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Top Stories of 2015

By Staff | Jan 6, 2016

The articles below, written by Meghan McCoy, appeared in the Sanibel-Captiva Islander, or the Island Reporter, during 2015.

June 24, 2015

Bubble Room to be featured on Food Network television series

A few months ago a director, producer and food stylist spent 10 and a half hours filming every nook and cranny of the Bubble Room Restaurant for a new show on Food Network, “Craziest Restaurant in America.”

“They shot every inch of this place,” Bubble Room Manager Stephen Peach said, adding that they also talked to many customers and their staff.

The Food Network contacted the Bubble Room and asked if they were interested in being featured on the television series, which he said they could not turn down.

The restaurant was approached for their orange crunch cake, a yellow cake layered with an almond brown sugar crunch with orange cream cheese icing and bubble bread.

“Of course we accepted,” he said. “It’s nice to get attention to our area. It’s another opportunity to get us noticed. The island is built on tourism . . . the more the better.”

The series, “Craziest Restaurant in America,” which is hosted by Graham Elliot has already aired three shows “Too Hot To Handle;” “Eat at Your Own Risk” and “Big, Bigger, Biggest.”

The Bubble Room will be one of five restaurants featured in the “Weird, Weirder, Weirdest” episode airing at 10 p.m. Wednesday, June 24

“We embrace this,” Stephen said of the “Weird, Weirder, Weirdest” themed episode.

He said a food stylist made their three dishes orange crunch cake, bubble bread and the some like it hot shrimp dish look pretty for the episode.

“Everything was perfectly placed,” Stephen said.

July 8, 2015

Three additional reddish egrets will be studied later this summer at ‘Ding’

A study at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge will start tracking three additional reddish egrets by the end of summer, increasing the total count to five from the refuge.

“We learn so much from each bird,” Avian Research and Conservation Institute Executive Director Ken Meyer said, who is leading the study. His organization does ecological research on rare birds to find information that will inform conservation and management action of the birds.

“They are always declining,” he said of rare birds. “A lot of times we don’t know why, or don’t know how to fix it, so that is our mission of our research group.”

ARCI brought their research to J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge to research the reddish egret, which resulted in tagging two birds at “Ding” Darling almost two years ago.

“Most of the time (they) stayed within the refuge, or in Pine Island Sound or Wildlife Drive, where we captured them,” he said of the two tagged reddish egrets.

At the beginning of nesting season, they both went into the wading bird colony in the refuge, where they spent a lot of time together. They were seen sleeping in the same tree, which lead Meyer to believe they were a couple. Although they may have tried to nest, he said the reddish egrets were not there long enough to raise the young to survival.

“One of them had been going across Pine Island Sound to Pine Island before nesting season,” he said. “In May that same bird all of a sudden left. The other bird stayed in the refuge.”

The reddish egret that was flying to Pine Island moved further up the gulf coast a good 150 to 160 miles away. Meyer said the bird flew the distance in a day and settled in an area where it stayed for more than a month before returning to “Ding” in June.

“That bird knew. It wasn’t wandering,” he said.

On June 29, Meyer said about a week and a half ago they confirmed the reddish egret flew to Cedar Key, the farthest north a reddish egret has been seen nesting in Florida.

“We don’t know if that is good news, or just news,” he said.

The reddish egret has been steadily declining over the years, which was one of the reasons the research was prompted to find answers of why. Meyer said the declining numbers might be because there is too much competition between the reddish egrets.

“They are very defensive of their favorite places. Maybe they are moving out and moving further up the coast,” he said.

Aug. 12, 2015

Original songs to be featured at first Songs on Sanibel event

Although Stephen Plein does not fully understand where the idea of gathering talented songwriters in Southwest Florida together stemmed from, he knew they would all benefit from an event that showcases their original music.

It’s time to “take the bull by the horns,” he said. “I live on Sanibel and work at Tween Waters. I’m tired of not having anything to do music wise. I can play gigs and do 85 percent covers, (but) I want the majority to be original (music). There’s not that environment to do that anywhere in town, other than a few places – clubs and bar owners willing to promote that type of atmosphere for their customers.”

The first of what he hopes to be a monthly event, Songs on Sanibel, will be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 15, at the Community House. A $5 donation is requested at the door. Alcoholic beverages and coffee will be available by donation.

While working at Tween Waters Inn on Captiva, Plein said a conversation with Salli Kirkland of Billy’s Bikes about music ended with an idea of holding a singer songwriter event at The Community House.

“The Community House would be perfect,” Plein thought. “Especially the north room with the hardwood floors and the fireplace.”

The first event will feature four singer songwriters – Plein, Michael King, Tim McGeary and Carlene Thissen – in an “in the round” atmosphere. The intimate concert will feature the musicians with a mic stand, a seat and their guitar with the audience surrounding them.

“It’s a more intimate setting and interactive experience for the listener of the audience,” Plein said without a stage 15 feet away. “This is a listening room and listening experience. The crowd can react and interact after the song. There shouldn’t be talking or cell phone usage during a song.”

He said with their ages range from their 20s to the 60s it will add another dimension to Songs on Sanibel.

“We all have the same goal, write original music and get connected to Nashville one way or another to get our songs cut by performers,” Plein said.

The music, he said will be cut down to bare bones, so the audience can hear the roots of the music.

“It’s a good thing to get minds thinking about songwriters again,” Plein said of the event.

He said he hopes attendees will walk away from Songs on Sanibel thinking about music in a different way.

Sept. 16, 2015

Topping off Ceremony takes Golisano Children’s Hospital to next stage

Excitement flowed out of a large tent Wednesday morning as Lee Memorial board of directors, legislators, physicians and many Lee Memorial Health System staff members and donors gathered for the Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida Topping Off Ceremony.

The excitement of the ceremony heightened as those in attendance cheered while the small foxtail palm was craned eight stories to the top of the Golisano Children’s Hospital completing the special event.

Kathy Bridge-Liles, chief administrative officer for the Golisano Children’s Hospital, said Wednesday was an important day because it signified a major milestone for the children’s hospital. Sixteen months ago the project began.

“In about 16 months from today we are going to be cutting a ribbon and opening the doors to a whole new world of healthcare for children,” Bridge-Liles said.

A common theme was used as multiple “thank you” were shared throughout the ceremony – “miracles happen here.”

“It’s not just the fact that Lee Memorial built one of the finest children’s oncologists units in the nation because it is not appropriate for children to have cancer or other blood disorders, but they do,” Lee Memorial Health System President Jim Nathan said. “It’s not only the miracles that happen with surgery and critical care and the talent that we have been able to bring and recruit year after year that come into this community to help us on this journey that was once termed the little hospital that could that goes along its journey chugging along. People saying it’s not possible, we can’t make it happen, but miracles happen here.”

Although Tom Golisano could not be at the ceremony, he was recognized for his incredible generosity and passion for children, which took the hospital’s fundraising efforts to another level.

“Today marks the pivotal point in the journey of completion of America’s newest next generation children’s hospital,” Bridge-Liles read from a letter Golisano sent. “My gift to the children’s hospital stems from the deep admiration for the leadership team, but mostly of the truly heroic work of the physicians and clinical staff that I witnessed many times during my many visits to your great hospital. My gift helped leverage support from others, from all of you to help contribute in a meaningful way.”

Oct. 7, 2015

Sanibel School staff recalls memories of past principal

Legacy is a word that often times comes to mind when sharing memories of Barbara Ward, a past principal at Sanibel Elementary School.

“Barbara was the epitome of grace and elegance and southern charm and love and integrity,” Julie Wappes, The Sanibel School 4th grade teacher, said. “You couldn’t ask for a better role model. She was great. She was first and foremost a teacher and she loved. Leadership is easy when you follow love and we all did it with a smile. No one left here for 15 years.”

Wappes and Laurie Sanders, second grade teacher, were both hired by Ward in 1982 as teachers for what was then Sanibel Elementary School.

“I knew Barbara as a child. I grew up with her boys,” Sanders said. “She hired me right out of college. She was wonderful to work for.”

Ward passed away Saturday, Sept. 19, at the age of 80. A Celebration of Life was held the following Friday, Sept. 25, at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers.

“She will be greatly missed,” Sanders said. “Her service was beautiful.”

Ward’s career began as a teacher before becoming the assistant principal at Tice Elementary School for a year. From there she spent 18 years as the principal at Sanibel Elementary before retiring in 1997. During her time as the principal, Ward was voted as Sanibel’s Woman of the Year.

“When I got the job here at Sanibel, I thought ‘oh my gosh what big shoes to follow in’ because she had led Sanibel Elementary to be a National Blue Ribbon School,” Principal Barbara Von Harten said. “I remember coming out here and meeting with her. She shared with me the different programs and I thought ‘what a legacy to follow.'”

Wappes said her first year teaching at Sanibel Elementary School her father died.

“We were just lost and she said ‘you are coming to my house for Christmas. I don’t want you to be alone,'” she said of Ward’s invitation for her and her mother. “She was always there at the right moment to say the right thing. That is how you knew she was genuine.”

That kind of legacy stays with someone over the years.

“What a legacy to leave when everyone remembers goodness about you. What more can you ask for in life,” Wappes asked. “She knew everyone and she knew every child by name. I live in this community and everyone still talks about her. It’s unbelievable that someone can make such an impact.”

Nov. 11, 2015

First SanCap Solar Connect Program meeting draws crowd at “Ding”

The education room at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge filled with residents who were interested in learning more about a grid interactive solar electric system last week.

SanCap Solar Connect Committee Chairman John McCabe said the meeting was held as an effort for the community to gain information quickly on solar electricity. The program was started, he said because the Ding Darling Wildlife Society wanted to help drive the price down of solar panels for the community.

“The program is based on several solarized efforts throughout the country,” McCabe said.

During the meeting, McCabe shared why a deadline of Feb. 15, 2016 was set to purchase the solar panels. He said they want to ensure they have an interested group. It is also important because the 30 percent federal tax credit expires at the end of 2016.

The federal government, until the end of next year, will cover 30 percent of the installed cost, which individuals will see when filing their taxes.

“In order to be qualified, you not only have to agree to have a system, but it has to be installed and hooked up to LCEC and it has to be working,” McCabe said, adding that they do not want to get caught up in the possible rush of individuals wanting to install solar panels at the end of next year. “We want to have it done so the whole system works for everybody.”

When solar electricity is purchased as a group, the savings is based on the total kilowatts for the entire group. The savings equates to about 26 percent off the regular market charges, if 150 to 200 kilowatts is met.

Under the SanCap Solar Connect program, the system will cost around $18,000, for individuals to save $100 on their electric bill.

Jason Szumlanski, who represented Urban Solar Group, the contractor selected for the SanCap Solar Connect Program, provided details about the grid interactive solar electric system, which is what the program will be using.

“This is not a battery based system, it does not work during power outages. This is literally a second utility company powering your home,” he said. “The solar panels work in parallel with the utility company. The panels on the roof produce DC electricity. That gets converted to AC power your home can use with an inverter or a micro inverter. That inverter is fed into your home’s existing electrical system. That all happens completely seamlessly.”

The excess power that is generated during the day is delivered to the utility grid, providing the user with a one to one account credit for the electricity that is produced.

“It basically goes into a bank and you can use that credit in the future for when you are consuming more energy than you producing,” Szumlanski said.

Dec. 30, 2015

Despite hardship, a young woman finds ways to touch the lives of many

A 27-year-old who had to fight for her life at the young age of one has done many things in her life, things that many have only dreamt about completing because Andrea Miller believes “God is good all of the time.”

“She really is like a real life angel,” her mother, Teresa Miller, said.

At the age of one, Andrea had a huge brain tumor, a very aggressive cancer, removed. Doctors told the Miller family that they did not expect her to live, that they should take her home to meet her grandparents and pick out a burial platform.

“We thought, ‘oh man we can’t be doing this. No, we are going to fight for this kid,'” Teresa said.

Three weeks later the tumor returned causing the doctors to remove a third of her brain. A shunt was put in and Andrea started a year of chemotherapy, which included eight drugs in a 24-hour period. At the age of two she began radiation twice a day at 8 a.m. and 2 p.m.

The doctors told the family that Andrea would never walk, talk or pass third grade. Andrea’s strength, determination and faith shined through beating the odds, allowing her to graduate from high school with honors.

Her life forever changed while she was attending a Catholic school in 7th grade. Since the sisters who taught at the school were from India, the students heard about a trip they were taking during summer break, which led to discussions about an orphanage next to the family’s home.

The class heard about the orphanage during “dress down Friday,” a special day allowing the kids to pay $5 to wear regular clothing, instead of uniforms. The story about the girls living in the orphanage and the $5 going towards the orphanage stuck with Andrea.

“I came home and I talked to my mom about it,” Andrea said. “I said, ‘you know what, I am going to write a letter to my family and friends and tell them how blessed they are.’ So I wrote this letter and said ‘have you ever considered yourself really blessed in such a way that you give away some more to help.'”

Those letters generated $500. The following year Andrea collected $1,500 for the cause.

Jake, Andrea’s father, said the following year they made prints of a painting Andrea created with T. White. The prints were given to everyone who donated to Andrea’s cause and the orphanage. The paintings were a hit and the donations that came in generated more than $60,000.

The creativity continued as Andrea wrote poems, which were accompanied by paintings created by T. White in the book “Andrea and the Children of Karunalayam.”

“We had a wave of growth,” Teresa said.

The wave of growth led to an orphanage being built in India for 77 girls, which has since grown to 110.

In 2001, the Andrea Miller Foundation, a Minnesota nonprofit organization, was formed, so Andrea could continue to help orphans and needy children. What started off as helping orphans in India and Africa led to helping needy children in the United States after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. The foundation also helps needy children in Minnesota, where the organization is based, with winter coats and boots, Andrea said so they do not freeze to death.

“We have had a big impact not only in India and Africa, but a huge impact here, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa,” Teresa said. “We are kind of all over the place.”

The foundation has also built hospitals, schools, boarding homes, bio-gas plant, bore wells, as well as provided such assistance as gift baskets around the holidays, food pantries and school supplies.