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Silhouettes

Silhouettes profiles Dr. Mario Hernandez

By Tiffany Razzano
Published January 7, 2022

Like many Ybor City natives, Dr. Mario Hernandez has Cuban, Spanish and Sicilian roots and, of course, connections to the historic cigar industry.
His Cuban father was born in Key West after his family immigrated first from Spain and the Canary Islands. At the time, Key West was a growing community thanks to the success of the cigar industry there. But the island was hit by powerful hurricanes, which ended the cigar trade there, Hernandez said. “And so they started bringing the tobacco here to Tampa.” And his father’s side of the family followed the industry as cigar factories opened in Ybor City.
His father met his mother, a Tampa native, here. She was part Spanish – on her father’s side – and Sicilian – on her mother’s side. “So, I’m Italian, Spanish and Cuban,” he said.
It was a different time growing up in Ybor City, one he remembers fondly. “I grew up, as a kid, right there, at what is MLK and 15th Street. It was actually Buffalo. It used to be called Buffalo Avenue,” Hernandez said. “And, you know, I grew up in a time when, you know, you ate breakfast and the doors of the stable were open, and the kids would just run out and come back when your mother screamed for you to come and eat. That was the kind of neighborhood that I grew up in.”
Like many families, much of their socializing happened around good. “Everything was always centered around eating,” he said. “My mother being, you know, having a big Italian influence, would cook. On Sunday, she would cook spaghetti…My mother was not really religious; we weren’t religious. I would say we were spiritual…So, our church on Sundays was my mother’s kitchen, cooking spaghetti sauce.”
It was such a powerful memory for the family that when she died he printed her recipe and the story of her sauce on Sundays on the back of her prayer card.
“That was really fun,” he said. “And, of course, the recipe was, how much garlic do you put in? And the answer would be, ‘Well, it depends on how good the garlic is.’ If it’s really good garlic, you put in less. It’s like, well, what is good garlic? She had this recipe based on how good the ingredients were. It’s so funny.”
His parents ran a store in Ybor City. Hernandez spent a lot of time there as a child, but one of his most vivid moments decades later was hiding from the Ku Klux Klan. A biracial couple had moved about a half a block from the shop and one day his father saw KKK members in white robes marching toward the couple’s home. He and his parents locked the door, pulled down the shades and turned off the lights, and the three of them hid behind the meat counter while the KKK burned a cross in the nearby yard.
“I’ll never forget it, because I saw how concerned my parents were. I never saw my father like that. I can still remember it,” Hernandez said.
He was just a little boy and the gravity of what was happening – and the racism and hatred behind the KKK’s actions – didn’t fully hit him until he was older. “We lived in a Latin community where we were, to a certain extent, living in our own world with other people like us,” he said.
As he grew older though, he noticed things were different when his family traveled outside Ybor City. “When you went out a little bit, like we would try to rent motels at the beach, I remember, ‘Sorry, we don’t rent to Latins. Sorry, we don’t rent to Latins,’ and we’d go place to place to place to try to find a place,” he said. “There was prejudice and my father was always very concerned about where I would go to hang out and do things. He says, ‘Some of these places you go, we’ll never find your body.’ Well, that’s a scary thought. That was just a reality I grew up with. But within the Latin community, you know, it was different. It was like our own world. Tampa was a beautiful, protective kind of bubble.”
Growing up, there was only one person in his family who attended college. Higher education wasn’t the norm for his parents, and though they had a lot of confidence in his abilities, he didn’t have much guidance as far as schooling or his career path.
Access to WEDU’s programming was influential and life-changing for him at a young age. “I didn’t have like a role model for a whole lot, you know, outside (Ybor City,) and so, to me, the window to the outside world, the thing that made me go like, ‘Wow, what is that job? How did that person get that job?’ was WEDU,” he said. “I would watch WEDU all the time…And that’s where I’d see these jobs. You know, I’d see a professor. I was always into animals and plants, I still am.”
Initially, he wanted to be an animal behavioralist and WEDU drove those dreams. After high school, he went on to the University of South Florida. The early research he completed was working with crows and tools. “Crows are amazing creatures,” Hernandez said. “They’re very intelligent.”
While working with the crows, though, his research assistantship funding ran out, forcing him to switch gears. He was pointed in the direction of Dr. Robert Friedman, a clinical psychologist and USF staff member who eventually chaired the psychology department. Friedman was hiring people to work with teenagers with emotional issues at the Florida Mental Health Institute.
Hernandez wasn’t sold on changing his career path, though. He told his wife, “I’m not gonna work with teenagers. You know, that’s not what I want to do.”
She told him, “Well, why don’t you go check it out? We need the money.”
He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology from USF in 1975, followed by a master’s degree in clinical/community psychology from the university in 1978. While working toward his Ph.D. in clinical/community psychology, also at USF, he headed west to complete his required internship at Camarillo State Hospital in California in 1980. “That’s where all the movie stars go,” he said.
It was a big move and adjustment for Hernandez and his tightknit family. He recalls his sister moving away from their Ybor City neighborhood before him. She didn’t go very far, moving to Lutz. “My mother was crying, because it was like she was moving to France, you know. They might never see her again,” he said. “But that’s how the families were. Everybody stayed right by each other. So, then, you can imagine what it was like when the son moves to California.” The first plane trip his parents ever took was to visit him on the West Coast.
His connection with Friedman at USF gained him many admirers at Camarillo State Hospital and the area. “He’s nationally famous for his way of thinking about how children’s services should be,” Hernandez said. “It’s not all just therapy based. It’s more about how we support kids and families in a more realistic way as opposed to just always thinking in terms of treatment. It’s about how agencies can work together to help.”
He added, “Well, it turns out that where I moved to, the county was replicating and trying to put his ideas into a real situation. So when they found out that I knew him, it was like a golden key for me. It was like, ‘You know this guy? You know Elvis.’ ‘Yeah, he’s my friend.’”
After earning his Ph.D. from USF, he remained in California operating a private practice and working with various agencies. But the late 1980s, he took on the position of chief of children and youth services with Ventura County Mental Health. His work focused on reforming and overhauling the system.
“Part of the work that I did in California was we helped to close the state hospitals. Our work was to make sure that no children ever had to go there,” he said. “We emptied them. We emptied them out of our county and then we did five counties and then it went statewide.”
With the success in California, Hernandez has consulted in many states on children and youth services, helping to reform their systems. “It was an incredible ride. I mean what were doing in California to replicate what (Friedman) was one of the designers of here just opened up the whole world,” he said. So from a guy who never left his neighborhood, I can’t believe everything I’ve been able to see and do just through my career in advocacy and reform.”
By 1993, he returned to Tampa. His mentor, Friedman, recruited him back to USF, offering him a position as a research associate professor and director of division of training, research, evaluation and demonstrations for the university’s Department of Child and Family Services. He’s been there ever since, working his way up.
Life came full circle for him when Friedman retired. USF asked Hernandez to take over the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences as chair in 2007.
The interdisciplinary department is the largest at the university with 267 employees. It’s also responsible for bringing in around $60 million in grants for various research projects.
“We have psychologists, sociologists. We have educators. We have business majors, anthropologists,” he said. “So, we are really interdisciplinary and whenever we approach a problem, we approach it from all those different perspectives, which really lends a lot.”
The department continues to grow, Hernandez added. “We have the rehab and mental health counseling program. We just added a marriage and family therapy program. We have five certificates. We have a new minor in addictions counseling, which is totally popular. We also have an applied behaviors minor.”
He added, “And we still have more ideas.”
Most university psychology departments are driven by accreditation standards. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences, with so many professions associated with it, it’s adopted a “more unique” mission and vision statement, he said.
“And we did that on purpose because we would no matter what you are, that’s what we’re about. We’re about that first. We want to support everyone and everything they’re doing, while meeting accreditation, of course,” he said. “But we have a real mission statement. It’s not just a slogan that was thrown together. It’s real and has purpose, and that’s what drives us.”

Silhouettes profiles Gretchen Cothron

Gretchen Cothron
Photo by Dave Decker

By Tiffany Razzano
Published Sept. 11, 2020

Even as a child growing up in Tampa and Pasco County, Gretchen Cothron was naturally drawn to activism. By the time she was a teenager, she joined local chapters of ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and NOW (National Organization for Women). “I don’t know why, but I’ve always been a fighter for the underdog,” she said. “Any sort of injustice has always set me off, ever since I was young.”
Decades later, this early passion for justice continues to inform her work in the community. Among her various roles, she’s a well-known human, civil rights and criminal defense attorney currently representing several Black Lives Matter protestors. She’s also the new president of the ACLU’s Greater Tampa chapter and served as a member of Mayor Jane Castor’s Community Task Force on Policing. “Fighting for justice has always been my biggest passion,” she said.
In her youth, she was equally passionate about the arts, though. Specifically, she was an actor, and after high school, she spent her early twenties focusing on this path. She studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and worked for several years as an actress and model.
During this period, Cothron was hired as a spokesmodel for Reebok and traveled the United States and Canada with the Harlem Globetrotters hosting their shows for three years. “That was a lot of fun. I was the only woman with about 30 or 40 men and the majority of us were all in our twenties. It was just kind of a rolling party,” she said. “I look back and I wish that we had gone to see the Grand Canyon and things like that instead of going to night clubs and acting like twentysomethings, but it was so much fun.”
By the time she hit her mid-twenties, though, she realized she was aging out of the modeling industry. “I realized I needed to do something that used my intellect as opposed to my looks,” she said.
She returned home to the Tampa Bay area and enrolled in St. Petersburg College’s new forensic science program. “It was the only one in Central Florida at the time,” she said. “I just jumped right into it.”
It was an easy choice, she added. As a child, she loved horror movies and the thought of solving gruesome crimes. “I’d act them out at home,” she said. “While my siblings were playing video games, I was running around the woods of Pasco pretending to be chased by zombies and serial killers.”
Forensic science seemed like the perfect major for her, and her goal, initially, was to become a crime scene investigator. “Maybe even go towards the FBI, like Clarice Starling (from ‘Silence of the Lambs,’)” she said.
Then, while writing a research paper, she learned about Jerry Townsend and Frank Lee Smith, two South Florida men who were convicted for rapes and murders they didn’t commit. The Innocence Project worked to overturn these convictions and prove their innocence. For Smith, it was too late. He died of cancer while on death row months before the DNA evidence that ultimately exonerated him came back.
Townsend didn’t fare much better, Cothron said. He was “mentally slow” with a low IQ. Police tricked him into confessing to crimes he didn’t commit by offering him sandwiches and sodas. When he was exonerated, he was unable to care for himself and was sent to live in a psychiatric facility.
“Their stories broke my heart,” she said. This began several years of volunteering with the Innocence Project to review cases from around the country.
When she transferred to the University of Tampa to earn a bachelor’s degree in criminology, she met Seth Miller with the Innocence Project of Florida, as well as Alan Crotzer, whose rape and murder conviction in Tampa was later overturned by DNA evidence. She launched a forensic consultation nonprofit to help those wrongfully convicted of crimes.
She shifted gears on her career plans, thinking she’d have more of an impact using her forensic skills as a criminal defense attorney rather than in law enforcement. “I thought it was the best way I could help,” she said. “I wanted to try to stop wrongful convictions before they happen.”
She began writing letters to criminal defense attorneys she admired seeking opportunities for legal experience. This included Rochelle Reback, who hired Cothron as a paralegal and invited her to sit on a legal panel for the ACLU.
She attended the University of Miami School of Law. “Out of Florida law schools, it’s the best one if you want to be a criminal defense attorney,” she said. “Because of the city of Miami, its population, how many cases they have, and the opportunities down there to really develop myself as a criminal defense attorney.” UM also offered her a partial scholarship to launch an Innocence Project Clinic on campus for law students.
In 2013, after earning her law degree and passing the bar, she returned to Tampa. She was hired to work for the public defender. She spent four years working in Tampa and Plant City before transferring to Dade City.
At first, the job was everything she had hoped it would be. She was there to assist vulnerable people at their lowest points. But, she eventually became overwhelmed by the volume of cases. “I loved the work and I learned so much there, however, the caseload is so exorbitant,” Cothron said. “I started to get a cynical feeling that there was no way to stop wrongful convictions. I would see them happen in front of me.”
Sometimes, she could appeal a case and get it overturned down the road, but even that didn’t happen as frequently as she would have liked. “I felt like justice wasn’t happening and I was overwhelmed,” she said. When she left in 2018, she had more than 300 cases assigned to her.
She was hired to teach the course “Culture, Race and Crime” at the University of South Florida. Adjunct teaching was a nice change of pace for her. “It was an opportunity to get off the gerbil wheel and jump out of the public defender’s office,” she said.
While at USF, she discovered she enjoyed teaching. She’d had some experience in law school teaching seminars and workshops.
Needing more of a break and wanting to continue exploring her newfound love of teaching, Cothron was hired to teach English overseas. Already interested in Thai Buddhism, she decided to teach kindergarten and first grade in Thailand. She taught them all subjects in English. “It’s very different from what I’d done, but also very similar,” she said. “As an attorney, a lot of what I do is tell people, ‘No, you can’t do that’ or ‘Why did you do that? Why did you think that was a good idea?’ So, kindergarten wasn’t that much different.”
Ahead of an election in Thailand and uncertain about the political climate there, she opted to return to Tampa after a year abroad. “Now I’m kind of regretting it,” she said. “Thailand has fewer cases of COVID than Hillsborough County.”
Upon her return, friends attempted to recruit her to work for their firms. “But I’m just not ready to get back on the hamster wheel,” she said. “I don’t want to kill myself for work.”
Despite turning down positions, it’s not like Cothron hasn’t been busy. In fact, she launched her own firm, Gretchen Cothron Law & Forensics. “I’m still doing criminal defense. That’s my base knowledge,” she said. “I’m moving more into civil disputes. That’s when money is at stake and not somebody’s livelihood. It’s not as intense to me as criminal defense law is.”
She’s also active in the Tampa community. While in Thailand, she continued her involvement with the ACLU’s Greater Tampa chapter and “jumped back into it” when she returned to Florida. In March, she was appointed interim president and is set to be named president at the upcoming Sept. 26 general election, as she’s running unopposed. “I love it, it’s very time consuming and it’s all volunteer work,” she said. “I didn’t expect to still be doing this.”
Between the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, her work with the ACLU has turned into practically a full-time job.
She also hopes that people get a better understanding of what the organization is. “People are confused, but it’s a nonpartisan organization that sues the government for civil liberties violations,” Cothron said. “I get angry people emailing me that I’m ‘a leftist liberal ACLU person.’ But they don’t even know what the ACLU is.”
She encourages Tampa residents to learn more about the organization on Facebook at www.facebook.com/groups/aclufltampa.
Personally, she’s also offering pro bono representation to injured and arrested activists Jae Passmore and Jason Stewart Flores. Flores was arrested by Tampa Police Department during a Hyde Park protest after being hit on June 27 by a car whose driver drove through a crowd of protestors at an intersection.
Passmore was also injured being hit by a car a week earlier. Last month, she was also arrested by Tampa police after leaving a protest. The arrest landed her in the hospital.
Working with civil rights attorney Ben Crump, Cothron said they recently got the charges dropped for Passmore. Now, they’ve turned their efforts to “getting justice” for her after how she was treated by TPD during her August arrest. The case has been handed over to the state attorney’s office for investigation. “We are hopeful that Jae will get justice through that,” she said.
They’re hoping that charges will eventually be dropped for Flores, too. She’s also launched a GoFundMe page to assist both protestors with their hospital bills. This fundraiser can be found at https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-jae-and-stu.
In the wake of Black Lives Matter and protests of police brutality and over-policing in the area, Cothron was invited to sit on Mayor Jane Castor’s Community Task Force on Policing. The goal was to facilitate community conversations about how to improve the work done by the Tampa Police Department. Ultimately, she’s “disappointed” by the task force and thinks it might have been more of a “PR stunt” than anything else. “I feel like it was almost a pre-planned set-up,” she said. “The report that was issued did not reflect what was being said in meetings.”
She and others would speak up about racism and other policing issues they’d personally witnessed our experienced. Then, TPD representatives at these meetings would “deny or say, ‘that doesn’t happen’ or, ‘oh, no, we fixed that problem,’” she said. “I didn’t feel the meetings were productive.”
She added, “Tampa’s just been crazy. I knew that we had factions of racism in our county, in our city. I knew that we had major issues with the police. I was a public defender during ‘biking while Black’ and that was at a time when I was also representing juveniles. So, I saw what was being upheld. Almost all my juvenile clients were Black male teens and I saw how I was treated back then. To think five years later after the (U.S. Department of Justice) investigation Tampa police are still policing in such an aggressive manner and over-policing poor communities, it saddens me that there hasn’t been progress.”
She’s also part of a task force organized by the local chapter of the NAACP. This one, which features police chiefs from throughout the county, including Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Plant City Police Department, Temple Terrace Police Department and the USF Police Department, has been more productive, she said. Though, the Tampa Police Department and the Tampa Police Benevolent Association didn’t show up at the group’s most recent meeting, she adds.
Still, this NAACP task force is making headway in creating policies for transparency and accountability in police departments. “If an officer sees another officer acting badly, it’s their duty to interact and report that officer,” she said. “We need more accountability.”
Since this group formed, they’ve already seen Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister fire an officer for excessive force and investigate another for inappropriate posts on social media. “I think some local agencies are taking good steps forward,” Cothron said.
As for the Tampa Police Department, “all we can do is keep applying pressure,” she said. “No one is happy right now. The community isn’t happy, officers aren’t happy right now with the department or the mayor, and citizens aren’t happy. Obviously, something needs to be done. Someone needs to be accountable and so far, the leadership seems to be whitewashing over the problems instead of actually addressing the problems.”

Silhouettes profiles Erin Smith Aebel

Originally published in the july 17, 2020 edition of La Gaceta
Erin Smith AebelBy Tiffany Razzano

Erin Smith Aebel is probably the happiest attorney you’ll ever meet.
“It’s true,” said the partner at Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, LLP. “I’m one of the very few happy lawyers. And I’m one of the few women who has lasted 20 years in a big law firm.”
Ask her the secret to her happiness and success, and she’ll be quick to tell you that the autonomy to do her job well has kept her going all these years. “The key to making me happy is that I’ve always had my own clients,” she said. “I bring in money and do my own thing, and that gives me some degree of protection and freedom.”
A board-certified health care attorney, she’s co-administrator of the firm’s health care practice. Aebel fell into health care law 20 years ago when she happened to be assigned a few cases in the field. “I was working with other lawyers and they said, ‘Here, take care of this doctor,’” she said.
She was drawn to the “really complex laws” governing health care covering everything from HIPAA to kickbacks. “It’s a very technical area and very difficult and constantly changing,” she said. “Every year there are new federal, state, and local laws.”
In her role, she works closely with those in the medical field, such as physicians and dentists, “to try to boil down complex laws in a way that’s affordable and makes sense for them.”
Though she has some larger, national clients, her “passion” is working with small business owners. With small businesses, it’s about cultivating long-term relationships, she said. “I’m not replaceable with many of my clients. They know me. I know them. I know their dogs and I know their children. These longer client relationships are the most rewarding.”
Aebel, a fifth-generation Floridian and St. Petersburg native, didn’t set out to be an attorney. Instead, the Gibbs High School graduate thought she would become a history professor.
She attended Loyola University in New Orleans on a full scholarship, majoring in history and French. Then, she began to think about her future more practically. “My history professor made $30,000 a year and had to get a Ph.D. and live somewhere they might not want to, like South Dakota, to get tenured,” she said.
So, she turned her sights to law. She got into some impressive law schools, including the University of Florida. “I actually turned down UF twice. I don’t want to go to school in a swamp and I don’t like football,” she said.
She decided to attend law school at Loyola because she loved her undergraduate experience there and thought she could excel in the program, making it easier for her to find a job after graduating.
After earning her law degree, Aebel decided to return to the Tampa Bay area. Though she loved New Orleans, she knew it wasn’t the city for her to grow roots. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity for people in Tampa Bay,” she said. “What I learned about living in an old, Southern city is everyone wants to know who your daddy was and how many lawyers your family has. It’s hard to break into there, but in Tampa Bay, it’s easy to come from anywhere and get very involved easily… People are very welcoming here. They’re not judgey or snotty.”
She started her career working in litigation, but she never enjoyed it. “I like to prevent problems and work behind the scenes and make deals happen,” she said.
Though she didn’t enjoy trials, “what does appeal to me is finding justice for your clients and advocating for other people,” Aebel said. As she began growing her client list and working with them outside the courtroom, she found her niche and began to enjoy being a lawyer.
In addition to her career, her other great passion is community involvement. She sits on the state advisory board for Ruth’s List, which encourages pro-choice, Democratic women to run for office. She’s also served on the boards for Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg and the local chapter of the American Diabetes Association.
In recent years, she’s started working with organizations that “focus on marginalized people in healthcare” and sits on the boards for the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay and Brain Expansions Scholastic Training, which encourages disadvantaged youth to pursue careers in medicine.
Aebel is a leader in other ways, as well, and is vocal about her political beliefs. “I believe political action is important,” she said. “You want to see the world change in the way you want to see it change.”
This means being educated and involved at a local level. “It means knowing your city council members, knowing your school board members, knowing your local representatives,” she said.
For decades, she’s made it a point to be “a very informed voter,” ever since she returned to the Tampa Bay area after law school. But in 2016, with the election of Pres. Donald Trump, she “decided, clearly, that was not enough.” She wanted to do something more.
Aebel and her friend, a fellow lawyer, Mary Elizabeth Lanier, started a Facebook group, Surly Feminists for the Revolution.
The purpose of the group was to create a safe space for positivity, inclusiveness, progress and feminism, a space that rejects misogyny and prejudice. The name was a play on the phrase “nasty woman,” which was used by Trump to reference his opponent Hillary Clinton. “I came up with the name (Surly Feminists,)” she said. “It’s indicative of its time but also timeless and continues on.”
Today, the group has nearly 13,000 members and has hosted everything from book clubs and other live events to a radio show that airs on WMNF.
When they created the group, Aebel never anticipated its popularity. “That wasn’t my intent,” she said. “It just spontaneously happened. I wasn’t trying to get attention on myself or the group or anything.”
The timing was right for progressive women, stung by Clinton’s loss as a female presidential candidate, to come together to speak out about their own experiences. “What happened with a lot of women, especially middle-aged women, was they had enough, and they said, ‘This is bullsh*t. We need to get more representations. We need to talk about me, too,” she said.
On the political spectrum, she tends to fall further to the left than many Democrats, she said, so, Clinton wasn’t her top candidate in 2016. She did vote for Clinton, though, and was disheartened by her loss. “It was still sad that a woman couldn’t get to that position of power in the United States,” Aebel said.
After the election, discussing the outcome with her family, she was moved when her mother noted that she likely wouldn’t see a woman president in her lifetime. Aebel knew she needed to do more politically.
The 2016 election and creating the Surly Feminists changed her life. “(Women my age) have lived through a lot of sexism and things and survived them. We learned what we’ll put up with and what we won’t. We’re not naïve anymore,” she said. “Normally, I’m a very upbeat, optimistic person, but I am tired of this sh**.”
In January 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration, she attended the first St. Petersburg Women’s March. “It was the first march I ever did,” she said. “It was the most thrilling, fun and great experience.”
Now, she doesn’t hesitate to march for causes close to her heart. Since 2017, she’s participated in the second St. Petersburg Women’s March, the local March for Science and various Black Lives Matter gatherings.
“Once you do that a few times, you realize that a protest is very powerful,” Aebel said. “You want to have the energy of the moment and connect with people and use that energy and connection to go to the next steps, which for me, in my position, is to make procedural change and legal change. (Protests) really can spur on change. I’ll never take it for granted.”

Silhouettes profiles Kelly Stephens

Kelly Stephens

Originally published in the June 12, 2020 edition of La Gaceta
By Tiffany Razzano

As the city grows and changes, Kelly Stephens remains proud of his Tampa roots. With more people moving to the area from other parts of the country, fewer residents are “born and raised in Tampa,” he said. “I’m one of the very few, anymore.” It’s important for natives of the city to “reminisce about the old days…talk about the good times, talk about what’s going on now, talk about how that relates to how things were.”
Growing up, he split his time between Riverside Heights and Ybor City. In the 1980s and 1990s, both neighborhoods were quite different from what they look like today, he said.
His father, owner of Tampa Oxygen and Welding Supply and founder of the James E. Rooster Funeral and Procession in the late 1990s, has lived in Ybor City for decades, Stephens said. “I remember Ybor City back in the day when it wasn’t much of a district. There were some offices and businesses, but it was a quiet time. It evolved and changed into more of an entertainment district over the years.”
He added, “Now, there’s all these shops and retail and restaurants during the day and at night more of the restaurants and night clubs. It’s a very busy district now.”
Riverside Heights, where he lived with his mother, also experienced a dramatic transformation over the years. “My street that I grew up on, all the families were related or had relationships over the years and had all grown up together,” he said, adding that several members of his family and close friends lived nearby. “It was one of those neighborhoods where everybody knew one another, and everybody grew up around one another. It was not as popular as it is today.”
Now, families clamor to live in the neighborhood, he said. “As soon as houses go up for rent or sale, they’re usually taken off the market very, very quickly.”
As a child, he was drawn to law enforcement and police work. “It’s funny, I remember that I loved seeing cop shows, and I remember watching ‘T.J. Hooker’ and ‘CHiPs’ as a kid,” he said.
By the time he got to Hillsborough High School, like many teens, he got distracted. “You know how it is. As you get older and get into high school and figure out who you are as a teenager, you don’t think too hard career wise,” he said. “You’re more in the moment, making friends and having fun.”
Stephens still found his way to the Tampa Police Department Explorers Post, which was a life-changing experience for him, though. “I met some friends who were in the Explorers program and they thought I should check it out, so I did,” he said. And he loved the program.
He took criminal justice courses when he moved on to Hillsborough Community College after graduating from high school. He thought that one day he might become a police officer.
While studying at HCC, he also began working for private corporations in the security field. As he worked his way through the ranks and his career became more demanding, he abandoned his studies before earning his degree.
Years later, at the urging of a mentor, he went back to college in 2015 and earned his bachelor’s degree in public safety administration with a minor in emergency management from St. Petersburg College two years later.
He doesn’t regret focusing on his career first, though. “It took me a different route,” Stephens said. “It brought me up a different career path and I couldn’t ask for more.”
He launched his career in the security field working in the security department at Tiffany & Co. in International Plaza. After the Renaissance Tampa International Plaza Hotel was built, he began working for Marriott Hotels in the loss prevention department.
After four years, he became a traveling director for the company. In this role, he was deployed to New Orleans for six months after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. “I assisted our hotels, trying to secure the hotels, secure the employees and get things back up to an operational standpoint, get them up to an operational mode,” he said.
“It was a very, very eye-opening experience and led me to the emergency management side of things,” he said.
In 2006, he left Marriott to become Countrywide Financial’s regional director of security for the Eastern United States. He oversaw 6,100 branches in 31 states. “That was probably one of the best jobs I’ve ever had,” he said.
Unfortunately, it was short-lived as “the housing market tanked and (he) was laid off.” Stephens returned to Marriott, but that also took a financial hit. Around this time, he connected with 717 Parking Enterprises, which oversaw valet parking at the hotel. They had a position for him, and he joined their team. He started out as a valet manager and worked his way through the ranks to senior district operations manager by the time he left three years later.
In 2010, he was hired by the city of Tampa as an assistant garage and lot operations supervisor. There, he also worked his way through the ranks, first to interim garage operations supervisor then to parking operations superintendent. Last February, he was named parking division manager.
It’s not an easy job, but he enjoys it, he said. He often hears from people, “It’s just parking. How hard could it be?”
He added, “I tell them, come work my job just one day, please.”
There are numerous duties that fall under his role. His department works closely with private parking operators throughout the city “to ensure we’re operating effectively…and we’re doing stuff efficiently.”
He also oversees parking enforcement, both paid and free spots, as well as in garages. He knows this is a job that doesn’t always make his department popular, but it’s important. The dramatic altercations between parking enforcement and characters “that you see on TV? It happens all the time,” he said.
Stephens stresses that it’s “not just writing tickets. We also try to educate and correct the action beforehand. Ticketing should be one of our last resorts.” He sends his staff to go out into the community to speak with residents and businesses about parking rules in the city. “That positive relationship makes for a better process than just going out there and writing tickets.”
Security is also a big part of his job. After the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, the city increased security at various venues, including parking garages, he said, particularly in areas that draw large crowds, such as around Amalie Arena, the Straz Center and Curtis Hixon Park. “We’ve increased our security presence because of that,” he said.
His department is currently working on implementing new technology systems for garage and on-street parking. It’s a multi-platform system that will allow drivers to use multiple parking providers, he said. “If you go to Atlanta, you go to (Washington) D.C., you go to Atlanta. You can use that same provider here. You don’t have to download another app just because you’re in Tampa. We’re looking to make it so much easier for everybody to use the provider you want to use.”
His staff are currently working on the implementation of frictionless parking at the Tampa Convention Center Garage and the William F. Poe Garage. “What that means is when you enter the garage, you don’t have to touch anything,” he said. “You don’t have to pull a ticket. The gate will lift, it will pull your tag and you’ll use your cell phone to pay or go to one of the machines, kiosks in there…When you leave, go to the gate. The camera captures your tag again and there’s no contact with anybody.”
In recent months, Stephens was also named to the city’s Emergency Management team, taking on the role of emergency response center commander overseeing Ybor City, downtown and the port. He was excited by the appointment as it aligns with his longtime goals and interests. “It’s what I got my degree in and what I wanted to do,” he said. “I was really, really excited when they asked me.”
Typically, those on the Emergency Management team are called to duty during disasters, such as hurricanes. “But the emergency centers don’t activate for hurricanes. Really, it’s anything that goes on, natural disasters, any crisis,” he said. “Let’s say we had a 9/11 experience in downtown Tampa, a bombing. We’d be called.”
He was activated much sooner than he thought he would be when he was called up May 31, the day after the civil unrest led to looting and rioting in the University Mall area. During the protests, he was ready to assist Tampa police with anything they needed. He received one downtown call to secure tables and chairs at Curtis Hixon.
“I didn’t expect to be activated so soon. My acceptance (of the role) was recent then all of a sudden there’s COVID-19, then protests and I’m activated for that, and now it’s June 1, hurricane season,” he said.
As a Tampa native who is proud of his roots, he’s excited to be working for the city in a position where he can give back. “It’s very inspiring,” he said. “I was raised here, and I’ve seen a lot of changes. I turned 40 in October. That’s 40 great years. I’ve worked outside the city of Tampa. I’ve traveled, but I’ve always loved and wanted to come back home. Tampa is home and I can’t see myself anywhere else. This is a great city and I’m glad to be able to work for (it).”

Silhouettes Profiles Amy Haile

Amy Haile


This article originally appeared in the July 13, 2018 edition of La Gaceta
By: Tiffany Razzano

In hindsight, Amy Haile realizes how much of an influence her mother had on her as a child.
Born in Orlando, Haile spent her early years there. That’s where her father landed while serving in the U.S. Air Force.
But when her parents divorced in the 1970s, her mother, Jan Roberts, moved her daughters closer to Tampa, where she completed a masters’ degree in counseling at the University of South Florida. Roberts went on to become the executive director of The Centre for Women, an organization dedicated to helping women in the Tampa Bay area success personally and professionally. Now retired, her mother, 80, recently performed a sold-out one-woman show at Stageworks Theatre, where she highlighted a cross-country trip she took in her Prius visiting friends and mentors, and reflecting on her life.
After her mother earned her degree, Haile, the youngest of several girls, “was in the house the longest as she was going into that point of her career.” Looking back, Haile, the new director for Champions for Children, formerly the Child Abuse Council in Hillsborough 2001, as an adult realizes how much of an influence her mother was on her. “She’s still kicking it,” Haile said. She added, “I didn’t realize then how much her career would have an impact on me. As a child, I didn’t know it at the time.”
Haile went on to study anthropology at USF and was interested in engaging other cultures and backgrounds without inserting judgment based on her own experiences. After earning her degree, she took a job with Operation PAR. Her role focused on juveniles with mental health and substance abuse issues. This is when she realized she enjoyed working with teens. “I really liked the energy of them,” she said. “They’re invincible and energetic and passionate about life.” She worked with youth and their families, collecting data that would ultimately help them make more informed decisions.
She worked for Operation PAR on and off for years. During some of those off years, she worked for DUI Counterattack in Hillsborough County, also a non-profit organization.
In 1995, she headed back to USF to enter a masters’ program in anthropology. At the same time, she returned to Operation PAR, where she worked until 2001, ending her time with the organization as the outcomes director.
She joined the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, an entity operated by the county, in 2001. In this role, Haile shifted her focus from teenagers to younger children.
There were several projects she worked on during her time there that stand out for her. Working with area non-profit organizations and other Children’s Board staff, she helped to create a childcare system for families with special needs children.
She recalls reaching out to various organizations and asking them “to design a perfect program of support.” Initially, they all argued that there was no funding for such a “perfect” program. But she insisted that they contribute their designs, anyway, which she used as the foundation for the Network of Inclusive Childcare that was funded by the Children’s Board. Though the NIC only existed for four years, there are “remnants of it still in place,” she said.
Haile also helped implement a childcare support program for homeless families. Initially, the Children’s Board supported this local program. But eventually, the state took over.
While working for the Children’s Board, she got to know the team at Champions for Children. She became especially good friends with Brian McEwen when they both entered a graduate certificate program in nonprofit management at the University of Tampa in 2009.
When Paul D’Agostino, the founding executive director of the organization retired, McEwen stepped up to fill his shoes. McEwen then tapped Haile to replace him as the associate director. She joined Champions for Children – then the Child Abuse Council – in 2013.
In recent years, Champions for Children adopted its new name as the organization began to shift its focus on priorities. When it was founded, it focused on the support and reunification of children and families affected by child abuse. The organization expanded its operations though, eventually focusing more on family wellness and child abuse prevention.
Science shows the impact of the first six months on a child’s brain, Haile said. This shows the importance of supporting children and families early as a means of preventing child abuse and other issues. As a result, Champions for Children “provides high caliber, evidence-based, top-of-science programming.”
The name change came about because with the focus on family wellness and prevention, many families were turned away by the term “child abuse.” Haile said, “A lot of parents would say, ‘I’m not abusing my child.’”
Also, they made their programming available to parents from all walks of life – all races, ethnicities, ages and income brackets – not just high-risk families. “It’s not income-based. It’s not risk-based,” she said. “Because all parents need a little help sometimes.”
Champions for Children touches around 38,000 lives in Hillsborough County each year. The majority of this, around 24,000, are through its in-school programming and presentations, Haile said. The rest, both children and their caregivers, are affected by specific programming.
One such program is the Baby Bungalow, an early childhood resource center for new parents. “It’s a lovely oasis” for parents, Haile said, offering a variety of classes and workshops, as well as child development programs.
There’s also Layla’s House, in Sulphur Springs, similar to the Baby Bungalow program, it’s a community-based learning center for caregivers and children. “It really helps caregivers navigate through whatever they might need,” Haile said.
Additionally, there’s the ABC Program – A Breastfeeding and Childbirth Program that provides education and support to expecting and new parents, with topics ranging from pre-natal concerns to breastfeeding. “Breastfeeding is the second opportunity as a parent to feel successful. It builds attachment between the mother and child,” Haile said. “This is an opportunity for us to support that positive attachment.”
The organization’s annual fundraiser is just months away and it’s a great way to support Champions for Children, Haile added. The event, the Dream Keepers Ball, will take place Saturday, Sept. 29 at the George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa.
There are other initiatives as well, she added. The first week in August focuses on breastfeeding awareness, and September the group will host a diaper drive for Diaper Awareness Month. “There’s a real need in this community for diapers,” she said. “Diapers are incredibly expensive. We can’t support families for a year, but we can help them through an emergency.”
She also wants to stress that the programming offered by Champions for Children is truly geared towards parents and families from all backgrounds. “No matter who you are, everyone asks themselves at some point, ‘Are you a bad parent? What are you doing wrong?’ We’re here to support them.”

Silhouettes profiles Ron Christaldi

Ron Christaldi


This article originally appeared in the May 11, 2018 edition of La Gaceta
By: Tiffany Razzano

As a law student at Florida State University, Ronald Christaldi was “blessed” to be recruited as a clerk for Tampa’s de la Parte and Gilbert P.A. He was even more “fortunate” when the firm hired him a year later, in 1996, as a new attorney.
Lou de la Parte, along with his son, David de la Parte, who had taken over the firm by that point, were local icons, idealized both as attorneys and as community leaders. By the time Christaldi joined de la Parte and Gilbert, Lou had mostly stepped back from his role with the firm as he focused on health issues. Still, the company culture was steeped in Lou’s beliefs, which his son upheld.
“There was this tradition there, a sense of responsibility to the community,” Christaldi said. The firm stressed “community involvement, being politically engaged and helping to shore good government” through their work as well as in their personal lives.
He worked for the firm for 12 years with David serving as a mentor for him as he carved out his career. “[David] was the best mentor anybody could hope for,” Christaldi said.
Because of David’s encouragement, he became involved with numerous community and business organizations, serving in leadership roles at many of them. “It’s one thing that David also mentored me on,” he said. “If you’re going to do something, don’t do things just to build your resume; do things you believe in, and if you do them, do them full throttle.”
This reinforced what he learned as a young age: as an attorney, he could help people in need.
As a fifth-grader growing up in south New Jersey, Christaldi was selected for a special program for academically gifted students. During one lesson, their teachers secretly organized a lesson about the legal system for these students.
“In class, they pretended they had a fender bender outside and began to fake argue in front of us without us realizing it wasn’t real,” he said.
One teacher then pulled out a fake gun and shot the other. “They wouldn’t do this in a classroom today,” he said.
Christaldi was selected as the defense attorney in the ensuing mock trial. He was so excited about this role that his mother took him to meet with a local public defender in Camden, New Jersey, who advised that he claim “temporary insanity” for his client, who made a bad decision “in the heat of the moment.”
The mock judge and jurors ruled in his favor – the only ruling that sided with the defense in similar mock trials at other local schools. “I got that defense verdict and I knew that day that I wanted to be a lawyer,” he said. “I didn’t have any true conception of what being a lawyer was, but it became my passion. Really, I loved that feeling of helping someone who otherwise couldn’t help themselves.”
He went on to earn his undergraduate degree at New College of Florida in Sarasota, and then earned his masters and law degree from Florida State University.
He hit the ground running with de la Parte and Gilbert P.A. In 2007, he joined Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, LLP, where he serves as partner, management committee member, healthcare co-administrator and president/CEO of Shumaker Advisors Florida, LLC.
The entire time, Christaldi’s work with the community has been just important to him as his work as an attorney.
He’s served in leadership roles at a number of organizations including The Spring of Tampa Bay, where he served on the board of directors from 2009 to 2014 and was vice chair. For him, “protecting and providing support and a way out for some of the most vulnerable individuals in our society” was important.
He’s also worked with the Lions Eye Institute, Tampa Theatre’s Facility Master Plan Task Force, a variety of local and national bas asssociations, Tampa Bay Businesses for Culture and the Arts and Youth Environmental Services.
The role that prepared him for his current community passion – bringing the Tampa Bay Rays to Ybor City – was his work with the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.
In this capacity, serving as chair at one point, he focused on the economic impact of sports, particularly the Rays, on the Tampa Bay area. He toured other cities, checking out their transportation and stadiums, and how they used baseball to revitalize neighborhoods.
Last year, as the Rays began to explore their options for a new stadium, Christaldi and Chuck Sykes, also a former chamber chair, began discussing how they could keep the stadium in the Tampa Bay region. They created Tampa Bay Rays 2020, a non-profit organization that encourages community support of bringing the Rays to Ybor City.
Earlier this year, the Rays unveiled a new 14-acre site in Ybor City bound by Channelside Drive, 4th Avenue, 15th Street and Adamo Drive.
Bringing the stadium to Ybor City is “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Christaldi said.
Relocating the baseball team to Ybor City will add to the area’s sense of community, he said. “What sports does for a community is bring people together. It gives kids role models, people a sense of place, gives them something to rally behind, and builds that sense of what it means to be Tampa Bay and what it means to be a community.”
It’s also a business opportunity for the region, he said. “It gives great exposure to the community,” he said. Often, when you poll visitors about the Tampa Bay area, the beaches and weathers stand out at the top of the list. “We’re in a very competitive global environment,” he said. “We’ve got to be in a place where people to need to think about us more than just a beach place if our children are going to have a future here and we’re going to bring jobs here.”
Sports franchise “are economic engines,” he said. They drive the local economy through hotel stays, restaurant visits and other tourism opportunities, and eventually trickle into “spin-off type of activity.”
Through their non-profit, he and Sykes created the Rays 100, a group of business leaders who support the team’s move to Ybor City. They held the launch for this group last month. Those involved spread the word about the new stadium to their own social, civic and business circles.
The new stadium will “be full circle” for “the buildout and redevelopment of downtown and Ybor City,” Christaldi said.
He considers many of the new spaces in and around downtown Tampa: from the Armature Works in Tampa Heights to Jeff Vinik’s investment in Channelside to the outer portions of Ybor City. “Now all of a sudden you’ve got this ring around this core of downtown that is walkable and has a lot of things going on,” he said.
While there “is always a naysayer here and there,” he’s confident that this is the right plan for Ybor City and the Rays. “People are skeptical, which is different from being negative,” he said. “People were skeptical about getting the Rays here in the first place or the [Tampa Bay] Lightning or building an aquarium or an airport, but the community really pulled together and made it happen. I see the fundamental pieces of this falling into line.”