affiliated with the Smithsonian largely through the cross-programming they do, and that’s largely how this partnership came to be. They’ve been in the planning stages since November 2015. “A lot of circus entities are coming together for this, but no one is working as closely with the Smithsonian as we are,” she adds. They’ll be bringing their own big top — the main venue for the entire festival — to the National Mall. That’s the very same big top you see January through March at Nathan Benderson Park behind the Mall at UTC. They’ll also be bringing along nearly 80 attendees, which include students from the Sailor Circus and other circus artists from southwest Florida.

“The festival will have five million spectators.”

The festival takes place from June 29 to July 4, then it’s dark on July 5 before closing with a final four days from July 6 through 9. It’s a world-class opportunity to bring the circus arts to a national stage, reports Mitchell. “The festival averages 100,000 visitors per day, so that’s a million on-site visitors. They’ll also live stream it and have other media coverage. In total, the expectation is that the festival will have five million spectators.”

Networking on a national stage

Why is all of this important? Because it’ll allow a national and international audience as well as legislators to see firsthand what the circus arts are about. “We’re one of the oldest forms of entertainment,” Mitchell adds. “Circus goes back to the time of the pharaohs and the pyramids.” But having the circus arts showcased in this festival also powerfully reveals how organizations like the CAC are continuing to keep the circus relevant as well as serving to preserve its storied past. Plus it’s a great way for the various groups and organizations to network and discover ways to work together.

Well-rounded experiences

One of the main things that The Circus Arts Conservatory will show at the festival is the successes of their local and regional programming. For example, there’s the Education program, which has evolved into a partnership with the University of South Florida, for which teaching artists go into Sarasota and Manatee County schools to teach key academic lessons in science, language arts, and theater — all developed specifically with the New Florida Standards in mind. Circus acts like the trapeze and tightrope walking are a great meld of athletics and performing arts, and it’s fundamentally about science, too. How do you rig a wire? How high does a performer go in the air? How does one’s weight play into the motion? Where does balance come into play? The Circus Science Machine will be presented at the festival for attendees to see first-hand how a circus themed Rube Goldberg contraption can teach students physics, engineering and science.

Where else can you impact so many generations at once?

One of the things Mitchell loves most about the circus is that it’s still relevant in everyday life. Where else can you impact so many generations at once? It’s one of the few things with which her 92-year-old father and 7-year-old son both connect equally.

If you’re concerned that the closing of the Ringling Brothers circus is the death toll for circuses, don’t be. Yes, the circus industry is changing, she admits, but adapting and growing is a healthy option. “If Ford motor company stopped making cars tomorrow,” explains Mitchell, “there’d still be cars on the road.” And similarly, there will continue to be circuses, too. Yet people want a different type of circus — they don’t want to sit and watch but rather they want to engage. That’s what the future of the circus looks like. They’ll be interactive, exciting, and entertaining.

Check out the Smithsonian Folklife Festival this summer and you’ll see just what she means.

For more information on The Circus Arts Conservatory, please visit  or call 941.355.9335. For more information on the Smithsonian Folklore Festival, please visit


A Unique Musical Style Meets 1959 Greenwich Village

By Steven J. Smith  |  Photos by John Revisky

Asolo Repertory Theatre’s much-anticipated world premiere of the musical “Beatsville” features a distinctive jazz form called “vocalise,” according to book writer Glenn Slater, who developed the project with his wife, composer and lyricist Wendy Leigh Wilf.

“Wendy and I met at a musical theater writing workshop,” Slater said. “Soon after that, though, she decided to leave the world of theater and go back to her first love, which is jazz. But she quickly realized she missed the theater and told me she wanted to find a way that combines the two in a way that hadn’t been done before.”

Musical savants

Slater, 49, is a three-time Tony nominee for the international hit musicals “The Little Mermaid,” “Sister Act” and “School of Rock” and is a co-creator of Disney’s worldwide smash “Tangled.” Wilf holds a Masters in Jazz Piano from the Manhattan School of Music, and Slater said she had discovered a certain style in jazz language called “vocalise,” which was popular in the late 1950s and served as their way into “Beatsville.”

“Musicians would take an existing jazz track, such as a saxophone solo,” Slater said. “Then they’d set lyrics to it, so it would have the freshness, inventiveness and the extemporaneous feel of actual jazz, but have words and carry meaning.”

That style, he added, runs through the couple’s new musical, which is set in Greenwich Village, circa 1959 — a world of subterranean coffee shops, goateed artists, turtle-necked poets and bongo-playing jazzbos. Tragically square busboy Walter Paisley wants nothing more than to be one of the beatniks, but he has no artistic talent whatsoever. When he accidentally kills a cat and hides it in a lump of clay, “Dead Cat” is declared a masterpiece and Walter a genius. More “sculptures” bring more acclaim — but will the world discover Walter’s secret?

Slater said “Beatsville” is based on the 1959 Roger Corman film “A Bucket of Blood.” It satirizes the hipster lifestyle and resonates with our own time.

“It was a lot of fun to draw those parallels,” he said. “We realized we had the perfect ingredients for a musical — a musical style that’s fun and fresh, a historical era that’s so ripe for dance, movement and drama and a story that says so much about our own times.”

Slater added it is “an unbelievably joyful” experience collaborating on this musical with his wife.

“We share a very similar sensibility, so there is almost no friction whatsoever between us,” he said. “We finish each other’s thoughts.”

Ongoing projects

“Beatsville” has been a work in progress for several years now and is directed by Bill Berry, producing artistic director of Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, which is co-producing the show with Asolo Rep. Berry said the goal is to eventually polish the show to the point that it can make the move to Broadway.

“I think the hardest part of a film to stage musical adaptation is having room for the story to sing,” Berry said. “Glenn and Wendy found a vehicle that allows for that. Working on it here at Asolo Rep has given us an opportunity to find out what’s working and not working and I anticipate we’ll be making changes on it right up through opening night, depending on what we get in audience reaction.”

Berry added there is a maxim in the musical theater world that musicals are not written so much as they’re rewritten. Slater agreed.

“It was a lot of fun to draw those parallels.”

“You never finish writing a musical,” Slater said. “You just abandon it. But you’re never really done. There’s always more work to be done.”

Slater added at this moment in time “Beatsville” has the right cast and creative team around it, including Asolo Producing Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards, who continues to help shape the show in a positive way.

“Michael has such a worldly and smart theatrical mind,” he said. “He found the show’s weaknesses very quickly and asked all the right questions. He invited us to Asolo Rep as a place to work the piece, do rewrites, find the flaws and make the fixes. It was an invitation we felt we couldn’t turn down. And it’s turned out to be exactly what we hoped it would be.”

“Beatsville” plays from April 28-May 28 in Asolo’s Mertz Theatre, located in the FSU Center for the Performing Arts at 5555 North Tamiami Trail in Sarasota. Ticket prices range from $16-$91 depending on date, time and seat location.

For more information or to purchase tickets, call 941-351-8000 or visit


Southeastern Guide Dogs’ New Puppy Academy

by Leslie Rowe

Magic is make-believe and superheroes are the stuff of comic books, but the fresh new Grant and Shirle Herron Puppy Academy mixes in a bit of both. This is no ordinary building, and these are no ordinary puppies.

“This is a magical place,” says Southeastern Guide Dogs CEO Titus Herman of the brand-new facility, which opened April 12, 2017. “This is our school for our tiniest superheroes, a place where our newborns, moms, and growing puppies flourish from birth to kindergarten graduation. Our puppies form the foundation for our guide dogs and service dogs, and we take their early education very seriously.”

Special puppy, special home

Located on the nonprofit’s 33-acre campus in Palmetto, the new Puppy Academy facility is remarkable. But let’s focus on the fun stuff – puppies. About 250 Labradors, golden retrievers, and a mix called a goldador will pass through these halls each year. What makes these puppies so special, and why did the school build a 15,094-square-foot building to house them?

“We outgrew our old, outdated puppy kennel,” explains Herman. “It was costly to maintain, had no climate controls, and could not accommodate growth.”

The evolution of superhero puppy training

The old puppy kennel served the school well for over three decades, but its age, size, and condition were not conducive to the quality of work happening here. “Our guide dogs and service dogs are like Olympic athletes,” Herman says. “We’ve developed a data-driven genetics and reproduction program to create elite dogs, bred with specific characteristics for a specific purpose. We’re creating healthier dogs, with excellent hips and elbows, strong hearts, high intelligence, and eager-to-please, willing-to-work temperaments. Their socialization and early education begins when they are literally three days old.”

And it all starts here in the Puppy Academy, named for lead donor Shirle Herron and her late husband, Grant. Let’s take a tour, but rather than focus on gleaming tiles in a soothing waterfall pattern, light wood tones, natural lighting from 28 Solatube skylights, hurricane-ready walls to withstand up to 150 mile-an-hour winds, commercial washers and dryers for all those puppy bath towels, and oh-so-much more, we’ll look at the facility based on what’s really important: the chronology of a Southeastern Guide Dogs puppy.

“Our guide dogs and service dogs are like Olympic athletes.”

First things first

The new Puppy Academy houses the Genetics and Reproduction Department and its innovative technology such as SpermVision® for semen viability testing. The magic happens here, too, with natural breeding and artificial insemination. The quiet breeder boarding area welcomes male and female breeders to 14 individual runs with indoor/outdoor access. This is where they’ll arrive and stay for “dates” before returning home to volunteer breeder hosts.

Mommy and baby

In the whelping and neonatal care areas, 12 whelping bays with indoor/outdoor access offer privacy and serenity for puppies’ birth and moms’ well-being. Moms and litters stay here together until weaning at six to seven weeks, when moms return to their hosts’ homes.

Preschool play with purpose

Days-old puppies receive handling and stimulation here in the preschool area, and puppies up to six weeks receive multisensory activities — and plenty of playtime — in sunlit indoor and outdoor classrooms. Staff and volunteers use these spaces to expose puppies to people, sights, sounds, textures, motion, and more.

Puppy kindergarten adventures

Puppies six to ten weeks old stay in 18 individual runs with access to the kindergarten classroom, where staff, volunteers, and the public conduct daily enrichment activities in the Puppy Kindergarten Adventure program. Weather permitting, kindergarten also takes place in an enclosed outdoor classroom, an interior courtyard with blue skies above. In the kindergarten complex, siblings live, learn, and play together, with plenty of time for naps in between.

Making a splash

An outdoor splash park, funded solely by volunteer puppy raisers, offers puppies a multisensory water experience — and fun! Puppies love to frolic here, and visitors enjoy seeing the silliness only found in puppy play.

Kindergarten graduation

The school’s Puppy Raising Services Department, housed in the Academy, matches ten-week-old puppies with volunteer puppy raisers for their next phase of training. A special “graduation” room serves as a private space to introduce puppies to their new families, sign contracts, and say goodbyes.

The doctor is in

Here in the Academy clinic, puppies receive vaccinations and other minor procedures; moms receive X-rays prior to whelping; and Genetics and Reproduction staff perform lab work and reproductive procedures such as insemination and cryopreservation. Two campus veterinarians oversee the health of all campus dogs from the school’s on-site Veterinary Center as well as in this new puppy clinic. Locating this clinic within the Academy means that puppies don’t have to be transported to another building for checkups and preventative care.

Something for everyone

The Southeastern Guide Dogs campus Gift Shop occupies a front corner of the new Puppy Academy, where visitors stop in for a gift for themselves, two for the dog, and three for the grandkids. Pet-friendly toys, stuffed animals, tee shirts, hats, dog treats, and plenty of other merchandise makes for a fruitful shopping stop.

Into the future

For this growing nonprofit, the new Puppy Academy is part of a multi-year, multi-building capital improvement program taking the campus into the future. “Our Puppy Academy is a one-of-a-kind facility built with a heavy emphasis on ‘frugal quality’ — a building that reflects our commitment to both superb stewardship and exceptional quality,” Herman explains. “In an environment enhanced by warm sunlight, privacy, and serenity, our staff and volunteers perform cutting-edge work, while future superheroes learn and grow into their very special destinies.”

And what destinies they are. Guide dogs for people with visual impairments, service dogs for veterans who bear invisible scars of PTSD, facility therapy dogs offering comfort in veterans’ healthcare facilities; they all begin their journeys here at the new Southeastern Guide Dogs Puppy Academy. Because superheroes must start somewhere, and in this case, they start right here in our own backyard.

Now that is magical!

Family & Business

SCENE Special Profile Section

Family businesses play a vital role in the success of our economy. Whether single or multi-generational, they are an essential element of a strong foundation and build wealth that can transform a city. SCENE proudly features some local family enterprises, which contribute to truer and richer sustainability, and are committed to excellent customer service, quality and care.

The Manatee Performing Arts Center Reaches Out to the Community

By Ryan G. Van Cleave

“Our goal is not just to entertain you… we want to inspire you.” theater

When The Manatee Players, Inc. was formed in late 1947, it was little more than a community theater group made up of members of the Bradenton Junior Women’s Club. These days, it’s governed by a Board of Directors and is a year-round, professionally-staffed corporation of 10 full-time employees, numerous part-timers, and well more than 75 contracted directors, musicians, and designers. Their website is clear about their ambitious mission: “We are committed to being the community’s premier theater and the region’s center for cultural, education, and artistic expression. Our team works tirelessly to ensure that we deliver engaging excellence for all ages, through the talent we present, the services we offer, and the experiences we create. Our goal is not just to entertain you…we want to inspire you.”

Dedication, education, artistic expression

Part of being a center for cultural and artistic expression means that they have a commitment to education through various programs. One of the most successful of these is DraMature, a senior acting troupe now in its sixth year of operation. About 30 seniors — snowbirds and locals alike — participate in the improv events and actual full performances that go on throughout the year. Next year, they’re planning to tackle a special senior edition of “Guys and Dolls,” which promises to be a can’t-miss affair.

Christine Marie Elan has been an active DraMature member since moving to Bradenton from New York in 2013. “After touring the construction site of the new theater in a hard hat, I was hooked on the vision. I immediately signed up to be a front-of-house volunteer, which I have been dedicated to ever since,” she says, which means she, among other things, sells a lot of raffle tickets to help generate funds for the theater. One of the things she likes most about being so involved is the unexpected friendships that form. She notes that she now has a 96-year-old friend who was a former Broadway actress who “has witnessed a historical age we can only read about.”

When asked to share a favorite experience, Elan has many possible answers. “The CEO and myself standing barefoot atop the credenza in the lobby, mounting a tapestry over the television monitor. Or a teen thanking me — well after midnight — for all I’d done for a celebration that evening.” But the one she latches onto most is this: “I’d been selling raffle tickets for a beautiful necklace donated by Jess Jewelers. A small boy came to me with a dollar for a ticket. I asked him what he wanted to do if he won the prize. His response was ‘I want to give it to my mommy as a s’prise.’ So adorable! So sweet! I was tempted to rig the drawing in his favor!” (She didn’t do so, though, she promises.)

Invigoratingly energetic

Director of Marketing and Outreach Brian Craft has been with the organization for 2 ½ years after getting his BFA in musical theater and then working in the marketing department for a New York fashion firm. He says that he’s constantly re-invigorated by all the energy and excitement of the day-to-day operations. He notes how things that happen here — such as sharing costumes and props with other area theaters — simply doesn’t happen as often in New York. “It’s such a great community here,” Craft explains. “We’re so fortunate. People are willing to go above and beyond to support and sustain the arts in our community.”

…and an expansion

One of the most recent bits of great news is how they acquired land right across the street. It’s going to provide much-needed parking. It also came with eight housing units, which means that guest artists, touring professionals, and even students in their new intern program can live there. Craft says, “Having on-site accommodations like that is a huge plus.” He’s quick to circle back on the idea of interns — something new for The Manatee Performing Arts Center. It’s a fairly recent addition designed to bridge the gap between college and the professional world. The hope is to expand that program such that interns can participate in nearly every aspect of the theater to give them crucial hands-on experiences that will prepare them for their own careers.

Theater programs for all ages

But it’s not just seniors and interns who are enjoying the benefits of The Manatee Performing Arts Center’s education and outreach efforts. The Youth Conservatory Camps are a huge hit. What kid wouldn’t want to be a part of “High School Musical Jr.” or “Shrek: The Musical”? “Seeing them work with pro actors on stage,” Craft says, “is fun to watch. The kids really step up their game. They admire the professional actors and they can learn and grow from these experiences. To see the conservatory students go from being timid and shy on their first day of a summer camp to soaring in their final performance on a professional caliber stage with full lighting and production values? It’s truly incredible.”

The Manatee Performing Arts Center is hugely committed to educating young people. Craft explains that “if we want to build and grow our theater base of both audience members and performers, we need to provide effective education. We need to give them the platform to develop in this safe environment.”

Through all of their programming, they impact over 600 youth per year, and they hope to grow that number through new after-school events such as dance and drama classes.

At the moment, Craft is a one-person marketing department, so it’s admittedly a challenge for him to offer the same level of publicity and attention to all the various programs and events. But it’s a blessing, too, he says, to have so many things worth sharing. “We’ve become an artistic hub for the community, and to be part of it all is incredibly exciting.”

For more information and season schedule, go to


Sheryl Vieira shares thoughts on the community, good deeds and important things, big AND small.

How often do you ponder which of your five senses is your favorite? Hard to truly determine and say which is your most favorite. Listening to and hearing music is such a part of my life, yet so is tasting great food.

For Kevin Stalker, perhaps it’s his hearing. He might not have been adopted by one of his instructors, who became an incredible mother and mentor to him, had he not listened to and heard all that was said while growing up in the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County.

Maybe for our “Maytag Man,” Lee Thacker, touch is his most endearing sense. After all, he always touches people’s lives and has had an astounding impact on many as a board member, co-worker, loyal friend, husband, father and grandfather.

A Round of Applause at The Concession

What do you get when two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin, professional athletes and sports fans across the nation join forces at The Concession Golf Club? A successful 7th Annual Archie Griffin Celebrity Golf Classic that raised nearly $130,000 for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County to provide high-quality educational and recreational services to more than 5,000 local youth, empowering them to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens. To date, The Concession Charities has raised nearly $650,000 through this event!

Kicking things off, the Pairings Party featured a cocktail hour before dinner with a silent and live auction, as well as celebrity pairings for the next day’s golf tournament. Bruce Cassidy, Sr., owner of The Concession Golf Club, and Archie Griffin welcomed guests. Local celebrity and comedian Les McCurdy kept guests laughing throughout the live auction.

Also in attendance were professional athletes Mike Alstott, Leroy Hoard, Isaac Curtis, Will Allen, Cedric Saunders, Robert Smith, Keith Byars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers Quarterback Jameis Winston. But the toughest athlete of life in attendance was Duquesne University Junior Kevin Stalker. He grew up in the local Boys & Girls Club of Sarasota County and was later adopted by one of his instructors. His roots with the club have made him quite a successful young man. He now speaks on behalf of Boys & Girls Clubs and mentors children once like him. His powerful, humble determination and passion are profound. He possesses a warrior spirit and is clearly driven by a much bigger purpose.

The winning team of the golf tournament included Keith Byars, Hampton Ballard, Bruce Cassidy, Sr., Bryan Snyder and Chuck Whirlow. Interested in their 2018 event? Save the date – March 5-6, 2018. They’re hoping Jameis Winston will join them again and are hoping for a return of Tim Tebow and others. Kudos to all! We’re still clapping!

The Maytag Man

…and in keeping with the great work of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA), did you know that Sarasota has their very own Maytag Man?

Perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to meet Lee Thacker, Jr., whom I would describe as the perfect man with legendary decades of long community service, and a never-ending commitment to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Maytag® even chose him as one of only 25 nominees in the country to be a “Maytag Dependable Leader”, honoring him “in recognition of his demonstrated commitment to dependability and dedication to keeping youth on the path to achieve great futures.” Lee is a Duke alumnus, proud father of two, grandfather of five and husband to Suzanne Thacker. Congratulations are also in order as Lee just celebrated his 20th work anniversary at Caldwell Trust.

Milestones are reached, but aren’t always celebrated. I couldn’t let this one pass by! 

Thee Leee Thackahh, as I refer to him with a smile on my face and untethered enthusiasm, has been a BGCA board volunteer in Columbia, SC, Orlando and Atlanta. Since his arrival in Venice, he has chaired the Florida Area Council, was honored with the BGCA Medallion Award and Council Pacesetter of the Year awards, served as board president, chaired key committees, was named “Dream Maker” in 2010 and subsequently received the Maytag® Award. He is currently a director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County where he, along with others, was instrumental in bringing the Robert and Joan Lee Boys & Girls Club to Venice. He has also served on the board of Venice Theatre, where he was treasurer and past president. His friendship and mentorship over the years has touched many.

Lee is the absolute epitome of a loyal friend, an insightful leader, a strong ally and an extremely intelligent, oh-so-strategic executive.

Quiet and unassuming, we believe he would have been quite the opposite if his alma mater (Duke) made it to the NCAA Final Four which he and his lovely bride personally experienced in Phoenix, Arizona! Nothin’ but net, baby, and congratulations Thee Leee Thackahhh!

Savory, Succulent and Sustainable Swallowtail Farm-to-Table Dinner

Feeling the need for some fresh air and a way to reconnect? Just three hours north you can experience a tranquil, delicious, unique four-course farm-to-table dinner at Swallowtail Farm in Alachua. All that is required is to be an adventurous eater. Other than that, pack your things, jump in your car and go!

Gainesville-area celebrity chefs, highlighting their local food culture, artfully prepare food from Swallowtail Farm and surrounding local farms. You’ll also enjoy a tour of the farm, learn about the owners and their partners, and the courses that are carefully prepared and enjoyed. Their mission is make the farm better through the support of their community. They have quite a few people who support them faithfully through the grit of their labor. According to the Swallowtail Farm website, “The dinners enable you to uplift the farm with a wine glass in place of a spade.”

My host was kind enough to purchase this special treat as a holiday gift for me. He was thoughtful enough to call ahead and inquired about where to stay. Lo and behold, the owners of the farm have a private cottage they rent out, and it happened to be available.

As we walked from the guest cottage through the woods, we crossed a running stream with a small, arched wood bridge. I felt like I was in the “The Bridges of Madison County.” We dodged a few cow patties on the way to the event registration and already had smiles on our faces. Roosters digging, dogs and pigs playing, buzzing bees and mooing cows were there to greet us.

We immediately indulged ourselves in the various beverages being offered. Large glass pitchers filled with rose water and rose petals, strawberry limequat-ade, and black tea were displayed on the makeshift bar covered in a shabby-chic tablecloth. Swamp Head Brewery provided a Wild Night brew of honey and cream ale, Big Nose India Pale Ale, and Midnight Oil of Oatmeal Coffee Stout. Wines poured that evening were from Montinore Estate, which only produces certified organic/biodynamic wines. Selections included a Borealis white table wine, a Pinot Gris and a Pinot Noir.

As we settled in and took in the beautiful views and the rolling hills, we noticed the local, organically-grown blooms placed in mason jars set on the family-style wooden harvest tables.

Noah Shitama, co-founder of the farm, gave us a tour of the property and explained the various programs and pursuits of providing their community with clean, nutritious, healthy food. He explained how they have crafted the farm as a model of sustainability and stewardship, with a focus on conservation of resources and nature-produced fertility. No synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or chemicals ever touch their fields or their food. Their supporters are happy, as are their healthy animals. They believe the animal element is essential to a healthy farm organism and they vow to treat their creatures with dignity, love and respect.

Yup, I’m in the right place.

The farm-to-table dinners also feature ingredients cultivated on nearby farms. Chef Justin Langer prepared a menu of veggie crudité with a yogurt and herb tahini for dipping along with burnt scallion and garlic chive pesto. Our second course was a green soup of broccolini, Tuscan kale, green garlic, and coconut milk. Our main course was Asian-style roast pork, purple sweet potatoes, collards, chard, and bok choy. For our yummy ending, we had compressed drunken strawberries with whipped cream, an oat crumble, and sweet coconut milk. The vegetables and pork were from Swallowtail, the milk and yogurt from the Swallowtail Creamery, the vegan pasta from Vine, the fresh roasted coffee from Flagship Roasters, the olive oil from Saporito Oil, Vinegar and Spice, and the fresh, soft bread was brought in from Big Cypress Bakery. I had brought a red sweater poncho in case it got a bit cool at night as the sun set and the full moon rose, but when they placed bread baskets that resembled miniature picnic baskets with the bread it in on the tables, I had to put my red poncho on and pose like Little Red Riding Hood holding her basket as she stood in the vast forest. All night long we took in background music performed by Long Over Duo.

It’s a one-night-only seasonal dinner prepared with great love and respect. We surely tasted it, heard it, saw it and felt it.

We were long overdue.

“The Greatest Gift of the Garden is the Restoration of the Five Senses” 

– Hanna Rion

A Caliente Noche at Mote!

A Hot Havana Night was enjoyed by over 400 guests at the sold-out 9th annual Party on the Pass fundraiser for Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium. Thanks to major sponsors PNC Wealth Management and the Sarasota-Manatee Originals, guests grazed on an assortment of ceviche, spring rolls, sushi, shack shrimp and grits, andouille sausage, ground beef sliders, flank steak and a chocolate fountain to dip your strawberries and house-made profiteroles in! Siesta Key Rum even came up with a signature drink for all to sip on which was aptly name Mote-jitos. But most importantly, because of these sponsors and many others, Mote’s animal hospitals can continue to treat and care for the animals that come to Mote in critical condition, with problems ranging from entanglement in fishing gear, ingesting plastic bags and debris, and injuries from boat strikes to fibro papilloma tumors and other life-threatening conditions.

Mote has treated more than 615 sea turtles and 71 dolphins and small whales. They are dedicated in their efforts to rescue, rehabilitate and release back to the wild these protected species of marine life. In the process, they learn about the animals’ biology, health and disease processes, and life history in the wild. Their science is leading the way to curing many diseases and we’re blessed to have such a facility in our backyard.

Sea’n in the crowd were Michael and Sandy Albano, Mote Board of Trustees Chairman Lowe Morrison and daughter Ashley Morrison, Judy Graham, Gordon and Jennifer Abbott, Tom Waters, Scott Collins, Marge and Vinnie Maisto, Tommy and Norm Vanbirch, Sonya Kristie, Erin Kabinoff, Stacy Alexander and Sofie Wachtmeister.

Once Upon A Time

A sprinkle of pixie dust through cascading twinkle lights greeted the crowd of more than 300 for Children First’s Annual Fairytale Ball at Michael’s on East. Co-chairs for the event were Donna and David Koffman, Jacqueline and Lacy Ray, Patti and David Wertheimer, and Sarah Wertheimer. Affairs in the Air created large trees out of the three main pillars in the ballroom. Lighting from Sights and Sounds set the ambiance with forest silhouettes and colored lighting. You could almost hear the twigs snap as you danced through the enchanted forest full of fairies, butterflies, oversized mushrooms, and other mystical elements. Some guests, like Lisa Kates and Richard LaBrie, celebrated the theme with fairy-inspired outfits. The Bay Kings Band kicked things off with a Peter Pan tribute singing “Lost Boy” as guests were seated. Carol Butera, Children First Vice President of Development, welcomed attendees and Michael Klauber led the mobile “paddle raise” where donations reached record highs for the organization. Philip Tavill, President and CEO, spoke about the benefits of the Children First program for vulnerable children and their parents.

When one of your senses is lacking, they say your other senses are heightened. When you stop and think about it, it’s amazing how our senses come into play in all of our life experiences, including the ones I’ve written about here! We certainly heard how important the programs are at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County. We are thankful to Lee Thacker for touching lives and for being such a special kind and caring, soul. We tasted the food from our good earth. We saw lots of good being done at Mote through the hospital care and attention they give to our stranded, hurt marine life, and we could smell the woods where critters live in the makeshift forest at Children First’s Fairytale Ball.

Listen intently. Give fully. Grow a garden. Help others out. Play in the dirt. And always appreciate your senses and that includes your sense of humor!