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Author: Jody Conrad

My Father’s Arrows seeks funds for land purchase

The secret to MFA’s success is that the programs are all geared toward restoring children who have been abused, neglected, rejected, and abandoned, by faithfully responding to the needs behind their behaviors. Their mission is to help traumatized children grow into healthy, thriving Christian adults.

Founder and director Sarah Ellis explains. “We take the children that are the hardest to get homes for,” she begins. “Many of these children have been repeatedly betrayed by the adults in their lives and we need to begin their restoration by meeting their needs and guiding them toward being able to trust again. The level of care that we give here is of a much higher level than the average children’s home.”

Now My Father’s Arrows has a need of its own. They have a golden opportunity to expand and grow and be able to provide for many more children than the 30 they are currently able to provide for. And that takes land. Adjacent to their current home near Jay is a 268-acre piece of land that the seller’s will only sell as one parcel.

“We are turning away four or five children with desperate needs here every business day, because we just don’t have the room,” Ellis explains. “That translates to 90 hurting children a month who are unable to benefit from the hope and healing that God provides through My Father’s Arrows simply because we don’t have enough room. While we didn’t necessarily want 268 acres, there were no options. Either we would purchase all the land, or we would be hemmed in by subdivisions that would not further our mission to provide our children with a safe, healthy environment.”

To come up with the down payment on the land, every staff member and child there walked the property adjacent to their home and prayed for God to move mountains. Many in the community came together, and with the help of a donor known only as Mr. E. Ellis was able to move forward with the closing with all of the down payment funds needed.

“We need $515,000 to complete the purchase,” Ellis says. “As we are a completely donor funded entity, meaning that we receive no state or federal funding, we are trusting entirely in the Lord to provide for our needs. It’s what He instructs us to do, and it is the only way to be secure in His will.”

The community can rally around this incredible cause by going to MFA on their website at, To advance their fund-raising efforts, the children will be performing ‘The Sound of Music’ April 30 and May 1, with ticket information also being available at their website.

In addition to providing a private trauma-informed school, medical care, and various therapies onsite, Ellis’ vision extends to providing the children who reside there with a heritage. “Many of these children have no other home to return to once they enter into the adult world,” she explains. “Last year was the first year that we had children old enough to leave our home to enter their adult lives, and they all ‘came home’ for Christmas!” With tears in her eyes, Ellis concluded “We need to be able to provide all of our children with a ‘forever home,’ so that they, like any other child, can always return to the place where they grew up.”

Milton man goes on to become star of MTV’s ‘Siesta Key’

Growing up in Milton, Will Gray knew exactly what he wanted to be: famous. And as the newest star of MTV’s Siesta Key, he is.

According to Gray’s mother Candy Stallworth, Gray never deviated from his plans to make a success of himself by doing something that his family would be proud of him for.

“He grew up in the shadow of his brother Charles Jiminez, who at 17 was the youngest member of the Seattle Mariner’s baseball team to be drafted. Will wanted to emulate his brother’s accomplishments, and I always knew that his optimism and enthusiasm for whatever he took on would one day allow him to achieve his dream,” Stallworth said.

Will Gray, a start of MTV’s Siesta Key, shared these photos with the Santa Rosa Press Gazette.

After Gray received his nursing degree in college, he reconnected with high school friend, Addison Russell and hired him to be his personal manager and muse. Through Russell, Gray met several MTV Siesta Key cast members, and the die was cast.

“I remember him calling me and saying ‘Mama, they’re flying me to the Bahamas for an audition!’ I was terrified with the pandemic going on, but I knew he was following his dream,” Stallworth said. “His contagious enthusiasm won him a spot to be the good guy foil against the bad guy with the unhappy girlfriend. He’s perfect for the role, because there’s no acting required – Will is and always has been the good guy that people go to when they need to be encouraged.”

Since that first season of Siesta Key, Gray has become the well-loved personality on the MTV set, his mom said.

“His positive mental outlook on whatever challenge is before him has always been one of his characteristics,” she said. “I’m pretty sure they assumed that because Will was from a small town like Milton, Florida that he wouldn’t last long, but the opposite has happened.”

Gray was so well-liked on the set that his entire family was invited to participate in an episode, which will air March 12.

“Apparently MTV viewers had no idea that regular folks from small towns can be funny, interesting and entertaining. They see us a representing small town American life and (they think), ‘Wow – they’re funny, they’re likable, and they come from a small town!’” Stallworth said.

While she herself did not participate because she had to work, the rest of the family, including Gray’s six siblings, father and grandmother did.

Part of Gray’s success can be attributed to plain old desire to succeed, and part of it can be attributed to his solid, small-town upbringing, his mom said.

“I raised my children with solid Christian values,” Stallworth said. “My children all are courteous, non-judgmental, and truly interested in helping everyone around them be the best that they can be. Will’s upbringing protects him from succumbing to the heavy-duty MTV party lifestyle, and his presence there has lifted many involved in the show from their unhealthy and non-productive ways. That’s just how Will is, how he’s always been.

“He truly has a divinely empowered ability to be a positive influence on those around him.”

Alliance director stresses importance of longleaf pines

It’s hard to imagine today, but just over 100 years ago the coastal plains of America from Virginia to eastern Texas were covered by about 92 million acres of longleaf pines. Fortunately, we have folks like Vernon Compton who care about preserving and restoring the 1.3 million acres left in northwest Florida and South Alabama.

Compton, who works with the Longleaf Alliance as their director of the Gulf Coast Plain Ecosystem Partnership, said that the Alliance is a voluntary public and private land partnership formed in 1996 to preserve and restore these forests.

“Today we only have about 12,533 acres of virgin old-growth longleaf left in this area, and most of it is on Eglin Air Force Base,” he said. “Quite possibly all that spared these acres was the inability to get a railroad spur there.”

According to Compton, a lot can be learned from these remaining forests. Some of these things include diverse flora and fauna that once existed on the forest floors that look nothing like the dense brushy thickets associated with pine forests today.

“Over 170 species of herbaceous plants are native to these ecosystems, with over 6,000 plants found only in the longleaf ecosystem of the Coastal Plains,” he said. “Where the forest floor today is choked out with invasive woodies like Chinese privet, it was once covered with low-growing native shrubs and wildflowers that reveled under the canopies of the trees. The groundcover is the most important part of the ecosystem and without the pines, the groundcover disappears.”

Vernon Compton of the Longleaf Alliance. Contributed photo

The trees themselves were home to many endangered animals that are at risk of becoming extinct. “The red cockaded woodpecker is an example of an endanger bird that we are working diligently to restore habitat for,” he explains. “They thrive only in these coastal pines and nowhere else in the world.”

Local residents are no strangers to the smoky skies of forest fires, and Compton explains the role that fire plays in keeping these forests healthy.

“Many local people get angry about the smoky skies and think we’re destroying forests, but the public needs to be educated about the role fires play in forest health,” he said. “Longleaf is a ‘fire forest,’ meaning that without it, the forest floor would be choked with hardwoods and woody shrubs, leaving no room for the native plants and animals

“Since we live in the ‘lightning strike’ capital of the world, lightning used to take care of this problem. Then man intervened. For many years, the federal forestry department believed that fire was bad, and today we frequently see on the news how this thinking has worked out for California. These days, very detailed plans allow controlled burns to do the work nature once handled. When the thickets are burned, the forest thrives again,” he added.

The Longleaf Alliance strives to ensure a sustainable future for this ecosystem through partnerships, landowner assistance, and educational and outreach opportunities. “Without this work, we’d still look like the early 1990s when the logging industry had cut down every pine in site and the vestiges had been ravaged by the turpentiners and wild hogs,” Compton concludes. “While the longleaf was a huge component in building much of America, we’ve come a long way in understanding the value of leaving portions of our forests undisturbed and replanting and restoring what we need to use.”

Krewe of Airship Pirates ready to roll through downtown Milton

Patrick Fitzgerald mourned the day that Mardi Gras parades quit rolling through downtown Milton.  As a New Orleans native who claims to have green, purple, and gold blood flowing through his veins, he decided to do something about it.

Five years ago, he founded the local parading krewe known as the Emerald Coast Krewe of Airship Pirates, and on Saturday, Feb. 12, they, in partnership with the City of Milton, will host the 4th Mardi Gras parade in downtown Milton’s recent years.

“So far we have 36 organizations parading with us, including 25 floats and several smaller organizations participating without floats,” said Fitzgerald.

Green, gold and purple are the colors of the day during the Mardi Gras festivities in Milton. They kick off Friday night and continue through Saturday evening. Photo by Ginny Hinton

Parade participants are not limited to floats. There are 16 craft vendors so far and six food trucks, which will be set up in Jernigan’s Landing to coincide with the kickoff party on Friday, Feb. 11 and the parades’ concluding point on Saturday.

The parade, crafts, and food aren’t the only things on the weekend schedule, as the Krewe is hosting a free-to-the-public kickoff party the night before.

The gates open at 6 p.m. on the riverfront, with two national touring bands beginning at 7. Freebird, a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute band, will play at 7, followed by Journey Departure, another tribute band, at 9. The stage will be 75 feet long.

Ed Spears, Director of Economic Development, said the City is excited to partner again this year with the Krewe of Airship Pirates in making the event happen for the community.

Amanda Lopez shows off her Krewe spirit at a previous Mardi Gras event. Photo by Ginny Hinton

The City provides street closures, security and some funding, Spears said.

“Mardi Gras is always a great time in Milton, and we’re proud to be a part of it,” he said.

The parade begins at 4 p.m. Saturday and will be followed by another evening of bands and entertainment when the parade ends on the waterfront.

“Nationally acclaimed Leigh Searight is playing first, then local favorite Horseshoe Kittie from Pensacola will wrap up the festivities,” Fitzgerald said.

The Krewe of Airship Pirates is a non-profit organization whose mission is supporting Pensacola’s Ronald McDonald House. The organization, which has grown to 64 members, will have two floats in the parade.

Milton’s Hall’s Hardware has been a local fixture since 1960

There aren’t many places left across America where you can purchase any hard-to-find hardware items, find unusual gifts, or pick up a jar of local honey, but Milton is home to one of them.

The building that began its life as a car dealership in the mid-1900’s morphed into Hall’s Hardware Store in 1960 when the Hall family filled a need for a local hardware store.  Then in the 1970’s, the Allen family relocated from Fargo, North Dakota and purchased the store, then expanded it to include the general store that it is today.

Assistant manager Robert Bell and department lead Sam Blackman discuss new grilling accessories. Photo by Jody Conrad

“Since they purchased it in 1970, the Allen family remained involved in running this store until just a few years ago,” said Kevin Petersen, who is the store manager. Three generations of the Allen family ran the business, he said.

“All of the Allens were wonderful people and great to work for,” he said. “Close-knit and family-oriented, that’s what Hall’s stands for, and that’s how we continue to treat our employees and customers today.”

Employee Andrew Goodwin stocks garden seeders at Hall’s Hardware. Photo by Jody Conrad

Petersen said that the store has entered into a partnership with ‘Nation’s Best’ to help them compete with the big box stores.

That partnership is helping them provide employees incentives like higher pay, insurance, and 401K’s that they hadn’t been able to offer in the past.

49 Cashier Judy Blackman assist customer April Ojeda with wire brush drill attachments. Photo by Jody Conrad

“The partnership also allows us more buying power, as they do the research and find the best prices, freeing me up to focus on marketing and selling based on our customer’s needs,” he said.

Petersen said Hall’s Hardware has remained a successful business due to their location and their focus on customer service.

Manager Kevin Petersen is shown filling out purchase orders. Photo by Jody Conrad

“We’re in a most wonderful location because we have beaches, forests, and waterways here that bring in out-of-towners, plus we know what our locals want and need and we cater to those needs,” he said. “We can take care of the needs of our local farmers, our tourists, and everyone in between.”

49 Mrs. Allen, right, and her husband bought the store in the 1970’s and have owned it ever since.

They track items that customers asked for that weren’t in stock and make a point of having those items when the customer comes in again.

“We also work hard to remain fresh and progressive,” he said. “For example, we recognize our proximity to great camping and fishing, and soon we’ll be carrying camping and fishing supplies.”

49 Shari and James get help from David in selecting a wax toilet rings. Photo by Jody Conrad

Local historian and professor pens new book

History professor Brian Rucker is well known in these parts for his contributions to chronicling local history. From the local ancient Indian civilizations that populated these parts to current times, Rucker has taught and written much of what we understand today as Santa Rosa County’s history.

His newest book takes on a new topic, one dear to many folks in Florida and beyond. In Worlds within the World, Rucker chronicles the resort hotels within Walt Disney World and the unique experience each has to offer.

“Each resort is a unique destination and plays an integral part in the whole Disney experience,” Rucker explains. “Many travelers to Disney bypass the resorts, and thus miss one of the things that sets Walt Disney World in Orlando apart from other theme parks. I have witnessed the worlds within the World that each one of these resorts offers. And I have visited every single one of them and stayed in 12 of them.”

Rucker insists that it is possible to visit WDW and never venture inside a theme park. His work focuses on the “30 resort hotels, a gigantic sports complex, two water parks, championship golf courses, fine restaurants, tennis, swimming, boating horseback riding, hiking and more – and all of this without stepping 1 foot in any of the celebrated theme parks.”

“There are behind-the-scenes tours that take you into the inner workings of WDW that most visitors have no idea even exist. There are world-wide culinary experiences that you never have to leave America to enjoy. There is so much Disney apart from the theme parks, and this is the first book that explores every part of the Disney experience outside of those theme parks, “he adds.

According to Rucker, travelers can experience the lush, tropical world of Polynesia, the Venetian city of canals of Italy, the Arabian Nights of ancient Persia, and a real Caribbean resort without leaving the country. Closer to home, one can play in the old Wild West, drive a race car at the WDW World Speedway and Richard Petty Driving Experience, and visit the French Quarter in New Orleans, among others.

A former member of the Florida National Register Review Board, Rucker has taught at both Pensacola State College and University of West Florida since 1990.

A self-professed Disney lover, Rucker says that he and his family spent many wonderful vacations there when he was growing up and he re-discovered the joy of Disney when he took his wife, who had never been there.

“She loves it as much as I do, and we enjoy exploring every inch of the resorts together,” he says.

Dr. Brian Rucker’s many books on local history include:

Mine Eyes Have Seen: Firsthand Reminiscences of the Civil War in West Florida

Jackson Morton: West Florida’s Soldier, Senator and Secessionist

Bagdad Christmas: A Fictional Story about the Old Mill Town of Bagdad

Brick Road to Boom Town: The Story of Santa Rosa County’s ‘Old Brick Road;’

Encyclopedia of Education in Antebellum Pensacola

Exploring Florida Heritage: Panhandle/West Florida

Treasures of the panhandle: A Journey Through West Florida.

Three Santa Rosa groups build wheelchair ramp for 91-year-old vet

On an extremely brisk January morning, three local groups braved the cold and pooled their talents to build a wheelchair ramp for an elderly local vet.

Earlier this month, VFW All-State Commander John Dixon saw a need and reached out to the Christian Life Church Service Team and the US Military Vets Motorcycle Club. Together, with VFW Post 4833 footing the bill, 15 volunteers spent a chilly morning making sure that one who served our nation well was served by the community he fought to protect.

“Harold Allen, the homeowner, is a 91-year-old member of our Post, and we’ve been out here regularly helping him with jobs around the house that he can’t do anymore,” Dixon said. “I noticed his frail health the last time I was here and saw that he was unable to leave his home because of the rickety old stairs.

Harold Allen, a 91-year-old veteran, has a new wheelchair ramp leading up to his front door, thanks to the efforts of several local groups. Photo by Jody Conrad

“Our Post members are pretty capable of handling most things, but I knew wheelchair ramps involved OSHA requirements.”

That is where the Christian Life Church Service Team came in. Spokesperson Gene Harper says that among his group are a qualified builder and an engineer.

“We’ve built four ramps so far this year, so we’ve got this down,” Harper says.  “We also help in the community with jobs like tree trimming, mowing yards, and small home repairs,” said Harper, adding that he and a group of men involved in a Bible study decided to put their faith into action over a year ago.  “Jesus commands us to care for the poor, the widows, and the orphans. So here we are, putting our money where our mouth is, so to speak.”

The third group present and contributing their time was the US Military Vets Motorcycle Club.

US Military Vets Motorcycle Club spokesperson, who gave her name only as Zippy, was one of the volunteers at a local veteran’s home Saturday morning, helping to build a new ramp. Photo by Jody Conrad

“Seven of our members gave up their Saturday to make this happen for Mr. Allen, and our goal is to do as many of these projects that show our love for the community as possible,” said the spokesman, who only gave her name as Zippy. “Now that we’ve connected to the VFW Post 4388, we’ll hear about more of them, since John is the eyes and ears of the Post and knows what needs to be done.”

By the middle of the afternoon, the 15 assembled volunteers had constructed a 40-foot ramp that looked professionally built.

“We’re happy to be able to give Mr. Allen a chance to enjoy his outdoor space again,” Dixon said. “It makes our day to make someone else happy.”

Gene Harper and his Christian Life Church Service Team Photo by Jody Conrad

Milton vet wants to clean up monument but needs go-ahead from officials

There are many people in the community who are willing to step forward and do the things that need to be done, even at their own time and expense. John Dixon, All-State Commander of the VWF, is one of them.

“We’ve been involved in local Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day celebrations at the Veteran’s Memorial Park on the waterfront in Milton, and every time I go there, I see things in need of upkeep and repair,” he said. “The trouble I am having is not in finding someone to do it – I’ll do, it’s finding who to ask permission to do it.

“The city seems to be unsure of who is in charge, and the county seems to think it’s the folks at the city,” he said.
Dixon took issue with the condition of the Wall of Tears monument in the park quite some time ago.

The monument is stain-free, thanks to John Dixon’s efforts. Now he wants to work on improving the mural at the Veterans Memorial Park. Photo by Jody Conrad

“The water had ceased cascading over the top, and the mineral stains accumulated at the bottom from when the fountain had been running blocked out the words on the monument,” he said. “I took the fountain apart to make the necessary repairs and cleaned the monument to remove the stains. Now I’d like permission to repair and replace the wonderful hand-painted tile mural on the monument.”

Dixon was able to track down the original artist via county records, only to discover that the artist is deceased.

He tracked down the family who contributed to the monument’s installation and convinced Howard Young Flooring to donate and install new tiles. He’s also meeting with a new artist to discuss the possibility of paying him to make new tiles that look like the old ones.

“I just don’t know whose permission I need to complete this project,” he said.

The Santa Rosa Press Gazette contacted officials at Santa Rosa County, who confirmed that a number of entities have a role in the memorial, but that decisions like these go through the county.

“We’re going to get it sorted out,” said county administrator, DeVann Cook, a few hours after the matter was brought to his attention. “We are on it.”

Spots filling up for Milton blacksmithing class

Sandlin, a master craftsman, also serves as the president of the Florida Artist Blacksmith Association (FABA). He learned how to make metal repairs when he damaged the family car at age 16. “My father said ‘OK then, fix it!’ and so I did,” Sandlin laughs.

Since then, the retired fighter pilot and software engineer for the Air Force dove into various crafting skills as a hobby, and this hobby has now become a full-time business.  He owns Traditions Workshop in Fort Walton Beach, and when he’s not creating things for people at his shop, he travels around Florida and teaches others his craft. His blacksmithing skills dovetail with the other skills he learned while stationed around the world. “I always sought out the local craftsmen, and learned how to make things,” he explains.

That said, a class for beginners will be offered at the Bell Lane home in Milton of John Butler, the regional coordinator for the FABA Far West District, on March 26.  The course is ‘hands on,’ and participants will learn the finer points of smithing and come away able to fabricate simple things and understand the items needed to set up their own backyard forge.

“In our day, we’re hearing of the supply chain issues, so blacksmithing skills are not a bad thing to know.  You may be unable to find a part to restore an antique piece that you’ve been working on, or you may want to make your own rivets for a swinging gate,” Sandlin says. “Understanding the basics opens the door to being more creative, and trial and error, like any skill, paves the way for invention.”

 “We learn by doing,” he adds. “I helped my father build a barn when I was 12. We built the barn first so we could learn together how to build our house.  Necessity has always been the mother of invention, long before there were stores that provided everything we need.”

Sandlin teaches classes at his Traditions Workshop on a regular basis, but is bringing his craft to the local area on the 26th.

The class will be limited to 12 participants.  Those interested can access the tickets and reserve their spot by either emailing Sandlin at or texting him at (850)974-1548.

New doctor’s office opens in Milton with ‘old-school’ values

By Jody Conrad

Who doesn’t long for the good old days when doctors had ample time to spend with their patients and focused on keeping their patients healthy to begin with?  If you are a senior 65 or older and have wondered where you can find this type of health care locally, look no further.

Island Doctors is an exclusively Florida-based chain of small clinics designed to stay small and focus on quality rather than quantity health care. Dr. Robert Williams, who staffs the recently opened clinic at 5524 Stewart Street in Milton, said, “We treat our patients like family.  This is a model for thorough care, as we not only treat patients, we train them to be educated about their health.  An educated patient is a healthy patient.”

Williams explains further the clinic’s overall vision.

“We will remain small offices that are run by doctors, not large clinics run by corporations. Here at Island Doctors we see maybe 20 patients per day, where the average general practitioner sees 40 to 50 patients a day,” he said. “We are very proactive about preventing health issues and treating them before they become serious. We take the time to know everything about each person’s overall health, and then we aim to keep them healthy. This is the way medicine used to be practiced, but today’s model has become more of a ‘put fires out’ approach.”
Island Doctors has set up shop in the old medical center across from the Milton Community Health Clinic. The campus has several brightly colored buildings, and the goal is to utilize all of them by offering a multitude of programs designed to improve seniors’ overall health.

Dr. Robert Williams stands in one of the examining rooms of his new clinic at 5524 Stewart Street in Milton. Patients must be on Medicare to be accepted here. Photo by Jody Conrad

To that end, regional marketing manager Blake Pablo explained the myriad programs the clinic’s campus will host in the future.

“We’ll be offering exercise classes to fit all levels of fitness, healthy cooking classes, gardening classes and more,” Blake said. “Our model is to teach people about healthy choices, and then equip them to make those choices.”

John Mytczynskyj, also a regional marketing manager, showed off the community garden he intends to expand as the program grows. He explained that telling people to eat healthy is one thing, “but we’re about showing people how to do it, from how to grow healthy food to how to prepare it.”

Mytczynskyj added that Island Doctors is proud of its old-school approach to medicine, which includes ample time during visits, hand-written charts to keep patient information private, and an approach that allows each clinic to perform most urgent care functions.

“People aren’t used to getting off of medicines when they see a doctor,” he said. “But our goal here is to replace medicines whenever possible with healthy habits. Medicines should be a last resort, not the first ‘go to’ like much modern medicine is practiced today.”

Island Doctors caterers exclusively to seniors on Medicare and Medicare Advantage.

Dr. Williams concludes by explaining “Ours is a model for total health care whether you’re a millionaire or on a fixed income. No one pays a copay here, and there are no out-of-pocket costs for any tests.”   

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