Planning My Day at the Fair

Although I live minutes from Tampa, Florida, I have never been to the Florida State Fair. My kids have gone when invited by different friends over the years, and in fact DD2 went this year already, but I plan to go this Sunday for the first time. I’ve been looking at friends photos and social media posts, as well as the Florida State Fair website, and I’ve begun planning my day.

Photo by Rachel Barrett

What’s funny is I have a blogger friend who shared all there is to share about the food at the fair. Meanwhile my daughter has photos of animals, and my boss had photos of rides. My friend Carter said not to miss Cracker Country. I guess everyone has their reason for going and their favorite part of the day and Fairgrounds. Some moms of littles will probably wait in line for Peppa Pig or meeting the Shopkins! I’m curious to see what my favorite part will be. I think it will be taking photos of rides and lights at night.

Littles can get washable glitter tattoos at the Fair. (Really big kids can too!)

I already know one friend I am going with will totally be food-focused. While another said she can NOT miss the giraffes.

Giraffes??

Yep, every day at the fair you can join Twigs the Giraffe and other amazing exotic animals up close in the Giraffic Park Exotic Menagerie. (Ha!) Feed a giraffe and get a close-up look at a llama. When I think about animals at a fair, my mind goes to Charlotte’s Web – and the cows and pigs – and Templeton singing “A Fair is a Veritable Schmorgasboard-orgasboard-orgasboard.” Don’t worry, you can see those at the Fair too!

Friends of mine making furry friends at the Fair

DD2 tested her bravery at the Fair

You know what sounds cool to me? India Fest. I really enjoy music and dance with Indian influences, and I wonder if a couple of the kids I know from school will be performing. I haven’t heard about that from anyone yet.

The Florida State Fair is packed with rides — it’s the largest Midway in America and includes the famous Mighty Mouse. I guess it really does belong only an hour from Walt Disney World… If you love to spin around while being spun around, I hear the Zipper is the way to go.

Photo by Rachel Barrett

Because I’m a little tardy to the State Fair party, the people have already voted on the best food at the fair. The People’s Choice Award goes to The Best Around for their Fried Cheesy Enchilada Funnel Cake created by Kevin McGrath and team (not pictured here). It’s a corn meal funnel cake batter mixed with enchilada spices, poured through a funnel and deep fried. it’s then topped with queso and ground chorizo. I’m not sure I’ll be trying that. My daughter said the hamburger that has 2 heart-shaped donuts as the bun was tasty (shown). My boss tried – but later regretted – the fried Oreos.

Thanks to Outdoorsy Diva for her Fair tips and sharing some photos. Thanks to Tampa Bay Bloggers for helping me get tickets. I’m looking forward to my day at the Florida State Fair with Tia. I hope to see y’all a the fair!

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Meal Planning for the Week

Brian and I try to find time every Sunday to grocery shop together. First, we compare calendars to find out who will be home for dinner on which nights, then we come up with our menu and ingredients lists, and then we shop. We do the bulk of our shopping at Target with a Red Card to save 5%. For out-of-the-ordinary items, better produce and better meats, we go to Publix a few doors down.

This week, our meals are:

  • Sunday night (2 adults) – We had chicken breasts we had purchased the week before and not used, so we figured they’d better get eaten soon. I made Rachel Schultz’s WORLD’S BEST CHICKEN. The mustard flavor is rounded out by the other ingredients, it’s always juicy if you cook it 10 minutes less than she recommends, and you don’t have to marinade this in advance! Brian wanted brown rice, which we had leftover in the fridge, and I roasted broccoli too. I’ll make 3 breasts for the 2 of us so I have one left for lunch one day this week.
  • Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 5.46.22 PMMonday (party of 4) – the girls requested turkey burgers, which usually means I make the patties and Brian does the grilling. We had leftover buns in the freezer I defrosted. I pre-made a side of roasted vegetables and couscous in a huge bowl Sunday so I could have it for lunch at work too. The “kids” snuck some wasabi ginger kettle cooked Lays chips in the cart too.
  • Tuesday (party of 4) – chicken thighs in an Asian soy/peanut sauce with sugar snap peas and brown rice.
  • Wednesday (2 adults, because the girls are leaving town to go check out a colllege) – salmon, probably pan seared. This recipe sounds great!
  • Thursday (2 adults) – Pizza, because I’ll be working that night so fast is best
  • Friday (2 adults) – Cuban sandwiches in our panini press.

I hope you find time to meal plan as well. It saves money, calories, time and aggravation.

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Flying over Leeds Castle

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Get in the trees!

When our family ventured to London last June, we researched fun things to do with TEENS beforehand. Traveling with older teenagers is not like traveling with tiny children – but they aren’t quite like traveling with a set of contemporaries either.

adventure-GoApefamilyOne of the fun adventures my husband stumbled across online was Go Ape, a tree-top adventure that lets you “get in touch with your inner Tarzan.”

Their course includes a high ropes course adventure with a zip line at the end of each challenge. Our family had done a ropes course at Dollywood, but certainly not in treetops near a castle! And it did not include ziplining. (After only three years, Dollywood removed the two-acre Adventure Mountain multi-level rope course, so don’t go looking for it now…)

While at Dollywood, I found myself gripping the ropes tighter than I thought I would, getting a little stressed about falling despite the harness and safety wire. It was still an enjoyable trip, though, so when Brian recommended taking a train to Kent for the day and trying the Go Ape course, followed by a castle tour and hedge maze large enough to actually get a little lost in, we were all really excited about it.

On the train from London to Kent you can read, nap, chat, and enjoy views like these!

On the train from London to Kent you can read, nap, chat, and enjoy views like these!

We prepped by reading their website. The text and photos promised breathtaking views of the beautiful area surrounding Leeds Castle (near Maidstone), and “obstacles that will get the hairs on the back of neck bristling”. It also said the high ropes courses were approximately 40 feet above the forest floor and zip wires were over 800 feet in length – and my favorite part “leap off our Tarzan Swing and tackle our crossings whilst enjoying some of Britain’s most breathtaking scenery“.

Gorgeous castle grounds

Gorgeous castle grounds

raffi apeAlso thanks to the website, we knew how to get there, how early to arrive before our scheduled flight time, and what to wear – something you don’t mind getting grubby that covers your stomach and an emergency rain jacket. Appropriate close-toed footwear with soles with good grips – no sandals or slip-off shoes. Long hair should be tied back. And they recommended gloves, so I grabbed a pair of those $1 stretchy Target gloves for each of us. (I was the only one who wore them. I thought they were to avoid rope burn, but they were really to prepare for bad weather – and we had GORGEOUS weather!)

You can bring scaredy-cat friends who don’t want to participate to enjoy the forest grounds and take photos for you. You can also bring little ones: the Tree Top Junior Adventure includes up to an hour of exploring the tree tops for 6 – 12 year olds to enjoy.

We arrived right on time, locked up our belongings, signed insurance waivers, and got fit into our safety harnesses.

Brian steps into his safety harness

Brian steps into his safety harness

An adventure begins with a safety briefing. There was a group of teens there celebrating a friend’s birthday, and we had our safety talk together. That was nice, because you could see the information repeated a few times so it would sink in despite your excitement.

Then there are a couple of easy obstacles to try near the start, so the safety person can make sure you are doing them correctly, and so someone can back out if they are too uncomfortable.

Then you are led by signs through the forest from obstacle to obstacle, climbing at the start of each one, and meeting the ground after each one with a fun zipline down!

My daughter ascending to an obstacle

My daughter ascending to an obstacle

All of us enjoying the course

All of us enjoying the course

DD1 gets ready to zipline down!

DD1 gets ready to zipline down!

DD2 wanted me to take photos and videos of her throughout the course, but my hands were shakey from the height and from gripping so hard, and I was worried I would drop her iPhone! That didn’t stop her from making her own videos and taking selfies up high in the treetops without fear.

teen happy on ropes course

At one point my nervousness got the best of me. I ziplined down to the ground and took photos for a few minutes, and then finished up the course with the rest of the family. I just needed to feel solid ground for a few minutes, and my daughters applauded me when I stuck with it and climbed back up! #gotMyBack

Here are some more visuals of our tree-top Go Ape adventure:

teen on Go Ape ropes course

“I’m so glad we did this instead of Harry Potter, mom!”

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familyfinishedcourseGoApe

At the end we all received certificates of completion, as a memento to the fun you just survived. Just a short walk from the course is Leeds Castle, known as the Queen’s Castle and “the loveliest castle in the world“, where we planned to have a picnic lunch.

Enjoying the walk to the castle

My family walking to Leeds Castle on a gorgeous summer day in the UK

With peacocks roaming and sheep wandering, you’ll feel like you’ve gotten away from it all! I loved much of the art inside the castle as well.

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Outside the castle an animal show geared towards young children was going on. We went into the hedge maze while many of the other guests are occupied. It’s NOT an easy maze.

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couple in hedge maze near leeds castle

The maze ends in the center, where you take steps down to an underground grotto!

Grotto near Leeds castle

In the grotto

On our way back to the meet the shuttle to our train, we spotted pre-wedding photos happening on the castle grounds. The castle was closing as the wedding caterer arrived.

wedding at leeds castle, kent, uk

This was certainly one of the best days of our London vacation in the summer of 2015! We had active time and passive time, we worked individually and as a team, we got exercise and enjoyed the amazing beauty around us. If you take a family trip nearby, I recommend a day trip to Kent, Leeds Castle and the GoApe treetop zipline adventure for sure!

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Meeting Author Ashley Rhodes-Courter

booksAshley Rhodes-Courter is the author of two books on the New York Times bestseller list, “Three Little Words” and “Three More Words”. The books tell the story of her childhood in Tampa’s foster care system, her ultimate adoption, and her efforts to make peace with her past. Ashley was invited to speak at Shorecrest Preparatory School, where my DD2 is a senior, about child welfare issues and court appointed child advocates.

“No kid should have to spend ten years in foster care,” a video clip of a teenage Ashley Rhodes-Courter proclaimed to an audience in the Janet Root Theatre at Shorecrest Preparatory School on November 30, 2015.

Why would a school bring in a speaker to talk about foster care issues? Two reasons…

  1. For over 25 years, Shorecrest has sponsored a holiday gift drive for children in the foster care system. Most recently, the children have been part of the Guardian ad Litem program. This is a system of volunteers who represent children in court – in some states they are called “CASAs” Court Appointed Special Advocate. Basically, when a ruling is made on the case of a child in foster care, everyone in the room has their own agenda, but no one is hired to speak for the child. These volunteers see the child regularly, be sure their needs are being met, listen to them talk about where they are living, how school is going, etc. and then stand up for them in court. This year, Shorecrest will gather gifts for about 220 children, and for some of these kids it will be the only gifts they get all year. In addition to making wish lists before the season, these kids also send thank you notes that always bring tears to my eyes. Sometimes they ask for diapers for their baby sibling instead of toys for themselves. Some kids want a dream gift, like a new bike or video gaming system. Some want basic necessities, like gloves and socks. (The girl we’re shopping for this year wanted a baby doll and roller skates.)
  2. Another reason Ashley Rhodes-Courter came to Shorecrest has to do with their new Guardian ad Litem club started by two high schoolers. Some of the parents at school volunteer with Guardian ad Litem, and students hearing about the program during the gift drive and from the parents wanted to help the children beyond the two weeks of the gift drive. One of their first initiatives of the 2015-2016 school year was sitting down with Ashley to interview her (video here) – and later to ask her to host a discussion and book signing at school.

Her first book is linked with Reese Witherspoon in movie talks… which has been going on for a couple years. That, coupled with Ashley’s busy national speaking circuit schedule, made us a lucky group to hear her story first hand for about an hour, teamed with a question/answer session, book signing, and Guardian ad Litem reps available to answer questions or sign up new volunteers.

Many people in the audience of over 300 were somehow involved in child welfare – through work, volunteering, or their personal experiences. One of my friends who attended works as a high school guidance counselor for Pinellas County students in the foster care system. One is a Guardian ad Litem who has asked me to donate time and clothes to foster care teens in need who she knew. Many had already read Ashley’s book and had hot button questions waiting for her at the end of her talk.

ashleyrcraffiAshley was funny, down to earth, off the cuff and complemented my earrings (which I told her were just $3 on clearance at Charming Charlie). We spoke about being a mom and cat allergies. We talked about how much I love Shorecrest, and how it takes a village of caring people to raise kids the way we would hope to raise them. Now we follow each other on Instagram.

After years being shuffled from foster home to group home, Ashley was lucky enough to obtain a Guardian ad Litem (GAL). This one volunteer, Mary Miller, changed the course of Ashley’s life. “Mary Miller was the one person not paid to take care of me, yet she was the only one who believed me when I said I was being abused… and ultimately helped find me the adoptive family that transformed my life. That is the power of one person.” Mary remains a constant in Ashley’s life, and was present at her college graduation, wedding and baby shower. Ashley is both a foster and adoptive parent. Her boys are 1, 2 and 3 years old! Her husband was there too and seemed very sweet and quiet.

IMG_8462GALs do so much for children in the foster care system. They follow up on case plans, represent children in court, make sure they are safe and their needs are being met – and all because they have a little extra time and a big heart.

Guardian ad Litem Foundation’s executive director, Amy Foster, was also on hand to recruit volunteers and mentors. I’ve since poked around online and read more about her recent life. She’s a very inspiring woman! You may know her name as a City Council member in St Pete. Just last summer she adopted a girl who had recently graduated high school. This teen girl and adult woman are filling holes in each others’ lives. (If you need a heartwarming cry, check the story & video out here.) “Today there are more children in care than ever, and every one of us can make a difference in the life of a child, whether we do it with our time, talents or treasure.” Amy Foster told the group at Shorecrest. “Being a Guardian ad Litem volunteer… is really one of the most rewarding roles that I’ve ever served in.”

Find out how you can be a voice for a child here: http://www.guardianadlitem6.org/menus/become-a-guardian-ad-litem.html

or give back by strengthening families in need with the Foundation for Sustainable Families here

Watch clips from the special night at Shorecrest here:

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Family trip to London

Thanks to a whole lot of travel points, we took a family trip to London in June. It’s a big year for us. The teens graduating high school, the parents turning 40… all in a span of 13 months! So we boldly went where none of us had gone before – and yet were still able to speak the language.

We left Tampa on the afternoon of my 40th birthday. I had enough time to celebrate in the morning with Wendy getting my free Denny’s birthday meal. We also split a tasty smoothie. I stopped by the office and my boss had a giant cupcake for me 🙂 She also found the perfect glittery Disney card. Last minute packing details got taken care of and we headed for TPA.

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We had a delay after our first flight, but it only added an hour of travel time. Then we were in London!

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I guess they knew it was my birthday!

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An elevator is a lift over there…

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The Marriott Regents Park where we stayed for a week.IMG_1984

The Marriott reads their tweets! They had birthday flowers and wine waiting for me!

Read about our zipline adventure in Kent over Leeds Castle here.

Read about our family dinner at Dishoom, Kings Cross here.

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