Treasure Coast Personalities

The Environmentalist

For Merritt Matheson, there’s no better pastime than savoring the great outdoors. Born and raised in Martin County, he considers himself very fortunate to have enjoyed nature in one of the most scenic places in the world...

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Merritt Matheson is an outspoken advocate for the local environment

The Gifted Teacher

Teaching runs in Joshua Perry’s DNA. And fortunately for his students, Martin County’s newest teacher of the year decided to follow in his family’s footsteps...

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As a fifth-grade gifted teacher, Joshua Perry

The Art Teacher

Peter Pan has nothing on Christopher Sweeney, an art teacher at Beachland Elementary School in Vero Beach. Like the famed leader of the Lost Boys who never grew up, Sweeney is a child at heart who leads his young students on creative adventures through art...

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Christopher Sweeney teaches art to K-5th graders at Beachland Elementary School

The Parade Planner

In 2014, the Stuart Christmas parade was in danger of closing up shop. The City of Stuart had hosted the parade for many years and needed another organization to step in for the holiday magic to continue. Not missing an opportunity to help spread holiday cheer, the Visiting Nurse Association answered the call and put on the parade just in the nick of time....

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Jennifer Crow


Cristobal Sartori, an associate professor and department chairman of modern languages at Indian River State College, has an inspiring message for those desiring a higher education. Part of his approach in the classroom is to help students tackle and overcome their fear of learning so a whole new world can be opened up to them...

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The Dance Instructor

Since 1997, Alicia Chodera has maintained what can best be described as a haven for young, aspiring dancers. She opened the doors to the Dance Academy of Stuart nearly three decades ago and hasn’t looked back...

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Alicia Chodera, owner and instructor at The Dance Academy of Stuart


Talk to Jane Baldridge and you quickly learn that her life has revolved around her love for the sea. From the days growing up along the coast near Galveston, Texas, she spent much of her life sailing and racing sailboats, working at her family-owned boat store, and later in life, becoming a licensed boat captain. 

“I’m a sea level girl,” she says. “I want to be on the water, in the water and looking at the water.”

It comes as no surprise then that her artwork reflects her passion for the sea. Looking back over a career that spans almost 50 years, she points out that moving water is the theme in most of her work. 

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Jane Baldridge, an accomplished artist whose work has been exhibited worldwide, portrays her passion for the sea.


Dana Fisher has a thirst for knowledge, so when she noticed that the fruit trees in her yard weren’t producing good fruit and she wasn’t able to grow vegetables, she did some research and found it was a lack of pollinators in general. 

Her research revealed that honey bees were very efficient pollinators primarily because they have the big numbers and can pollinate a lot faster than the native bees and the nighttime pollinators like bats and moths. Always one to take action, she set about learning all she could about beekeeping and set up her own backyard apiary.

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Dana Fisher dons her beekeeper suit to harvest honey in her backyard apiary.

Arlo’s legacy

Legendary folksinger, songwriter and Sebastian resident Arlo Guthrie says he will continue to go on the road with his band and family until his voice won’t allow him to sing.

“Nobody retires in folk music,”Guthrie says in the dining room of his home overlooking the Indian River. “Pete Seeger died at 94 and we did a show together three months before he passed away.”

Guthrie, at 72, has slowed down somewhat but still spends eight to nine months a year touring with band members who’ve been with him since the 1970s. The days are long gone when Guthrie actually drove the tour bus to a different venue every night.

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Arlo Guthrie

Country star comes home

Jake Owen searches the world for country music talent, participates in at least a dozen charity events every year and just raised more than $1.5 million for the Jake Owen Charity Foundation to help children. And that’s just his side job.

Throw in 53 concerts last year, five career studio albums, seven No. 1 singles, two top country music awards and weekly appearances on the music competition show, “Real Country” with Travis Tritt and Shania Twain.

Raised in Vero Beach, the 37-year-old Jake boasts to the world about his hometown, returning to it every December for visits with family and friends and performances for charity events.

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Jake Owen

Space Race pioneer

In 1966, women couldn’t get a credit card without their husbands as a cosigner. They weren’t allowed to run the Boston Marathon, and it wasn’t until 1973 that all 50 states allowed women to serve on a jury. But in that year, Jean Hopkins was working on calculating the expectation of casualty on forced reentry for an experimental space program.

Her career as a pioneering woman in the space industry spanned 30 years and took her from a secretarial position to working with the team who returned the space shuttle program to flight after the Challenger tragedy.

Career opportunities came to her in the new and burgeoning space industry because of her math capabilities. She initially worked at... Read more

Jean Hopkins


Vero Beach resident Pamela Caragol has a dream career that has allowed her to travel the world and experience things most of us only see on TV.

As a documentary producer for National Geographic...

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Sometimes all it takes to succeed is a dream, a lot of grit and tenacity, and the perseverance to push through when things aren’t going as planned. Those traits helped Chivon Hunter turn her dream of becoming a restaurateur into a reality...

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Jim Moir sits at home as he gazes over aquamarine waters of The Crossroads, where the St. Lucie and Indian rivers meet, and says, “I’m the luckiest man that I know.”

He feels fortunate because he has spent a lifetime doing what he loves in the great outdoors. And it’s that very passion for...

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Kauffmann enjoys the diversity of her students who come from all backgrounds and have ranged in age from 14 to 89. Reaching students who are on so many different levels and have such a wide difference in experiences requires creativity, empathy and a wide range of tools and knowledge...

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Urbay’s special talent as a teacher has caught the attention of local school officials. In December, she was recognized as Martin County’s Teacher of the Year by the Martin County Education Foundation.

Born in Stuart, Urbay began her schooling at...

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Growing up, children are often admonished for playing with their food. But for Francisco Ixcoy Ajiataz, owner and executive chef of Zest Kitchen and Bar, playing with food inspired him to become one of the area’s most noted chefs...

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Olga Hamilton feels right at home as she points out her paintings, drawings and photographs that are displayed at the historic 1895 Church of Art in Downtown Stuart. Born and raised in the former Soviet Union, she never imagined that one day she would become a professional artist. And today, she feels very fortunate to do what she loves, creating...

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For Jason Stocks, being a top chef is about making a connection with people. He loves bringing joy to his clientele by serving delicious food...

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In a world of art bound by mud and heat and wax, Heidi Hill found her calling. The Vero Beach ceramicist had always been aware of her artistic side, but not until she began taking pottery classes at the Vero Beach Museum of Art, simply as an escape valve, did her talent begin to flourish.

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One of Vero’s most beloved chefs is jumping back into the restaurant business after a six-month hiatus. Kitty Wagner seems to have the magic touch or more realistically the culinary expertise and business acumen to create dining...

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As a little girl in Minnesota, Debra Fogarty Terrio longed to be an artist, maybe an art teacher. She created sculptures in the snow. She drew whenever she could.

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Mark Castlow is a man who, by his own admission, has never had a job. He’s the quintessential entrepreneur who started making and selling surf boards at age 16 and has lived his dream building and selling boats and boards for his entire life. Now, at age 70, he owns and operates...

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As a youngster living on a chicken farm in Pennsylvania, Ronnie Rohm chopped down a hemlock tree to fashion a wooden raft a la Davy Crockett so he could float on the stream that ran through the farm. After moving to Florida in the 1950s, he spent all of his spare hours in or on the Indian River Lagoon.

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Many people might say 2020 has been the worst year of their lives. Not so for Ben Swalwell. In 2020, he completed his bachelor’s degree, bought his first home, welcomed his first child and started his first teaching job. Pandemic aside, it was a good year for the Swalwell family.

Born and raised in a very small town near York, England, he has traveled...

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Most students are reprimanded for making noise in class, but it’s just the opposite in Maggie Baker’s drama class at Saint Edward’s School in Vero Beach where she teaches the art of Foley sound effects. Children giddy with laughter learn to write their own scripts, act them out silently, then produce and edit the sound effects to match the action.

“This course is given to all sixth graders at Saint Edward’s Lower School,” Baker said.

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Many in the legal community of the 19th Circuit know Darren Steele as a distinguished county court judge who serves in Martin County. Appointed to the bench by Gov. Crist in 2009, Steele oversees misdemeanor and juvenile cases.

Yet many may not be aware that in his spare time, Steele is an adjunct professor at Indian River State College. The judge, who joined the faculty in 2016, teaches courses in criminal justice and paralegal studies. A natural in the classroom, the college recognized him in 2019 as Adjunct Professor of the Year for public service education.

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For Melissa McInturff, accepting the position of executive director for the Humane Society of St. Lucie County was a no-brainer. After all, for this animal-lover, it was an early realization of a lifelong dream.

“This was genuinely my retirement goal,” the 41-year-old said. “I was going to invest my money in a 401(k), retire at 50, and find a high-kill shelter out in the middle of nowhere and make it no-kill.”

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Arnold Palmer once said, “Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated.” For professional golfer Joe Kern and his fishing buddy Bill Sedleckis, their friendship marks that equation perfectly and identifies a relationship that evolved from simple to complicated, with a truly endless quality.

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Cristina de la Vega paints landscapes that capture the stunning, stark beauty of nature. Whether it’s a picturesque scene of a high bluff overlooking the Indian River, a pasture dotted with scrub and palmetto trees under an endless sky, or a back river portrait of the St. Lucie snaking through lush green vegetation — each of her paintings arrests your attention and makes you feel as though you are there.

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Lenny Schelin introduced his two sons to the water when they were only three days and three months old, respectively. Many families point to the age a child walked or learned to read: The Schelin boys, Lenny Jr. and Ryan, water-skied by age 3.

As a boy, Schelin lived on the North Fork of Long Island, New York. A creek ran by his house. He had his own boat. He loved the North Fork so much that he was less than enthusiastic about moving to Florida in 1971.

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Take one look at Rosalind Neilen, owner and fitness coach of Rosalind’s Fitness Studios in downtown Stuart, and you quickly realize that staying fit has been a central focus of her life. Her youthful looks defy her age. At 67, she enjoys training her clients so they can be in optimum shape.

“I do a prescription of fitness that is realistic,” she says. “I like to focus on the everyday person and help them for one hour, two to three times a week. They walk in the door and say, ‘Tell me what to do, Rosalind.’ Two to three hours makes a big difference in their lives.”

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The energy field surrounding retired Col. Martin J. Zickert mirrors the force of the F4 Phantom fighter jet he flew in the Air Force. Retirement hasn’t slowed him down, as he embraces each day with a sense of adventure and a quest to do something that can change someone else’s life. His life story reads like an action novel full of chance encounters, leaps of faith and opportunities seized.

Born and raised in a small Wisconsin farming town with a population of 954, Zickert grew up playing baseball — the sport that opened the door to his military career.

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Born into a routine life, Jonah Martinez was 10 when his father sold his business in Illinois and commissioned a sailboat to be built in Taiwan. But after a typhoon hit the boatyard, his father had to improvise.

“Dad packed us up into a camper to go on tour,” he says.

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Between shaping custom surfboards and riding huge waves on six continents, Charles Williams has had a profound impact on the Treasure Coast surfing community.

Williams and his twin brother, George, have manufactured more than 40,000 Impact surfboards at their Fort Pierce shop during the past 40 years. Three generations of faithful surfers have grown up riding custom boards made by Impact.

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Cristina Maldonado, a veterinarian at Monterey Animal Clinic in Stuart, lives her dream job by caring for dogs and cats and doing everything to keep them healthy. The daughter of Dr. Carlos Maldonado, a well-known general surgeon in Stuart, she remembers wanting to work in animal medicine since she was 4 years old.

“It was something that I got in my head as a little girl and there was never anything else that I wanted to do,” she recalls.

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Coming from a family of educators — her mother and her aunts were all teachers — Pamela Brown Williams says she grew up with the realization that she enjoyed most helping those students who struggle with academics or confidence. Visiting the classrooms of her aunts, she says she saw how they were able to make learning fun for their students and she wanted to help students learn in that way, too.

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Michael Naffziger, theater and technical director for the Schumann School for the Visual and Performing Arts at Indian River Charter High School. For the past decade, Naffziger has taught acting, drama, musical theater, stagecraft and comprehensive theater at the school, but he actually got a degree in science in college and at one-time taught physics.

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For LaShawnda McNair, being a third-grade teacher at J.D. Parker Elementary in Stuart involves far more than instructing on how to read, write and do arithmetic. It’s about molding young lives.

“I inspire kids. That’s what teaching is,” she says. “It’s making them believe that they can learn. Half of the battle is getting them to know that you care enough about them, that they can do the work — even when it gets hard.”

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On a recent trip to Santiago, Chile, pilot Manuel Cabianca looked out the window from the cockpit of his 747 and saw television news crews gathering on the tarmac below.

The Vero Beach resident and captain for Atlas Air regularly flies cargo in and out of Santiago. But that night, there was an unscheduled change in the routing.

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Sit down with Jim Chrulski and you quickly discover that he enjoys putting his creative talents to work. As director of community and legislative affairs for the City of Stuart, he uses his artistic side to help make the city an economically sound, vibrant and beautiful community. His approach is a combination of a lifelong passion for music and the arts mixed with practical, fiscal sense.

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Growing up in South Florida, Jessica Harvey is the youngest of three children. Besides her mother, Harvey was the only girl in the household and was usually the center of attention.

“I always got attention when I was younger but always found myself wanting more,” Harvey says. “I would do things to entertain people like crack jokes or be really loud so others would notice me.”

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Gary Brady’s executive office is a cramped corner of an overflowing herpetarium-aquarium building. He is comfortable seated in his worn leather chair at his desk wedged between massive saltwater aquariums teeming with colorful tropical fish and temperature-controlled herpetariums accommodating exotic reptiles’ special needs for light and heat.

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When LaVaine Wrigley walked into the original Elliott Museum in the summer of 1996, she was looking for a volunteer position to keep her busy for a couple of days a week. As a 70-year-old with secretarial experience, she wasn’t quite ready to retire. So she inquired to find meaningful work.

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Many people find themselves lounging on the couch after a long workday, but then there’s boatbuilder Jeff Warner, who spends his free time building guitars and ukuleles. A “mad scientist” of sorts, Warner was always taking toys apart and tinkering with things from a very young age. His father fostered his interest in mechanics and restoration.

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Like father like daughter, April Price is a second-generation advocate for marine interests in Florida. She helps with the improvement and preservation of the waterways in the tri-county area.

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For Nicole Mader, going to her job hardly seems like work. It’s almost a mini-vacation. As a volunteer field biologist with the Dolphin Ecology Project, she studies and monitors Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in the southern part of the Indian River Lagoon down to Jupiter Inlet.

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Lin Reading, a 20-year survivor of breast cancer and melanoma, co-founded a cancer support organization in Indian River County called Friends After Diagnosis that, among other things, offers survivors an introduction to the sport of crew rowing to help women with cancer regain their strength.

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What does St. Edward’s School in Vero Beach have in common with the National Geographic Society? One very talented teacher. Dr. Kerryane Monahan, chair of the science department at St. Edward’s, has been awarded a fellowship with the National Geographic Society in the field of citizen science.

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Talk to Nereida Steele and you can’t help but get impacted by her love for teaching. Her enthusiasm is contagious. Teaching is a special calling, she shares, a Godly mission for her life.

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With generations of educators in the family, it is no surprise that Corey Collins Heroux turned to teaching as a career. Her mother, Teresita Valdivia Collins, taught math at many different levels in Indian River County schools while Heroux was young. But the decades of family involvement in teaching on the Treasure Coast date back to the late 1960s.

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A self-named survivor whose own recovery is deeply-rooted in helping others — who share her pain — was moved to establish an organization nearly 10 years ago with just that purpose in mind.

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Much like her famous father, diver and treasure hunter Mel Fisher, Taffi Fisher Abt has experienced monumental highs and heartbreaking lows, but her relentless perseverance and indomitable spirit continue to chart her course through life.

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When she is not working 50 hours a week as a human resources manager and raising her teenage son, Maria Lopez Ruiz creates custom cakes for all occasions.

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