Sandspurs — a downside to fall in Florida

‘Ouch! What the—? OW!”
These are words I’ve been regularly saying over the past month as tiny balls of thorny spikes prick and poke me whenever I step outside. They can be green or brown, but they hurt like the dickens no matter the color. What on earth is this creation of torture?
I first noticed the plant of pain when my dog, Bindi, started limping on our walks. She’d walk along quite happily, suddenly stumble then hobble forward. I’d bend down with her looking at me with sad eyes as I examined her paw. Sure enough, somewhere either between her toes or on her paw pad or on her heel would be a spiky ball, or even two. As she would yelp, I’d pluck them off as fast as possible, apologizing to her for her unwarranted pain.

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Now, the little bundles of thorns are everywhere. I’ve found them on the porch, my living room floor, in my bathtub and even wedged on the inside of my shoe where my toes sit. I have whelped, cursed and shrieked as I’ve unknowingly sat, squished or stepped on one of these painful menaces.
They are known as sandspurs, but also go by bufflegrasses or sandburs, according to Wikipedia. And, apparently they are a sign that autumn has arrived in Florida.
In North Carolina, we have what are known as “gumballs,” a sort of larger version of the sandspur. They are the seed pod that falls from an American sweetgum tree. However, they are significantly larger, easier to spot and are not sticky like the sandspur.

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Some “gumballs.” Photo from bobklips.com

According to the Okeechobee County Extension Services’ article about sandspurs, author Dan Culbert writes that the sandspur is the “fruit” of the Cenchrus echinatus grass or the C. spinifex plant. During the spring, the plant begins growing seeds and is mostly ignored as it looks like any other blade of grass. When fall comes around, the sandspurs begin emerging and causing havoc. By the time this happens, it’s too late, Culbert writes. You just have to live with it.
“There are no weed killers that will make the sandspurs disappear in the fall. The better approach is to use what are called ‘pre-emergent’ herbicides in the spring — and this means mid February in our area. Then next fall, you’ll be enjoying your Florida yard rather than pulling spines from your socks and Fido’s fur,” Culbert writes.
Sandspurs can also be combated by mowing one’s lawn a particular way before the grass begins producing the sandspurs, once again in February and March.

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A sandspur. Photo from shellkey.org

They have become so numerous because of a change in the Florida landscape, according to an article published by Shell Key in Pinellas County’s Web site by Jack Coletti. In the case of Shell Key, an Australian pine forest was removed because the tree is an invasive species.
“When they were cut, the richer soil was exposed to sunlight, and the sandspurs had a field day (pun intended). Sandspurs are one of those ‘pioneer’ species that will move in to an immature, bare or newly disturbed environment — to restart the eventual progression to a forested area. Once the trees that were planted to replace the pines have matured in a few decades, the sandspurs will eventually die back in numbers out-competed by a balanced and mature ecosystem,” the article states.
Well, I for one, am not planning on planting a forest in my yard. However, hope is on the horizon. The same article says that, “the majority of the burs will have lost most of their sharp points” by the time winter arrives.
This may be the first time in my life I have wished for winter to hurry up and get here. And now, I have learned my lesson and will keep tighter control on how long I let my grass grow and decide on an “eradication plan” for next year’s fruit.

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A dog out of water

My dog, Bindi, is attracted to water like a fish.

She will dive into water and lay on her stomach with her legs stretched out in front and behind her. There is just glee on her furry face. In fact, she’s usually so excited that she’ll snort water up her nose or swallow it the wrong way and end up coughing for five minutes. She’ll run after sticks and splash all around.

However, she has certain demands about that water before she will jump in and go swimming. First, it cannot be above her head. Second, there must be no waves. Third, baths are not the same thing as swimming in water and must be avoided at all costs.

In North Carolina mountains, nearly every hiking trail curves alongside some type of body of water. There are shimmy lakes, swift streams, muddy creeks and mosquito-laden ponds. Bindi jumped in all of them.

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Swimming in Cullowhee, N.C.

However, when we moved to Florida, Bindi quickly realized I wasn’t allowing her to play in the water anymore. At 55 pounds, she is the perfect size to be eaten by an alligator. She’s probably big enough to give a it a good fight, but I think ultimately, she will meet a heartbreaking ending.

I tried to introduce her to swimming in the ocean. Well, the ocean breaks criteria number two, so once a wave slapped in the face, Bindi wasn’t interested in the ocean anymore.

So, I bought a plastic kiddie pool from Walmart. It was $8, a perfectly priced investment in my dog’s happiness. Seriously, some of her chew bones cost more than that. An $8 kiddie pool wasn’t going to break the bank. I dragged the kiddie pool from the car to the backyard, filled it up and brought Bindi outside. She absolutely refused to get in the pool. So, I stepped in. She walked into the pool and right out of it again. I pleaded and begged her to get in the pool, but to her, it looked too much like a bath tub. Eventually, she learned that “Bindi, get in the pool,” meant to hop in, which she would, but only for a minute or two before jumping back out. It turned into a required trick to perform, not a fun activity. She wouldn’t wag her tail. She just looked nervous. Well, so much for that idea.

So, Bindi has had to go without swimming for quite some time. Then, recently, we drove to the Port Charlotte area to visit Petsmart and take a walk at Bayshore Park. It is a beautiful spot right on Charlotte Harbor where you can get some great exercise and watch wading birds look for food in the shallows. There are also beautifully painted benches and several cool statues, like the two manatees in the playground area.

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Meeting manatees in the playground

When we arrived at Petsmart, Bindi and I hung out in the car for 20 minutes while a thunderstorm rocked us in the parking lot. Eventually, the rain tapered off just enough that we could sprint to the doors without getting too soaked. When we left the store, the rain had moved on. However, the evidence of the heavy storm was everywhere.

Florida has puddles like out-of-towners wouldn’t believe. I mean, there are whole areas of parking lots that become submerged underwater after a good storm. Streets turn into canals. My own front yard will disappear in a few minutes and water will lap at my front steps if the rain is heavy and lasts long enough.

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In the Petsmart parking lot

When we arrived at Bayshore Park, it, too, was showing evidence of the heavy rainfall. While the sidewalks around the edges of the park were clear, there were deep puddles drowning the grass all throughout the park. It might as well have been one big lake.

The nice thing about the puddles is that I could clearly see there were no alligators or predators hiding there. Bindi noticed, too. She immediately started dragging me toward the puddles. It was almost like a toddler that had seen a desired toy on the other side of the store. When Bindi starts pulling, it takes all of my strength to stop her, and even then, my shoes are still skidding across the pavement.

I didn’t have a towel in the car, but when I looked at her eager face all excited about possibly getting to swim, I sighed.

“You know what? Go for it,” I told her and released the tension in the leash.

Bindi flew into the nearest puddle, nearly dragging me in with her. She laid down in the cool water and began lapping at it with her tongue while stretching out her back feet behind her. You could see the happiness radiating from this dog just because she got to go swimming. She paddled around, shook herself off, dove back into the puddle all with a huge smile on her face and wagging her tail with glee. Whoever said dogs don’t have personalities has never seen a dog participating in its favorite activity.

I believe that my pet’s safety is far more important than her getting to swim in every body of water we encounter. So, if Bindi wants to keep swimming safely, we’ll keep going to parks and finding giant puddles. Since it rains every afternoon, it seems we won’t have a problem. Now as for her love of sledding on her back in the snow … well, I think the only solution will be to visit North Carolina in winter once in awhile.

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Bindi in full happiness mode while paddling in a puddle at Bayshore Live Oak Park.

A toast to Rameses the cat

You had to have guessed that I would be writing about Palmetto bugs again soon.
After my first ordeal with the Palmetto bug, I realized that I had the courage to face my fears but that I certainly didn’t want to do it again.
Well, for my second ordeal, I had a little help in bug-killing.
Rameses is an orange and white cat, who weighs in at nearly 15 pounds even though he is only a year old. He’s not fat. Hardly! He’s just a big-boned cat packed with muscle. He got this way by being the most rambunctious of his litter, bowling over his sisters and climbing anything he can sink his claws into around the house, including my legs. He goes by a lot of names, such as Ram or Rammer Jammer, but most of my friends know him as “Rameses the Destroyer.” This is because, aside from the chinchilla I owed for two years, Rameses has done the most destruction to my house and belongings out of all the other pets I’ve had.

PHOTO BY LEX MENZRameses wreaking havoc on some newspapers.

What Rameses thinks of my work!

At first, I was surprised when we arrived in Florida that Rameses did not seem interested in helping me kill Palmetto bugs. Chasing something small that scurries across the floor seemed right up his alley. However, I soon learned it wasn’t because he wasn’t interested but because he hadn’t noticed.
One morning, I woke and went into the kitchen. I toasted a bagel and sat down to eat. Halfway through, I noticed Rameses having the time of his life with some object on the floor. I froze.
“That’s not a cat toy,” I said with suspicion.
I approached my cat as he continued to bat away at the object. When I got close enough, I jumped back with a gasp. It was a huge Palmetto bug, twice the size of the first one I smacked with a shoe on the wall. It was on its back, legs waving frantically in the air.
“Good boy, Rameses. Good boy!” I cheered and ran off to grab a shoe.
When Rameses noticed I was going to destroy and take away his new “toy,” he grabbed the bug in his mouth and raced across the living room and into the kitchen. In a panic, I started chasing after him, yelling for him to stop. I just knew he’d drop the bug, it’d escape and end up under my bed!
Rameses finally dropped the insect in the bathroom, and as I swung to squash it, he brought his face down next to it. I accidentally bashed him in the nose with my flip flop instead of the Palmetto bug. With a look of horror and betrayal on his whiskered face, Rameses picked up the bug again and dashed behind the bathtub so I couldn’t reach him. As I continued to shout at him, he pawed and played with the Palmetto bug behind the tub.
“Come on, Rameses! I’m sorry. Give me the bug,” I said.
Eventually, it was able to scuttle away from his paws and headed straight for me. Shrieking, I lashed out with my flip flop, flapping it over the bug again and again.
I stood up to fetch the vacuum to once again suck up the remains (I don’t even want to touch the dead carcass through a paper towel). When I returned, I found Rameses munching happily on the freshly killed, crunchy snack. What a good kitty! Sparta, the other cat, was too busy licking the butter off my bagel to assist.
Rameses received an abundance of treats that night in gratitude for saving the household from yet another Palmetto bug. Everyone I spoke with for the next week heard the daring tale of Rameses putting his life at risk for the rest of us by capturing and eating the gigantic insect.
Now, here it is for all of you. Laugh as much as you’d like!

Beating the heat

North Carolina gets hot. That may sound funny to you all here, but I promise you my home can become sweltering, especially in July and August.
However, in the mountains, the breezes are cool, and there isn’t near as much humidity as there is in Florida. I enjoy being outdoors, and so my dog Bindi and I would go hiking in the mountains and Foothills even in the middle of the summer. If you needed to cool off, you just dipped your toes (or your whole body if you’re my dog) into a cool mountain stream or lake. Paradise! In all my times hiking throughout the summer in North Carolina, I never had a problem with the heat.
I stupidly thought I could do the same here. One weekend, I was tired of unpacking, cleaning and sitting around my new house. I Googled some places to hike that would take longer than a time or two around a walking track at a park. I found Myakka River State Park in Sarasota. The Web site told me I’d get to see alligators, birds, deer, raccoons and all sorts of wildlife. I was particularly excited about the alligators because I hadn’t seen one yet since moving here. So I packed up a bag of two bottles of water, snacks, sunscreen and rain ponchos for both me and Bindi then set off in my car, “Little Honda,” with Bindi in the backseat.
As we entered the park early in the morning, we stopped by the attendant’s shelter to pay the entry fee and get a park map.
“So, where are the trail heads? I’ve never been here before. We’re here to hike,” I said.
He grimaced. “Oh! It’s a bad time for hiking.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah, we’ve gotten so much rain that everything is flooded,”  he responded.
At first, I thought he meant I was going to have to go back and find something else to do. My heart sank with disappointment.
“All the trails are underwater, but you can walk along the paved road,” he added.13403346_10154256003117500_7355071886824491563_o
I thanked him and continued into the park. I decided to drive along the road until I reached the center of the park where there’s a restaurant, air boat rides and equipment rentals. Then, Bindi and I could continue walking along the paved road through the scenery. Sure enough, water was lapping both sides of the road from all the rain. There’s something unsettling and eerie about seeing dark water along the sides of the road, which snakes between thick trees, bushes and Spanish moss dangling down. I felt like something big with lots of teeth was watching me from the murkiness.
When we reached the large parking lot next to the general store and air boat rides, Bindi, who was already panting, and I got out of the car and set off on our hike. Not two minutes down the road, I was sweating. My short-sleeved shirt was stuck to me, and the backpack was like a heating pad on high pressed against my back. We stopped after 10 minutes for a water break. Still, it didn’t feel too terrible, especially in the shade.
The thing with dehydration is it sneaks up on you. One minute, I was walking along thinking, “Hmm, it’s really hot out, but wow, that prairie is beautiful.” The next minute, my legs were shaking, my brain felt like it was pounding against my skull, and I could barely keep my eyes open. As I described it to my boyfriend later, “There could have been an alligator sitting right there and I still could have curled up and fallen asleep on the road.” Bindi, the poor dog, had her tongue hanging out nearly to the grass. While there was lots of water around and Bindi desperately wanted to go swimming, I wasn’t taking the risk of letting her cool off in one of the flooded pools! Just because I didn’t see an alligator didn’t mean there wasn’t one hiding under the deep brown surface of the overflowing lakes. Bindi is the perfect gator-sized snack!
We stopped for another water break, and I poured water all down Bindi’s back and over her ears. Bindi and I are used to hiking uphill over rocks, wooden stairs and fallen tree trucks to the top of a waterfall every weekend for an hour to three hours. Now, a flat, paved road had us beat in 30 minutes. It was embarrassing, but we turned around all the same. If Bindi decided she couldn’t walk back because of the heat, I knew there was no way I could carry a 55-pound dog down the road.
As we stumbled into the parking lot, I thought maybe stopping at the general store would be fun. Little Honda’s air conditioning isn’t great, so I knew we’d at least have a nice, cool reprieve in the store. Sure enough, it felt like Canada in there! Bindi collapsed on the cool floor while I looked around at the hats, shirts, snacks and postcards. The guy behind the counter was very friendly.
“Would you like some ice cubes for your dog?” he asked.
“That would be great!” I answered.
He handed me a small plastic cup of ice cubes, which Bindi lapped at while laying on the floor. The man just loved her funky patterns on her coat and engaged me in conversation for nearly the entire half-hour we hung out at the store. His conversation alone was worth the drive.
I must say that to any newcomers, like myself, Myakka River State Park is definitely an enjoyable place to visit. From what I hear, the trails — when they’re not underwater — are incredible and packed full of wildlife (we did see four alligators on our drive out). That day, Bindi and I learned the hard way that not all heat is the same.

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Bindi in Myakka River State Park

Please stop ‘buggin’ me

When I was little, before turning off the light at bedtime, my father would say a little rhyme as he tucked me into bed. He’d whisper, “Good night. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite. But if they do” — and he’d dramatically pause here — “smack ‘em with a shoe!” Possibly due to that little ditty, I’ve chosen crushing an insect with footwear as my go-to execution method. However, when facing off against a Palmetto bug in my new house, I started to get creative. Still, it was a shoe that ultimately saved me from certain death.
When I told my friends in North Carolina that I was moving to Florida, they immediately recounted tales about destructive hurricanes followed by icky stories of how cockroaches will infest every corner of my home no matter what measures I take. Now, somehow, my irrational brain found more to fear from a six-legged insect than the powerful destruction a hurricane can cause.
As a child I once found a cockroach in the family living room and innocently asked my mother, “Mommy, what’s this?” She screamed as if being stabbed and grabbed me, pulling me away from the bug. We weren’t allowed back in the living room until my dad came home several hours later to find and crush the cockroach. Now I blame her for my bizarre fear of something so tiny and seemingly harmless. To be completely honest, I admit that my fear of these bugs is so great I almost turned down this awesome job!
Since my arrival here, I have been schooled in the difference between a cockroach and a Palmetto bug (although if you present both to my mother, her screaming will remain at the same volume and pitch despite the differences). A small cockroach I can handle (as long as there are no more than two at a time). Once an insect gets larger than the size of a dime, I start freaking out.
Just barely a week after moving here, I found a Palmetto bug on my front porch late at night when I went to walk the dog. I politely told Mr. Palmetto Bug that he could happily enjoy the comfort of my front porch, but he was not allowed inside my house. Yes, I talked to the invertebrate. (I know, I know, but it’s the little things that give me mental comfort.) Still, I spent the night tossing and turning, waking every so often because I just knew something was crawling on me.

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From turnerpest.com

The next morning, I sat down for breakfast and noticed a dark spot on my white walls. “That wasn’t there yesterday,” I thought.  Sure enough, it was the dark, fat body of a Palmetto bug.
He was sitting pretty high up on the wall underneath the cat tree. I decided the best thing to do was suck him up with the vacuum cleaner hose and then dump the vacuum canister outside. I wouldn’t have to touch him, and that would be the end of it. So I stood on a chair, placed the vacuum cleaner on top of the cat tree and held up the hose to the wall. Now I’m pretty tall, but I was still a few inches short of the bug. His antennae waved back toward the vacuum hose, but there was something wrong with the suction. Now aware of my method of attack, he lazily crawled out of reach onto the ceiling. I climbed down and checked the vacuum hose. It turns out my boyfriend had put a different attachment inside the hose for storage, limiting the amount of suction and ruining my chances of an easy, mess-free incident.
For the entire day, the invader loitered on the ceiling. When it was time for me to go to bed, I faced a true dilemma: Go to bed and hope the Palmetto bug doesn’t crawl in my ear and lay eggs in my brain; stay up waiting up for it to come down; or go through with some outrageous plan to get close enough to kill it.
I poured myself a bowl of cereal and called my boyfriend, Jonathan, to discuss my options. As I was finishing my late night snack, I noticed the bug making the trek down the wall.
“The bug’s coming down the wall,” I whispered (because obviously the bug has super hearing and understands English).
“Grab a shoe and go kill it,” he said.
I suddenly chickened out. “No, I can’t!”
“Lex, go over there and kill it! Man up!” What a typical response from someone who is hundreds of miles away and doesn’t have to go near the very representation of fear itself.
Slowly, I tip-toed across the living room with my phone in one hand and grabbed one of my tennis shoes by the door. I walked over to the Palmetto bug, which was now at chest level on the wall.
“Ahh, it’s so gross!” I cried. “I don’t want to do this. I hate these things.”
Jonathan was laughing hysterically.
As I was about to squish it, the bug darted a little to the right. I screamed. Jonathan laughed some more.
Taking a quick breath, I leaped forward, slapped my shoe against the bug and screamed again. When I pulled my shoe away, the bug’s exoskeleton fell to the floor, and some gooey juice and a few legs remained on the wall.
“He’s dead!” I cried and then shivered, shuddered and freaked out around the living room before photographing the scene and vacuuming up any evidence of the intruder. There, my first Palmetto bug execution was over.
I had originally thought I would be safe from having to kill these insects because of my two cats, who are avid hunters. After the incident was over I turned around, expecting to see them ready to attack on command. Rameses, the youngest, was nowhere to be found. Sparta had his entire face in my bowl of cereal, lapping up the milk I had abandoned. Thanks, guys.
I am sure this will be just one of my many stories involving bug killing, frog removing or snake relocating I will tell while living in Florida. In North Carolina, almost everyone has a copperhead snake story or, especially in the mountains, a tale about a black bear getting in the garbage. But the gators, tall wading birds, large bugs and plethora of reptiles and amphibians are all new to me. It should make for some very hilarious reading for all of you.

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Making myself at home

Most journalists are notorious for being introverts, so when Arcadian Editor Steve Bauer asked me to write a column introducing myself, it was more daunting than the interview process to get this job as assistant editor. In fact, I was recently interviewed for a local television spotlight at my last job, and the interviewer’s first question was “Tell us about yourself.” I literally replied, “Um,” and stared ahead for a minute before stumbling through an answer.
I’m naturally shy, a trait I have learned to overcome in my roles as editor-in-chief of a college newspaper and the education/small towns reporter at a community newspaper in North Carolina for the past two years. More than likely if you ask me who I am, I will talk your ear off about two things: My pets and my work.
My pets are like my children. Sparta and Rameses are my cats, and Bindi is my Australian cattle dog/German shepherd mix.
Sparta, or Spartacus when he’s in trouble, is an Egyptian Mau mix my mom found under a car on a rainy night at a gas station near our home in Mount Holly, N.C. With his golden lemur eyes and ringed tail, he was too cute not to keep. When I went to college at Western Carolina University, Sparta came with me starting my sophomore year. Since then, we have moved multiple times across North Carolina. This is the first time he’s come with me to another state. So far, he is loving the Sunshine State, with its plethora of sun to bask in and lots of lizards to chase.
Rameses is only a year old but is already close to 15 pounds. Not because he’s overweight; he’s just a big cat with a lot of muscle. He’s also known as “Rameses the Destroyer,” because quite often he will get a glint in his pumpkin orange eyes and will wreak havoc, destroy mankind’s livelihood and run amok. He’s chewed through wires on my Internet router, gone missing inside a dresser and peed (twice) all over the dog’s bed. Somewhere, though, he’s got a good heart, and when he finally decides he likes you, he’ll snuggle and give you kisses with his pink nose.

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Sparta, above, and Rameses

Bindi is a rescue dog I adopted just over a year ago from a kill shelter. She’s got a huge heart of love and loyalty for me. If you see us out and about in town on walks, please stop by and say hi. She will be wearing a black harness across her torso that reads, “Please give me space, do not pet.” Bindi was abused by her former owner, which has damaged her emotionally and mentally. At first, she can be very shy and if she’s frightened, she reacts in a negative way toward strangers. The harness warning helps keep people from running up to her and getting in her face, and allows me to provide instruction on how to approach her safely.

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Bindi in her harness

All three made the 14-hour drive with me to Arcadia on May 29. Looking like a champion navigator, Bindi rode in the passenger seat of the U-Haul truck with my dad as we traveled through heavy flooding in South Carolina, which involved a two-hour detour thanks to the tropical depression in the area, and “Mickey Mouse traffic” in Orlando. Sparta and Rameses rode in my Honda running loose throughout the car. Sparta, as I mentioned earlier, is a seasoned traveler, but Rameses has rarely been in the car. I was expecting him to yowl, scream, cry and throw a fit throughout the entire trip. On a previous trip we took together, Rameses whined and crawled back and forth from the headrest behind my head to the passenger seat headrest for the entire hour ride. I felt it might be appropriate to start writing my obituary of how I was killed by my cat while moving to Florida. Considering the dramatics of my life so far, that somehow felt like a fitting ending. However, it was the rain in South Carolina that caused the biggest drama on the trip rather than the Rameses the Destroyer.

For the past two years, I have worked as the education and small towns reporter for a community newspaper published five days a week. I covered the meetings for six town councils, the local school board and the local community college. I also spent time in the school system as a student in the classroom (yes, I actually took fifth-grade science tests, while in kindergarten learned how to write my name and walked around with sore muscles for a week after eighth-grade gym class); skeet shooting with Junior ROTC students; jumping into creeks with 4-H Club members; and discussing STEM education with teachers from all grade levels. At first, I started out as just a journalist, new to the area with no family or friends. However, it wasn’t long before my insistence on not only observing and reporting, but also participating in local events, made me an active member of the community.
As you can imagine, there are many differences between a small county in North Carolina and Florida. For one, the superintendent in Caldwell County is appointed, not elected. I also come from a place where the school system involves 24 schools, including two alternative schools for students who need special direction and instruction in order to succeed at their education. In Caldwell County, there are police chiefs instead of marshals, and there is a lot more furniture instead of oranges.
But, there are many similarities as well. The elected officials of the community are present at nearly all public events, the community rallies around projects to make their home a better place, and people are overwhelmingly giving in their time and kindness to other people. Already, I’ve scoped out volunteer opportunities I can’t wait to get involved in, met a few of my neighbors, discovered several parks to enjoy with my dog and in less than a week already feel at home.
This is a homecoming for me in a way, because although I’ve lived in North Carolina most of my life, I was actually born in Tampa. The sun, the atmosphere and the people feel familiar to me. I thought I’d be shell-shocked and unbelievably homesick at first. Instead, I’m excited, I’m getting a tan and I’m hoping I find an alligator in my front yard. I’m looking forward to meeting you all through interviews, emails, letters, phone calls and while I’m out and about in the community. While I’m shy, I do enjoy meeting new people and hearing your stories. So, please don’t hesitate to say hi!