After 20 years in the Navy’s military police including two tours in Iraq, Orlando Rivera shudders at the memories as a first responder to vehicles under fire.
As he prepared to retired from the military a few years ago, he struggled with chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Even the strong support of his family didn’t seem to help. He seldom slept, was hyper-vigilant and unable to complete simple requests from his wife due to memory loss.
After extensive research, Orlando decided to apply for a service dog from Southeastern
Guide Dogs and was matched with Sweet Pea, a butterscotch-colored Veteran Assistance Dog with a winning attitude and a big heart.
“If it wasn’t for Southeastern Guide Dogs, God knows what would have happened,” says Orlando. “You guys saved my life, my marriage, and my family.” He credits Sweet Pea with restoring calmness, freedom, and a sense of normalcy to his life. “If it wasn’t for Sweet Pea, I’d probably be locked up in my house,” he says.
After training, Orlando brought Sweet Pea home to his wife Rachel and their two children. The family was amazed as they began to enjoy simple things like shopping together and visiting theme parks without Orlando’s urgent need to leave. “Now I can let my guard down, knowing she’s watching me. My kids had a normal summer; we didn’t have to stay home knowing ‘dad’s going to freak out!’”
One of Sweet Pea’s skills is her ability to alert the family when Orlando suffers a PTSD-induced seizure. “I pass out and she alerts,” he explains. “She’s normally quiet, but she hits the door and barks. When she’s agitated, my family knows something is wrong and they check on me.”
Southeastern Guide Dogs has been providing service dogs to assist the visually impaired since 1982. In recent years, the organization has expanded to include a Paws for Patriots program that provides service dogs to veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Done from the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay have been generous supporters of Southeastern Guide Dogs for years. This is the story of how Paws for Patriots helped one veteran. (Story and photo courtesy of Southeastern Guide Dogs.)
“Many of our children and youth come from homes where meals are very limited and lack nutrition,” said Linda McKibben Whitt, Ministry Executive Team Coach. The nearby elementary schools report that as many as 96 percent of the children enrolled as economically disadvantaged.
The church turned to the South Shore Council of the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay for help. A $10,000 grant through the Foundation assured that as many as 120 children and youth a week received a nutritious breakfast on Sunday mornings, a complete meal on Wednesday evenings, healthy snacks and picnic lunches during summer camp.
All the meals were healthy and contained fresh fruit and vegetables. The church also taught the children and their parents about the lifelong value of good nutrition. “Our kids consider grapes M&Ms!”
The children’s enthusiasm for the healthy food carried over to another project. They now are growing their own fruit and vegetables in an on-site “Garden of Faith.”
“What a gift,” Whitt said. “We trust that these lessons will last a lifetime.”
The Community Foundation of Tampa Bay is partnering with Tampa Bay Watch to construct oyster reefs along the shorelines of three St. Petersburg city parks: Bay Vista and Maximo on the city's southern tip and Abercrombie Park on Boca Ciega Bay off Park Street.
The oyster reefs will help stop erosion and create a new natural habitat for oysters to grow, providing food for birds and wildlife, improving water quality and stabilizing the shoreline.
The Foundation made the $25,000 grant to Tampa Bay Watch is in conjunction with the international Blue Ocean Film Festival & Conservation Summit, which was held in St. Petersburg in November. The Foundation was a supporting sponsor of the international festival.
"We're excited to partner with the Blue Ocean Film Festival and with Tampa Bay Watch to call attention to the conservation needs of our bays and oceans, and we hope that our grant to Tampa Bay Watch will spur others to get involved in this important work," said Marlene Spalten, President and CEO of the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay. "Preserving and improving our natural environment is a top priority for the Foundation and its donors."
Spalten said she hopes the Foundation's grant will draw attention to the work Tampa Bay Watch has been doing on behalf of the environment.
"In addition to financial support, the Foundation also works to connect our local nonprofits with additional sources of funding and with others who are working toward a similar purpose," Spalten said. "We see that as part of our mission in the community."
The oyster reef project - expected to cost up to $100,000 -- will involve 150 tons of fossilized oyster shells, which will be shoveled into mesh bags then transported and installed near the parks' shorelines. The shell-filled bags provide a hard surface for oyster larvae to settle upon and grow, eventually forming a natural reef.
"Community Foundation of Tampa Bay support for restoring critical coastal oyster reefs ensures that the Tampa Bay estuary will continue to improve," says Peter Clark, President of Tampa Bay Watch, "not only for fish and wildlife resources but for the residents and visitors who depend upon a healthy bay to support the quality of our community."
Volunteers of all ages will support the construction of the oyster reefs, anticipated for spring 2015. Tampa Bay Watch involves more than 10,000 youth and adult volunteers each year in hands on habitat restoration projects.