etter fromTHE PUBLISHER
elcome to Volume 1, Issue 6 of Heartland LIVING, finishing our eleventh year. Thank you for picking up our holiday issue and I hope you enjoy all that we have found to share with you in this issue.
Heartland LIVING has been a project, a passion, and a challenge for me since day one. But it has been a complete blessing. I thank God for the gift of publishing he has given me and that I get to do what I love every day and share it with all of you. Because of the number of businesses trusting us with their advertising, supporters, my team, contributors and devoted readers, the magazine has become something far beyond my initial concept and imagination.
This holiday issue is all about traditions, memories, gratitude, love, and sharing. These words have special meanings to me. I feel we all need these in our everyday lives and probably a little more this time of year. Let’s go out and spread a little kindness and Christmas joy.
Jessica Pleger shares her personal traditions along with her amazing recipes. I hope you enjoy her family memories and try one of her recipes to make for your family. Thank you, Lisa Taylor Hall for taking amazing photos for the story and our cover, featuring Finley Grace.
Brad Phares has been the Location Coordinator for Okeechobee’s National Wreaths Across America Day. He shares his story with Bridgette Waldau Okeechobee’s tribute to Wreaths Across America for all veterans, from the Revolutionary War to present.
I know you will enjoy the Surfing Santas story Christy Swift shared with me and wrote about. This tells the events of how a family day turned into a National Event. This story will bring a smile to your face.
I learned with this issue that even in the trials of life, if we have eyes to see what we are grateful for and trust our faith, then we could find positivity everywhere we look. I am so thankful for what has evolved over the eleven years of the magazine, and I make it a point to never lose that gratitude.
As with every year, I want to personally thank you for letting us share pieces of the Heartland communities with you. To our advertisers, subscribers, readers, friends and family, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all your support throughout the years. I am grateful each of you joined me on this humbling journey, and we look forward to our new opportunities in 2023.
Blessings to you and your Family, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
God Bless, Cindy
Lisa Taylor Hall
Lisa Taylor Hall
Proud Recipient of 18
Charlie Awards 2014 - 2021
In the Following Categories:
Best Overall Design
Best Department Design (2)
Best Feature Design (4) Cover Photo Illustration
Best Traditional Illustration
Best Self-Promotional Ad
Best Table of Contents
Best Department Design
Best Photography Image (3)
Best Overall Writing
Best Custom Publication (2)
Heartland Living Magazine is published bi-monthly by Heartland Publications & Marketing, Inc. Copyright 2022, all rights reserved. Reproduction of contents in print or electronic transmission in whole or in part in any language or format must be by expressed written permission of the publisher.
All articles, descriptions and suggestions in this magazine are merely expression of opinions from contributors and advertisers and do not constitute the opinion of the publisher, editor or staff of Heartland Living Magazine, and under no circumstances constitutes assurances or guarantees concerning the quality of any service or product. Heartland Living Magazine specifically disclaims any liability related to these expressions and opinions. Heartland Living Magazine is not responsible for any unsolicited submissions. The advertiser agrees to hold harmless and indemnify the publishers from all liability.
BEHIND THE SCENES December
BRIDGETTE WALDAU has been a graphic and fine artist for over 30 years. She received her A.A. from the Ft. Lauderdale Institute of Art and a Bachelor of Fine Art degree from Stetson University. She moved to Okeechobee in 1994 where she opened her art studio. Bridgette has been creative director for several publications, working with Heartland Publications & Marketing as art director since 2011, winning eleven Florida Magazine Charlie Awards (2015- 2021). She is Arts & Culture Alliance Director (17 years) for Okeechobee Main Street. Bridgette is married to James Waldau, a retired firefighter from the City of Hialeah.
REBECCA MAGLISCHO is a wife and mother of two boys. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education and a Master's Degree in Human Movement with an emphasis on Corrective Modalities. She has completed a two year study in Full Body Systems through the Holistic Nutrition Lab and a certification in Functional Range Condition through the Functional Anatomy Systems.
BRAD PHARES is an 8th generation Florida rancher and artist living in Okeechobee. He and his family operate Cowhunters Unlimited, LLC - dedicated to sharing the story of Florida’s ranching heritage through Brad’s art. He has degrees from the University of Florida (BAS in Agriculture) and St. Thomas University School of Law (Juris Doctor). Brad is the author of Celtic Cowhunter and produces a podcast, Between the Beaches. Brad is an active member of the Florida Conservation Group’s Advisory Board. Brad’s art and writings can be found on his website at CowhuntersUnlimited.com.
JESSICA PLEGER is a wife, mother, editor, writer, and caterer. She attended the University of Central Florida where she received a Bachelor's Degree in Finance. Before working full-time at Heartland
LIVING, Jessica was a paralegal for over 15 years. She is also the owner and operator of Pink Pineapple Catering. Jessica enjoys being outdoors, traveling, and participating in community events throughout the Heartland. A lifelong resident of Florida, Jessica was raised in Hardee County and now resides in Avon Park with her husband, Jonathan and daughter, Finley Grace.Editor | Writer
CHRISTY SWIFT has been a freelance writer for over 13 years, working as an award-winning newspaper correspondent, magazine article writer, and web and social media content provider. She is also a soon-to-be published author of Young Adult and Adult fiction. You can find her at www.christyswift.com.
RAFAEL PACHECO I am a Pisces and was born on the island of Puerto Rico. My dog thinks I am crazy for locking the door so many times in 10 seconds and my cats think I am made of catnip. Everything I wear is black, gray or blue. If I put on something colorful I must have been in a hurry. Photography is how I have let my artistic visions come to life since the early 90’s. Patience, kindness, sharing, sacrifice, love and not to judge- I saw my mother practice these and they stayed within me. We are collective energy and all from the same Source. I don’t see the world through my eyes. I see it through my soul.
LISA TAYLOR HALL picked up her camera 7 years ago when motherhood inspired her to see the beauty in each day. She loves how photography captures a moment in time that otherwise might be forgotten. Lisa loves to capture organic moments in their best light. She grew up in Sebring and currently lives in Lake Wales with her husband and their three sons. Lisa specializes in lifestyle photography for families, small events, maternity, and graduates.
"Every GREAT design begins with an even BETTER story."Writer Writer Writer
The Meaning of Christmas
Far away in Bethlehem, a Baby Boy was born; Born with neither riches nor with fame, Yet Wise Men came from all around to bring to Him their gifts, And peace was felt by all who heard His name.
Angels watched Him as He slept, and gently rocked His bed; Their voices singing softly in His ear; His Mother and His Father both gave thanks to God above For the greatest gift of all, their Son, so dear
They knew His life upon this earth would not be filled with wealth,
They also knew He would encounter strife; But most of all, they knew that He would be a loving Child, And teach the love of God throughout His life.
At Christmas, as we celebrate this Birth of Jesus Christ, Let's keep in mind the truth of Christmas Day; For it's not the Christmas wrappings, nor the gifts that lie within, But our gift of love to others in every way.
The Villages of Highlands Ridge
36 Holes of Championship Golf
is home to 635 families that live in beautiful homes with beautiful views. There are 150 completely ready to build homesites available. All infrastructure is in place. This is a golf cart friendly community. Actually, it is a golf cart preferred community. A full-time event coordinator keeps everybody as busy as they can be. Not to mention, besides the golf courses, there is bocce ball, pickle ball, basketball, tennis, shuffleboard courts, and two swimming pools, two restaurants, two club houses and two pro shops.
Lake Bonnet is adjacent to this property. There are two piers on Lake Bonnet, one is for watching beautiful sunsets; the second dock is next to the private boat ramp. The golf course is set in the middle of the wilderness . You get a chance to step back in time and see where the Seminole Indians roamed and lived. There is wildlife galore. Florida Whitetail deer, Osceola turkeys with their big 8-inch beards, owls, hawks, eagles, ospreys and then of course you have your residence squirrels, possums, armadillos, raccoons, bobcats, and you might even get lucky and see a Florida panther.
36 Holes of Championship Golf | Golf Driving Range
Two Club Houses | Community Center
North Tavern Restaurant | 3 Gens Grill
Two Heated Swimming Pools and Hot Tub Lighted Tennis Courts | Shuffleboard, Pickle ball, Horseshoe Pits, & Table Tennis
260-Acre Lake with Boat Launch Ramp
Dock with Slips | RV Boat Storage Area
Gated Community with two entrances Active 55+ Community
For More Information (863) 784-3313
New homes in Highlands Ridge - Avon Park, Florida by M.E. Gose, Inc.
Go to www.highlandsridgenewhomes.com and watch the new video
Heartland LIVING October & November 2022
November 9, 2022 - FMA Cover of the day: Heartland Living Magazine OCT/NOV 2022
We thank Florida Magazine Association for sharing our cover on their social media page.
-Cindy Sebring Adams
Talent, hard work and your love for what you do has accomplished much…congratulations Cindy.
Congratulations just got finished reading this edition last night, it was a great article and photo shoot!
Loved loved, loved your chicken article, so informative - been pondering the idea of having our own chickens now I know what I would be signing up for thanks a bunch for doing this article. - Tammy Watts
Thank you Cindy for allowing my girl to be a part of your magazine. -Sorrel Condo Pickle
So honored to be able to say that I have been blessed to watch Rachel's talent grow. - Sheri Villone
You deserve honors for your brilliant magazine.
-Anne Sherwood Kelly
It was a wonderful issue. Really enjoyed all the articles. Especially loved the article on Beautiful Monsters by Christy Paul Swift. - Cristy Perez
Thank you Heartland Living Magazine for including a story in your publication sharing the Cattle Drive Sculpture Project here in Okeechobee.
-Angie Griffin, Okeechobee Main Street President
If you would like to share your thoughts, please leave a post on our Facebook page or email us at Cindy@Heartland-Living.com
MAKING MEMORIES & KEEPING OLD ONES ALIVEBy Jessica Pleger Photography by Lisa Taylor Hall
As we prepare for the Christmas season in warm, sunny Florida, it might take a little magic to get in the spirit. As tradition has it, as soon as we polish off our Thanksgiving meal, we are eager to pull out those Christmas bins and let the Christmas decorating begin! Since we are known for our beautiful beaches instead of snow-covered mountains, Southerners have created time-honored traditions that are sure to bring our own holiday cheer. We might be lucky enough to get a couple days of cool temps while we are out buying our tree and putting lights up! That’s Christmas in the South.
For many, the Christmas season brings comfort and joy because of family traditions that remind us of happy memories of seasons past. Traditions are important as they keep us connected to our roots and those who are no longer with us. They keep special memories alive and passed down for generations. I know not everyone is sentimental about traditions and the holidays, but I promise they will add a cheer to your days and a smile to your heart!
Advent (from Latin adventus, “coming”): in the Christian church calendar, the period of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ at Christmas and for the Second Coming of Christ. Regardless of denomination, churches in the Heartland have a special service dedicated to Christ’s birth—the celebration of Christmas. Attending a service is a great way to instill in our youth (and remind ourselves through all the hustle) the reason for celebrating Christmas. “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
Finding that perfect tree is where the decorating begins and, ultimately, the tree is the star of the show! Loading up your family, turning on Christmas jams and going to your favorite tree farm or retailer is part of the fun. We all have our favorite type of trees. Mine happens to be ten feet tall and as fat as I can find. And then the true fun begins… the decorating! Pulling the ornaments, both old and new, from the boxes. The new are shiny and matching; the old are handmade and oh so special as they tell a story of times remembered. As meticulous as I am about having a perfectly decorated tree, it’s the ones my kids have created over the years that matter the most as we get to reminisce every year of special times that have gone by too fast.
Matching pajamas,Christmas bedding, and let’s not forget the Christmas movie marathons—there are so many little things that can add to the holiday cheer! I can’t recall how many times we’ve watched Home Alone, The Grinch, or Elf, snuggled on the couch in our cozy blankets, eating popcorn. Locally we have Christmas parades, tree lighting ceremonies, horse drawn carriage rides, and special events to bring joy to girls, boys, and families from the Heartland. And most importantly, a chance for the kids to meet Santa and Mrs. Claus themselves, to hand over that coveted Christmas wish list, and to check if they’ve been naughty or nice.
For my kids, I have them ask for something they want, something they need, and something to read. Symbolic to the Three Wise Men and the gifts they brought Jesus, this is a great tradition to start. It helps keep materialistic habits in check while also focusing on things people will genuinely appreciate. My kids might not be a current fan of this tradition, but they’ll learn to appreciate it… hopefully. It’s also important to teach the gift of giving. We choose children from the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree, which can be found at various locations locally, and gift them with items on their list such as clothing, toys, and games. The gifts are distributed to the family to place under their family Christmas tree. The gift of giving is such an important gift to share with your family!
We’ve recently incorporated a “white elephant” into our family Christmas. It’s the ultimate re-gifting experience. I encourage you to give it a whirl! Not only is this activity a hoot but unwrapping the creative (and often hilarious) gifts makes gift-giving more about the experience than the gift itself. First, put presents in a central location and take turns, each choosing one to open. When it's your turn, it's your choice to snag a previously opened gift or try your luck on an unwrapped one. Best white elephant gift we've had to date: a “diamond” bracelet. It's the gift that keeps on giving.
Get dressed up. Create a great table-scape. Use your family heirlooms.
Growing up we always spent Christmas Eve at my dad’s parents’ house. Dressed in our Sunday best, we all looked forward to the memories to be made in my Nana’s kitchen. Her working tediously to prepare our Christmas meal will forever be etched in my mind. We always started with oyster stew which is a standard Southern tradition. The meal always included beef, fried shrimp (which almost caused us to burn down the kitchen one year, so don’t put grease-soaked paper towels in a hot oven) and was rounded out with her famous biscuits. So many special memories flooded my mind in that kitchen!
Over the years, our table grew and grew. Whether it was my self-proclaimed Aunt and her family from Charleston or local family friends, it was always a blessing to be around the dinner table on Christmas Eve on South Hammock Road. Honestly, it isn’t the presents I remember at all. I probably couldn’t recall even a handful of the gifts I received, but I can tell you a thousand memories made in that kitchen and in that home with family.
On Christmas morning we went to my mom’s parents’ house, bright and early and usually dressed in our pajamas. We have since adapted our tradition into Christmas lunch. My mom is one of eight kids, so everyone brings a covered dish and fills their plate so full a show dog couldn’t jump over it! But one thing hasn’t changed—we always use Grandma’s china (not always willingly because, let’s be honest, our family gathering consists of an average of 35 people every year and Grandma’s china is not dishwasher-safe). But she loves it, and we love to see her joy. We also love to banter about who gets to hand wash dishes every year. It wouldn’t be Christmas dinner without it. (Have I mentioned we like tradition?)
No matter what traditions you have or how you choose to spend your time, make sure it brings you good tidings of great joy. It’s never too late to make new traditions or resurrect old ones. But most importantly we must always remember—
are important as they keep us connected to our roots and those who are no longer with us. They keep special memories alive and passed down for generations.
The Pavilion on Little Lake Jackson is more than just a scenic venue.
It's a versatile indoor-outdoor gathering space, unparalleled in the region, and the ideal location for those looking to host a memorable business or personal event.
For more information on the event space or to schedule your event, please contact Kayla at firstname.lastname@example.org. | 863-546-0026
During this holiday season, we at Mixon Real Estate would like to extend our appreciation to you and all our clients, for allowing us to market and sell your homes. We are grateful for the trust you have put in us to walk you through this most exciting time. We look forward to continuingv to serve you and our community for many years to come. Thank you, again, for a wonderful year. May your home be filled with warm memories with those you hold most dear.
In the South we associate certain dishes with the Holidays. They are either family staples, recipes passed down from generation to generation or cultural traditions. I like to do Southern Fare with a Modern Flair so here are some traditional favorites with a twist. I hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday season and enjoy a meal around the table with family and friends. Most of my favorite memories of the holiday season is gathered in the kitchen or around the dinner table. So, from my family to yours, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
“It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving”
- Mother Teresa Jessica Pleger, owner of Pink Pineapple Catering Co.
The night before cooking the prime rib, unwrap the roast and let it sit uncovered in the refrigerator. This will dry out the surface, making it easier to get a nice brown color on the roast.
Approximately two hours before you want to begin cooking, take the roast out of the fridge and place it on a sheet pan at room temperature.
Half an hour before you start roasting, position a rack in the center of the oven and heat to 500ºF. Season the meat generously with salt and pepper. Place the sprigs of rosemary generously under each piece of twine.
Prime Rib Roast(Closed Oven Method)
1 (4- to 8-pound)
Standing rib roast, bone-in, trimmed, and tied Kosher salt, to taste Freshly ground black pepper, to taste Fresh rosemary
Now it's time to do your calculation. Simply multiply the weight of your roast (in pounds) by 5. That's your total roasting time in minutes. For instance, if you have a 4-pound roast, 4 × 5 = 20 minutes. Write that number down and set your timer.
Set your roast in a roasting pan, fat side up and place in your pre-heated oven. Roast for however many minutes you calculated above. When the time's up, turn off the oven, and walk away. Do NOT open the oven door for any reason for the next 2 hours.
In 2 hours, take the prime rib out of the oven and let it rest. This is the perfect time to make your Yorkshire Pudding. If you used a thermometer, you'll see that the internal temperature of the meat has reached 130º F, perfect medium-rare. Carve and serve.
Green Bean Gremolata
1 pound French green beans, trimmed
2 teaspoons minced garlic (2 cloves)
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest (2 lemons)
3 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
2 1/2 tablespoons good olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the green beans and blanch them for 2 to 3 minutes, until tender but still crisp. Drain the beans in a colander and immediately put them into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking and preserve their bright green color.
For the gremolata, toss the garlic, lemon zest, parsley, parmesan, and pine nuts in a small bowl and set aside. When ready to serve, heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat.
Drain the beans and pat them dry. Add the beans to the pan and sauté, turning frequently, for 2 minutes, until coated with olive oil and heated through. Off the heat, add the gremolata and toss well.
Sprinkle with 3/4 teaspoon salt and pepper.
4 large eggs
1 cup plus 2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
3/4 cup whole milk (do not substitute with low-fat)
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons water
1/2 cup beef drippings, lard, shortening, or vegetable oil
Combine eggs, flour, milk, water, and salt in a medium bowl and whisk until a smooth batter is formed. Let batter rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. Alternatively, for best results, transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate batter overnight or for up to 3 days. Remove from refrigerator while you preheat the oven.
Adjust oven rack to center position and preheat oven to 450°F. Divide drippings evenly between two 6-well popover tins, one 12-well standard muffin tin, or one 24-well mini muffin tin. Preheat in the oven until the fat is smoking hot, about 10 minutes.
Transfer the pans or tins to a heat-proof surface (such as an aluminum baking sheet on your stovetop) and divide the batter evenly between every well. The wells should be filled between 1/2 and 3/4 of the way. Immediately return to oven. Bake until the Yorkshire puddings have just about quadrupled in volume, are deep brown all over, crisp to the touch, and sound hollow when tapped; around 20 minutes.
Serve immediately, or cool completely, transfer to a zipper-lock freezer bag, and freeze for up to 3 months. Reheat in a hot toaster oven before serving.
• To get the largest rise, let the dough rest in the fridge for at least 12 hours. The longer the better. Then remove from the fridge 30 minutes before baking.
• For best flavor, use pan drippings from your beef and bake the pudding as your beef rests prior to cutting.
Red Velvet Cake
1/3 cup salted butter
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large eggs separated whites from yolks, at room temperature
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
2 ½ cups cake flour, spooned & leveled
2 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3 Tablespoons red liquid food coloring
Cream Cheese Frosting
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup salted butter, softened
4 cups powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly oil and flour three 9 by 1 1/2-inch round cake pans.
In a large bowl, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form (about 2 minutes) and set aside. Whisk cake flour, baking soda, cocoa powder, and salt. Set aside.
Using a hand or stand mixer, beat the butter and sugar until creamy and light. Add oil, vanilla, egg yolks, vinegar, and food coloring. Alternate adding flour and buttermilk. Fold in egg whites gently.
Divide the cake batter evenly among the prepared cake pans. Bake for approximately 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of one comes out clean.
For Frosting: Beat butter and cream cheese with vanilla. Add powdered sugar. Beat 5-7 minutes. Frost cake, then refrigerate to set.
Notes: If desired, you can add chopped pecans between layers and on top of the cake.
Rosemary-Infused Cranberry Simple Syrup
1 cup sugar
1 cup water 1 cup fresh cranberries
Cocktails ¾ cup rosemary-infused simple syrup 1 bottle prosecco 6 sprigs fresh rosemary
In a medium saucepan, combine sugar, water, and cranberries, and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce to a simmer while continuing to stir, until all the cranberries have popped. Remove the simple syrup from the heat and add the sprigs of rosemary. Let the rosemary infuse for 5 minutes, remove from the simple syrup, and discard.
Once the simple syrup has cooled, strain the cranberry chunks from the simple syrup and refrigerate.
To make the Rosemary Cranberry Garnish: Pierce the cranberries with a toothpick; make sure to go all the way through the berry. Remove the bottom few leaves from the rosemary sprig and put 3 berries at the bottom. Make enough sprigs for each serving.
To make the cocktails, pour 1-2 Tablespoons of rosemary-infused simple syrup into the bottom of a champagne glass. Pour prosecco over a spoon into the glass. Add a rosemary sprig to the glass, serve, and enjoy!
He’s making a list. He’s checking it twice. He’s gonna wipe out at least once or twice. Santa Claus is shooting the curl...
t least on Cocoa Beach he is. Or rather, they are, because on December 24th each year, hundreds of Surfing Santas and their elves take to the shore.
“It’s a great day,” says Surfing Santas founder George Trosset. “I love surfing, and I love Surfing Santas, and magical things keep happening.”
There does seem to be a sprinkling of Christmas magic surrounding the event, which started as a family gathering in 2009. George had seen a Honda commercial featuring surfers getting up at the break of dawn to ride the waves with Santa costumes on. Their tagline was you have your holiday traditions... we have ours. Coupled with the surfing Santa toys and ornaments his wife Nihla bought him over the years as well as his mother’s embroidered Surfing Santa sweatshirt, the commercial sparked an idea.
“On December 23rd, I called my son George and said, ‘I need you to be at the beach house tomorrow. I need you and your wife to get elf costumes. I’m gonna be Santa and you two are gonna be elves, and we’re gonna go surfing’,” George recalls.
He and Nihla went to the thrift store and picked up a shiny red raincoat, which she customized with pieces of a white felt around the cuffs and hem. “From thirty or forty feet away, it looked like a Santa Claus outfit. Up close it looked like a raincoat from a thrift shop,” jokes George.
George then called the Florida Today newspaper who sent a photographer out, and on December 25th, 2009, in the bottom right-hand corner of the front page was a picture of Santa and his elves surfing, labeled “Surfing Santa.” His three-year-old grandson, Anderson, was their sole spectator that year.
“I thought it was fun. We did something goofy. The newspaper covered it. We had fun doing a little family thing and we’re sharing some Christmas joy,” George says.
There must have been some magic happening because in 2010, some of George’s friends asked about his Surfing Santa stunt from the previous year and whether or not he was going to repeat it. George said, “I don’t know. Come to the beach house and we’ll figure it out!” That year they had 19 Surfing Santas, some in genuine, velour Santa suits.
George said they learned a few things that year. “You can’t surf in a 100-pound Santa suit safely. My son wore his outfit, red stockings like an elf might wear, but you can’t stand on a surfboard in red nylon stockings, either.”
In 2011, they had 87 people come out for the event. If that wasn’t magical enough, something else happened. “This guy called me up and said, ‘My name’s Chuck Julian and I’m a stunt parachute pilot. How about if we come and parachute in on your Surfing Santa event?’ I said, ‘Bring it on’,” George explains.
Six parachuters in Santa garb jumped out of a plane and landed on the beach. George recalls the surprise and excitement of that day: “You’re out surfing, having a good time, and then you look up!”
Meanwhile, the event kept growing year after year, and the parachuters came back, too. In 2014, Surfing Santas had grown to over 300 people, with 48 parachuting Santas jumping out of three planes. “How exciting was it to have a couple hundred surfers in the water and 48 skydiving Santas! There was all this excitement around the event and it set the tone that Surfing Santas is fun,” George says.
But at the same time, all that excitement worried him, too. While the parachuting was done safely, George was concerned about potential accidents and liability. He and Nihla also had to acknowledge that Surfing Santas had outgrown their little beach house.
“We had only one bathroom, and—no regrets—but it was a big clean up,” he says.
From 2015 onward, with the help of now-retired director Melissa Byron, the City of Cocoa Beach began hosting the family-friendly event in front of Coconuts on the Beach, located at 2 Minutemen Causeway. Today, thousands of people come to surf or spectate, and there’s lots to do. The event is free. Water and crowd safety personnel are provided by the City. And it’s still loads of fun!
Here’s what you need to know if you want to be part of this uniquely Florida magic.
Get there early! While Cocoa Beach has no shortage of (paid) parking, you’ll have a long walk if you get there after 7:30 AM. The event begins at 8:00AM with an invocation by Pastor Keith Capizzi in front of Coconuts on the Beach. Then the entertainment begins with Bill Yerkes playing Christmas music on the ukulele followed by the Harbor City Trio’s cool, smooth jazz. Line up for the costume contest begins at 8:30 AM, and the contest itself starts at 9:00 AM. Prizes include hotel rooms and boat rentals. Other entertainment includes Sam Sims’ mellow beachy music and the Brevard Hawaiian Dancers’ hula show. Don’t miss joining the crowd at 9:30 AM for the group photo in front of the stage. Ten o’clock is the official surfing kickoff time, and the crowd heads to the beach to watch.
So with all of the “surfing Santas” out there on Christmas Eve, is there a REAL Surfing Santa?
Actually, yes. His name is Clifford “Peanut” Kuehler, and you can find him sitting in a lifeguard chair under an umbrella, taking pictures with visitors of all ages. He’s a bit thinner and sportier than your typical Santa, but he embodies the Surfing Santa vibe. His wife, Terri, plays the role of Mrs. Claus. Pictures are printed out right on site with a high-speed printer and given away free. George has seen Christmas magic come out of this aspect of the event as well.
“If someone handed me a picture of myself, I’d smile and say thank you, and that’s that,” he says. But the joy he kept seeing on the faces of people, especially adults, boggled him. “Some guy explained it to me. He said, ‘George, when I stood there with Surfing Santa and I saw the picture, I was smitten. It took me back to when I was 10 years old and got my picture taken with Santa at the mall’.”
George has had other people approach him with moving stories, including families torn apart who were able to make new memories and traditions through Surfing Santas.
“I never expected it,” he adds. “We did it for the fun of it, but it struck a nerve. It was magical.”
Not only has Surfing Santas changed the holidays for the people who show up to Cocoa Beach every year to experience the holiday magic, it has touched those in need as well. Over the past several years, the event has raised over $200,000 for local charities, including the Florida Surf Museum, who sponsors local high school surf teams under the direction of John Hughes, and Grind For Life, which helps families dealing with a cancer diagnosis and is run by cancer survivor Mike Rogers (he’ll be the guy handing out donuts and coffee at the event).
Much of the money is raised through T-shirt sales, which are sold at local stores and also online at https://surfingsantas.org/shop/. This year, for the first time, they will also be raffling off a vehicle donated by local car dealer Mike Erdman.
Over the years, Surfing Santas has reached across the globe and become a viral news story. George has met people in remote areas of Greece who have heard about it, and he’s seen Surfing Santa footage featured on Russian TV. The Office of Tourism reported 8 billion media impressions of Surfing Santas’ photos and videos worldwide. “If that’s true, I say we’ve created 8 billion smiles,” George says.
The family is still very much involved—both George and Nihla as well as George Jr. and their daughter Trina Christiansen. All eight of the grandchildren have been “in the water” during Surfing Santa events.
George is just glad to be able to facilitate some Christmas magic at home and around the world. He adds, “Mike Rogers calls it the ‘red coat effect.’ You dress up as Santa, you wear red, you do good things, and other good things happen. It’s real.”
For more information, to watch Surfing Santa video footage, or to purchase T-shirts or raffle tickets, visit www.surfingsantas.org.
It’s a great day, I love surfing, and I love Surfing Santas, and magical things keep happening.
- George Trosset
NATIONAL WREATHS across AMERICA DAY
TRIBUTE TO ALL VETERANSBy Bridgette Waldau and Brad Phares Photos courtesy of Brad Phares
National Wreaths Across America Day is a tribute to all veterans, from the Revolutionary War to presentday conflicts and is celebrated annually on the third Saturday of each December. Inspired by one man’s appreciation of our great nation and those who have fought to protect our freedoms, Wreaths Across America was founded in 2007 with its fundamental mission being to “Remember, Honor, and Teach” adults and children an appreciation for our country and our veterans. While educational outreach activities and fundraising events occur throughout the year, the primary fulfillment of this mission is achieved through coordinated wreath laying ceremonies at more than 1,400 locations in the US and abroad, including the revered Arlington National Cemetery.
Locally here in Florida’s heartland, Okeechobee resident Brad Phares serves as a Location Coordinator for Wreaths Across America. When asked how he became involved with the program, Brad said, “The wreath laying ceremony is a somber and reverent experience that leaves an indelible impression on your heart. I don’t think I’m guilty of using an over-generalization by saying that. I think it’s a fair assessment of how the vast majority of people who attend a wreath laying ceremony feel.” He attended his first ceremony in 2015 at the Forest Hills Memorial Park in Palm City. “Our close family friends Mark and Karen Zook lost their son, Marine corporal Ian Zook, to an improvised explosive device while serving in Iraq in 2004, and as a Gold Star Family they were inspired to get involved with Wreaths Across America, starting the program there.” Brad was so moved that he wrote a poem about his experience. “Having written a fair amount of cowboy poetry over the years, I’ve come to learn that some poems seem to write themselves, and this was definitely one of those times.” After sharing the poem with the Zooks, they invited him to their 2016 event to share it as part of the ceremony.
“Forest Hills had around 300 extra wreaths that year and donated them to be brought to Evergreen Cemetery in Okeechobee. We covered as many gravestones as we could and set up a memorial display in Veterans Park downtown so that we could begin our own tradition of remembering, honoring, and teaching.” Brad’s father Bill, who had served as a Specialist 5 (Crew Chief/Door Gunner) with the Army’s 282nd Assault Helicopter Company during the Vietnam War, had passed away in March 2016, further bolstering Brad’s decision to become more involved with the program.
Together with his wife Sam and Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office Community Liaison/Public Information Officer Jack Nash, Brad coordinated the first formal Wreaths Across America event held at Okeechobee’s Evergreen Cemetery in 2017. According to Brad, “With myself serving as the captain for our department’s volunteer Mounted Posse and Jack’s enthusiastic support as a full-time employee, it was a natural fit for the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office to take a very active role in our local program. Sheriff Noel Stephen never falters in providing us with needed resources and logistics. He’s a huge advocate for our veteran community and has been a tremendous blessing to us in fulfilling our WAA mission here locally.”
Traditionally, the national model has been for each cemetery to be an individual location, but as a small community with three cemeteries scattered across a large county, Okeechobee’s volunteers have deviated from that pattern by seeking to raise funds enough to meet the needs for all three cemeteries: Evergreen, Ft. Drum, and Basinger. “Technically speaking, each location should be addressed separately, but we don’t want to confuse people and give the impression of having opposing fundraisers,” Brad explains. With approximately 900-1,000 veterans interred at Evergreen, plus the needs of the other two locations, the group seeks to raise funds sufficient to place wreaths on roughly 1,300 gravestones.
While the national organization provides an outline for the annual event to maintain a level of uniformity at the ceremonies, they also allow some flexibility for communities to represent their individual character. In Okeechobee, that has entailed the inclusion of local civic groups, the local Eagle Riders motorcycle club, mounted Sheriff’s Posse officers, and various youth groups participating as a community service project.
As part of the national organization’s protocol, eight ceremonial wreaths are present at each ceremony, representing the eight branches of the United States Uniformed Services – Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, Air Force, Space Force, Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (MIA/POW), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (Merchant Marines). For Okeechobee’s ceremony, and as a way of showing honor and respect for their past service, local veterans are chosen to place the ceremonial wreath representing their branch of the military. Following the placement of the ceremonial wreaths, the gathered crowd will hear from a guest speaker before being invited to help place the wreaths for the veterans throughout the cemetery.
Individual wreaths cost $15 or three for $30. In the event there are additional funds remaining after the wreaths are purchased and the local goal is met, the location can elect to carry the funds over to the following year’s event or donate extra wreaths to other locations like Arlington National Cemetery or one determined by the national organization. For Okeechobee, some years they carry the funds over, but in other years such as 2021, Brad and his family transported roughly 300 wreaths to veteran gravesites at Hillcrest Memorial Gardens in north Saint Lucie County.
When asked about the growth of the local effort, Brad noted, “We’ve come quite a long way in five years of holding these ceremonies. We knew we’d have great support from the people and businesses in our community who are always so generous, but it’s been very inspiring to watch everything about this effort evolve.
The only year we didn’t hold official ceremonies was during the peak of COVID in 2020 out of concern for our veterans, many of whom fell into that grouping of highly at-risk persons. The local businesses carried the load for us in those first few years, but now it’s reached a point where individuals are contributing the majority, and especially those individuals affiliated with civic associations like the VFW, American Legion, The Fraternal Order of Eagles, DAR, SAR, and many more.” And just as the group from Forest Hills Cemetery helped bring Wreaths Across America to Okeechobee County, Okeechobee’s fundraising group helped germinate a WAA location in Glades County.
Okeechobee resident and WAA supporter Carol Shipman poured her heart and soul into sitting outside of Publix on numerous occasions collecting donations for Okeechobee’s WAA fundraising effort. Two members of VFW Post 10539, Joan Rhoden and Naomi “Timmie” Oldiges, were game changers when they stepped forward to take on a more active role with the local fundraising effort right as they were most needed. They helped organize several events such as a poker run in conjunction with the Glades County WAA group and a BBQ fundraiser with Ding-a-Ling Deli Restaurant.
“Our local program really took off and blossomed right as personal responsibilities and obligations for both me and Jack began to escalate,” says Brad. “We were feeling the strain of meeting all our goals and organizing the event, and it’s a tremendous amount of pressure because when it comes to honoring and supporting our veterans, failure really isn’t an option. Timmie and Joan approached us to help with the fundraising side of things with perfect timing. They had the biggest resource available that Jack and I did not—ample free time to focus solely on fundraising—and they’ve done a superb job at it. Now, Jack and I focus on logistics, they focus on fundraising, and we all meet the mission goal as a team.”
This year’s ceremony, with a theme of “Find A Way To Serve,” will be held on Saturday, December 17th at noon by the flagpole at Evergreen Cemetery. Members of the public are invited to attend and be a part of this poignant experience.
For more information on how you can donate or otherwise assist, please contact Brad at email@example.com.
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The wreath laying ceremony is a somber and reverent experience that leaves an indelible impression on your heart.
A Traditional Southern New Year's Day DinnerBy Cindy Adams
Many cultures and countries have particular "lucky" foods, and us Florida Southerners are no exception. Greens, pork, and cornbread, as well as black-eyed peas are some of the typical symbolic foods served on New Year's Day. When planning your menu, add these Southern foods that some say bring good luck and avoid those that may do just the opposite in the new year. Here’s to eating your way into 2023!
What to Eat on New Year’s Day
According to popular folklore, if these foods are eaten on New Year's Day, you're guaranteed good luck throughout the year. Peas and beans symbolize coins or wealth. Choose traditional black-eyed peas, lentils, or beans to make a dish seasoned with pork, ham, or sausage.
Greens resemble money, specifically folding money. Make dishes using green, leafy vegetables to ensure good fortune for the coming year. Southern favorites include mustard greens, turnip greens, collard greens or boiled cabbage.
Pork is considered a sign of prosperity in some cultures because pigs root forward. This is probably the reason many Southern New Year's Day dishes contain pork or ham.
Cornbread might symbolize gold because corn kernels represent coins. Yet, cornbread is also essential with black-eyed peas and greens, so you can triple your luck with these natural complements.
In other cultures, fish, grapes, and ring-shaped cakes or doughnuts symbolize luck. Cakes with special treats inside do as well, so something like a surprise loaf cake is perfect.
New Year's Day Menu Suggestions
The perfect New Year's Day menu includes easily seasoned mustard greens, spicy black-eyed peas (Hoppin' John), hot cooked rice, skillet cornbread and a old fashioned carrot cake. Enjoy my favorite recipes on the following pages.
Mustard Greens with Ham
Ham seasons mustard greens perfectly. Serve them with pepper sauce or homemade pepper vinegar. These are delicious with fresh baked cornbread and pepper sauce or vinegar. Buy well-cleaned greens or wash them in at least three changes of cold water to get rid of all the grit.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 to 3 ham shanks, or a meaty ham bone, or ham hocks
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 pounds mustard greens, tough stems removed, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 cups chicken broth
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
Pepper vinegar sauce, to taste, optional Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
In a large pot heat oil over medium heat.
Add the onions, ham shanks or ham bone; cook, stirring, until onions are wilted.
Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute longer. Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil.
Add the mustard greens, a few handfuls at a time, adding more as the first batch wilts.
Reduce heat to medium-low; add Worcestershire sauce and a dash of hot pepper sauce. Cook, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Cover and simmer for about 30 to 40 minutes longer.
Spicy Southern Black-Eyed Peas
These Southern black-eyed peas are a traditional New Year's Day dish, also known as Hoppin' John. Salt pork, hog jowl, or ham hocks flavor this tasty dish of black-eyed peas.
1 pound fresh or dried blackeyed peas
4 ounces salt pork
1 large onion
3 to 4 cloves garlic
8 ounces ham
2 stalks celery
1/2 red bell pepper
1/2 green bell pepper
2 teaspoons Cajun seasoning or a seasoning salt blend
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups long-grain rice
Using fresh water, rinse the peas and pick them over, removing any damaged peas or small stones. Put them in a large Dutch oven and cover with water to a depth of about 3 inches above the peas. Cover the pan.
If using dried, follow package directions; soak the black-eyed peas overnight or boil for 2 minutes and then let them stand for 1 hour. Drain the peas.
Remove the rind from the salt pork or other fatty pork and cut it into 1/2-inch dice. Thick bacon, side meat, and streak o'lean are some good alternatives to salt pork.
Peel the onion, chop it finely and mince the garlic.
Place a heavy skillet over medium heat and sauté the diced salt pork with the onion until onion is lightly browned.
Add the garlic and continue to cook for 1 minute longer. Meanwhile, dice the ham, celery, and the red and green bell peppers, if using.
Transfer the sautéed salt pork, onions, and garlic to the pot with the drained peas. Add the diced ham, celery, the red and green bell pepper (if using), and the Cajun seasoning blend. Add water or unsalted chicken stock to just cover the peas (about 4 to 5 cups).
Simmer the peas uncovered for about 1 hour, or until the peas and vegetables are tender. Check the peas occasionally and add a little more water if necessary. Taste and season with salt, pepper, and hot pepper, as desired.
About 20 minutes before the peas are ready, cook the rice following the package directions. Keep the rice warm until serving time.
Classic Southern Buttermilk Cornbread
This cornbread recipe is for the classic buttermilk cornbread you'll find throughout the South and cooked in a very hot cast-iron skillet. There's generally no sugar added to Southern cornbread, which makes it an ideal side dish for a savory meal. Serve it fresh from the oven.
1/4 cup melted shortening, divided
2 cups white or yellow cornmeal
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
1 large egg
Butter, for serving, optional
Preheat the oven to 425 F. Position the rack in the center of the oven.
Brush about 1 tablespoon of melted shortening in a 9- to 10-inch cast-iron skillet and put the skillet in the oven.
In a large bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk to blend thoroughly.
In another bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, egg, and the remaining 3 tablespoons of melted shortening.
Add the buttermilk mixture to the dry mixture and stir just until blended. Carefully remove the hot cast iron pan from the oven and set it on a metal rack. Pour the batter into the sizzling shortening in the hot skillet.
Return the skillet to the oven, reduce the oven temperature to 375 F, and bake for 20 to 24 minutes, until golden brown. Serve hot with a pat of butter, if desired.
Old Fashioned Carrot Cake
What dessert is good luck on New Year's Day?
Cake! It is believed that eating a round-shaped dessert or a ringshaped cake will bring a full circle of luck for that following year. In other traditions, some would even bake a coin into the cake, which is believed to bring an extra serving of good luck to the one who finds it!
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups oil (I use canola)
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups carrots, grated (Remove ends and scrape carrots before grating)
1 cup nuts
Cream Cheese Frosting
8 oz. package cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup salted butter, softened
4 cups confectionery sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract
In a large mixing bowl mix flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon and salt together with a wire whisk. In a small bowl cream oil, sugar, eggs and vanilla with a mixer
Add creamed mixture to dry ingredients and mix well with mixer. Add carrots and keep on mixing. If using nuts or raisins fold them in with a spoon. Spray 2 round cakes pans or a 9 x 13 pan and add batter. Bake in preheated 350 degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes until toothpick comes out clean. Let cool before frosting. Frost with cream cheese frosting
Beat butter and cream cheese with vanilla. Add powdered sugar mix together until smooth and of spreading consistency.
fter a month of following the Polk County Bully Project (PCBP) on social media, I pull up in the parking lot. I’m a bundle of emotions four weeks out from the tragic loss of my own four-legged bestie, and my skepticism meter is off the charts. Forty years growing up in Polk County plus thousands of miles training for marathons on these streets has taught me to stay alert for stray dogs and to regard anything that might resemble a pitbull with due caution. As I gather my notebook and pen, I wonder to myself why exactly I feel this way. While I’ve had plenty of run-ins with strays, I’ve never actually had an incident with a bully breed; it’s just something I “know,” feed store chatter, something whispered. The building is nothing more than a converted office building with a shaded and fenced outdoor area filled with dog toys and kiddie pools. Volunteers and employees are in and out of the front door with various dogs on leashes and clear protocols for such a simple day-to-day task. The fenced area is hosting a doggie play time—3 black dogs of varying ages and sizes are frollicking in the water spray of a hose while a volunteer praises them.
his is the main hub for the Polk County Bully project, a small charity with a seemingly insurmountable goal—Save The Bullies! While many animal control agencies are on track to become no-kill shelters, Polk County has a dire animal control situation. Intake rates at Polk County Animal Control are so high that a moratorium was placed on owner surrenders because the facility maintains a maximum capacity with just the dogs that are picked up by officers. The largest percentage of the dogs in the shelter is composed of bully breeds—pitbull and bulldog varieties, or any mix that might be perceived as one. An animal labeled as a pitbull cannot be adopted out, except to an approved 501c3 rescue. Without a rescue literally coming to the rescue, these dogs simply do their time and add to the euthanization statistics. Animal Control workers try hard to move animals out and into rescues.
The animal welfare issues in Polk County are complex and long-standing. “Here’s how it works,” Shannon explains. “Polk County is one of the fastest growing counties in the nation. When the population of people goes up, so does the animal population... and so does the number of puppies. Socio-economic issues create a cycle where the pups can’t be properly cared for, and neither can the mature dogs be spayed and neutered. It’s a mess!”
Angela chimes in. “Only about 7% of the dogs we pull have been spayed or neutered. Many of the females are pregnant. One month, we took in eight pregnant females that gave birth to 72 puppies. That is the rate of the problem.”
Angela and Shannon insist “things do not have to be this way.” In many counties legislation has been implemented with excellent results. Hillsborough County, for example, currently requires owners to register and license their cats and dogs and breeders to obtain permits. They also provide rebate incentives for spaying and neutering. In 2000, before the spay/neuter program, 23,827 dogs and cats were euthanized.
n 2020, the number was in the hundreds. Volusia County took in over 15,000 dogs and cats in 2007. By 2021, the intake was just under 1000 animals. Orange, Manatee, Hardee, Pinellas, Lake, Pasco, Volusia—the list of counties with rebate or incentive programs for spay and neuter is long. Polk County is being encouraged by rescue organizations and residents alike to carry this positive trend forward.
Polk County Bully Project has amassed a huge following with their adorable social media feed and frequent opportunities for citizens to “Meet the Bullies.” With a wide net of foster homes, volunteers, and doggy date chaperones, these ladies are pulling it off. But there is never enough money, supplies, foster homes, or families ready to adopt. While the focus is on Bully breeds—pitbull and bulldog varieties—PCBP is known to pull any dog, they can house, regardless of breed. Weekly visits to Animal Control allow them to keep tabs on dogs they wish to rescue until space opens or a foster volunteer comes forward.
hannon says, “We try to put our hands on as many dogs as we can, and taking them into a foster home greatly improves their situation. They can practice manners, learn how to live the lush life, and get the veterinary care they need, as well as decompress from what was likely a very stressful time.”
Humans and dogs have walked side by side for at least 12,000 years. That’s a good run, a symbiosis that serves both species. Man’s Best Friend, with that sloppy tongue and waggly tail, needs us as much as we need them. And in Polk County, the four-legged need the two-legged to intervene. Adoption is the hope that anchors every rescue organization. Perfectly “adopt a-bull” sweethearts are waiting for the love and comfort of a fur-ever family! If one of those families is yours, please reach out to the Polk County Bully Project or a pit bull rescue near you.
- Josh Grogan, author of Marley and Me
Such short little lives our pets have to spend with us, and they spend most of it waiting for us to come home each day.
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