It’s a Zip!

I'm ready to zip off.

It’s heart pounding…it’s exhilarating…and it’s adventurous fun like you can’t imagine. After a visit to Zip Orlando Canopy Tours, I can now cross another item off my Bucket List…you know the list of things you’d like to do or goals you’d like to achieve before you die.

We're all harnessed and ready to go.
(L-R: Mary, Don, Dane, and Julia)

I, along with my boyfriend Don Welch, his son Dane, and his daughter Julia Presler (visiting from Hawaii) arrived at the nondescript building of Zip Orlando Canopy Tours and signed the typical liability releases indicating we wouldn’t sue if anything went wrong.

Zip Orlando’s  zip  lines are strung in the tree canopy out on an actual working cattle ranch in Kissimmee, Fla. The entire zip experience includes eight different cables averaging 65’ in height and varying in lengths from 225’ to 950’ long. There is no age limit, however they do have weight limitations from a minimum of 70 pounds to a maximum of 270 pounds. All tours are completely guided and there are no motorized machines for propulsion. The individual slant of the lines and your body weight and movements zip you along.

Julia excited to start the climb.

The tour’s numerous platforms, zip lines, and suspension bridges are intimately surrounded by an assortment of native trees and Florida wetlands. Overall the course includes eight lines,  totaling a mile of zipping cables suspended in the woods at the tree tops, along with three suspension bridges for a total of more than 300 feet of bridges. Zip Orlando offers daily and nightly tours with night groups receiving glow sticks for use on the glide underneath the stars and/or the moon. Due to its popularity, Zip Orlando requires advance reservations. They also require everyone to wear closed-toed shoes and pants or long shorts for safety and personal comfort in the harness straps.

Climbing to the top.

For those of you wondering if it’s safe…don’t worry. Safety is paramount to Zip Orlando and its staff. According to their Web site, Zip Orlando is part of a larger network of canopy tours owned, operated, or licensed by parent company Experience Based Learning, Inc. (EBL).  EBL is  recognized as the largest installer and operator of tours within the United States.  Zip Orlando is EBL’s only licensed tour in Florida as the requirements for training, operation, and safety are more stringent than other tours.  Zip Orlando operates to meet or surpass the Professional Ropes Course Association’s safety standards for Canopy Zip Line Tours. Prior to opening, the Zip Orlando course received a third-party certified Professional Engineer inspection and also passed inspection by the Florida Bureau of Rides. In other words, it’s a safe experience.

Don exuded confidence and fun.

We scheduled our zip experience for 4 p.m., however, due to nerve delays in the group ahead; we didn’t actually start out until closer to 4:30 p.m. We paired with six additional customers and our group of 10 climbed into Zip Orlando’s van and headed two miles down the road to a ranch owned and operated by the driver Erica’s family. Erica indicated her husband’s family have owned the land for many years with her son representing the ninth generation to actually live and work on the ranch. Along the way, she reviewed safety instructions and amiably chatted and answered various questions. Erica was great at calming our nerves.

Julia zips away.

Erica dropped our group off at an outbuilding on the ranch where we met additional Zip Orlando staff who helped everyone gear up in helmets, harnesses, and straps that included heavy-duty clips. Once more, a Zip Orlando staff member delivered  almost verbatim the same safety instructions imparted by Erica:  “Under no circumstances are you to grab the overhead zip line. If you grab it in front of yourself, you risk the possibility of having your fingers amputated. If you grab it behind yourself, you receive a free x-ray as it will slice your fingers down to the bones.” He also imparted that when we got out on the lines, that we should listen carefully to the instructions from our Zip Guides and “just have a lot of  fun.” Fortunately, once we got started, we quickly discovered there was never a sensation of actually wanting to grab the zip lines overhead.

Don and I stylin' in our safety helmets.

Once geared up, we walked a short distance to a set of open-grated stairs leading up to an open-grated platform high off the ground. Don stepped up to the plate and volunteered to go first and began climbing the 50 stairs to the first platform behind our Zip Guide named Dave. Dave instructed everyone to wait until the individual ahead had cleared two sets of  stair landings before we each started our own ascents. Looking upwards, I thought the platform at the top looked really high up; especially from my viewpoint standing on the ground.

Beautiful and fearless Julia.

I won’t lie…I was a bit nervous once I completed climbing the stairs and stood on the open platform with its bird’s eye view of the ground. Aligned with the tree tops, we could look down at our feet straight to the ground below. My senses were definitely awake and heightened at this point. I don’t know if my heart was pounding from the workout walking up the six flights of stairs or from the nervous realization at exactly how high up we were and that the platform had absolutely no rails. I think most people have a natural fear of heights to varying degrees and I am no exception.

Dane excited and nervous about the heights.

Friendly and trusty Dave greeted everyone at the top and efficiently clipped us to safety lines as we each ascended  the platform. The last on to the platform was Laura, our second Zip Guide. She is  small in stature, but makes up for it with a huge personality and joie de vivre. Both were young, exuberant, and promoted confidence in each of us as we individually approached zip lining with a combination of excitement and nervousness. A quick poll indicated everyone in our group were “Zip Virgins.” Dave and Laura reviewed the safety instructions once again and Dave provided a first-hand demonstration as he zipped over to the next platform to await our arrivals. He yelled out, “Clear to zip” indicating it was now was our turn to go.

Don shows off his newly acquired zip skills.

Don was first in our group to take off. Laura unhooked his clip from the safety line and attached it to the zip line trailing off to the next platform. I reached over and gave him a reassuring hug as he quickly and confidently stepped off the platform, let go of the hold line, and took off.  Anyone witnessing Don’s departure would have sworn he wasn’t a newbie as he made it look amazingly easy to step off a platform approximately 70’ in the air suspended on a wire by a clip and a few straps and glide off over the tree tops. At that point, it was obvious that the reassuring hug was more for me than for him.

I'm excited for the next line.

Next off was Dane. Even at 19, he isn’t embarrassed or shy to admit he has a genuine and major fear of heights. Earlier standing next to Dane on the first platform while waiting for the others to climb up, I noted his nervousness and white face. Neither had faded as he tentatively stepped forward to get hooked to the zip line. I even  thought to myself, “Oh God, this is not helping to calm me down.” I noticed he briefly hesitated to collect himself and took off without any problems. Next up, was his beautiful and fearless sister Julia. Excited and animated, she was ready to get the show on the road. Julia took off with a big smile on her face with absolutely no hesitation.

(L-R) Julia, Dane, and Don share their excitement.

I was next in line to go. For some reason, watching Don’s, Dane’s, and Julia’s departures provided me with an inner confidence as I witnessed no one one had any sort of incident or accident…and no one had even let out a fearful scream. They actually looked like they all really enjoyed the experience. Laura expertly hooked me to the zip line and called out “Ready to zip!”  and Dave responded with “Clear to zip!” That was my cue. I took a deep breath to calm myself, leaned back into my  harness, let go of the hold line, and sailed off.

Father and daughter ready to race on a dual line.

I immediately became calm as I truly felt safe and secure. I let the exhilaration of being up high, zipping fast, and the feel of the wind whipping on my body and face take over. I did it! I conquered a fear and I had won. I had a huge smile on my face, my body pumped with adrenaline, and I remember thinking, “Damn, this is fun…REALLY, REALLY FUN!” I also remember mentally singing, “ZIP-a-dee-doo-dah, ZIP-a-dee-ay, my, oh my what a wonderful day!” with quite a bit of emphasis on the “Zip.” The experience truly makes you feel kid-like and leaves you wanting to giggle and spontaneously scream “Whoo-hoo!”

As we each came to the end of the zip line, Dave expertly steered and guided us safely on to the next platform. He unhooked us from the zip line and connected our clips to safety lines. As we waited for the rest of our group to zip on over, Don, Dane, Julia, and I animatedly shared our excitement and celebrated that we had all faced our fears and seized the moment. We couldn’t wait to get on the next line and to experience it once again.

Laura safely hooks Don on to the next line.

We watched from afar as each person in our group gathered the confidence to step off the initial platform and let go on to the zip line. An Indian couple in our group seemed the most hesitant and I believe the woman truly never got over her nerves at initially stepping off each platform. But, she never quit and always had a big smile at the end of the line as she arrived to the next platform.

The slant of the individual zip lines and the weight of each rider creates varying speeds as you glide along. After getting over initial fears, everyone gained confidence and learned various tricks of tucking, twisting, turning, and bouncing to zip across the lines even faster. We learned individual speeds on the zip lines can reach 30 mph and we were all determined to hit that mark. We soon began cheering and encouraging everyone in our group and even yelling “Go Uncle Kenny!” along with his niece. There are several platforms with dual lines that allowed us to race against each other which added to the overall excitement and fun.

Dane and I ready to race on a dual line.

About halfway through the experience, we zipped down to the ground for a water break. After the short break, we all climbed another set of stairs with 70 steps and continued our zip tour. To add to the fun, Laura and Dave encouraged everyone to tell jokes on one platform and to loudly sing a song or make animal noises as we zipped off on another line. We also coordinated screaming out to the another group several lines behind us.

Sprinkled amidst the zip lines are two suspension bridges that require running or walking across. The first bridge sort of undulated up and down and the second sways back and forth. At the first bridge, Dane, determined to race as fast as possible to the next platform, departed before Julia. Julia quickly foiled his plan by encouraging Laura to join her in jumping up and down when he reached the halfway mark. The undulating bridge made it next to impossible for him to race off to the safety of the platform.

The first bridge to conquer.

Dane zips off to the next platform.

On the second bridge, Julia and Dane were behind me on the bridge swinging back and forth,   determined to make sure we all had a highly swaying and wild ride. And did we ever! I was thankful we were all clipped to safety lines and really had nothing to worry about. I also have to confess that the bridges were my least favorite part of the overall experience; however, they challenged each of us to step out of our comfort zones and experience something new and confidence building.

Dane exits the landing platform for our break.

The views on the zip lines and its platforms were spectacular and you truly feel as if you are one with nature. You can see for miles up in the tree tops and out to the distant horizon as you take in the natural beauty and splendor of the Florida landscape. At one point, we encountered an owl that flew in and sat on a tree limb right underneath the zip line. A group member riding the line actually lifted his feet to clear the bird by what appeared as a mere four feet. The bird spread its wings and majestically took off for its nest with two babies in the tree top about 20’ away from our landing platform. It was an amazing sight…especially for a bird-lover such as myself.

"Whoo hoo!"

By  now the sun had gloriously set and the daylight was fading fast. The zip experience is a bit different in the dusk as the trees and their shadows take on muted colors and differing shapes. At this point, we were more focused on the sensation of zipping as opposed to the views. As we reached the last platform, complete darkness arrived as we raced on our last line, a dual line,  down to the ground with two guides wearing red helmet lights and carrying flashlights to safely guide our way.

We were now all confident in our abilities, unaware of, or ignoring, the heights  and totally dreading the end of such an amazing and fun experience. It truly was an experience of a lifetime and a memory that will last with me forever.

I can’t honestly say that I have taken the time to actually write out a formal Bucket List, but I do know zip lining has been on my mental list for some time. I’d definitely encourage everyone to add it to your Bucket List and to visit Orlando Zip Canopy Tours or a local zip line tour in your area. I’d also recommend that you check out their Web site prior to making reservations as they seem to regularly offer various specials and discounts. I’d also like to advise you to learn the words to “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” as you just might want to sing those during your zip adventure too!

Our happy group on the last platform.
(L-R) Don, Mary, Julia, and Dane.


Ozzie – Whose Cat is He Really?

Ozzie is a short-haired tiger cat with a personality to fit a Rock Star. He’s now only a few months away from his first birthday and, quite frankly, has quite a few of us wrapped around his little toes with their extremely sharp nails.

My boyfriend Don Welch’s son Dane and his then girlfriend Shelbi Sellers acquired Ozzie from the SPCA of Central Florida. Upon his arrival, Ozzie was a precocious kitten bravely exploring his new surroundings and getting to know his new “family.”

From Day One, Dane and Shelbi rough-housed with Ozzie to the point that sometimes I cautioned them about being too rough with such a small kitty. However, Ozzie never complained and seemingly enjoyed the wrestling and relentless chasing, and he always came back for more.

Ozzie sleeps with Dane at night and Don and I developed the habit of letting let him out of Dane’s bedroom to visit with us in the mornings. He is quite attached to Don and loves to lick his morning beard and offer occasional love bites. I think Ozzie likes the feel of Don’s whiskers against his rough tongue. At night, he also likes to snuggle with Don in their favorite chair as he watches TV. He even allows Don to trim his nails without too much struggling which has become a blessing in saving his leather furniture from scratches.

In the mornings, Ozzie also makes time to snuggle with me as I drink my hot tea. It’s our special time prior to his going out  on to the back porch to explore the outside world and stalk squirrels through the pool screening. Out of everyone, I am the chief cat player and spend countless amounts of time on the floor tempting Ozzie with his many cat toys. I also pose my hand like a cat claw in the air in front of his face and taunt him to choose just the right moment for an aggressively friendly attack.

Shelbi had a habit of greeting Ozzie by capturing him and flipping him upside down. I think he actually likes that view of the world as he generally tolerated her affectionate back flips.

As he grew and matured into a teenaged cat, Ozzie demonstrated a desire to expand his world outside of the house by escaping at every opportunity. He’d sit by the door and race out through our legs and climb up the nearest tree. Invariably, he’d select the most inconvenient times to escape as it usually occurred when we are all rushed to get somewhere. Many times, he delayed departures while we coaxed him down from trees or tracked him down to lure him back into the house.

One particular night, Ozzie ventured out and we all worried when no one could find him. The next morning, he popped out from underneath Dane’s car in the driveway. Another night, he escaped without anyone’s knowledge and could not be found. The next morning, I heard mysterious meowing and he sauntered in the opened front door like it was normal being out all night.

On probably the coldest night of the year, he escaped through a hole he’d punched in the pool screening. When Don and I arrived home, Dane frustratingly informed us that Ozzie was out and that he had given up on his search for him.

Don and I bundled up and braved the cold as we valiantly went out to search for the little escape artist. We both worried about him spending the night out in the freezing temperatures. Fortunately, we located Ozzie casually walking along the top of the fence in the back yard as if he didn’t have a care in the world. We’ve since progressed to allowing Ozzie to venture out of the house into the outside world on his own which makes for easier departures.

Look closely...there's Ossie under the tree.

During the holidays, we put up the Christmas tree and Ozzie immediately thought it was his personal, indoor play tree. He climbed up it every chance he got and repeatedly knocked it over and into the wall. Don purchased a new string of LED lights for the tree and Ozzie immediately chewed through the strand leaving the bottom half of the tree dark for the remainder of the holidays.

We left the tree up and undecorated with the hopes that its novelty would soon wear off. After more than a week, I eventually braved what I thought would be an impending disaster and decorated the Christmas tree. Ozzie immediately took up residence underneath it and became fascinated and amused not so much now with climbing the tree, but playing with the ornaments and batting them off every chance he got. Throughout the holidays, I constantly picked up the scattered ornaments and redecorated the tree.

Ozzie’s rare gift is his innate ability to make all of us feel extremely special. The minute we walk through the door we all call out “Kitty! Kitty!” or “Ozzie!” to gain his attention and to let him know we are home. We each talk about him as “my cat” and really enjoy our individual interactions with him. He is truly loved by all and we playfully argue over who he actually belongs to.

On paper, Ozzie officially belongs to Dane and I believe that he truly thinks he is Dane’s cat. But I know in my heart that he also believes he is Don’s cat, and Shelbi’s cat, and my cat too!

Magical Moments in Time

Jocelyn & Travis Limerick head off to their new life together.

We’ve all experienced them…moments in time that are truly magical that we will remember for the rest of our lives. I recently shared one such moment with my boyfriend Don Welch and it’s one that I will never forget.

BeckenRidge Vineyard in Dallas, Ore.

The air was crisp and cool and lacking of the typical Florida humidity that I am used to at home. The sun had just set and the sky filled with a soft light lacking the brilliance of the shining sun.

The day had been hectic and filled with lots of activity and a range of emotions. Don dressed in his best suit adorned with a boutonnière  along with a very tasteful and expensive yellow- and blue-striped tie. He combed his amazingly thick and enviable hair to perfection and his smell was familiar, sexy, and inviting.

All members of his warm and loving family gathered around as earlier he had emotionally walked his stunningly beautiful daughter Jocelyn down the aisle to the man of her dreams – Travis Limerick.

Following the wedding ceremony and picture-taking, we sat down to a beautiful reception and shared a wonderful meal, pleasant conversation, and much laughter. At one point, I remember sipping my wine and glancing over at Don as he surveyed the room unaware that I was watching him do so. There was a look on his face of contentment at reuniting with his girls and family and yet, I knew it was somehow already overshadowed knowing his departure home to Florida was only a day away. Even so, the love Don has for his children and family shone through.

The reception room filled with enticing music, non-stop conversation, sporadic laughter, and happy people. After dinner, I departed Don’s side to help distribute the wedding cake. Upon my return to our table, I noted Don was standing on the edges of the dance floor amiably chatting with friends and family members.

The DJ then began asking for all married couples to join the bride and groom for a special dance during which he would determine the couple with the longest marriage. The beginnings of one of my favorite songs – When I Fall in Love – suddenly filled the air as the dance floor began to fill. I grabbed Don’s hand and steered him out the open French doors and on to the patio.

The majesty and beauty of Oregon was visible in the distant mountains; in the undulating vines filled with ripening grapes; and in the brilliant green scenery composed of “Christmas” and local trees surrounding the BeckenRidge Vineyard. The patio was softly lit and there were flickering candles on each of the tables. There were very few people sitting at the outside tables and only one or two individuals wandering in and out; but basically, I felt we were all alone. I think my actions at steering him outside at first confused Don, but he went with the moment and soon understood my desire to privately dance with him.

I remember the warmth of his hand in mine and the feel of his other hand as it naturally came to rest on the small of my back. He pulled me close and surprisingly and confidently led me as we silently danced and soaked in not only the atmosphere, but each other as well. All too quickly the song ended. I hugged him tight and gave Don a kiss as I told him “I love you” and he responded, “I love you too.”

Don and I at his daughter Jocelyn's wedding.

For me, it was akin to the aligning of the stars, the moon, and the sun. We were in a beautiful setting, the song was one of my romantic favorites, and I was dancing with a man I truly love.

Yes, it was a magical night for the newlyweds Jocelyn and Travis. But I believe it was magical for Don and me as well, and it’s a moment in time that will live with me forever.

Forget About the Red Light…We’re Proud and We’re Cheering

Dane with his proud father Don.

Many families recently experienced graduation season. It’s that time of year when people travel from far and wide to gather and witness their graduate receive his or her school diploma. My boyfriend Don Welch’s family was no exception when his youngest child, Dane, recently graduated from Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Fla.

Proud sisters Julia (L) and Jocelyn (R) hug their baby brother Dane.

Dane checks out his new diploma with sister Julia.

Over the span of a week, we made a total of five trips to Orlando International Airport to pick up Don’s family all flying in from either Oregon or Idaho. The family includes, including in order of arrival: Travis Limerick, set to wed his oldest daughter; Jocelyn Welch, his oldest daughter; his mom, Nora Sonne, and her husband, “Papa” Don, along with Don’s identical twin brother, Dan Welch; Julia Presler, his youngest daughter; and the last to arrive, Josh Presler, his son-in-law.

Dane's Grammy gives him a special hug while dad proudly looks on.

In“really hot” and “unbelievably humid” Florida for a span of about 10 days, Don’s family excitedly stayed in his new home, swam in our pools, visited area sites and attractions, and, of course, looked forward to the upcoming main events being Dane’s graduation ceremony and the planned After Party.

Finally, The Big Day arrived and we haggled as we figured out how to get everyone a shower time and assigned seat in a car to get to the downtown Orlando Arena in time for the big event.

Dane posing with his Uncle Dan.

Upon arrival, we received programs that included a separate listing of Honors Diploma recipients. Don nearly busted with pride as we scanned the Honors Diploma listing and saw on page two, column four, 17 names down “Dane Welch.” I immediately ran back to the door and grabbed extras to share with family and friends that could not attend the actual event.

Dane Welch listed among the Honors Diploma Recipients.

At the beginning of the ceremony, the school’s principal announced that alternating lights would flash on stage with a green light indicating it was time for the audience to cheer for the graduates and the red light indicating we were to remain quiet and respectful following the announcing of each graduate’s name to walk on stage and receive his or her diploma. This gentleman truly gave a nice pep talk about how they had devised this system last year and were using it again to allow everyone the opportunity to actually hear their graduate’s name announced. Seriously…did this guy really think his little speech along with the Red Light/Green Light system would work?

(L-R) Jocelyn, Travis, Julia, and Josh excitedly await the announcing of "Dane Welch."

I actually first noticed the red light coming on at the presentation of the valedictorians. Nope, the light system didn’t quite work as cheers erupted throughout the arena. Perhaps the audience had momentarily forgotten their instructions and once again the gentleman patiently reviewed the Red Light/Green Light system before the lengthy reading of the graduates began.

Following the announcement of the first name, “Meera Aggarwal,” a small group of cheers went up in a targeted area of the arena. Oops, maybe her family had slipped up and momentarily forgotten the rules. On to the reading of second name: “Musa Ahmed.” Oh my goodness…once again cheers were heard. As the reading of the names continued, so did the cheering and its noise level. At various times, he admonished the audience’s cheering asking that we please observe the red light. Let’s all be honest. This system certainly didn’t work last year and would never work this year. Why? This audience consisted of family and friends who had traveled great distances to attend this ceremony and, over the years, had supported these students from small children through to the pinnacle of their public school careers. In my opinion, obviously supported by everyone else in the arena, THIS was the time for everyone to cheer and openly display pride in their sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, brothers and sisters, cousins, best friends, or whatever relationship their graduate represented to them.

Papa Don all smiles with grandson Dane.


(L-R) Josh, Dane, and Travis pose following the ceremony.

We had quite a long wait until the reading of the “W”  names. We commented and laughed at the loudness of some of the families gathered and admired how many had quite sizable groups on hand to cheer for their graduate. Some groups blasted loud air horns that emphasized their cheering and increased their noise levels. I chatted with the couple seated directly to my right and discovered they had only two on hand in their “cheer  group.” So, I promised to cheer along with them following the reading of their child’s name. And I did.

It’s coming up…only three more…get ready…”

Jocelyn loudly cheers for her brother.

And then finally, “Dane Welch” was announced. Don’s family and I all cheered at the appropriate moment and at the top of our lungs. We wanted Dane and everyone within ear shot to know how proud we were of him. His father’s eyes teared a bit as he came to the realization this was the last of his brood to reach this milestone. He had come to the end of a long road and had successfully raised three children proudly witnessing the last to receive a high school diploma; and it was an Honors Diploma at that.

We cheered. And we cheered at the top of our lungs. Dane did his family proud and deserved the recognition. Be damned the red light. We cheered.

Don (far right) proudly poses with his three children (L-R) Dane, Julia, and Jocelyn.

Open Your Eyes to the Heroes You Know

Daniel, one of my personal heroes, with Casey.

There are definitely heroes that walk among us…and my best friend Suki Janisch, her husband Kurt, and their 17-year-old son Daniel are among them. I’ve actually known this for quite a while, but it was front and center and in my face this past Saturday morning when I attended a Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) Graduation Ceremony held at Sea World in Orlando.

CCI provides highly trained assistance dogs for children and adults with disabilities, free of charge. They believe the “most advanced technology capable of transforming the lives of people with disabilities has a cold nose and a warm heart!” According to their literature, “Volunteer puppy raisers provide specially bred puppies a safe home, take them to obedience classes, serve up a healthy diet, provide socialization opportunities, and give lots of love.”

The Janischs and Nicholas at SEGD Headquarters.

The Janischs volunteer with Southeastern Guide Dogs (SEGD) whose mission is “to create and nurture a partnership between a visually impaired individual and a guide dog, facilitating life’s journey with mobility, independence and dignity.” Like CCI, SEGD relies heavily on Puppy Raisers to make their programs work. SEGD has three programs that pair professionally trained guide dogs with individuals including Paws for Independence for visually impaired individuals; Paws for Patriots for visually impaired veterans or those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; as well as providing  facility therapy dogs to various U.S.  military hospitals; and Gifted Canines for law-enforcement agencies, hospitals, assisted-living facilities, nursing homes, schools and individuals with special needs providing dogs that participate in narcotic or arson detection, search and rescue, therapy and other specialized careers.

Casey was quite the adorable puppy and now, all-grown,  awaits teaming with her recipient.

In 2001, Suki, Kurt, and then six-year-old Daniel volunteered to become SEGD Puppy Raisers and received their first puppy, Port, a beautiful yellow Goldador – a cross between a Black Lab and a Golden Retriever. Goldador’s are specially bred to possess the best of both breeds – intelligence and strong hips – making for healthier dogs that will hopefully live a long life and provide valuable service for a number of years.

The Janischs, along with all of their friends, myself included, bonded and heaped loads of love upon Port. The family followed strict guidelines with Port, taught her basic commands, and attended twice-monthly SEGD meetings. As a commercial pilot, Kurt is away from home quite a bit and as a stay-at-home mom, Suki naturally shouldered the majority of the puppy raising work. Both CCI and SEGD puppies wear special coats signifying they are service dogs and learn valuable socialization skills by accompanying  their families wherever they go including the grocery store, church, the mall, restaurants, ball games, doctor appointments, and so forth. With SEGD, puppy raising can last for a period of up to 20 months at which point comes the fateful day when they turn over the dogs for more intense training and eventual teaming with their recipients.

One of the SEGD Training Classes including Kurt and Nicholas (far right).

At the time, I clearly recall Suki communicating that Port’s “turn over date” was fast approaching and once the actual day arrived, we were all quite morose and saddened; no one more so than Suki, Kurt, and Daniel, as they had truly just handed over a beloved family member. SEGD places dogs in the Gifted Canines program only if they do not meet the specific criteria for becoming guide dogs. Port, who didn’t like loud noises, matriculated into the Gifted Canine Program and currently works in the Miami International Airport sniffing out incoming drugs.

Suki and Kurt feel their only child Daniel has everything he wants or needs and believed the Puppy Raising Program would teach the importance of giving back to others. At six, Daniel naturally felt the emotions of parting with Port quite intensely. So before accepting a new puppy, Suki and Kurt consulted with Daniel to make sure he was on board with the plan.

Monte harnessed and ready for training.

Following Daniel’s approval, as is typical of many Puppy Raisers, the Janischs then immediately volunteered to accept their next dog and this tradition has held throughout the years. In addition to Port, they have raised Gino, Vi, Nicholas, Monte, and Casey. Each of these puppies was equally adorable and special and totally loved. I’ve felt this family’s pain as they’ve bravely counted down the days when they’d turn over each cherished dog for advanced training and matching with a needy recipient.

Suki relates she is most proud of what they have passed on to Daniel. “He has learned the valuable lesson that you should sacrifice what you want in your heart for the good of less fortunate people.”  Once he received his driver’s license, Daniel took it upon himself to take full responsibility of Casey, their newest puppy, and he personally took charge of her training and attended the meetings with her.

For a variety of reasons, SEGD occasionally releases dogs from its program. Of course, Puppy Raisers are at the top of the list to receive the released dogs back into their families. This occurred twice for the Janischs, as they retained both Vi and Monte. Vi, let go due to a hip injury, and Monte, released because he, along with his litter mates, could never get used to wearing the harness.

I was emotional walking into the building for CCI’s graduation and grabbed my boyfriend Don’s hand a bit tighter as we found seats close to the front. I even let him in on how I was feeling as I was already teary eyed and the program had not even started.

CCI Puppy Raisers on stage during the emotional graduation ceremony.

As part of the CCI’s ceremony, the individual puppies and their “Puppy Raising Families” paraded across the stage with many dogs sporting mortar boards signifying them as graduates. There was not a dry eye in the audience as a brave, six-year-old little girl wiped away tears as she stood on stage holding her mother’s hand and lovingly petting the puppy they had so proudly raised. Later in the program, a video provided attendees with a glimpse into the lives of the families and their “matriculating puppies” at home. Now I ask you…who doesn’t fall in love with a puppy with big eyes and overgrown paws? Each puppy was cuter than the next; if that is even possible.

CCI’s ceremony progressed to an introduction of the recipients and their families and another video presentation shared their introduction to the puppies and provided a glimpse of their two-week, intensive training program. Both shows were heart wrenching and resulted in an openly emotional and teary eyed audience. I, of course, was quite the mess.

CCI recipients from throughout the U.S. looking forward to the "Passing of the Leash."

The final part of CCI’s ceremony included a “Passing of the Leash” where the Puppy Raisers formally hand the leashed dogs over to their new owners for the final time. The process had come full circle and the Puppy Raisers met the recipient and their families and saw first-hand the rewards of their love, hard work, and sacrifice. As the Puppy Raisers departed the stage, many of the dogs looked longingly back at their families as they eventually turned with wagging tails to their new owners. Don remarked at the touching scene repeated with most of the dogs. Suki believes in that moment “the dogs truly realize people on both sides of the leash want them, but know where they are needed the most.”

The Janischs were highly rewarded when they turned over their beloved dog Nicholas to a soldier visually impaired during the Gulf War. In my opinion and at that moment in time, there were four heroes present…the brave American soldier taking hold of Nicholas’ leash and Suki, Kurt, and Daniel Janisch, brave Puppy Raisers for SEGD.

Heroes, they are out there among us and I am fortunate that I only have to look at my best friend Suki and her family to find some.

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You Don’t Just Attend a Jimmy Buffett Concert…You Pack for It!

Jimmy Buffett’s Welcome to Fin Land 2011 Tour kicked off this past weekend with a concert in Tampa, Fla., and my friends and I were lucky enough to attend. If you’ve never been to one of Jimmy’s concerts, you need to understand it’s not just a concert and you’d better be good at packing.

Prior to every Jimmy Buffett concert is an event that you have to see and experience for yourself. It’s a gathering of concert and non-concert goers aka Parrot Heads and Parakeets that literally starts 10 hours prior to the actual concert when the gates open to the venue parking lot. (The 1-800-Ask Gary Amphitheatre opened its gates at 10 a.m. and Jimmy started at 8 p.m.) It’s a pre-concert warm-up party that takes place in the parking lot where Jimmy’s fans gather to play his music, eat, drink, and, in general, be merry. But days before this pre-concert party begins you’re going to need to organize, plan, pack, and double-check your “To Do” lists. You’ll also need to clear your car of any items that take up superfluous space. You know…jumper cables, tire jack, spare tire, extra sunglasses, 7-11 Slurpee refill cups, instruction manual, and so forth. Trust me you’re going to need that space.

Think of the pre-concert event as a Luau kicked up about 100 notches and you begin to get the idea of what it’s all about and what you’ll need to pack. If it’s tropical, brightly colored, or has a parrot on it, you need to pack it. Have any extra hula skirts? Pack those. Have a kiddie pool…pack it. What about a blow-up life-sized doll? Dress it up and pack it. Beach chairs…pack enough for those in your party and a few extra for friends or new acquaintances. Or just throw your sofa in the back of your truck (a blow-up one will work if you don’t have a truck). Pack up your bar…and I’m not talking just the items in the bar, I am talking about the actual bar itself along with all of the alcohol, margarita glasses, shot glasses, stirrers, coasters, napkins and so forth. Got a boat…decorate it and hitch it up to your car. Own a golf cart? It’s a definite must-take if you own one. Be sure to charge it up and deck it out with palm fronds, a surfboard, or large shark fin and get it ready to go. Lucky enough to own an RV? Be sure to decorate it and stock it with plenty of toilet paper for all the new friends you’ll make wanting to use your bathroom.

Rex rocked his coconut bra.

In addition, you should pack coconut bras, blenders, tables, tents, table cloths, ice, appetizers, hamburger meat, cheese, condiments, eating utensils, rugs, party lights, multiple coolers, munchies, sunscreen, Segway, lifeguard tower, beach balls, blow-up beach toys, white sand (enough to create your own beach), palm trees, keg, yard games, smoker, charcoal, picnic table, bubble machine, sidewalk chalk, hammocks, pirate flags, key lime pies, Juicy Fruit gum, artwork, Piñatas, squirt guns, flip-flops, marinated chicken wings, cameras, lip balm, generator, stereo system with speakers, Jimmy Buffett CD collection (or fully loaded Ipod), cool sunglasses, shot glasses, temporary tattoos (if you don’t have the real thing), wooden deck, barbecue utensils, beach blankets and towels, shot luge ice sculpture, leis, kites, Tiki torches, beads, Karaoke machine, light sticks, skateboards, pogo stick, bicycles (two-wheeled, unicycle, or built-for-two), limes, outdoor fireplace, knife, rope, zip-ties, a port-a-potty, toilet paper, stakes, flashlights, duct tape, scissors, and, last but not least, coconut-scented candles. This list is, of course, not all-inclusive, however, it does include items that I’ve personally packed or actually witnessed at Jimmy Buffett concerts.

And don’t forget your hats. Decorated, colorful hats are big for this event…so big you’d think there was a Royal Wedding (possibly Hawaiian as opposed to English) about to take place. However these are not refined hats…anything but. Concert goers sport an amazing array of parrot hats complete with beaks and feathers, straw hats with a colorful array of tropical items attached, sombreros with the “moat” decorated like an ocean, shark fin hats, and colorful Panama hats.

Scott got leid.

We had seven in our packing group including myself and my boyfriend Don – a Jimmy Buffett concert virgin; a long-time friend from junior high school, Scott (he’s a great attorney if anyone is ever in need of one); my high school friend Rex and his wife Debi; and a Fraternity brother of Scott’s named John and his girlfriend Erin (another Jimmy Buffett concert virgin). Once on site, our group swelled by two with the addition of Erin’s cousin and her friend.

Rex and Debi flew in from New Orleans just to attend the concert and yes, their suitcases were jam-packed right up to the 50 lb. weight limit…not so much with clothes, but with items for the concert. We all gathered the night before in Cross-Eyed Mary’s Cantina, an actual bar in my friend Scott’s house, to review what we’d brought along and what we’d need to purchase before we headed to the concert. We mounded all our items together and the discussion quickly turned to what items were missing and whether or not we could transport it to the concert in only two vehicles, with us included.

Packing of the vehicles began early the next morning and virtually every cubby possible got stuffed with concert items. After a quick stop at Publix and a liquor store for additional supplies that necessitated repacking of a few items, we were finally headed to the concert grounds worried that we might have possibly forgotten to pack some necessary item. Now those of you that have ever taken children to the beach may think that you know what this sort of packing and unpacking is all about. But sorry…it just doesn’t compare. No arguments on this topic please.

After selecting the perfect spot to park and hang out for the day, we began the chore of unpacking the vehicles and setting up our site. Everyone’s goal is to achieve the perfect tropical setting in the grassy spots of a parking lot while securing as much shade as possible. Once set up, drinks were quickly blended and we took the time to relax and chill out after all of the exertion from packing and unpacking.

At some point throughout the day, it is crucial that you cruise around the parking lot (by whatever means you have packed to make this possible) to check out and gape in amazement at all the stuff everyone else has packed and set up for this event. This is very important as it is not only how you make new friends, but it’s how you start your expanded packing list for next year’s concert.

Don and I all smiles at the concert.

Amazingly, there are people who attend the pre-concert event that do not have tickets for the actual concert and who never even planned on attending it. They are there just for the pre-concert activities. You can readily identify these people as they are not hurriedly packing up when it comes time to head into the concert. They are idly sitting by, relaxed with drinks in hand, watching the parade of concert goers file by on their way to the amphitheatre.

“Fins” was popular with Rex and Debi.

The concert was fun, the weather was perfect and breezy, and the moon arose bright and full over the amphitheater. And, thankfully, we’d packed enough and then some for all of our needs (and were able to borrow from our neighbors the few items that we’d forgotten). We enjoyed the nearly three hours that Jimmy played on stage and sang along with our friends – the multitude of other concert goers – who had shared the packing and unpacking ordeal themselves. We let the music and accompanying videos and photos carry us away to tropical destinations as somewhere in the back of our minds we wondered how we could pack a hot tub to set up at next year’s event.

Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life for Me

Don Welch aka Cap'n Donny Two-Swords

Shiver me's Cap'n Donny Two-Swords and he's ready to invade!

For holiday breaks in high school and throughout college, I worked at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in an open-air straw market in Adventure Land. Guests flowed through the market after riding on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride and, at one time, the area also included a “Photo Deck” where guests could dress up in pirate outfits and have their photos taken aboard a faux ship’s deck.

The theme music from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride – “Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life for Me” – played on a loop all day long as I worked in the market and I am quite sure it was the background music in my dreams for a number of years. Anyone who’s ever been to the park can probably sing along to at least the chorus…”Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life for Me….” But what is it about pirates and why is there such an endearing enchantment with them? “The Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, starring Johnny Depp, and its host of marketing products that include everything from video games to pirate costumes have earned millions.

The lyrics to the theme song that we so gaily sing along to spell out in black and white exactly what pirating is all about, “…We pillage and plunder, we rifle and loot. We kidnap and ravage and don’t give a hoot…We’re rascals and scoundrels, we’re villains and knaves. We’re devils and black sheep, we’re really bad eggs…We’re beggars and blighters and ne’er do-well cads, Aye, but we’re loved by our mommies and dads….” Even as it spells out the immorality of a pirate’s life, it’s a gay song that sticks in your head and invites you to at least sing along to its chorus of ”Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life for Me!”

But what is the mystic of pirates that make them so appealing? Unless you’re a common criminal, you can’t really relate to their chosen profession and hold it up as something you’d like to emulate. Most parents try to instill a sense of morality in their children and therefore shun anything that is remotely akin to the profession of pirating. Yet each year, millions of parents throw pirate-themed birthday parties for kids, especially little boys. And, to this day, there are modern-day pirates that raise fear among sailors and shipmen throughout the world.

Again I ask, what is the appeal of pirates? Is it the lifestyle of getting to do what you want, when you want, to take what you want, and not having to worry about a thing? Or is it the traveling of the high seas and sailing into countless ports throughout the Caribbean with its warm, gentle breezes and inviting turquoise-blue waters? Or could it be that you don’t have to worry about matching or ironed clothes or even what your hair or teeth look like? Or is it the drinking and carousing with nary a worry of morals?

Most pirates possessed amazing gold jewelry and experienced what seems like an endless party of drinking and carousing. They also attracted saucy wenches – women with fiery attitudes and lose morals that hung around taverns and bars, seaside towns, or wherever pirates generally frequented. We all know that the wenches certainly added to the party in more ways than one.

One of Jimmy Buffett’s most popular songs – “A Pirate Looks at Forty” – also romanticizes pirates: “…Yes I am a pirate, two hundred years too late. The cannons don’t thunder, there’s nothing to plunder. I’m an over forty victim of fate. Arriving too late, arriving too late….” Attend one of his concerts and you’ll hear everyone loudly singing along to this song with some concert goers even dressed as pirates.

Ahoy Mates...let's round up some booty!

Cap'n Donny Two Swords on the prowl for booty.

My boyfriend Don and I recently attended the Gasparilla Invasion in Tampa. It’s an annual re-enactment of Tampa’s historic pirate invasion, the Gasparilla Flotilla, that celebrates the takeover of Tampa by the legendary pirate Jose Gaspar and his band of marauding Bucanneers. The story is that Gaspar captains the Jose Gasparilla, the world’s only fully rigged pirate ship, as it magically sails into the bay to takeover the city. A multitude of pleasure crafts intent on defending the city boldly sail forth to meet the ship. But quickly seeing the error of their ways, they join forces with the Captain and his Krewe’s flotilla. The colorful Gasparilla Flotilla then makes its way across the bay.

The Jose Gasparilla teeming from bow to stern and capstan to crow’s nest with swashbuckling pirates is a spectacular sight to behold. When the ship docks at the Tampa Convention Center, the Tampa mayor surrenders the Key to the City. With the key in possession, the jolly pirates launch a month of various victory celebrations including several Parades of Pirates throughout the city streets.

Pirates at the 2011 Gasparilla Invasion

A band of pirates including Cap'n Donny Two-Swords and Mary, his favorite wench (couple on the right).

Hundreds of thousands of people, many dressed up in pirate costumes, gather along Tampa Bay to see the spectacular invasion complete with blasting cannons and sword-yielding pirates. The parades feature multitudes of pirates and wenches throwing “booty”  in the form of beads and such off the parade floats. The parade became so raucous that a separate children’s parade is presented as well.

“Cap’n Donny Two-Swords” (aka Don) and I had loads of fun as we hailed other pirates and immersed ourselves in the pirate spirit and frivolity of the event. We amused ourselves by speaking popular pirate lingo to each other including, “Ahoy Matey!,”  “Shivey me timbers,” “You scallywag,” “You’ll be a walking the plank,” and our favorite, “Aaaarrrrrgggghhhh!”

To this day the “Pirates of The Caribbean” is still my all-time favorite ride at the Magic Kingdom. And every once in a while, for no particular reason, I find myself singing “Yo Ho, Yo Ho a Pirate’s Life for me”…it’s a sentiment that I hum as I allow my mind to wander to the mystic of pirates that sailed the Caribbean seas.