Maybe it's something in the water. Something that ignites the right side of the brain with intense musicality and creativity. Whatever the reason, Mount Dora seems to be an incubator for emerging music artists.
One local singer and songwriter, Jeff Whitfield, apparently drank much more than his share of the water. His ease and honesty radiates in his music which commands even the passive listener to stop, pay attention and remember it. Whitfield credits the influences of music icons Dan Fogelberg, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Ray Vaughan with influencing his soulful style.
At 39, the humble and humorous Mount Dora High graduate is about to embark on a new chapter of his career. After 18 months of writing and recording, Whitfield, who lives in Mount Plymouth with his wife Tracy and their children Chelsea and Aidan, will release his album of original music, "Choices", in October.
The album kicks off with a pre-release jam at Ruby Street Grille on Oct. 14, followed by an album release concert featuring the full band at the Mount Dora Community Building on Oct. 16. The start of Whitfield's new chapter marked the perfect time for Mount Dora Buzz to sit down with him so his many fans and friends could get to know him a little better.
MDB: With your voice, you could live anywhere, but have chosen to stay local. Why? JW: If I’m broken down on the side of the road, there’s a good likelihood someone will help me. I’m a small town guy. And I’m not that smart, I need everything where I can find it. (laughs)
MDB: Other than your own home, what single place do you feel most comfortable. JW: The woods. The further in the better.
MDB: Where did you play your first local paid gig? JW:(Smiles)Eduardo’s Station (currently the Lost Parrot on Donnelly St.) when I was 17 years old. Vicky, the manager, wouldn't give me more gigs until I showed her my report card that showed I was passing. I was paid 75 bucks.
MDB: What came first: guitar, singing or songwriting? JW: Singing, followed by guitar and piano, then writing. I was 13 when I started.
MDB: You're an incredibly soulful artist. Where does that come from? JW: Early Motown was a big influence. When it’s done right, it comes from the heart. It’s a very honest music.
MDB: What two artists would you gladly walk over hot coals to perform with? JW: Bonnie Raitt. I wanna be the male version of her. (Smiles) And Django Reinhardt.
MDB: What three words best describe your music? JW: I hope people think it’s soulful, musical and serious Music should be fun, but it’s nice to be taken seriously.
MDB: You and David Oliver Willis have complementary musical styles and have collaborated successfully on a lot of local endeavors. What bonds this artistic bromance, we dubbed “Whitlis”? JW: (Laughs) He and I started down the same path. I really dig how he goes out and drums up support for music and the community. David has a lot of talent and gets even better every day.
MDB: 3 words to describe yourself? JW: I’m gonna go with what I hope: Funny, loving, honest.
MDB: 3 words your wife would use? JW:(Laughs) Forgetful. Heartfelt. Kind.
MDB: Where do you draw inspirations for your songwriting? JW: Usually love or pain. My wife creeps into every song I write, whether I like it or not. Occassionally, I like to be whimsical.
MDB: Some people define musical success by how far up the charts an artist climbs. How will you personally define the success of “Choices”? JW: As an artist, being able to listen to it and get that feeling of an album that I really love and I hope others feel the same.
MDB: What's the most valuable lesson you’ve learned and who taught it to you? JW: Try your hardest to do what you say you’re going to do. My father taught me that in a very inadvertent way.
MDB: What are you afraid of ? JW: Dying. There’s a great Sam Cooke line, “It's been too hard living, but I'm afraid to die 'cause I don't know what's up there, beyond the sky.”
MDB: What’s your guilty pleasure? JW:(Quickly) Potato Chips! The only kind that should be abolished are ‘Salt & Vinegar’. (laughs)
MDB: What's something about you that most people don't know? JW: That I’m a committed father. I do a lot of ‘Mr. Mom’ during the day. My wife works days so we split parenting duties.
MDB: It's time for a speed round of “Would you Rather...” Super Bowl or US Open Golf? JW: US Open Meditation or push ups? JW: Both Boxers or briefs? JW: Neither Tailgate or Broadway? JW: Broadway Rollercoaster or carousel? JW: (sighs) Carousel Beach chair or surfboard? JW: Surfboard! Heights or speed? JW: Almost neither, but I’ll take speed Shaken or stirred? JW: Shaken Hug or handshake? JW: Hug Purell or 5 second rule? JW: 5 second rule Dumbells or down dog? JW: Dumbells Betty White or Barry White? JW: I want them to be married and come to my house for dinner. T-Bone or Tofu? JW: T-Bone Paris or Peru? JW: Paris
Right now they stand empty, but it won't be long before lockers are crammed and the halls are bustling with students.
As Lake County ushers in the new school year on August 24, Mount Dora Middle School will be welcoming a new principal, Jacob Stein. The school's new top administrator is a former teacher in Mount Dora and answered a few questions for Mount Dora Buzz to help the community get re-acquainted with him.
MD BUZZ: What do you feel are the 2 greatest challenges facing Middle School students in general? JS: I feel that the two greatest challenges facing middle schools students are themselves – deciding who they are and deciding how they want to be perceived. Also, I believe organization and balance are a struggle for middle schoolers. They are beginning more extra- curricular activities while having more homework. They are trying to develop more of a social side and this can be tough to balance all of that with school.
MD BUZZ: What are the 2 greatest challenges facing Mount Dora Middle School? JS:I feel the two greatest challenges that face Mount Dora Middle School faces are improving on FSA and EOC Assessments while supporting the whole student and developing a school culture where discipline is minimal.
MD BUZZ: How did your previous position prepare you for these challenges? JS:I believe all of my previous positions have prepared me to be the principal at Mt. Dora Middle School. I have been in the district for 18 years and taught both at Eustis Middle School and Mt. Dora High School before going into administration. I spent four years at Windy Hill Middle School as an assistant principal and the last five years as an assistant principal at East Ridge High School.
MD BUZZ: What do you like most about working with this age of students? JS:I enjoy seeing the students grow from kids into young men and women.
MD BUZZ: Middle School age can be difficult, how will stay personally connected with students? JS:I believe you stay connected with the students by being very visible at the school, but also by supporting them in the community, whether that be attending their sport events, drama productions, city parades or festivals. You need to build a school culture of caring and support for the students.
MD BUZZ: What is your philosophy to keep a positive, learning atmosphere for the students? JS:I truly believe that students need to know that you care and support them while treating them with respect. However, when discipline does occur you need to be fair and consistent and make sure they realize that this a consequence for their behavior not just punishment.
MD BUZZ: In addition to a new principal, what other changes will there be this Fall at the school? JS:In addition to a new principal and new teachers, the students will have an opportunity to participate in an after school program that will provide extra-curricular activities as well as tutoring for no charge. The program will provide the students the opportunity to explore a variety of activities in the evenings from 4:15-to 6:15 with transportation home being provided. MD BUZZ: What is the school's estimated enrollment for this fall? JS: 825
MD BUZZ: Have you had a chance to explore Mount Dora? JS:I am familiar with the culture that Mount Dora has to offer since I was actively involved in the community while I taught at Mount Dora High School and I look forward to being part of the community again.
Three of the most enjoyable attributes in people are insane creativity, humility and wicked humor. Mount Dora Buzz sat down last week with an atypical Southern belle who exudes healthy doses of all three. Lauren Graham Cunningham and The Buzz chatted about everything from the predictable to the slightly off-the-wall. Read more...
AN UPDATE ON THE WARRIOR PRINCESS Captivated by immense compassion, Mount Dora residents rallied together three years ago for baby Joss, the little Warrior Princess in need of perhaps the most risky medical procedure available.
At two-months old Joss had her first seizure. Many doctors appointments, tests and seizures ensued. Then in 2012, when Joss was just one year old, additional testing resulted in a diagnosis of hemimegalencephaly, a rare form of epilepsy in which one half of the brain is severely larger than the other. The congenital condition causes severe seizures that aren't effectively treated with medications .
Joss' parents, Jennifer and Michael Dempsey of Mount Dora, were relentless in their quest to help their young daughter. Assistance came from specialists, Dr. Ki Hyeong Lee, an epileptologist, and Dr. Baumgartner, the neurosurgeon who eventually performed the extremely invasive hemispherectomy that intricately removed the half of her brain causing the seizures. Following that surgery were other brain surgeries and a tremendous amount of ups and downs.
Last February, Joss reached the milestone of being two years seizure-free, plus one and a half years medication-free. In many ways, she is simply a happy, sassy four-year old girl that loves nature walks, swings at the park, music, Disney World and tiaras. However, she still faces many challenges ahead.
" Physically, she still struggles with weakness on the right half on her body. This weakness is more pronounced in her right hand and right foot, so she wears braces to help support her wrist and ankle. She walks very well now and is learning how to run, jump and climb", according to Jennifer Dempsey. "She has a vocabulary of about 20 words and can count to fourteen (when she feels like it). She is extra sensitive to tastes, textures and sensory stimulation, so eating is still a challenge for her."
Walking and talking are complex activities for the brain, so the Dempseys were thrilled to hear Joss' first words and see her walk. However there are still many challenges ahead.
"Right now, it's still very difficult to reason with her and help her understand why she needs to use her right hand or do something that's difficult for her. Joscelyn is a great problem solver and she's very good at compensating, so she'll find ingenious ways to avoid doing the harder thing in favor of getting something done faster," according to Dempsey. "As she gets older, I'm hoping she'll begin to see more value in trying to use her right hand and building up strength in her weaker muscles. In the meantime, we do our best to make therapy fun for her and encourage her."
Although incredibly promising, Joss' future is still a difficult path compared to typical children. Her mother says no one is really able to accurately predict how much brain function Joss will recover over the next 15-20 years due to the limited amount of research done with children after a hemispherectomy. However, some adults who underwent the same surgery as a child can drive, work, and live independently, while others require constant care.
"We know that she'll always have limited vision in the right half of both eyes and she'll always have less strength in her right hand and foot. Beyond that, we just hope and pray for the best and do all we can to maximize her potential." said Dempsey
Part of a large, blended family, Joss' four older siblings are impressive in their support and encouragement. Marc is 24, Clayton is 13, Javelyn is 13 and Jackson is 12. Her big brother Nick passed away tragically in 2011 at the age of 14 when she was just six months old.
The compassionate support of the community was extraordinary. "It surprised and touched me how much support we received from total strangers!", said Dempsey. "I still get stopped at the grocery store sometimes by the sweetest people who will shyly introduce themselves and let me know that they've been following Joscelyn's story and are still praying for us. It's very humbling and means the world to me!"
To meet Joss is a joy and a humbling life lesson. She's happy. She's determined. She is in many ways a typical, little girl. Yet Joss survived the unimaginable and rallied a community. She will remain a force to be reckoned with.
When people think of reptiles, they don't often think of women as being their protectors. Three central Florida women have changed that perception, as well as the fate of many threatened gopher tortoises.
According to Kim Titterington of Swamp Girl Adventures, an effective dream team for Central Florida's tortoise rescue and rehabilitation consists of Carissa Kent, Amanda Ebenhack and herself.
"All three of us do what we can to help the gopher tortoises survive," Titterington said. "Each of us has our own non-profit wildlife rescue and rehab organization. I've been doing this for more than 20 years --educating people about Florida wildlife and habitats."
This year alone, Titterington has rescued and released more than 20 gopher tortoises.
The trio of rescuers works with different wildlife organizations including the Florida Wildlife Commission. Occasionally, they get to work together. Each has their own niche. Carissa Kent works in overgrown fields or land cleared for development. There she and her crew literally dig the tortoises out of the ground by hand, where they've been buried alive. Many times the developers call her before they bulldoze. Kent has rescued more than 5,000 tortoises in the last nine years.
As for Amanda Ebenhack, she runs the Central Florida Wildlife Center. As a permitted wildlife rehabitator for gopher tortoises she's seen her share of hurt and wounded tortoises. A typical year at her wildlife center means 100-300 tortoises can be rehabbed.
"All of us have one thing in mind--the tortoise," Titterington said. "The first thing we do for any tortoise is to assess the injury and look for illnesses. People don't realize a cracked shell or even one leg missing -- doesn't mean a death sentence for the tortoise. We deal with veterinarians who specialize in turtles."
Each of these women have a common goal. Rescue, rehabilitate (if needed) and release back into the wild.
"Back into a natural surrounding where they will thrive," she said. "All tortoises deserve a chance. Every living creature is in this world together-- whether it be humans or tortoises.", said Titterington.
Swamp Girl Adventures can be reached at www.swampgirladventures.org
By Sharon G. Nichols, Senior Writer (edited by Trish Morgan)
Cynthia Blevins is more than the Animal Control Officer for Mount Dora. She is the compassionate voice for any animal which walks or flies. "I love every single animal big or small. Four legged or winged," Blevins said. "Even the snakes and lizards."
Blevins has worked with animals since she was a little girl in Ruskin. The native Floridian remembers her dream was always to help animals. So, it was natural for her to go to the police academy, pass the course and then move in the direction her heart told her--animal control.
"My first years in the field I worked for Hillsborough County. There's nothing like in the field experience. I learned more from hands on knowledge than you can imagine. Working with injured animals, rescuing dogs and cats , dealing with the laws and ordinances. It was great!"
The time in Hillsborough prepared her for her job here in Mount Dora.
"I started here around 2004,'" she said. "I've had many blessings in Mount Dora. A great group of people to work with and for, you cannot imagine."
No day is ever the same for Blevins. Each day brings its rewards, challenges, even heartache.
"There are days which I deal with animal nuisance problems and help mediate neighbor complaints about an animal." Blevins said. "And 2 hours later I'm taking a wounded bird of prey to the Avian Reconditioning Center in Apopka."
Blevins works closely with local rescue organizations and Mount Dora vets quite often. "I'd be lost without these groups help. The economic down turn left some animals abandoned by their owners. Our community has stepped to the plate several times."
As much as Blevins feels the community has helped, she still needs some help getting kennels, cages for hurt rabbits and blankets and towels.
"I never know what I'll need on some of these emergency calls," she said. "Once I got a emergency call that a large lizard was in the back of a business on 441. When I got there it was a 4 foot iguana. I ended up using a laundry basket plus 4 people to help put it on top of him -while I held his tail with my pole. Then what do you transport him in?"
Blevins has dreams that she would love for the city to do.
"I would love to do pet adoption day in the dog park and even shot clinics like other cities do to help their citizens," she said. "As giving as the city is I would like to have an emergency fund so we could waive fees to help our citizens who've been hit hard with the economy."
Cynthia Blevins the woman with a heart-- feels she has the best job in the world. "I love my job," Blevins said. "I tell people I'm the luckiest person around."
Animal Control Services can be reached t 352-735-7130.
As downtown merchants gear up for Mount Dora Arts Festival next weekend, an anxiously awaited new store is busy preparing to open in time for the big event. The Spice and Tea Exchange, a chain of specialty stores throughout the country, is opening its thirty-ninth location on Donnelly Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues. Glen and Kim Gordon have owned the Tarpon Springs location since October, 2013 and scoured for a second location for seven months before deciding on Mount Dora. The couple said the friendly people, culture of the town and knowledge that The Spice & Tea Exchange stores thrive in destination locations made the choice obvious. The specialty store provides a sensorial experience where customers are encouraged to explore and smell its bulk spices, blends, sea salts and rubs, as well as over thirty loose teas. Kitchen accessories that can be used with their products will also be sold at the location. The downtown store has hired three part-time employees, in addition to their son, to introduce foodies and novices to their specialty products and provide suggestions of how to use them.
The couple's first visit to Mount Dora was in April, 2014 and they now have a place locally to hang their hats. By all accounts, they are quickly beginning to fall in love with the community.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU.... BUZZ: Where do you call home? TSTE: St. Petersburg
BUZZ: Birthplace? TSTE: California (Glen), South Carolina (Kim)
BUZZ: Worst job you ever had? TSTE: Job with food distributor that started at 3am
BUZZ: Favorite two products from your store? TSTE: Florida Sunshine Blend (perfect for seafood and chicken) and the Backwoods Hickory Rub (used in the smoker).
BUZZ: Favorite music genre? TSTE: Comtemporary Christian
BUZZ: Spiders or snakes? TSTE: Spiders (Kim)
BUZZ: Number of children? TSTE: 4
BUZZ: Past professional life? TSTE: Customer service manager for manufacturing company (Glen)