Orlando Moms who Rock: Rabbi Sharon Barr Skolnik

Moms who Rock highlights Orlando moms doing their thing. This week’s spotlight is on Rabbi Sharon Barr Skolnik! This Orlando mom talks about raising a Jewish family in Central Florida!

Though I usually sit down face to face with moms, Sharon and I wound up doing a Facebook video call to chat about life.  I can’t undersell you on how fun it was to virtually be in her world for a bit.  Her vibrancy and hustle and bustle throughout her home as we spoke was charming.  In my down time I’ll be drafting tv pitches for a Skolnik family sitcom.

Rabbi Sharon Barr Skolnik and her husband, Rabbi Hillel Skolnik moved to Orlando about six and a half years ago after Hillel finished rabbinical school.  She was 30 weeks pregnant and hadn’t been able to visit during the interviews, so it was a brand new crazy adventure.  

On first impressions of Orlando:

“It’s crazy hot.  And people kept saying to me it takes three years especially for a northerner to adjust.  Three years came and went and it’s still really hot.”

“Orlando has been a really enlightening and special experience for us.  We’ve done our best to find our place here and make a place for ourselves and for our kids, and I think we’ve done a really good job of that.  But in order to do that it has been a lot of hard work!  

On connecting to Orlando:

“Living here during the Pulse shooting has connected us to Orlando in a way forever.  I’ve met such incredible people here.  It’s so interesting because almost everyone’s a transplant, so they all understand the feelings that we feel about being in a new place and being away from family.  You can count on one hand the people you meet that are really from here.  It’s special to me to see how people really take care of each other and act like family when they don’t have it nearby.”  

Sharon grew up in Cleveland, Ohio.  Her uncle was the Rabbi of her synagogue growing up.  And throughout her childhood, she grew up with strong female role models such as cantors and rabbis for as long as she could remember.  

On knowing her calling:

“From a very young age I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I thought about living a life that reflected the things that I loved to do and the things that I was good at it and when I looked carefully all roads lead to becoming a rabbi. So, I basically bet on myself.  I applied to one college and just thought if I didn’t get in there I’d figure it out.  But I did.  I went to Brandeis University, which was the perfect place for me, and even more perfect because that’s where I met Hillel.”  

Though Sharon had been sure she wanted to be a pulpit Rabbi, her studies and internship experiences helped her to quickly realize that was not the case.  As part of her degree, she was required to do a 400 hour summer internship, Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). Sharon was able to do her CPE at the Cleveland Clinic.  Just a year into their marriage, Hillel and Sharon, packed up and moved into her parents house for a summer that would change her life.   

On a life changing experience:

“I sat with countless families and individuals who were sick or dying, and to really feel like I was making a huge difference for them by sitting with them, praying together, or offering comforting words, was an experience that never leaves me.  I remember I would come home every day exhausted – like an exhaustion that rivals how I feel today – but I didn’t have kids yet.  I couldn’t see straight but still I felt like I had done God’s work every single day.  That has influenced everything I have done since then, and even the way I talk to every single person I meet.”  

On being a Rabbi’s Wife:

“I take my role as Rabbi’s wife very seriously.  I know that for some, this can be a bit of a tricky situation and complicated line to draw.  A lot of women have trouble with the term Rabbi’s wife, or rebbetzin, because you don’t want to just be known as somebody’s “something.” But to me, it’s always been so much more than that and such an important part of our rabbinic family.  Even though I feel very strong and confident in my own rabbinate and my own rabbinic role, it’s always been a huge priority for me to support Hillel professionally and be his sidekick, and he has always been mine!”

On two rabbis co-parenting:

“That can be tricky.  Hillel and I have always joked that we get along very well and are very ‘yin and yang.’  But when you look at the things that really get us arguing it almost always has to do with Jewish stuff.  People think that’s hilarious.   But it is really complicated because we came from very different backgrounds.  We definitely have an infusion of that in the house.  The Judaism we practice today and the Jewish choices we make in the house with regard to the kids are absolutely the result of both of our upbringings. And we talk about each choice.  It’s a conversation we have to think through and decide how it works.”

On arguing on the Jewish stuff:

“It really makes sense because the things you argue about are the things you’re most passionate about.  Your religious choices, the way you live, your spiritual choices, your connection with God, and how you understand the religion of your childhood – those are fundamental things.  It was fun to imagine what it would be like before we had kids, but once the kids are there it’s a different thing entirely.”

On raising three children of faith:

“We are so grateful to have three insanely curious and inquisitive and bright children, each of whom are looking for something a little different from us in regards to Judaism.  I spend my days thinking and figuring out how to translate every day life and Judaism into a language my kids will love.  It is so important to me that Judaism always be something that my kids love and not something that is forced on them.”  

On being under a microscope:

“For anyone (especially for Rabbis!) there is an expectation of what our kids will and won’t do or will and won’t believe or will or won’t say.  As if we have any control over what they do!  There definitely is an expectation in terms of when we show up at services.  It’s crazy the comments we get about what we’re wearing or how they’re acting.  But it’s so important to me and to us that our children will always know what is important to us and what our expectation is for them.”

On allowing kids to be kids:

“Kids absorb everything and they do it in their own way which is important.  I also try to remember that I try to live my life in a way that I think is what God wants me to do.  So along those lines I try to imagine as best as I can, what God wants for my children.  Does God want little soldiers standing in line and being silent in services?  No.  If God wanted little soldiers, God would have created children to be quiet and kids are just not.”  

On a Shabbat that’s anything but restful:

“Friday nights are tricky, Hillel has to be at services by 7:30pm.  So for us Shabbat dinner is crazy.  I’ve been cooking all day, sun up to down.  The kids of course sit down and someone doesn’t like what I gave them or found a carrot in the soup or doesn’t like the spice on the chicken.  It’s crazy.  Hillel always starts with kiddush (the blessing) over wine and the kids are usually talking or yelling at each other.  We laugh that as kids, if we would have done things that they do, we would probably have been sent away from the table.  But we’re not sending them away.  We’re just not doing it.  So in the past couple weeks the kids have taken to making animal noises that sound like the different Hebrew words so as they say Shabbat they do it like baaaa as a goat.  First of all that’s hilarious, and they get Hillel to laugh when he sings which is also pretty funny. And I think to me that’s like the perfect example where you want to teach them to be respectful but at the same time not shut them down, which would probably just cause them to block it out and become disinterested.”

On creating a safe Jewish environment:

“You have to keep your kids in a bubble in this world as much as possible, in this tight Jewish bubble.  And it’s not for everybody.  Since we’ve been here, our kids have been in Jewish schools.  My oldest has always thrived in a strong Jewish environment.  My son has always struggled with his Jewish identity in a way.  He loves going to synagogues and services and asking questions and loves everything Jewish.  But, he also wants to be like everyone else and just fit in.  In his pre-k class he was maybe one of three Jews in his class out of 18 kids.  He wears a kippah (head covering) everyday and that was really hard for him.  He just wanted to be like everyone else.  He wants to play baseball on Saturdays and didn’t want to wear the kippah.  That was really complicated.  We kept trying to teach him to be proud, reminding him it’s good to be different, being Jewish is so special and all the things you’d want to say to your kids to make them proud of who they are.  He’s in kindergarten now and he is so happy where he is and is just blossoming and is coming into his own.  It’s been good for him to be with other kids who wear a kippah too and see that Judaism is important to all these kids too.”  

Sharon’s house is an open door for Shabbat and holidays.  She thrives in moments like these where she’s preparing a Passover Seder for 25 people.  She believes those moments have a huge impact on her kids.  They help her prepare and set the table and put out fun special surprises for all the children.  At Hannukah each child has their own hannukiah (menorah) and she tells of how empowered and proud they are at lighting their own candles.  She also acknowledges the utter fear she and Hillel have watching their kids play with an open flame.

On encouraging Judaism:

“I think that we do our best to keep the kids in a bubble and when we’re not keeping them in the bubble we encourage them in so many ways by inviting people over or wearing their Judaism on their sleeves so to speak to really share it with everyone.  If we focus on the things you can’t do because you’re Jewish or can’t say, can’t eat, can’t go, then who wants to do it? Not me either.  But if you focus on the things we get to do and you have all these great opportunities to share with everyone, then it’s great.”  

On how exploring her faith has changed as a mom:

“Before kids, we were much more concerned about meticulously following the rules.  Especially the rules within the confines of Jewish law.  And we still are.  But for me now, nothing has to do with me and it all has to do with them. I struggled with this as a Rabbi and as a Jew in general.  I remember going to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah one year, and I didn’t even get to open the prayer book.  I felt really guilty about it.  How am I supposed to pray? I can’t even wear a tallit (prayer shawl) anymore since I’m sweating so much from chasing kids around.  When I finally took a step back and accepted that at this stage in my life, the prayers in the prayer book are not mine.  My prayer is my children.  I focus, I try to check in with God when I can, but for me, connecting my children to Judaism and developing that love, that’s my prayer.  That is way harder and way more work.”

On the days before kids:

Sometimes you reminisce, not that you want it back, but you remember that life [before kids].  I remember that life and it was great.  This life is greater but t’s just different than it was.  It’s connected to all types of things, like when you stop expecting to get your pre-baby body back and pre-baby life back then I think everyone can find a little more happiness.  It’s about incorporating the new stuff into your life and taking it all in and working it out.  It’s not about pushing out the other stuff, but rather forging a new path ahead and I think for me it always will be about my kids.  Hopefully as they start coming into their own I’ll start bringing more back for me.”

On the importance of self-care:

“I am a big proponent of self-care but am very bad at doing it myself, horrible actually.  I’d love to tell you I exercise regularly, but I don’t.  I try really hard to exercise and sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t.  I do love crafting and cookbooks so I’m always on pinterest and flipping through cookbooks for inspiration for new ideas.  I love to cook and I especially love new recipes that remind me of Israel.”  

On supporting other moms:

“Every mom wants so badly to be a great mom.  And I feel like there are days or just moments I feel like ‘Wow, I rocked this mom thing just now, that was amazing parenting!’ There are moments where I feel like I’m on the ball and on my game, patient, thoughtful determined.  But then there are so many moments where I totally lose it.  People see me and think I have it all together because I have a big smile on my face all the time.  That helps me because I don’t want to walk around grumpy or mad.  But I do get mad sometimes and it is really hard.  And I just want everyone to know that it is hard for every mom – even the ones that seem like they have it all together.  And the only way we can survive this ‘momhood’ is by helping and supporting each other and learning and losing the judgement.”  

Sharon’s outlook on faith and motherhood is reassuring.  A reminder we don’t have to do it all perfectly to be doing it right.  It’s amazing how easy it is to forget that.

Want to read about other amazing Orlando moms?  Check out all of our interviews here.


Your Guide to Thornton Park

Momlando: Quick Trips Guide to Thortorn Park

After one too many days without a clue of how to keep the kids occupied and ourselves sane, we devised a plan.  And Quick Trips were born!  We’d hop in the car and find some local Central Florida fun.  Each time we’d take a drive to somewhere new (or sometimes not so new!) make a few stops, have lunch, and head home.  Adventures could be all day long or just for the morning until nap.  Use our guide to fit your schedule and needs.

This is your Orlando locals guide to Thornton Park.  Thornton Park boasts bungalows, craftsman houses, and cobblestone streets.  It’s full of historic charm and vibrant arts and culture.  Plan a full day, a morning or afternoon in between naps, whatever works for you.  Our guide will help your family plan the perfect day.

Dickson Azalea Park
100 Rosearden Drive Orlando, FL 32803
A hidden little gem of a park with shady trees and blooming azaleas.  You wouldn’t believe this used to be a spot for cattle herders to let their herd get a drink of water.  Today it’s a great spot to wander through the bridges and tunnels.  Head up top on the Washington Street bridge for an overhead view and photo opp.

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Langford Park
1808 E. Central Blvd. Orlando, FL 32803
Just across the street from Dickson Azalea Park, your second stop has sprawling oak trees, naturewalks, two playgrounds, and expansive green space.  Plan ahead with snacks, a blanket, balls, and bikes and you could lounge here for hours.  Your kids will love running through the park’s several boardwalks and bridges.  (Note: This park has restrooms and picnic tables.)

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Lake Eola
512 E Washington St, Orlando, FL 32801
A crown jewel of the city, Lake Eola has a playground, art installations, and circular walking path around the lake. (Note: This park has restrooms.)

Lake Eola Farmer’s Market
20 N Eola Dr, Orlando, FL 32801
Orlando’s largest weekly farmer’s market with food and arts vendors. Sundays 10am-4pm.

Grab a bite to eat!  Thornton Park has many family friendly restaurant options including:

Anthony’s Pizza: NY Style Pizzeria 100 N Summerlin Ave, Orlando, FL 32801

Dexter’s Thornton Park: Casual American Fare 808 E Washington St, Orlando, FL 32801

Graffiti Junktion: Burgers 700 E Washington St, Orlando, FL 32801

Truck Stop Restaurant:  Brunch 7 Days a Week, Rotating Pop-up Vendors nightly 900 E. Washington St, Orlando, FL 32801


Quick Trip Guides brings you family friendly local Central Florida activities monthly.  Get out and explore Orlando.  Have an idea of where we should go next?  Let us know!

Our Year of No Spending!

It’s 2018!  Time for goals and changes! For the past few weeks Dadlando and I had been looking at our financials from the year and realizing that things weren’t looking great.  It’s not a surprise really, we added a new baby to the family this year and doubled our daycare bill.  Yipes.  We knew we needed to trim back and reset some habits.  Enter this article by Ann Patchett on her year of no shopping.  Did you read it?  At least half the internet did.  Did you love it?  Hate it?  Think it was trite and privileged?  Yeah, half the internet did too.  But it spoke to me, and quickly Dadlando and I agreed on our year of no spending. 

Why a year of no spending?  Aside from the obvious money saving, it will force us to make conscious choices on what we’re spending again.  It will remind me to really decide when it’s worth it to go to lunch with a friend or for dadlando and I to get a babysitter for date night.  It will give us the time we need to make adjustments to our larger family and now larger bills.  

Much like Ann we’ve set our own arbitrary rules.  We’ll buy groceries and necessary items only.  Unnecessary spending on lunches out or coffee need to be covered with cash on hand from gifts or extra income.  So if you see me out mowing lawns you’ll know I’m just dying to eat some tacos.  That’s a joke.  But also not implausible I guess.

We will face a ton of challenges sticking to the year of no spending.  We have four weddings, who knows how many birthday parties, and of course those regular weekday nights when we don’t feel like making dinner.  But even 75% no spending will do us all the good we need to reset.   Stick around for 2018 and our year of no spending.  I’ll report back on how we did at the end of each month.  I’m sure you’ll hear from Dadlando a bit too.  Cheer us on, leave us your frugality tips, and let us know what you’re doing in 2018 to improve your life.

Dadlando weighs in: On When Mom’s Away

There is nothing worse than not having a plan.  At least, that is my motto for the times when I find myself alone and outnumbered by my children.  Momlando had a well-deserved mini vacation this past weekend, so I got right to it on a schedule packed tight with super fun daddy weekend activities.

If there is anything I learned this year, it’s that two children are more than twice as hard to take care of than one.  I don’t mean to offend anyone who is struggling with one child – we did that too.  I also don’t want to scare anyone away from having a second.  You learn and adapt.  It can be tough though.  One great strategy we like to employ is divide and conquer.  For some reason, it is much easier to take care of one child alone than both of us taking care of the two kids together (I hate this term, but it seems appropriate- it’s like herding cats). 

With all that said, there are a few things you can do to make weekends when you are alone easier on yourself – that is where the Super Fun Daddy Weekend Plan comes in handy!

I had some big challenges to work around including: needing to be home every 2-3 hours to give our youngest one a nap.  But wait!  That may be a challenge, but I used it in my favor to keep the weekend moving, and on to our next activity.  Here are some of the activities I used to survive being outnumbered:

Drive to the playground: This is an activity on it’s own because I take the scenic route to a playground that we don’t usually go to… and along the way make a couple stops where I don’t have to get everyone out of the car like the post office or a drive-thru for coffee.  And then of course we play at the playground.

Holiday themed activity while baby Simon sleeps: Violet kept asking how many more days until Christmas, so we made a chain out of paper for the Christmas tree.  Every day we will cut one off and when there are no more rings left, it is Christmas!

Make Rice Crispy Treats with Violet: Then use the treats as incentive to get Violet to participate in other activities, like…

Pack a bag and go to Cranes Roost Park to walk around: there are a bunch of holiday decorations that the kids love!

Play superheroes while baby Simon sleeps: Our current storyline revolves around Dr. Blanky vs. Ultra Violet Captain America battling for the magical Tsum-Tsums.

Oh no!  Simon wouldn’t take his nap… 

Time for an adventure to Publix: There is nothing better than strapping the kids in a shopping cart and walking around the supermarket.  The kids can’t go anywhere AND you get to cross a chore off your list.

Cinema Saturday: Once the baby is asleep for the night and the toddler is ready for bed, we have Cinema Saturday!  I used this as bribery all day too… the trick here is, again, a snack.  We can watch movies during the day, but when we have popcorn it’s an official event where we can sit and watch an entire movie.

I love spending the time with my kids, but it can be a lot to handle on your own if you’re unprepared.  Sitting around the house and watching TV or corralling the kids into the playroom gets old real quick.  Just when I think I learn a new trick, the kids grow or change their habits and we are back to the drawing board.  All I know is that staying busy helps the time pass, and the kids enjoy it too. 

What are your tricks for keeping the days moving?  Want to hear more from Dadlando?  Check out last week’s column on the most wonderful time of the year!

Dadlando weighs in: On the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

It is officially that time of year again.  That time when spirits are high, it’s acceptable to drink hot lattes any time of the day (even though the barista always asks, ‘cold or hot’ – that will have to be for another post), and children are full of excitement.  Things even seem to smell more amazing. To say that I look forward to this season all year would be an understatement.  It’s that magical time of year, you know, ‘going-outdoors-time’ in Central Florida; the only time you can venture outside without instantly feeling like you are in a sauna.

I am from the great northwest where hipster Macklemores and cosmopolitan Cobains walk around sipping Starbucks and dodging raindrops.  Like so many others in Orlando, I am a transplant with fond memories of my native lands.  People often remark on how different Seattle and Orlando are, and I agree.  One of the things I miss the most is how easy it was to be able to walk around the city.  I know there are great places to walk in Orlando, but with oppressive heat the majority of the year, it really isn’t practical.  That’s why ‘going-outdoors-time’  is so great.

During the rest of the year, taking kids outside just isn’t an option. When planning the day, we usually make an elaborate plan for a chaotic trip to the Science Center, Crayola Factory, or other indoors center that every other family in Orlando will be at. We love these places, but it is a lot of extra work.  

Winter in Orlando can be as short as summer in Seattle.  But I’ve found ways to make the most of it and it’s as easy as getting outside to go for a walk.  My favorite is Crane’s Roost Park in Altamonte Springs.  It is perfect for taking the kids and doing a couple laps before nap time to burn some energy.  

Here are my top five places to walk with the kids:

  1. Cranes Roost Park
  2. Harry P. Leu Gardens
  3. Lake Lily Park (Bonus, there’s playground!)
  4. Central Florida Zoo
  5. Lake Baldwin Park

During ‘going-outdoors-time’ we have more freedom with our schedule, I don’t feel like I need to shower when I get back in from outside, and I can enjoy a hot beverage while breathing fresh air- not recycled air conditioning.  It is truly the most wonderful time of year!

A little Elf talk.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you have heard of the Elf on the Shelf.  The tradition has swept the nation and most certainly the internet.  On December 1st the elf arrives and serves as a reminder to your kids that Santa is watching and waiting to hear if you’re on the naughty or nice list.  Check out Pinterest and you’ll have endless inspiration on unique and hilarious ways to move your elf around the house.  I checked in with two mamas who have welcomed the elf into their homes for the very first time.

From Jen, Kennedy’s Mommy

What made you want to do the Elf on the Shelf?

I can’t recall exactly what year Elf on the Shelf started, maybe 2010/2011? (Momlando Note: It was 2005!) In 2011 we got married and for our first Christmas my husband bought me an Elf on the Shelf, so we could have one as a family. So for years even without a kid we had the little lady elf in our house, hanging out watching us.

This year became a little more “real.” as our daughter is now 3. So we did have a discussion this year about introducing it. I had a few concerns, once the Elf enters your house he is there for years. He helps to create the magic of Christmas in the child’s eyes but are we ready to have this Elf around for years?! Maybe we could wait one more year?!  Secondly, I am not a Pinterest Mom, I try really hard to be one, but the truth is I’m not; so with the pressure of the all the Elf posts, I had fear of failure (I know silly, but true). So we did agree – no “scenes” are needed, and pressure removed. Lastly, this little Elf has taken over! If we did not have an Elf, would our child be the only one who didn’t?  

What are your parameters for the Elf?

She arrived on Dec. 1 and moves nightly. We do not have elaborate scenes or anything fancy, she just hangs out in locations around the house. She is here just to see how Kennedy is doing and if she does something super awesome, will report back to Santa. But really she is just here, hanging out.

What is your elf’s name?

After reading the book, Elf on the Shelf, and learning all about the Elf’s role. When she arrived to our house she was aptly named – “Elf on the Shelf.”

How is Kennedy enjoying it?

Every morning, she loves looking for the Elf and where she has moved. She is still taking in the concept and asks questions like, Why is she still here? Why are her eyes still open? How did she get here? But on the other hand, we have to leave the Elf a snack every day because she is “tired from flying, building toys and wrapping gifts.”

How much are you enjoying it?

So far, so good. I can be honest and say all of my internal fears and what-ifs, were truly that, made up in my head. This year is similar to when we did the Elf without kids. It is just a little something to help get everyone excited about Christmas.

What’s your favorite part so far?

It has been fun to watch Kennedy’s excitement every morning when looking for the Elf. It honestly gets me more excited about Christmas morning. The magic and excitement in kids, truly can’t be beat. And if a little Elf can help bring out the magic in me, while watching through Kennedy’s eyes, I am in.

From Natasha, Evie’s Mommy

What made you want to do the Elf on the Shelf?

Simply to enhance the holiday magic for Evie. And to have a mischievous elf around.

What are your parameters for the Elf?

He leaves each night and appears in a new spot each morning. Evie cannot touch him or his magic might disappear. He reports back to Santa, but I’m vague on exactly what that means with her.

What’s the elf’s name?

Vishnu we call him “Vish” for short.

How is Evie enjoying it?

She loves looking for him every morning. We read the book on Nov. 30 to tee it up for Dec. 1. Hope we can keep her interested for the rest of the month!

How much are you enjoying it?

I love it. He’s been a good little scout elf thus far. I figure I have some time to make him mischievous.

What’s your favorite part so far?

The holiday magic it creates and getting to see it through her eyes.

Do you have an elf causing mischief in your house?  What’s your favorite holiday tradition with your family?

Orlando Moms who Rock: Sheila Kramer & Samantha Taylor

Moms who Rock highlights Orlando moms doing their thing. This week’s spotlight is on Sheila Kramer and her daughter Samantha Taylor! These Orlando moms (And grandma!) run a local publishing company that has had a major impact in Central Florida.

I’m not sure that everyone would describe working in a spare bedroom with your husband and daughter as a dream job.  But Sheila Kramer would.  She continually says what a joy Lake Mary Life Magazine has been to build and counts working so closely with her family as one of the best parts.  

Before we talk about growing a magazine empire from your guest room, let’s back up to how Sheila and Michael Kramer made their way from New York City to Seminole County, FL and even a little before that.   Sheila and Michael met in 1974 on Thanksgiving day.  Sheila’s first cousin was married to Michael’s first cousin.  They hit it off instantly.  They went out on a date a day or two after the holiday and were married in January 1975.  And they’ll remind you that they only waited so long because that’s the first day the Rabbi was available.  

Fast forward a few years, Michael is commuting from a house they had purchased in New Jersey into New York City where he worked as an accountant.  The Kramers now had two young children, Samantha and Ben.  Having both lost their fathers very young, Sheila and Michael understood how precious life could be and the effects his commute and stressful career could have.  They realized if they sold their home and moved to a different area Michael could have a shot at being a full-time musician and live the life he truly dreamed of.  So they took to researching areas around the country that had good education and a thriving entertainment industry.  They wound up with two options, Orlando or Las Vegas.  The two had a little too much of an affection for gambling to think Vegas was a good idea.  So, the Kramers headed to Central Florida.

Michael gave himself six months to find a job as a pianist that would provide full-time income.  He got status at Disney and then began work at the piano bar at the Sheraton in Maitland.  To this day, Michael continues to be a successful musician playing all over the community.  Sheila began settling into life in Orlando and began looking for classes and activities for the kids.  She noticed there wasn’t a family newspaper like she was used to back home.  She took that spark of an idea and turned it into the Family Journal a local publication which she wound up selling to The Orlando Sentinel.  It would still be years before she began Lake Mary Life Magazine.  As the kids grew older, she was a freelance graphic designer and copywriter for clients throughout the country but the schedule was getting stressful.


On a schedule that wasn’t working for her family:

Sheila: “I had all these different deadlines for all these different clients.  When the kids were home over the summer it was always super busy.  So it was like camp daddy (Michael worked nights as a pianist at the time).  I had to work during the day and I was working 12 to 14 hours a day.”

On starting Lake Mary Life Magazine:

Sheila: “Starting it was something I had been thinking about doing for a long time.  I got more and more frustrated with what I was doing which was just very simple design work and writing.  Michael finally said to me, Stop talking about starting a magazine and just do it.

On its meager beginnings:

Sheila: “I invested a ridiculously small amount of money to open a checking account.  The first issue paid for itself.  And every issue grew.  It was a remarkable growth.”

By the end of the first year Lake Mary Life was in the green.  But back then, Sheila and Michael did it all.  For years, they ran the magazine out of spare bedrooms in the house.  Sheila understood what a big chance they were taking by opening a small business.  

On the right place, the right time, and all the right skills:

Sheila: “Every part of it except for the sales part, was something Michael or I could do.  So the fact that I had a husband who could edit, write, and do all the business part because he was an accountant was fantastic.  I knew the graphic design and could write.  It was the right place at the right time.  There was nothing like it around town.  It was a joy, it has always been a joy.”

Samantha (Sam) had come back from college at UF and she and her now husband John (JT) moved home to Seminole County to start a family.   As the magazine grew, they were able to hire her on.

On moving back to Seminole County:

Sam: “I couldn’t imagine going anywhere else.  We got married so young and were in the get married and have family mode.  I grew up here.  I loved being a Seminole County girl, the public schools here, going to the grocery store and running into people you know. I knew I wanted to raise my family in that environment.”

On joining the family business:

Sam: “I always say, how lucky am I that my parents had a business that I could work in that wasn’t the plumbing business or something.  It’s something really interesting to me.  I was working at March of Dimes when it started and they didn’t need me at first.”

Sheila: “We couldn’t afford to pay you!”  

Sam: “After I had Joey, I was itching to go back and do something.  He was about 18 months old  and there was now a place I could work part-time.  It was ideal.  And to have the flexibility that working for your family business provides, it’s fantastic.”  

On working so closely with family:

Sheila: “My favorite days are the days she’s in the office.”

Sam: “We have a really great relationship and I adore working with her.  Just like any mother and daughter we can get on each other’s nerves. I have to be careful not to be too sarcastic or familiar. At home you can talk to your mom one way and in an office you can’t. Also, she will ask me if I have enough protein in my salad at lunch- something previous bosses of mine haven’t done for some reason.”

On putting employees first:

Sam: “We have a staff that is like family.  Everyone in the office is an incredible gift. My mom and dad value our staff so much they are incredibly generous and it keeps the staff happy. It’s such a lesson for me to see one day when I have employees, how you treat them.”

Sheila: “But as a small business, we’ve also been in situations when the economy is good we’re rolling in cash and when you go through a dry period it’s not.  One year for example, we were not able to give raises.  But then by the middle of the year we were doing really well so I just stood in the middle of the office with a bunch of envelopes and said here’s another paycheck.  

We don’t look at it as that’s our money we look at it as that’s the money that they earned.  I feel blessed we have enough.  We don’t need to take more than we need.  It’s a joy to go to work and to show these people who work so hard that they are valued.”

On the lessons of being the boss:

Sheila: “Michael had said, never hire anybody you can’t fire. And that has been an important lesson to learn.  The real bottom line is that even though everyone does treat the business well, the buck stops here.  And when something is wrong it’s my fault.  It doesn’t matter what happened.”

Lake Mary Life Publishing has a remarkable reputation in the community and people look forward to each and every issue.  More than 65,000 copies are distributed every other month and the company has grown to a staff of 18 people. The company now includes three additional publications, Oviedo-Winter Springs Life, Altamonte-Wekiva Springs Life, and the most recent addition, J Life.

On starting J Life Magazine:

Sam: “Everyone should be able to start a business with someone who has done it for 15 years right next to them! Mom really let me make this my project. I can go to her to check in whenever needed.  But the buck stops with me on this one.  And it’s so fun for me.  While I have always loved Lake Mary Life Magazine and been so proud, I never felt the way that she felt about it.  That is her baby and every page is so important and every issue she feels like she gave birth.  I am feeling that way with J Life and now I can relate.”  

On the joy of motherhood:

Sheila: “I loved being a mom and I was always and still am so proud of their accomplishments.  I’m so lucky they both went away to college and came back here which says a lot I think too.”  

On the even greater joy of being a grandparent:

Sheila: “I hope that the love that is in my heart that they understand it. We want to be a support that’s our goal is to just be there emotionally and whatever gifts we have to share.  But there are no words for how I feel about those munchkins.”  

On support from family:

Sam: “When she says they want to be supportive that’s like the understatement of the century because with all of the issues we’ve had, I’ve been a mom for 13 years and we’ve had a lot of unexpected things to deal with.  I cannot imagine having gone through that and continuing to go through all of it without their support emotionally and financially.  It has been a journey and I’ll forever be grateful for all of the support that they have given to us.  Especially that relationship with my mom, nobody feels the pain of your kid hurting the way that a mom does.  And that extends to grandma.”  

Sheila: “I can take anything people dish out to me.  But if somebody comes after my kids or grandchildren I’m a deadly weapon. My greatest joy is that we’ve been successful and Samantha and John do well, he has a phenomenal job and they are successful.  But my greatest joy that this magazine has given us is that we’ve been able to support so that the other two children don’t have to go without anything because of all of the special therapies and such that Joey needs.  So whatever we can do to that is my gift.  That’s what makes us happy.”

Samantha and her husband JT have three children, Joey (13), Aaron (11), and Billie (4).  From very early on Samantha could tell Joey wasn’t developing according to standard milestones.  She was adamant that her family would face challenges head on, whatever they might be.  Starting at just 16 months old he began different therapies to assist in his development.  

On realizing something wasn’t quite right:

Sam: “When Joey was a baby it was apparent that he wasn’t doing the things typical one year olds should do. He wasn’t clapping or talking.  He got upset in loud places and was easily overwhelmed.  He also exhibited extraordinary talents (See Joey on the Today Show here).  I’ve never been one to shy away from, if something is wrong with my kid, tell me so I can help get him the help he needs.”

Sheila: “We’ve had so many mixed messages about what it actually is.  It was so frustrating.”

Sam: “I’m a college educated person and I know the things he’s exhibiting sound like autism and they look like autism.  But I cannot tell you how many experts we have seen from the time he was one until he finally got diagnosed at 11.  We went to developmental pediatricians, pediatric neurologists, countless therapists – speech therapists, occupational therapists, mental health therapists, you name it.  I can’t even tell you the number of places we’ve gone.”  

On accepting hard truths:

Sam: “I did not have my head in the sand like many parents.  Because I’ve seen it.  I see parents whose kids are running around with clear issues and it’s so hard to accept.  It is still to this day hard to accept that something is wrong with your kids.  You can either stick your head in the sand and ignore it and pretend like everything’s okay or you can swallow your pride and do what is best for your kids.  And that has been something that we have been vigilant about.   I can’t imagine not giving him every single possibility so that he has the best life and to be happy.”

Sam made the decision to move him from public elementary school to a special needs school.  In 4th grade, the staff at school noticed he was exhibiting signs of anxiety.  Sam, not an anxious person herself, didn’t know much about it.  But she was aware that Joey was often worried about all sorts of things.  Based on the school’s recommendations they took him to a pediatric psychiatrist for a full evaluation.  Joey was diagnosed with high functioning autism, general anxiety disorder, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID).

On accepting a diagnosis:

Sam: “When you hear it, it is devastating even though you know it already.  You go through the stages of grief.”

Sheila: “Because he’s not going to have the life we thought he was going to have when he was the super brain kid that did all these amazing things.  It’s a whole different thing.  Is he ever going to get married or have relationships?  Is he going to live on his own? We don’t know any of those things.”

Sam: “What we do know, and JT and I say all the time is, never say never with Joey. I thought he would never speak and now he doesn’t stop.  I could give you 50 examples of things I never thought would happen.”

Just last year, their middle child, Aaron, was diagnosed with dysgraphia and anxiety.  As a vocal parent who had been through a lot, other moms started confiding in her or asking her to speak to a friend going through similar struggles. Realizing how many people were out there that needed support but were hesitant to open up, she created a private Facebook group for moms of children with special needs.  The response was tremendous.  Almost 1,000 people joined the group and it has become an active support group for moms near and far.

In addition, Samantha writes for Kveller and Grok Nation about their journey which compelled her to start The Special Moms Blog.  It’s an extension of her voice and of the Facebook group she started.  Samantha has invited moms and professionals to write for the site.  

On sharing her children’s struggles on a public platform:

Sam: “I have talked to Joey and Aaron and I’ve said do you know what blogging is?  I’ll say, would it be okay with you if I wrote blogs about some of the things we’ve learned and don’t use your name in the blog I want to do?  They both said yes.  Now, I don’t know if they know exactly what they’re agreeing to. I hope they know it’s written with love and not to embarrass them. I hope they know my intention which is to help other moms and take away some of the stigma of their diagnoses.”

On her passion for writing:

Sam: “I love to write and get it out. It’s sort of my outlet.  I’m awake 18 hours a day and I spend 17.5 doing something for somebody else.  Whether I’m at work or taking a kid to therapy or at the grocery store or cooking dinner, and while I love my role in everything, it is exhausting.  For me, I have found in the last few years that getting that out is therapeutic for me.”

All throughout the interview, one theme kept ringing true over and over again.  Each time someone had an idea they wanted to pursue or a challenge they were facing they were met with unwavering support from the rest of the family.  And it seems to have made all the difference for their success. Who knows what Sheila or Samantha will start next.  Whatever it is, I’m sure they’ll do it with love, passion, and devotion to their family and for the betterment of our community.

Want to read about other Orlando moms who rock? Meet all of our Orlando Moms who Rock!

25 ideas for Holiday fun in Orlando

25 ideas for holiday fun in orlando

Looking for local family fun in Orlando this December?  We’ve got you covered.  Check out our list of 25 ideas for holiday fun in Orlando!

December 6:  Check out Christmas at the Casa at Casa Feliz in Winter Park.  Walk through the historic home, get your photo with Santa, and entertain the kids with a variety of holiday crafts, carolers, and treats.

December 7: 39th Annual Christmas in the Park, on Park Avenue (Winter Park) includes century-old Tiffany windows and a free outdoor concert of holiday favorites by the Bach Festival Choir.

December 8:  Once upon a December will be music to your ears as the CFCArts Community Choir and Symphony Orchestra serenade you with songs of the season.  (multiple dates available)

December 9: Visit Winter Spark in Baldwin Park.  There will be food, music, vendors, kids zone, Mr. & Mrs. Claus, and a parade!

December 10: Letters to Santa featuring The Polar Express will get you in the holiday spirit at the Enzian Theater in Maitland.

December 11: Check out a brand new holiday experience, Daytona International Speedway is among seven cities that will host the all-new 1.5-mile long Magic of Lights holiday experience. (Multiple dates available)

December 12:  Meet Santa and Mrs. Claus at Santa Tuesday in Uptown Altamonte and take a walk around Cranes Roost to see the magnificent holiday lights display.

Happy Hannukah!  (December 12-20)

December 13: Take in a basketball game at Jewish Heritage Night with the Orlando Magic!

December 14:  What could be better than Santa Claus and ice cream?  Take your family to Kelly’s Homemade Ice Cream Holiday Party!

December 15: Grab a blanket, chairs, and snacks and head downtown to Lake Eola for Holiday Movies in the Park: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

December 16: Sanford’s hosting a Jingle Jam full of holiday vendors, carnival games, magic show, pictures with Santa, music and so much more.

December 17: Build a gingerbread house at the Orlando Science Center’s young makers workshop at Gingerbread Lane.  (Multiple dates available)

December 18: Teach your littles how to cook at Little Chef: Teddy Bear Toast at the downtown Orlando Public Library.

December 19: Take a ride on the Polar Express! Your magical train ride will take you to the North Pole with all the characters from The Polar Express movie.  (Multiple dates available)

December 20: Visit the live nativity, arts and crafts, and Christmas carols at the San Pedro Center’s Family Night.

December 21: Take your littles toToddler Thursdays at the Mennello Museum for story time and holiday themed art activities.

December 22:  Full of nostalgia and holiday cheer, you’ll become part of the live studio audience of a 1940’s radio show at It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play at Orlando Shakes.  (Multiple dates available)

December 23: Take in the The Nutcracker, a timeless holiday classic, with the Orlando Ballet. (Multiple dates available – this date is billed as the family show)

December 24: Celebrate the Season in Florida style by heading to the beach for Surfing Santas.  Watch surfers of all ages dressed as Santa!

December 25:  Merry Christmas!

December 26: Don’t forget a jacket when you head to Christmas at Gaylord Palms, featuring ICE! It’s only 9 degrees in there and the snow tubing and snowball tossing will make you feel like you’re really in a winter wonderland! (multiple dates available)

December 27: Head downtown to the Orlando Public Library’s for sweet treats and arts and crafts at Peppermint Pals.

December 28: It’s snowing in Celebration’s winter wonderland(multiple dates available)

December 29: Joyful noise and lots of laughs are high on the list of the Orlando Rep’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical.  Get your tickets for this holiday hit.  (Multiple dates available)

December 30: Visit the Florida Citrus Parade for a truly unique Central Florida tradition.  Floats made of citrus and marching bands abound!

December 31: Ring in the New Year long before bed time at the Baby Boogie Bash at Amaya Papaya in Casselberry.

Have holiday fun in Orlando all December long all over Central Florida!  And tell us what your family plans to explore and do!

Dadlando weighs in: Bedtime is always a struggle.

Bedtime is always a struggle, and sadly last night, I was outsmarted again.  Our three-year-old’s bedtime routine, while difficult, has always had a rough outline to it: bed, potty, one more hug, ice pack from the freezer, ripped out hair bow back in hair, sip of water, and re-tucking in blankets.  

Last night though, I was caught off guard.  Instead of getting out of bed she called me into her room to hit me with a series of questions. 

What happens if you don’t ever sleep?
Well, eventually you just fall over and pass out.
Can you show me?
::So I fall on the ground for her::
Hahaha, do it again.

What happens if you don’t go potty?
If you don’t ever go potty you’ll have an accident.
Can you show me?

What happens if you don’t have a pillow?
Then you just have to go to sleep without one.
And it wouldn’t be soft?
Exactly.  Go to sleep.

What happens if you never drink water?
Are you just asking me questions so you don’t have to go to sleep?

Well, at least she is honest.  It got me thinking though, how much should I let her break the rules to encourage her critical thinking? I could see the wheels turning in her head, trying to find a way to stay up later.  I love seeing her think she is being clever, too.

Questions are much better than her getting out of bed multiple times and the inevitable tantrum.   I hope this is a sign of things to come.  I might not get her to go to bed any earlier, but now I feel like maybe she is learning important things about bladder control, insomnia, and how to rule the world with just a question.

What’s the strangest question your kid has ever asked you?  What tricks do your kids have for stalling bed time?  Who taught these children how to be world champion manipulators?

Orlando Moms who Rock: Kristina Brownell

Moms who Rock highlights Orlando moms doing their thing. This week’s spotlight is on Kristina Brownell an Orlando mom, marketing manager, and jewelry maker.

Kristina Brownell headed to Orlando in 2003 to finish up school at UCF.  And as many an Orlandoan will tell you, she didn’t ever picture staying here.  In her senior year she did a marketing internship at a construction company.  They offered her a job to stay on after graduation, about the best news a college senior could receive.  As a graduation gift, her mother took her on a trip to Hawaii to visit family and learn more about her heritage.  And as many a Hawaiian visitor will tell you, she immediately pictured staying there.  As soon as she got back to Orlando she started planning her move.  She quit her new marketing job, started applying to jobs in Hawaii, and made plans for a very big adventure.   

Just before she headed out west, her two best friends came for a weekend visit.  They begged her not to leave and promised to move to Orlando.  Excited about the opportunity to live with her besties and have the time of her life, she agreed to postpone her move for six months.  She asked her her job back and her boss agreed.  And then, as fate would have it, a couple months later at work she met her future husband, Randy.  Randy and Kristina have twin girls, Audrey and Parker, turning three this January.  Kristina is a marketing & graphics manager for a commercial architecture firm and also the creative force behind Rockhaus Metals, a minimalist jewelry line.  When we met, I was blown away by Kristina’s energy, creativity, and confidence.  But she spoke honestly about the huge adjustment of becoming a mom.  I found myself nodding along to so much of what she was saying. The new mom struggle always feels lonely, until I hear a fellow mama saying so many of the thing I’ve felt too.


On finding out she was pregnant with twins:

“It was totally unexpected.  And it was our very first ultrasound at 8 weeks.  And of course you don’t know what you’re looking at on the screen.  And the doctor turns to my husband and just smiles and says ‘There’s two in there.’  My husband didn’t say anything and I started crying and laughing at the same time.  It was just so absurd.  It was a shock but probably one of the most exciting days of my life.”

On her desire to have a natural birth:

“Several weeks into the pregnancy, I started watching documentaries on pregnancy and childbirth and what to expect.  My doctor made me feel like there was a huge chance I’d have a c-section.  I didn’t have a great feeling on that and didn’t understand why [it had to be that way].  I decided I wanted to have a natural birth.  And I ended up by chance meeting another OB and ended up switching over to her because she said she would deliver drug-free if that’s what I wanted.

So that was my goal the whole time.  But of course anything can happen during childbirth especially with twins (they are high-risk.)  I went to a chiropractor and acupuncturist all through my pregnancy.  I was told I’d be induced at 38 weeks because with twins they don’t want you to carry them much longer than that.  My water broke at 37 weeks and they were born the next day.  I was able to have the natural delivery I wanted.”

On delivering twins without an epidural:

“It was one of those things, I kind of equate it to a marathon.  A lot of it, it is obviously physical and painful , but a lot of it’s mental too. We hired a doula and she was fantastic.   Unfortunately, I  had a lot of people who said I was crazy for having a natural childbirth, but it lit a fire in me even more.  I’m very fortunate there weren’t any complications during delivery.”

On having the confidence in herself to switch doctors:

“It was right about 12 weeks.  I really didn’t know a lot about childbirth before that so I didn’t have an opinion either way about how I wanted my delivery to go.  But after I started learning more about it and how I had choices about what happens that day, I just didn’t feel right anymore with my first doctor.  She was so sweet and I hated leaving her but I wanted someone who was 100% behind me and my choice.  It just felt right.”

On raising twins:

“We don’t know any other way.  As any new mom, having a newborn is difficult.  Your whole life gets turned upside down and it’s brand new and you’re trying to get to know this new human in your life.  But yeah, having two it was extremely difficult.  We were very lucky my mom came to live with us for three months.  There’s no way we could’ve done it without her.”  

On surviving the first year of motherhood:

“I was terrified of being left alone with them because it’s so hard.  You’re trying to adjust to this new life.  You’d have two screaming crying infants at the same time, but you can’t pick them both up at the same time to console them.  There would be days I’d be alone with them and one would start crying then the other would start crying then I would start crying.  The first year was survival mode.  Once they turned about nine months it started getting a little easier and by a year I felt like, ‘Ok, we got through this’ and from then on it’s been getting easier and easier.”  

On having a partner 100% of the way:

“My husband is amazing. Having two infants at once he was 100% there all hands on deck.  Every time we had to get up in the middle of the night he got up with me.  I was breastfeeding and he got them out of the crib so I could tandem feed them.  He had to go back to work but was still getting up multiple times a night to feed them with me.  I knew he would be a great dad and it’s not that it surprised me but it just makes you love that person even more.  He’s been the best partner.”

On raising toddlers:

“The girls are almost three.  They are  now just starting to play with each other and have little conversations.  Their imaginations are going wild and we love  to sit back and watch them play.  We laugh all the time because they say the most hilarious silly things.  Then we find ourselves saying something later and realize, oh I guess they got  that from us.”

“We’re at a turning point where it’s easier to take the kids out.  They’re little people now and it’s so much fun to introducing them to new things.  Just a trip to the park is the greatest thing in the entire world to them.”

On recognizing she needed a change:

“Over the summer I reached this point where I wasn’t happy with who I was at home.  I was losing my temper easily and  I wasn’t handling situations very well.  It wasn’t me.  So I decided I needed to go get some help.  I ended up going to therapy and it was really helpful being able to have somebody remind me that it’s okay and you don’t have to be perfect and to really take some time for yourself.  That was a big thing for me this summer.”

In support of therapy:

“I hate that there’s a stigma about therapy .  But it is hard work being a mom!  This is my advice: if you are struggling and you don’t feel like you can handle it, or you’re not your true self or who you used to be, you’re totally not alone.  Anyone who says they’re not struggling is lying.  There’s help out there and you can go talk to somebody.  You’ve got to heal yourself and be your best self if you’re gonna be the best mom.”

On deciding to learn to metalsmith:

“About a year and a half in as a mom, I still felt like I didn’t know who I was.  I had a great job, and of course my most important job as a mom.  But then I also just felt lost.  My husband was like, ‘You don’t do anything for yourself anymore.  You don’t have hobbies.  When you go out without the girls it’s for errands or you have dinner with friends it’s not just for you.  You need your creative outlet again.’  So somehow that led me down this road of metalsmithing.”  

Kristina had painted in the past and always had some sort of a creative outlet.  So she searched for classes online to learn to metalsmith.  And she found a woman who taught out of her home.  It was ideal, she was extremely flexible so it didn’t take time away from raising her girls.  This was a year and a half ago, and she immediately fell in love. After friends saw what she had made they pushed her to sell them.  Since the tools and equipment were expensive, she thought the sales could fund her new hobby.  Rockhaus Metals was born.  

On her first sale from a stranger:

“That was crazy.  I thought for sure I have to know this person.  It was like I’ve made it! Somebody who doesn’t know me thinks my stuff is cool.  It’s such an amazing feeling.”

On finding community in an unexpected way:

“I think the most surprising thing is the local small business, creative, and maker community that I’ve met, via other jewelers or through instagram, and the overwhelming support and friendships that I’ve made  as a result.  I never would’ve thought finding this new hobby would turn into a business and feeling so connected to people in Orlando.  That’s certainly the most fulfilling part of this.”

On when a hobby adds to the stress instead of releasing it:

“This was a whirlwind and I went really hard and put as much into it as I could.  But then it became too much. I’m a mom and wife and I have a full-time job.  At some point this summer, I started to feel overwhelmed.  I was doing too much that I couldn’t focus on and handle.  So the past few months I haven’t been working on Rockhaus quite as much.  It sucks because I love just sitting and making jewelry.  But the only time I have to do it is when the girls are sleeping, and most days by that time I’m exhausted.”

On not comparing yourself to others:   

“I stepped back a little bit.  I stopped looking at social media all the time. I didn’t realize it but it made me feel like I wasn’t doing enough.  I was comparing myself to other people and feeling like I’m not out there enough.  I had to step back and tell myself that I don’t do Rockhaus  full-time.  I need to be kinder to myself and enjoy this.  So I’ve recently started spending more time at my jewelry bench and I feel ready to get back into it.  But at a different pace.  You have to remind yourself that you can’t do everything and it’s okay.”  

It’s true we can’t do everything, but Kristina knows that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do anything.  She’s an amazing mama who puts her family first and is finding time to follow her creative dreams as well.  Without a doubt, she’s a Mom who Rocks the Haus.  (Yes, cheesy but I had to take it.)

Want to read about other moms who rock?  Check out our interview with Laura Diaz!