‘Jeep Girls’

Here is another article I did for today’s SanTan Sun News, a newspaper based out of Chandler, Arizona. I had the opportunity to interview The Jeep Girls, Ashley and Brittany, two extremely nice sisters, over the phone a few weeks back. Their story was pretty incredible to hear, as well as write. Enjoy reading about their adventure.

‘Jeep Girls’ share their story, bring awareness

Published in SanTan Sun News Jan. 18, 2014 issue

Two Chandler sisters dubbed “The Jeep Girls” share their lifestyles with like-minded people by giving back to others as they tour the country bringing awareness of American culture.

“Life is a constant treasure hunt and we are able to learn about our culture through the people, landscape and industry,” says Ashley Hill, who makes up the Jeep Girls with sister Brittany Hill.

The two are relative newcomers to Arizona, having moved here from Illinois when Brittany, now 25, was just out of high school.

“It was quite a culture shock,” Brittany explains.

She says when they moved to Chandler, they learned that life can be sunny and colorful. Arizona offers a very laid-back atmosphere, Brittany says.

Before the ‘Jeep Girls’

The love of Jeeps resonated at a very young age for the Hill sisters. The duo has a family video where they are in a Power Wheel flame red Jeep Wrangler.

“In this video Brittany is 3 or 4 and I am 1,” Ashley says. “In this video our parents taught us the word ‘Jeep.’”

The girls purchased matching flame red Jeep Cherokees as teens and, in 2005, they went on a nationwide search to find a Jeep Wrangler, which they found in Chicago.

In 2005 Ashley and Brittany Hill, otherwise known as the Jeep Girls, went on a nationwide search to fi nd a Jeep Wrangler.  Photo provided to the SanTan Sun News

In 2005 Ashley and Brittany Hill, otherwise known as the Jeep Girls, went on a nationwide search to fi nd a Jeep Wrangler.
Photo provided to the SanTan Sun News

“The Jeep is a symbol of that ultimate freedom machine with the ability to take the doors off and the top,” Ashley explains. “The freedom machine celebrates American history.”

Brittany earned a fi ne arts degree from Arizona State University’s Herberger School of Fine Art in 2008. Ashley graduated summa cum laude in 2009 from Arizona State University with a communication degree from the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication.

Both of the girls went into the news business after graduation but were dissatisfied with that career choice.

Brittany quit on a whim. Ashley followed.

“I am much happier not being competitive in terms of trying to climb that corporate ladder,” Brittany says.

The American Legend Tour

The American Legend Tour kicked off on July 4, 2012. Ashley explains that they are focusing on learning and understanding what it means to be American through their tour.

The jaunt was so interesting to Chandler Public Information Officer Jim Phipps that he shared the story with the council.

Councilman Jeff Weninger says as an entrepreneur he’s excited anytime when he sees people doing what they are passionate about.

“I think it’s exciting,” he says. “Even at their young age, look at what experiences they are having.”

Phipps found out about the Jeep Girls through his subscription to a Jeep magazine, because he, too, is a Jeep owner. He explains that he found it interesting that these two young ladies can do what many people dream about.

“(They) throw hair to the wind and get in a vehicle and see the world and do it through help of sponsors,” Phipps says.

Phipps says the Jeep Girls are good role models.

“We are letting them know that their city is proud of them, letting these young ladies know that we think they are a good example for the community and the youth,” he says. “(It sends) messages of inspiration to young people that there is a great big world out there and go conquer it.”

Ashley and Brittany Hill with Old Faithful. Photo provided for SanTan Sun News.

Ashley and Brittany Hill with Old Faithful.
Photo provided for SanTan Sun News.

The Hill sisters have traveled to such states as Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New York and many national parks on their tour. In 2013, the sisters trekked more than 17,000 miles.

“We take everything as a learning experience and we try to evolve and bring awareness to our home community and what becomes our global community as we interact with people,” Ashley, 28, says. “We like to spend a lot of time in person with people and learn from people.”

At the end of January they will head to Aspen, CO.

“This is a very exciting time to explore what’s in front of us,” Ashley says. “Our main focus right now is our American Legend Tour. The goal is simple. By leading by example, we want to inspire others to live an active lifestyle, explore and follow their dreams.”

The Jeep Girls traveling on the Rubicon Trail.  Photo submitted to SanTan Sun News.

The Jeep Girls traveling on the Rubicon Trail.
Photo submitted to SanTan Sun News.

On the back of the American Legend Tour, is the American Legend Artists series featuring U.S. fashion designer Nanette Lepore. The tour explores artists, designers, storytellers and musicians. The jaunt will involve heritage vehicles to inspiring heroes and historical sites.

“We want to open the conversation to allow other people to interpret what you are proud of,” Brittany says. “It doesn’t have to be related to what we do. We want to stimulate and activate people to live a colorful lifestyle and see no limits.”

Ashley says she does not think they would be doing what they are doing today if they were not living in Arizona.

“We really owe a big thank you to the community,” she says. “We wouldn’t have the encouragement anywhere else, I would think.”

Brittany says even though they do not make money right away, they have to be OK with that because of the rewards, including seeing America.

“So far it has been this growing, wonderful thing for us,” she says. “We wantto keep running with it.”

For more information about the Jeep Girls visit their website www.gojustintimemedia.com.

‘A place where the days are never long enough’

I am the reporter for the Community Lifestyle magazines that Breeze Newspapers publishes once a month. We highlight the amenities that are offered in different communities of Southwest Florida. For the South Fort Myers Community Lifestyles issue, Verandah was the community featured.

Verandah, Upscale Living in Old Florida Paradise

Published in  South Fort Myers Community Lifestyles Jan. 2014 issue

The Verandah, known for its professional and well-maintained golf courses, as well as “a place where the days are never long enough,” is currently undergoing renovations, providing more space for their fitness complex.

Community Association Manager Kym Bill said the Verandah has been in existence since 2003, with more than 900 homes completed out of the 1,700 that are estimated for the community.

The community, which sits comfortably on 35 percent of 1,500 developed acres, has townhouses, coach homes, small villa homes, single family homes and custom and estate homes in at least 20 different neighborhoods within the Verandah.

Jeff Jordan moved into the community in July 2004, just shortly after the first residents moved in, in April of the same year.

“It’s different than a lot of places down here,” he said. “With Verandah, it has more of the old Florida feel and style. Most of the communities have a Mediterranean feel to it.”

VerandahJordan said the community, which has spanning 100 to 200-year-old oak trees with Spanish moss hanging from them, has one side alongside the Orange River.

Director of Membership Sales Jay Severson said they have 36 holes of championship golf 0 the Old Orange course and the Whispering Oak course. One is designed by Bob Cupp, the other by Jack Nicklaus and his son Jack II.

“They are both championship golf courses, measuring more than 7,000 in length,” he said adding that the courses are for professionals to higher handicap golfers.

The community also offers dual-ended driving ranges providing golfers with a north-and south-side range.

“They can hit golf balls from either range,” he said.

The courses also offer a short game area, two practice putting greens and a full schedule of activities for golf members.

“We keep them busy during the winter months while they are here,” Severson said of the member events nine and dine, 18 and dine, men’s day and ladies day. “It is really a golf centered community.”

The full golf membership, which provides unlimited access to both golf courses, practice facilities, events, year round place, fitness center, tennis, pool, dinning and social activities, has a one-time nonrefundable joining fee of $15,000, excluding tax. Monthly dues are $583 including tax.

There is also a club membership for residents, which affords them access to fitness, tennis, pool, dining and social activities and limited golf involvement, for a one-time $2,500 nonrefundable joining fee, with monthly club dues of $106 including tax.

Members can enjoy the Verandah’s state-of-the-art fitness complex, which recently went through renovations to offer the latest and greatest in physical health and fitness. The facility doubled in size and new equipment was purchased by the new owners of the community, Kolter said.

“It’s added space as the community continues to grow and added space for additional classes,” Severson said of the complex.

The pool, also a part of the complex, recently went through renovations as well.

Bill said the pool expanded from a junior Olympic-sized pool to a resort-style pool. The newly heated oasis is filled with 150,000 gallons of well-chlorinated water.

“Our brand new resort-style pool has cabanas placed around it for enjoyment in the shade,” Severson said, adding that tropical foliage was also planted around the complex, for the perfect paradise.

Members and residents of the Verandah also have access to five fully lighted Har-Tru clay tennis courts, so residents and members can use them at night as often as they would during the day.

“We have tennis professionals and fitness director that take care of the programs” he said.

Jordan said he uses the tennis courts often.

“They are a lot easier to play on,” he said of the clay courts. “It is easier on your joints because there is a little give. It is not as jarring on your joints as playing on hard courts.”

The Verandah also has a full-service restaurant, Alligator Pear, and lounge, Jesse Fish, located in the River House.  The restaurant is open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. from Oct. 1 through the end of May and is open for dinner on Wednesday and Friday nights from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.

“I do expect beginning in January we will expand to Tuesday,” Severson said of dinner service.

Jordan said the River House offers inside and outside dining overlooking the beautiful and peaceful river that winds through the community.

The Verandah also offers nine-miles of walking and biking trails and boardwalks its residents and members enjoy throughout the year. A dog park also graces the grounds of the community.

“I am a runner,” Jordan said. “With nine-miles of walkways, I can always find a different place to run, so I never get bored.”

He said the very scenic routes and paths are within the community along the main roadway, in the preserves and along the Orange River.

In addition, there are also free kayaks available for residents to use along the river.

“It’s a very popular feature, especially when the grandkids come down,” Severson said. “The Verandah offers a very relaxed lifestyle with a very friendly people.”

The Verandah is at 11571 Verandah Blvd., Fort Myers, three minutes from 1-75. For further information, a complete list of amenities, or for real estate listings, call 866-694-7199 or visit Verandah.com.

‘I felt like a princess’

Last week I had the opportunity to talk to Megan about her trip to New York, a trip she won through a contest. I enjoyed talking to her as her excitement grew as she explained her experiences while in New York with her family.

Local student rings in 2014 with dream trip

Published in Herald & Tribune Jan. 14, 2014 issue

A flyer, which was spotted in a “Seventeen” magazine, won one Jonesborough resident a trip to New York with her family.

“I can’t believe I actually won. It’s still crazy to think about,” said Megan Cottage, 19.

Megan Cottage, 19.  Photo Credit Charlie Mauk.

Megan Cottage, 19.
Photo Credit Charlie Mauk.

The flyer’s instructions were to text a certain number if you wanted to win a trip to New York for the “Best New Year’s Ever” contest through Aeropostale.So, not thinking anything of it, she sent that text and eventually received a call from New York.“But I didn’t answer it, because I don’t answer numbers I don’t know,” Cottage said.

Her phone continued to ring numerous times before a message was left instructing her to claim her prize before the next day.

Cottage called her dad and asked “Can this be true? Do you think they are scamming me?” Her father told her to call the woman who left the message.

Cottage provided her name, age, email address and the names of two people she would want to bring with her to New York when she returned the phone call.

“I waited a couple of days,” Cottage said. “Finally they emailed me, ‘You won.’ ”

Megan Cottage and chauffeur

Megan Cottage with the chauffeur that greeted her at the airport. She provided the photograph.

Cottage, along with her brother, mother and father, traveled to New York from Dec. 30 until Jan. 2. She said the contest paid for three airfare tickets, a hotel in Times Square, $150 for food every day and a $500 gift card to Aeropostle.“It was amazing,” Cottage said. “New York at Christmas is beautiful.”A highlight of the trip was when they arrived in New York.

“Probably one of the coolest things was a chauffeur holding up my name when we got to the airport,” she said. “I felt like a princess.”

Once they arrived at their hotel, there was an assortment of items in a goodie bag from Aeropostale waiting for her.

Since they were staying in Times Square, the family walked everywhere over the few days they were there.

They spent the first half of New Year’s Eve shopping and the latter half watching the ball drop in Times Square.

“New Year’s Eve is my dad’s birthday,” she said, adding that he was a real trooper and shopped with them before eating at a cafe.

With Christmas just passing, Cottage said she had received almost everything she needed, so she only spent $100 of her gift card at Aerpostale in Times Square.

With the cold temperatures, Cottage said they arrived for the New Years countdown in Times Square after 9 p.m., instead of noon like many others, to watch the ball drop.

“We stood there for two hours,” she said. “We got to see the ball drop and see the fireworks from Central Park.”

Cottage said the experience of being in New York on New Year’s Eve is much better than watching it on television. It’s an experience, she said, she will never forget.

“Millions of people are all counting down at the same time,” she recalled, adding that everyone was waiting for the countdown to begin because of the freezing temperatures. “The streets were covered in confetti; it was still dropping two days later.”

The family also went to the Statue of Liberty, the 911 memorial, Saks Fifth Avenue, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and they stood under the tree at Rockefeller Center.

“The tree is amazing; no picture does it justice,” Cottage said.

The trip also provided Cottage with the opportunity for quite a few firsts.

Megan Cottage saw the Statue of Liberty during her trip. She provided the photograph.

Megan Cottage saw the Statue of Liberty during her trip. She provided the photograph.

“We did take the subway to Liberty Island, and that was fun,” she said, adding that it provided a completely different atmosphere because they rode with residents of the city.Cottage said they also went to the Today Show.“Our signs made it on TV,” she said.

Cottage, a 2012 graduate of David Crockett High School, was born and raised in Jonesborough. Now a sophomore at East Tennessee State University, she is majoring in public relations and advertising with a minor in photography.

“I live on campus and have that freedom of getting out on my own,” Cottage said.

Although she visited many campuses, she fell in love with the beauty of ETSU and the close proximity to her parents.

She is also a sorority sister of Alpha Delta Phi.

“We do community service, and I meet some great people,” Cottage said.

Something that has stuck out for the college student is how everyone has supported and rallied behind her roommate from last year when she was diagnosed with leukemia.

“I’m in a sorority and I love it. It’s a perfect fit for me,” she said.

‘Cape Harbour, a Yachting Community’

When I worked for the Cape Coral Daily Breeze I covered many events at Cape Harbour. It really is a unique community. I enjoy writing for this publication, Community Lifestyles, because it’s intersting to learn what each community has to offer in Southwest Florida.

“Community Lifestyles showcases some of the finest communties found throughout Southwest Florida.”

Cape Harbour

Article published in December 2013 Community Lifestyles Cape Coral

Cape Harbour, a yachting community in Cape Coral offers a variety of public events, shopping and dining opportunities for its residents and community at large to enjoy.

Cape Harbour came to life after Will Stout traveled to Southwest Florida from Atlanta to retire from 30 years of developing properties and owning a real estate brokerage. When arriving in Cape Coral, he discovered a 150-acre waterfront property, which he transferred into his vision of an upscale waterfront community.

In 2000, Stout formed and founded Realmark Development.

Scan0001The community offers estate homes, waterfront villas, coach homes, condominiums, rental homes and “Funky Fish Houses.”

Realtor Ted Stout said the Funky Fish Houses, which includes Gulf of Mexico access, range from $650,000 to $900,000. He said the neat thing about the residential homes, which range from 1,500 to 3,000 square feet, is they are built over the water because Realmark Group owns the water rights.

The community offers a marina that has 76 wet slips and dry storage for boats up to 34 feet in length. Stout said there also is a bait shop, rentals for kayaks and paddleboards and fishing charters. Individuals can also rent a boat by day, join a boat club or hire a guide to go out on the water.

Event Manager Glenda Swager said there are seven merchants related to marine services in Cape Harbour.

There also are 11 boutique shops along the Promenade with the High Maintenance Salon and Day Spa. She said Harbour View Gallery, which offers unique items, has recently expanded their business.

“Even with the tight economy, we have stayed full. We are very happy with that.” Swager said. “It’s because we do the events and bring people here.”

There are two new merchants coming onboard in January – The Wish List and Waterside Wine Club.

The shops are open all week-long from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Swager said.

The community also has four restaurants and a coffee shop that offers coffee, breakfast and lunch items.

There is also live music every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday between the towers and Motown music on Wednesday, as well as live music on Saturday at Pignoli on the Harbour.

The community offers signature events every year, which are open to the residents and the public.

“Our event calendar is always full,” Swager said.

Cape HarborThe 23rd annual Tour De Cape, which always takes place in January, has been held at Cape Harbour for the past four years. (The 2014 run and cycling event has been set for Saturday, Jan. 18, for the 5K and Sunday, Jan. 19, for 15-mile, 30-mile, 60-mile and 100-mile bike ride.) Water and Wheels, another signature event, always takes place in March.

The Farmers Market is held from May until September every year and the annual Great American Picnic Lunch, which includes the famous Patriotic Pet Contest, is held on July 4.

Swager said they recently held Holiday Magic, which has been held the weekend before Thanksgiving for the past seven years, to kick off the holidays. The event includes an appearance by Santa and a tree lighting ceremony.

The final signature event of the year is their New Year’s Eve fireworks show and balldrop to be held this year on Tuesday, Dec. 31.

Swager said in addition to the signature events, they also hold many fishing tournaments throughout the year, as well as a variety of 5K’s.

“They are all public events,” she said. “We never charge, unless it’s a fishing tournament, then you pay your dues for the tournament.”

A new event has been added to the calendar for next year, the 1st Annual Racing for Cancer Causes Bed Race. Swager said the race will consist of five-member teams who design a bed for various races.

There is also a clubhouse for the residents to enjoy, which includes a fitness center, tennis courts, basketball courts, a full kitchen, pool and showers. Stout said there are three pools for residents to use depending on where they live.

‘Connection with People’

I enjoyed this interview with Major Matt Rice of the Jonesborough Police Department. At the beginning of the interview, he warned me he wasn’t one that liked to talk about himself, much less do an interview. But, by the end of our conversation, he told me I was able to get quite a bit of information from him, something that typically doesn’t happen often. So on that note, enjoy reading about the Town of Jonesborough’s Employee of the Year.

Article published in the Herald & Tribune Dec. 31, 2013 issue

Town selects major as employee of year

Jonesborough Police Department Maj. Matt Rice was named Employee of the Year for the Town of Jonesborough in a recent ceremony during the town’s holiday employee-appreciation luncheon.

Town Administrator Bob Browning said Rice is one of those people who really cares about what he does, and he cares for the Town of Jonesborough.

“Matt is a great choice,” he said. “We have a great police department, and Matt is one of those people that makes it great.”

The award came as a surprise for Rice.

“There are a lot of people in this town that deserve to be recognized,” he said. “There are a lot of other people out there.”

That is what makes the town special, Rice said. Employees work hard every day for the community.

“Everyone who works in this town is a dedicated employee,” Rice added

Rice, who moved from western North Carolina to the area his sophomore year of high school, started in law enforcement in 1998.

“I had a deep-seated desire to help people, and it kind of went from there,” he said.

Rice began as a deputy jailer for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and worked as a patrol officer before leaving the WCSO in 1993. He then accepted a position with the First Judicial Drug Task Force, working there until 1998.

His career continued at the Unicoi County Police Department as a criminal investigator where he also did some drug work.

“There are not a lot of areas in law enforcement that I haven’t been involved in,” Rice said.

In 2004, he became the major for the Jonesborough Police Department. He oversees operations and has four patrol sergeants who report to him.

He also handles criminal investigations and helps plan and implement special events logistics throughout the year for the town.

“I love the job,” Rice said. “I love working for the Town of Jonesborough. I love the community and the people here. There are some good people in this community.”

The team atmosphere and small-department feel is something he enjoys about working for the Jonesborough Police Department.

With the department consisting of only 17 sworn officers, “everyone has to help out in various positions,” Rice said.

With any job there is both good and bad, he added.

The good comes, Rice said, when he has the ability to help people from time to time, to have “that one chance that you get to have a positive effect on someone.”

Such an opportunity came earlier this year when Rice had a chance to save a man’s life.

A dispatched call went out while Rice was in the vicinity. Although he did not know if police officers were nearby, he grabbed an automated external defibrillator and went to the location for the “cardiac arrest, man down” call.

Rice said when he arrived at the location, the gentleman did not have a pulse or respiration.

“I hooked him up and began CPR on him,” he said.

Two other patrol officers arrived and helped Rice administer CPR.

Rice said they had a good outcome that day, which is one of the perks of the job.

The lifetime accomplishments and personal satisfactions are what Rice takes away from the job on a daily basis.

Sometimes it’s as simple as changing a flat tire at 2 a.m. for someone, or putting a little bit of gas in a car that gives him that satisfaction.

Over the years, “the connection with people,” Rice said, is what makes the job so rewarding.

‘You Always Have a Partner’

The Jonesborough Police Department recently purchased its second K-9, an 18-month Chocolate Lab. The dog is beautiful and full of life. I always find it interesting to interview K-9 officers and see what the dog is capable of doing. The amount of training that goes into preparing a dog for its certification is pretty intense. With that said, I enjoyed writing this article for the Herald & Tribune.

Article published in the Dec. 10, 2013 Herald & Tribune issue

New K-9 joins police department

Loki, an 18-month Chocolate Lab, reported to his first 12-hour shift with the Jonesborough Police Department  on Dec. 6.

“He’s full of life, energetic and always ready to work,” said K-9 Officer Jamie Aistrop, Loki’s handler. “For praise, affection and a toy, they will do anything.”

K-9 Officer Jamie Aistrop and Loki.  Photo credit Charlie Mauk.

K-9 Officer Jamie Aistrop and Loki.
Photo credit Charlie Mauk.

The new partners began working together in the middle of October after the department purchased Loki from Shiloh K-9 in Stoneville, N.C.Police Chief Matthew Hawkins said the K-9 program is completely funded with seized funds and asset forfeitures. Loki, who was a part of the budget process in April and May, was about $7,800 to purchase for the police department. Hawkins said the benefits the K-9 brings to the department outweighs the cost.

“We have a good history here with the K-9 program,” he said, adding that the handlers have to have a real passion for working with the dogs.

Aistrop, who knew he wanted to become a police officer when he was 5-years-old, began working with the department full-time in March 2012 after being a reserve officer eight years prior. He became a K-9 officer in October when he began working with Loki.

Aistrop said of one of the reasons he wanted to become a K-9 officer was “you always have a partner with you.”

Before Aistrop took a four-week handler course for narcotics detection, training and tracking at the facility with Loki, another trainer worked with the dog for about a month.

“It was intense,” Aistrop said of the 10 to 12 hours spent training, which took place daily for a month.

The partners also had in-house training in Jonesborough.

Once the training was completed, Loki earned his Police and Professional Dog Association certification, as well as a national certification from the North American Police Work Dog Association. Loki will be recertified once a year.

“He flips a switch when it’s time to work,” Aistrop said. “He definitely knows the difference between work and play.”

Jonesborough Police Department K-9 Loki. Photo credit Charlie Mauk.

Jonesborough Police Department K-9 Loki.
Photo credit Charlie Mauk.

Throughout Loki’s training, Aistrop said, the dog worked for a toy as his reward. He was trained with such real narcotics as cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine, heroine and ecstasy. Aistrop said the training first began by putting all five narcotics in a box before they were separated.Keeping narcotics off the streets has always been an interest of Aistrop’s and Loki’s hunt and prey drive is through the roof, he explained.

“That’s what you need in a narcotics dog,” Aistrop said. Loki is also trained in tracking through scent.

“If we need him to track, he can be used for children and elderly people that have wandered off,” Aistrop said, adding that Loki is trained not to bite once the individual is located.

Aistrop is required to spend a minimum of 16 hours a month training Loki, which includes narcotic training at the department, since he is trained with real narcotics. Now that the training is completed, Aistrop has begun working on obedience with Loki at his home.

“The obedience comes in now after training and certification is done,” he said.

They are together 24 hours a day seven days a week. Loki stays with Aistrop, his wife and two children, who are ages 5 and 3.

“They love him,” he said of his family. Loki is also fond of his family as well.

Aistrop said he and Loki will provide demonstrations for those who are interested. The community is also welcome to meet Loki by calling and setting up a time with the police department.

Loki is the second K-9 for the Jonesborough Police Department.

He joins Gregor, a Czech Shepherd, and his handler K-9 Officer Michael McPeak. Gregor specializes in narcotics and tracking.

Hawkins said the K-9’s service life spans from seven to 10 years. The police K-9’s trained in apprehension have a shorter service life span due to the intense training.

‘I want your ears’

I interviewed a young musician for the SanTan Sun News in Chandler, Arizona a few weeks ago. Sam was fun to interview and very thankful for the article. After he read what I wrote, he sent me an email telling me he was going to frame the article. What a great compliment.

My article was published in the SanTan Sun News Sat. Dec. 7, 2013

“Chandler musician plays Underground”

Living in Guatemala City, Sam Braxten learned he had a good ear for music. To hone his performance skills, he played every Sunday at his church.

“I was a Christian kid,” says the 23-year-old Braxten, whose real name is Sam Gomez. “Music was a big part of my life.”

It still is. Moving to Chandler in 2004, the pop music artist has embarked on a solo career, after a 12-year stint in bands,inspired by a variety of artists ranging from Train to Jamiroquai, from Sam Cooke to Gavin DeGraw.

“I have been a part of a band since I was really young,” he explains. “You have to rely on others and mix ideas. Although it was a blast, I realized that the style of music we were playing wasn’t really what I wanted to do.”

Early musical career

Armed with some English, Braxten found it easy to make friends as a student at Hamilton High School. He soon started playing in the quintet Patience Wears Thin, which stayed together throughout high school. It played shows around the area at venues such as the Marquee Theatre and the now-closed Clubhouse in Tempe.

In 2011, he began playing with Beretta Sun, the members of which found him on Craigslist. Through word of mouth, the band learned there was an opening at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, UT, and it was invited to perform. Braxten explains that the band prepared some music and hit the road to perform at the festival.

“It was really fun,” he says. “It’s really fun being on the road with your best friends doing what we want to do. Even though we were looking forward to playing at the festival, the fun part was being on the road.”

Included in its Sundance set was Maroon 5’s song “Harder to Breathe,” which was a hit with the crowd. Braxten explains that the place filled up because people thought it was actually Maroon 5 playing the song.

“They still stayed and loved it,” he says.

When the band returned from the festival in January, Braxten parted ways, so he could start his solo career. He changed his stage name, started building his website and began recording songs at his Chandler home.

“It was a really hard decision,” he says, “It was tough news for them because we were together for so many years.”

Going it alone

In kicking off his solo career, Braxten discovered that he wanted to learn how to play the piano.

“I first thought the piano was hard to play,” he says. “Within four months I really mastered it to the point where I could really make songs on my own.”

Now, as a solo artist, Braxten writes all of his melodies and lyrics, which is a rewarding experience.

“The messages are 100% me,” he explains.

Music fans can take a listen for themselves when he releases his CD, “The Young & The Lost,” when it is released to iTunes soon.

“It’s only four songs,” he explains. “It’s an introduction of who I am.”

The songs describe the life of the young artist and how he is disenchanted by the world. He considers his lyrics fun, original and eccentric. He is recording a full-length, 11-song CD.

“I come up with melodies all the time,” he says. “Wherever I go I have my cell phone and it has a recorder. You will find me humming into my phone with a melody.”

Braxten’s next show is 3:45 p.m. Sat., Dec. 14, during the Hells Bells Festival at the Underground, an extension of the Nile Theater, 105 W. Main Street, Mesa. He says he is really looking forward to opening the show. Braxten plays about once a month live at different venues, functions and charity shows.

“I mainly try to do cheap and free shows,” he says. “I don’t want your money, I want your ears.”

For more information about Braxten, visit sambraxten.com, reverbnation.com/sambraxten or facebook.com/sambraxten.

‘Hard to put into words’

Before Melanie Sassano left for Cambodia I interviewed her for the SanTan Sun News, a paper I write for in Chandler, Arizona. It was pretty incredible to hear about her experience and see some of the photographs she had taken while she was in Cambodia volunteering.

Here is some of the article that did not make the cut for the paper . . . I thought it was interesting to include.

When Sassano first arrived in Cambodia Sept. 30, she attended an orientation that taught the International Volunteer HQ organization volunteers about the culture, language and how to get around the city. They were also taken to a museum that taught them about an extremeness who took over and killed about a fourth of the population.

“I had already read a lot about what happened,” she explains. “It’s necessary to understand what was going on in the country and learn how the culture is now because of that.”

Throughout her stay, she lived in a volunteer house with 15 others who traveled from such places as Australia, Finland, California, Michigan, Boston, Ireland, Asia and many places in Europe. The house was staffed with a mixture of Cambodia locals and foreigners,

“It was really neat to meet people from all over the world. I really enjoyed being in a completely different culture and country,” she says about her roommates that ranged from 18 to 65 years old. “We always ate dinner together, we went on weekend trips. The house was really great.”

While she was in Cambodia a protest broke out about an election. She recalls the house staff advising everyone where they should and should not travel to stay clear of the protest.

Photographer captures poor living conditions in Cambodia

Published in the SanTan Sun News Nov. 16, 2013

After spending two and a half weeks volunteering in Cambodia among shanty towns with no running water or electricity, Chandler photographer Melanie Sassano still hopes to continue her work.

“It puts into perspective what is important about day-to-day life and if, you get enough to eat, you are good to go,” she says. “Experiencing it is very different. I would recommend anyone to do it.”

Sassano was in Cambodia from Sept. 30 through Oct. 16. She witnessed shocking living conditions for the kids with whom she worked.

“I would say the ones that lived on the street actually had it better than the ones who lived in the shanty towns,” she says.

The shanty towns, she explains, were plywood houses that sat on mud and a river that had raw sewage floating throughout.

“The shacks have no running water or electricity,” Sassano says. “The trash and smell in these shanty towns is really terrible.”

Other kids lived in parks and slept under the bridge when it rained or lived at the pagodas, religious compounds.

“This isn’t to say that all live in those shacks,” she explains. “Many live in modern buildings with water and electricity, however the cleanliness of the water is not to a high standards.”

She was placed with Le Restaurant des Enfants de la Rue, an 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. program for kids ages 1 to 17.

“Any kids can come off the street and come into the program,” she says. “It provides two meals a day, a place to sleep and hang out and provides a little bit of education.”

Sassano spent her time teaching English to the kids or playing impromptu games. She says the kids just wanted attention because many did not have parents or their parents worked frequently.

“It took a little bit to kind of process,” she says. “It was a little bit different to jump in there and see a lot of things and hear stories that were very difficult.”

She recalls working with Kakada, an intelligent 8-year-old boy who wanted to learn the English language. Sassano says he picked up on words and memorized them before he learned new ones the next day.

“He already had English words on the board,” she says of a ritual they began.

The number of kids she worked with varied almost every day. Some days Sassano explains the center was slower with around 10 kids, which provided her with the opportunity to work with youngsters one-on-one and other days there were 40 to 50 kids. She says a lot of the kids worked selling flowers and newspapers or collecting trash and bottles, which is why the numbers fluctuated from day to day.

“I am pretty amazed by the resilience of children,” she says.

The staff who worked at her placement, took their own personal time on the weekends to show her where the kids lived. Sassano says they wanted to show her because people do not know what their country and kids are going through.

“That is definitely something I wanted to share,” she says.

While volunteering, Sassano learned that individuals can sponsor a child in Cambodia for $30 a month, which can be done by visiting wacambodia.com/EN/le_restaurant.aspx. That money will feed the family and put the child through school.

“You have to pay for school, so most of the kids will not go to school,” she says.

Sassano says many Cambodians live on a dollar a day regardless the size of their family.

The 30-year-old volunteer says the first couple of days were emotionally overwhelming.

“I had a hard time blogging it, it was hard to put into words,” she says.

For more photos from her trip,visit melaniesassano.tumblr.com.

Molly Bears, an article, organization that touched my heart

When I first met with my editor at the Herald & Tribune, she gave me four articles to work on throughout the month. One of those articles left an everlasting imprint on my heart. I talked to three incredible women, two of which have gone through the unimaginable – losing a child. I remember talking to the founder of the organization of Molly Bears and fighting back tears as she told me the story of her daughter. Her words hit me hard and the actions she took after that lose filled my heart with joy.

I then met Kim and Jessica at a Starbucks in Kingsport to do an interview. I was greeted with hugs and smiles, which instantly started the interview off on good vibes. It was a perfect interview, one that left me emotional, but again one that filled my heart full of joy. It’s amazing what women are capable of, it’s amazing how much strength women can find during the hardest times in their life.

I am extremely proud of how this article turned out! I am also thankful that the interview with Kim and Jessica turned into a friendship.

Story published: 11-05-2013 in the Herald & Tribune, Jonesborough, TN

Organization helps families deal with loss of infant children

Kingsport resident Kimberly Broyles and her husband decided to try and conceive a child after they had been married for two years. Eight years later, they are still trying to start that family.

After learning she was pregnant, Broyles was excited that the family she had wanted was finally on its way.

But just six-weeks into the pregnacy, Broyles learned during an ultrasound that the baby’s heartbeat was weak. She returned to the doctor’s office a week later to further monitor the baby.

“When we went back, there was no heartbeat and I had to have a D&C,” Broyles said. “It was a huge disappointment to us. We never thought we would go through this.”

Still, Broyles and her husband refused to give up on their dream of having a child, and a year later, Broyles once again became pregnant.

“Our second pregnancy we were so scared, worried and nervous, especially for the first ultrasound,” she said.

The first ultrasound showed growth. This time, it was Broyles’ eight-week ultrasound where she heard the devastating news that her baby had no heartbeat.

“After eight weeks we found out we lost our second angel, that the heartbeat was gone,” Broyles recalled. “I had to have another D&C done. We just felt like, ‘What did we do wrong?’ We were so discouraged because we felt that we would make wonderful parents. Here, there are so many children who need homes and families who don’t want kids having them with no issues.”

Before Broyles became pregnant for a third time, she switched doctors. Her new doctor decided to do an exploratory surgery to see if anything could be found.

“I went in for a pre-op and surprise, we were pregnant,” Broyles said. “He followed me close and we were able to make it to 12 weeks. Leading up to the 12 weeks, we had an ultrasound every week and everything was going wonderfully.”

But the couple’s world again came crashing down when the doctor walked into the examination room at the 12-week ultrasound appointment.

“There were several things wrong with our angel and we were told our only option was to terminate the pregnancy, that the baby wouldn’t survive,” Broyles said. “We were just shattered, mad, heartbroken and exhausted from trying and the roller coaster of emotions.”

Although nerve racking, pure faith kept the couple trying for a child.

During Broyles’ fourth pregnancy, the doctors monitored her progress every step of the way.

“We made it all the way to 20 weeks,” Broyles said. Then she went into early labor.

Natalie Faith was born  at 4:01 a.m. on Oct. 28, 2011, weighing just 8 ounces.

The Broyles had their daughter for two hours, providing the family with a chance to hold her before she died.

“I can’t even begin to describe what we were feeling when we lost her,” Broyles said. “My heart was done. I was in total shock holding my angel and being told she wasn’t going to make it.”

Almost two years after losing their daughter, the couple’s pain was still too much.

Broyles remembered hearing about  Molly Bears, an organization that helps women cope with any form of infant loss.

A group of dedicated volunteers create weighted teddy bears for women who lose children. Each bear is personalized, weighing the exact same weight as the child that was lost.

Since the organization’s inception, approximately 4,800 bears have been made.

“We have bears in 18 countries and all 50 states,” said Bridget Crews, founder of Molly Bears. “It has been so healing and such an amazing thing.”

Crews lost her daughter, Molly Christine, on May 30, 2010, after giving birth to her at 34 weeks.

“You can’t imagine how hard it is to walk out of the hospital with no one in your arms,” she said.

Shortly after Crews’ daughter died, a friend told her about a 3-pound teddy bear that was given to mothers who experienced loss.

“She couldn’t get it to me for a couple of weeks,” Crews said. “I was racking my brain…how can I make this happen?”

She eventually found a bear shell and stuffed inserts into it, as well as rice before taking it to the grocery store to see how much it weighed.

“Every one of my children wrote a little note to her. They stuffed it inside her chest before we closed it,” Crews said.

The bear, which weighed 4 pounds, 9 ounces — the same weight as Molly — helped her cope with her loss.

“I had to sleep with her on my chest,” Crews said.

By the first week of July, she had made two additional Molly Bears for other women. “It was therapy,” Crews said.

Molly Bears was officially started on Aug. 9, 2010.

Now, there are 17 bear makers throughout the United States that make a minimum of 10 Molly Bears a month. Some make up to 30 bears a month.

Gray resident Jessica Head joined the organization as a bear maker in April after finding the organization on Facebook.

“I wanted to donate bows. Bridget asked me to make some bears,” Head said.

Head has made 142 bears. She receives each bear shell, weighs it, sews it up and decorates it before sending it off to the woman who has applied for it.

Before they are shipped, Head and her family sit over the bears and pray for the families.

Head was the one who made the bear for Broyles.

The bear, which weighs exactly 8.5 ounces, has a bottle cap on its foot replicating the tattoo on Broyles’ wrist for all four children she lost. It also has a monkey bow to represent the jungle theme the couple had used in Natalie’s nursery. It is wearing a pink and brown tutu, Broyles’ favorite colors, and angel wings on its back.

“Jessica put so much love into making the bear,” Broyles said. “It gives me so much comfort just to have something to hold.”

As a surprise, Head also gave Broyles three more bears — all micro bears for the three previous babies she lost.

“I am speechless,” Broyles said. “It was amazing.”

But if you ask Head, it is Broyles’ strength and her ability to stay positive through everything that is truly amazing.

“I think that is what gives me a drive —to see how much people love it and need it,” Head added.

Broyles and her husband are in the process of trying to conceive another child.