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Keeping Safety Harbor Strong

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photo/Cyndy Peer

On Monday, Scott Long started getting random messages from friends. They were writing to check on him, to ask questions, and like most of us in Safety Harbor, they were concerned about life with new rules due to coronavirus.

Then he was added to a Facebook group for bar and restaurant owners.

“I realized there had to be a better way,” he said during a phone interview.

So, he used the social media platform to create a group—one that could connect the Harbor, share information, and ask for help when needed. He named the group Safety Harbor Strong. Hours later, he had 500 members. Now, just days later, the group has over 1,000.

“It really took on a life of its own very quickly. It’s beyond what I thought would happen,” Long said. “Obviously, we all have our own needs and concerns. There are folks on there that I don’t know but they jumped on, posting what they need and what they can offer. There are a lot of teachers offering online lesson plans. Businesses offering pickup and delivery. There was someone whose dog needed help for a wound. People offered help.”

Megan Willoughby shared a post about BayCare offering drive up coronavirus testing.  Library Director Lisa Kothe shared that due to the library’s closure, the number of Hoopla check-outs has been increased to six per month through April 30. Harbor Dish founder Chris Sauger shared information on local food pantries, there is a post on free lunch locations for students and there have even been a few locals offering to help deliver meals.

The Sun contacted City Manager Matt Spoor to ask about City employees and how services have changed.  

“We are following all CDC guidelines for staff, cleaning, safe distance etc,” Spoor answered. “All employees will continue to work either from their work site, home, or take accrued leave. There is no one right answer, we have 200 employees across the City.”

There has never been anything to compare what we are experiencing to anything we have lived through, so of course, residents and City leaders alike are doing what they can to make life feel as normal, and be as conscientious, as possible.

Long is known for his public service. He is a former City Commissioner and currently serves on the Library Foundation Board. He started and continues to facilitate Melons for Moolah, an annual fundraiser benefiting local non-profits.

“Two big library fundraisers have been canceled,” he explained. “Drag Queen Bingo and Casino Night. A lot of events will not happen this year. ChalkFest was canceled and in the meantime, I am trying to prepare for June and Watermelon Week for Melons for Moolah.”

Like many in Safety Harbor and even worldwide, Long has taken a financial hit. “My business is being decimated by this. At the same time there is not a lot of work right now. I can sit and watch Netflix or I can do something for my community. “

Some of our local bars and restaurants are changing how they operate, some offering take-out, while others have moved tables to accommodate recommended social distancing. “II think what is going to help our small businesses in town is sharing the pain we are all going through. The challenges are the same. How do you keep employees and do right by your clients?”

We may have to stand six feet away from each other until the virus is no longer a threat, but at least we can still communicate online and through calls and texts to help each other, especially those who can’t—or shouldn’t—leave their homes. Long says he is just trying to fill his life with as much positivity as possible through the social media group.  “If we can get more people involved and sharing it, the more we can stay in touch and get involved.”

The CBD Conundrum

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CBD products. (Photo/Julie Brannon)

For a few years now folks have been jumping on the CBD bandwagon faster than fleas can hop on a sleeping hound dog. It’s in high demand as a natural treatment for pain, anxiety, insomnia, GI issues, PTSD, seizure disorders, and other conditions. Many users absolutely swear by it. “It’s helping so many people with so many issues by improving their quality of life,” says Dr. Sangita Patel, PharmD, owner of Sunlife Pharmacy in Palm Harbor. 

Cannabidiol comes from agricultural hemp, not marijuana, and doesn’t get you high. There are literally hundreds of companies producing a dizzying array of CBD products: tinctures, topicals, and gummies, even snack chips, shampoo, and dog food. Geez. This genie isn’t just out of the bottle — it pulled up and moved to Istanbul. But there’s a problem in CBD land. Actually, two BIG problems.

First, CBD is illegal under Federal law. Still, some states — Florida included say it is legal as long as it contains less than .3% THC.  As a natural products retailer this pretty much makes my head spin.  My customers demand it so I supply it, but I’m breaking Federal law in doing so. The odds of the feds coming after me are slim to none, but I’m still taking a risk. I do it for just one reason:  I want to make sure my customers have access to a safe product, manufactured with superior practices, and perhaps most important of all -— with sound, third party scientific testing behind it to ensure quality. Dr. Patel offers a number of CBD products, but she has also carefully vetted the companies that manufacture the products she carries. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for a guy behind the counter at the gas station or some joker selling God-knows-what’s-in-it CBD at the flea market.  With US sales projected to reach 1.8 billion by 2022 you can bet shysters will be cashing in with crappy product as long as they can get away with it, so we shouldn’t underestimate the potential threat to public safety.

And there’s the second problem: CBD products are not currently regulated by the FDA, and as such are not required to be produced under GMP rules (Good Manufacturing Practices) and other regulations established to guarantee safety, purity, and consistent quality.  Personally, I’ll rest easier when the FDA gets off its hands and grants CBD status under the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act (yes, supplements are indeed regulated by the FDA) but it’s impossible to say if or when that may happen. Natural products associations have been pressuring the FDA to get moving. [Read letters from representatives of these organizations here and here.] Just last month the New Jersey Senate passed a resolution calling on Congress and the President to help protect consumers by setting safety standards for CBD.  But for now it remains the wild, wild, west when it comes to CBD, and buyers must beware. 

Fortunately there are a few very good companies producing very good CBD products, voluntarily using GMP rules. These are the brands I stick with. Same goes for Dr. Patel.  “Just make sure you are buying from health professionals or those who know CBD and can educate you and help you in getting to the right dose,” she adds. Here are some more tips that may help you navigate the possible pitfalls of CBD use.

The most important first step is to determine if you can even take CBD.  Many can’t. Forget it if you’re pregnant or nursing, and if you take any prescription meds at all you must do your homework or the results could be disastrous. For example, Dr. Patel urges caution when taking anti-coagulant medications. See, the body metabolizes toxic compounds and certain drugs through what’s called the cytochrome P-450 pathway. CBD acts like a roadblock on that pathway, which can cause a dangerous build up of drugs in the body. Grapefruit also blocks cytochrome P-450, so the easy litmus test is this: if you can safely eat grapefruit while taking a certain medication, then CBD is probably safe for you. Still, I highly recommend checking with your doctor or pharmacist before using CBD if you take meds or have a serious health condition.

Stick with major brands from reputable stores. Make sure there’s a QR code or lot number on the box, along with a Supplement Facts box that lists every ingredient and specifies the amount of CBD per serving in terms of milligrams (mg’s). It’s a head scratcher, but some companies label their product with the total mg’s of CBD in the bottle. So look for the mg’s per serving. Dr. Patel advises full spectrum, organic, and American grown, from a company that has all its research and quality controls in place.

Scan the QR code or go to the company’s website and look up the lot number. How is the hemp grown? Is it US Hemp Authority certified? What extraction method was used?  Look for third party test results. These should be on the lab’s letterhead, refer to a specific batch, and include a Certificate of Analysis, a Pesticide Report, a Terpenes Profile, and a Heavy Metals report.  All this information will be easily accessible if the product is worth a darn. If it’s not, then drop it like a hot potato.  Oh, and don’t be fooled by ingredients or potencies listed as “proprietary.” That usually means they don’t want you to know what’s in it.  

As far as dosing, one size doesn’t fit all. It’s a matter of finding the dose that gets the job done for you. Quality products will always have a “suggested dose” on the label, but we all have different absorption rates, body weight, and pain tolerances. Research is sparse, but available studies say CBD is generally well tolerated even at very high doses — which I recommend against.  Dr. Patel suggests starting at 20-25mg per dose. “That’s the average dose of a healthy person. Increase it slowly every 3-5 days to see where you get relief, and it’s best to divide your doses throughout the day. CBD lasts about four to six hours so dividing doses will make the effects last longer.” If CBD doesn’t seem to get the job done in a couple of weeks, it’s probably time to try a different approach. Trust me, there are plenty of other natural options available. 

CBD can be a marvelous therapeutic tool for a number of different conditions as long as it’s produced with high standards, has good science behind it, and is used safely. But we have to be educated consumers, and maybe a bit activist.  A letter to your congressman urging the adoption of federal guidelines and safety standards probably wouldn’t hurt.

This information is provided for educational purposes only. It is not intended as medical advice, nor is it designed to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any illness or disease, nor should it be considered a substitute for the expert care of a qualified health professional.

Harbor Happenings: December 8, 2019

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Chalk mandala from SHAMCgiving, the Third Anniversary of Safety Harbor Art & Music Center. (Photo/Kathryn Malaxos)
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December 2019

Blues Monday with Al "Coffee" McDaniel

December 8, 2019 @ 8:00 AM - 5:00 PM
Safety Harbor Resort & Spa, 105 N. Bayshore Drive
Safety Harbor, Florida 34695 United States
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"Join us every Monday night in the Lobby Lounge for great music. Never a cover charge! Drink and appetizer specials! Live blues by Al "Coffee" McDaniel."

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Market on Main

December 8, 2019 @ 10:00 AM - 3:00 PM
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An event every week that begins at 10:00 AM on Sunday, happening 7 times

John Wilson Park & Gazebo, 401 Main Street
Safety Harbor, FL 34695 United States
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SHAMcXmasParty / FreddyandFrancine

December 8, 2019 @ 4:00 PM - 6:30 PM
Safety Harbor Art & Music Center, 706 2nd Street North
Safety Harbor, FL 34695 United States
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SHAMc POP-UP Holiday Party with musical guests FREDDY and FRANCINE, Nashville based Folk-Pop-Americana-Soul duo, in Concert.FREE SHOW • Doors 4PM/ Show 5PM

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SHAC Wednesday Night Run

December 10, 2019 @ 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM
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An event every week that begins at 6:30 PM on Tuesday, happening 30 times

Troubled Waters Brewing, 670 Main St.
Safety Harbor, FL 34695 United States
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"Come join the Safety Harbor Athletic Club for the weekly Wednesday night run! Run Starts at 6pm, goes for 3 miles, and finishes back at the bar for beer specials and food! All ages and abilities welcome. Run/walk at your own pace!" (Facebook)

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Open Mic with Josh Plummer

December 10, 2019 @ 7:30 PM - 11:00 PM
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An event every week that begins at 7:30 PM on Tuesday, happening 17 times

Nolan’s Pub, 230 Main Street
Safety Harbor, Florida 34695 United States
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"Open Mic Night with Josh Plummer. Come play some music and jam with great local musicians, or just listen! Tuesdays signups start at 7:30pm, playing around 8pm!" (Facebook)

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Planning & Zoning Board

December 11, 2019 @ 6:30 PM - 9:00 PM
City Hall, 750 Main St.
Safety Harbor, FL 34695 United States
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The agenda for December's Planning & Zoning Board meeting can be found on the city website: http://safetyharbor.granicus.com/AgendaViewer.php?view_id=6&event_id=1696

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Wednesday Night Drum Circle

December 11, 2019 @ 7:00 PM - 10:00 PM
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An event every week that begins at 7:00 PM on Wednesday, happening 30 times

Palm Tree Courtyard, Main Street
Safety Harbor, 34695 United States
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"On Main Street by the Happy Salmon Restaurant in the Palm Tree Court Yard. Drumming is good for you in every way. Come enjoy." (Facebook) Please check the Facebook page for cancellations before heading over.

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Night Tales: Storytelling with Walt Belcher

December 11, 2019 @ 7:00 PM - 9:00 PM
Safety Harbor Art & Music Center, 706 2nd Street North
Safety Harbor, FL 34695 United States
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$2

"Come share a 5 to 7 minute story. Tell us about your best gift, or your worst gift. Gifts you gave. Gifts you got. Gifts you want to forget. Embarrassing gifts. Romantic gifts. Weird gifts. Any gifts! "Prize for best story. All ages welcome. $2 donation at the door. Audience members welcome. Doors open at…

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Open Jam Night at Brady's

December 11, 2019 @ 7:00 PM - 11:00 PM
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An event every week that begins at 7:00 PM on Wednesday, happening 20 times

Brady’s Backyard BBQ, 340 Main St
Safety Harbor, FL 34695 United States
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Blues Jam every Wednesday night at Brady's BBQ.

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Melody Artisans of the Crooked Thumb

December 11, 2019 @ 7:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Crooked Thumb Brewery, 555 10th Ave. S.
Safety Harbor, FL 34695 United States
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"Please join us as our host, Joshua Reilly, invites all songwriters to our space to share their original music. All songwriters will play a few original songs and extra points for any writer who brings a new song on our theme 'Forgetting Songs.'" (Facebook)

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Finance Advisory Committee

December 12, 2019 @ 6:30 PM - 7:30 PM
City Hall, 750 Main St.
Safety Harbor, FL 34695 United States
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Latin Thursday in the Lobby Lounge

December 12, 2019 @ 7:00 PM - 8:00 PM
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An event every week that begins at 7:00 PM on Thursday, happening 4 times

Safety Harbor Resort & Spa, 105 N. Bayshore Drive
Safety Harbor, Florida 34695 United States
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"Come out to our Lobby Lounge every Thursday for a Latin flair! Enjoy the sounds of LIVE Latin music and dance the night away!Don't dance? Don't worry - you will love the music, signature cocktails and lots of fun! Drink & appetizer specials and never a cover charge!" (Facebook)

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Music Video Night / Retro Night

December 13, 2019 @ 7:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Crooked Thumb Brewery, 555 10th Ave. S.
Safety Harbor, FL 34695 United States
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Music videos from the 80s and 90s all night with VJ Hural Knight! You can dance if you want to...

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Community Yoga

December 14, 2019 @ 10:00 AM - 11:00 AM
John Wilson Park & Gazebo, 401 Main Street
Safety Harbor, FL 34695 United States
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"Sarah Schaber, RN, E-RYT 200 and Pat Setley, E-RYT 500 of YogaLove Yoga Studio in Safety Harbor lead the community through a fun-filled class that is open to everyone of all ages and levels. This practice will focus on uplifting the spirit, strengthening the body, and calming the mind, using various yoga styles. Come experience…

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Children's Clothing & Toy Exchange

December 14, 2019 @ 10:00 AM - 2:00 PM
Safety Harbor Art & Music Center, 706 2nd Street North
Safety Harbor, FL 34695 United States
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Gently used and formerly loved clothing, books and toys.After Exchange, clothing will be donated to Mattie Williams Neighborhood Family Center

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Gluten Free Dining Options in Safety Harbor

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Cafe Vino Tinto in Safety Harbor, April 2019. (Photo/Kathryn Malaxos)

by Scarlet Burton

We all know Safety Harbor has delicious places to eat. But are they gluten free? I have been to a lot of restaurants in Safety Harbor. They were all really good. But last year my family and I found out that I had celiac disease. I can’t eat gluten. If I do, I get really sick.

Last summer I went  to writing camp at SHAMc. I ended up finding two gluten free restaurants that changed my life.

Cafe Vino Tinto

I was very excited when I got to camp on Monday. I love to write. SHAMc was a really cool place. Then on Tuesday, the director of the camp told everyone something exciting. They wanted us to learn how to use all our senses in our writing. We took a walk around the block and tried to use our senses as much as we could as we jotted down notes. However, we couldn’t use our sense of taste yet. And so the next day everyone was told that we were going to try food or drinks from two different restaurants.  First, we went to Cafe Vino Tinto. It was a cute little place. The people were really nice and they let us sit wherever we wanted. Everyone including me wanted to sit outside. So we chose a rather large table with five or six chairs.

Scarlet and her dad enjoying Father’s Day at Cafe Vino Tinto
(Photo/Scarlet’s mom)

Then a server came up to our table and set down two giant jugs of lemonade. I guess one of the counselors had already ordered. Both lemonades smelled good. I asked what type of lemonade it was. I  knew that each jug contained a different type. Then all the kids were taught that one was regular lemonade and the other was guava. I tried both. They were so good! I also learned that the cafe had other gluten free things too: A breakfast brownie, waffles, they had all kinds of gluten free breakfasts.

When we left the cafe, I was feeling pretty happy about the lemonade.

Then the week after,  my family and I went back there for my dad’s Father’s Day breakfast.  Everything was good there. It was pretty cool!

Daydreamers Cafe & Grill

After the camp leader took us to Cafe Vino Tinto, we walked back in the direction of SHAMc. I didn’t know what was going on since I was told we were going to two restaurants. Just as I was about to ask where we were going I heard a counselor say, “here we are,” and I turned around and saw it: a medium sized rectangular building stood right in front of me. It had unicorns, narwhals, and all sorts of other things painted on its sides. I had seen it before on my way to SHAMc a couple of times. But I didn’t know it was where we were going to eat. When we got to the front of the place I saw a cute little chair standing next to the door. It was an interesting place. Then I turned and saw lots of little tables shaded by brightly colored umbrellas.

Scarlet in front of Daydreamers (Photo/Scarlet’s mom)

We went inside and were greeted by lots of nice people. We were told to look around and write down things that we noticed including the ceiling. I looked up. The ceiling was covered with clouds! And each one had a different encouraging note on it. It was so cool! Then I gave the rest of the place a good look. Everything shone with bright, happy colors. We also got to meet the owner. He was very kind and said that it was always his dream to open a restaurant and that’s why he named it Daydreamers. Then he led us to the outside tables and we sat down. He told us what we were having. It was a bacon, egg, and cheese wrap and crackers. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to have anything. But to my surprise the owner said he had a gluten free wrap made just for me. When they brought out the food, I was pretty hungry. I took a bite. It was really good. I was given some fruit to make up for the crackers. I was very happy. When we left Daydreamers I was feeling good. Then about two months later my mom decided that we should go back to Daydreamers. Nothing had changed. It was still really great. I’m so excited to go again!

Southern Fresh

Scarlet Burton at Southern Fresh (Photo/Scarlet’s Mom)

It’s nice to know there are places in Safety Harbor that have gluten free choices and understand celiac disease. After I discovered these two places, I also wanted to know if there were more. So my mom took me to Southern Fresh. My family and I went there for dinner and the food was outstanding. But that was before we found out I had celiac. My mom wasn’t sure if it had gluten free or not until my mom decided to look it up. Surprisingly, they had lots of gluten free options. When we got to Southern Fresh we were greeted by a friendly man who pointed out all the options that were and weren’t gluten free.

Then my mom ended up ordering shrimp cocktail and coleslaw. The food was very good. The shrimp were plump and juicy. I really liked their coleslaw. The dressing in it flooded my mouth with happiness. I think all three places are wonderful. They all had very kind people and good service. I think everyone should give them a try! 


Scarlet Burton is a nine year old girl in fourth grade. She is very involved in her school’s gifted and music programs including Drum/ORF, chorus and multicultural club. While she has enjoyed trying various activities, she has a passion for playing the guitar, singing, equestrian riding and especially writing. Her love of writing began when she was five and she spends much of her free time creating books, plays and instrumental pieces for her guitar. She also has interesting in advocating for endangered animals as well as volunteering for and being involved in different charities. She hopes to one day be a wildlife conservationist and continue to write and play music.

Amazing Elderberry

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Elderberry tea and dried elderberry in mortar and pestle.
Photo/Julie Brannon)

It happens every fall when the kids head back to class; viruses start spreading faster than an algae bloom on still water.  And don’t think you’ll be spared if your kids are the 4-legged furry kind.  Viruses are aggressively equal opportunity and you can bet that at some point you will be exposed. It’s inevitable.

My favorite go-to is elderberry, an extremely potent anti-viral weapon in the arsenal to battle fall and winter ailments. Sambucus nigra is a diminutive and unimpressive looking tree –abundant here in west central Florida– that has been revered throughout history for its remarkable ability to heal human ailments. Recipes for elder-based remedies are found in the Ebers Papyrus, written by ancient Egyptian physicians almost 7,000 years ago. The Greek physician Hippocrates, considered the Father of Medicine, described elder as his “medicine chest” for the wide variety of ailments it treated.  That was in 400 BC, and science has since confirmed what Hippocrates and other ancients knew about this itty bitty purple berry.

Try this on for size:  An Israeli study revealed that elderberry cured 90% of flu infection within 72 hours, and was effective against eight strains of influenza, both type A and B, including the bird flu. That’s nothing to sneeze at!  Elderberry’s mode of action is to “deactivate” viruses, preventing them from replicating and invading healthy cells. Even more recent research shows elderberry powerfully activates the immune system to strengthen our natural defenses, reduces inflammation, and is effective against not just 8 but 10 strains of influenza.

But here’s the catch: you absolutely positively must start elderberry at the very first sign of a virus. I can’t emphasize this enough. You cannot wait until the virus has spread throughout your system before deciding to do something about it. Hit it early –and hard, starting at the first symptom. Whether it’s a sniffle, a scratchy throat, headache, muscle aches, or simply a feeling of being “off”… jump aboard the elderberry train. You’ll be glad you did. And even if it’s not a virus making you feel puny, elderberry certainly can’t hurt, and will likely make you feel better.

I should also mention that elderberry benefits go way beyond colds and flu. It’s a powerful antioxidant, and a good choice to treat congestion, sore throat, bronchitis, constipation, and even asthma. Elderberry also cleanses the system and builds the blood.  What’s not to love?

I routinely wild harvest elderberries around Safety Harbor, and no, I won’t tell you where. I was born at night, but not last night!  I will say that elder trees love water, and are found along the banks of rivers and canals, even along the shores of Tampa Bay.  They’re easiest to spot in the spring when covered with upright bunches of little white flowers, or mid to late summer when those clusters droop with dark berries. But a word of caution:  always wear gloves when harvesting or handling fresh elder. The leaves, branches, stems, and unripe berries contain cyanide. The berries must be nearly black, dried, and boiled to be safe.

You can find elderberry bottled and sold under the name Sambucol, which is an excellent product used in many studies, but it’s an expensive one. Being an old fashioned gal I make my own elderberry extract.… and if you can boil water, you can too. It’s not a sweet berry, so you might add honey, agave, or stevia.  For picky kids think –Popsicles!  It’s a super sneaky but effective way to administer elderberry, and having a batch in the freezer means you can get treatment going fast when you need to.

Elderberries are just this side of miraculous as far as I’m concerned.  But let’s not forget all the other important ways to keep viruses at bay through cold and flu season: hand washing, reducing sugar intake, a fresh whole foods diet, and a daily probiotic will go a long way in keeping you healthy and on your feet this winter. 

If you have serious or chronic health conditions, or are pregnant or nursing, it would be wise to check with your doctor before taking elderberry or any natural remedy.  And as ever, this information is provided for educational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any illness or disease, nor it intended as medical advice or a substitute for the expert care of a qualified physician. 


Int Med Res. 2004 Mar-Apr;32(2):132-40.: Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections.

Eur Cytokine Netw. 2001 Apr-Jun;12(2):290-6.: The effect of Sambucol, a black elderberry-based, natural product, on the production of human cytokines: I. Inflammatory cytokines.

Remembering 9/11 Through the Eyes of a First Responder

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On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, Gregg Donato worked for the New York City Transit Authority.

“I was a civil servant,” he says. “I had a small house and two small children. My life was work, dealing with the public, and elevators and escalators, all at the same time.”

Gregg Donato is a Safety Harbor resident now,. He met his wife Jennifer through local business owners Mike and Joan Kelly, connections from New York. He grew up on Long Island and had joined the Transit Authority in June, 1999. 

Gregg and Jennifer Donato / credit Gregg Donato

“Our quarters were at 34th and 6th St. in Manhattan. We had this thing called a six-wire. It’s a wire for police, fire department, transit, FBI, for any serious local catastrophe. That morning, we heard that something hit the World Trade Center.”

Donato and his workmates turned on the TV. “We thought it was an accident. Then the other plane flew into the second building so we knew it wasn’t an accident but we weren’t getting any calls over the six-wire. You just hear, you can’t talk into it. We were waiting for supervisors to tell us what was going on. My friend Keith ran into the quarters covered head to toe in white dust. He was like ‘guys, we’ve got to go. It’s a horror show down there.’ Without waiting for permission, we all left the transit property. We jumped on a train and took it down as far as we could go. The train was cut off to the World Trade Center for obvious reasons. The cops were there so we showed them our ID and they let us in.”

The scene was surreal.

“It looked like we were on a movie set—it looked like hell on a movie set. People were screaming, crying. Thick smoke was everywhere. We had to walk a couple blocks to the building. We hitched a ride in a police paddy wagon and went to the site and started suiting up to go in there.

9/11/2001 Credit: Gregg Donato

“All the news was trying to hit us up,” Donato remembers. “John Stossil from Channel 7 was trying to talk to us to get a story but no one was stopping to talk. There was a line of people struggling to get in to help. In the beginning there were a lot of civilians trying to help the police and fire departments. Any related agencies all came together. Man, when we got in there, our shoes started melting off our feet from standing on the pile. Nobody knew where to start.”  

Finally, a fireman directed Donato and his workmates to a spot in front of the South Tower. “We were right in front of the second building. [The fireman] said, ‘my friend’s truck is over here.’ We found the spot. The truck was gone, only the engine was there, running, and it ran the whole time we were there.”

credit: Gregg Donato

Donato and his team started digging. They were hoping to find the fireman’s friend. “We found his friend’s boots but there was nothing in them. That guy, he broke down.”

 There would be thousands killed or injured that day.

“We were just elevator mechanics. When you take that civil service job, they don’t consider you just that title. You’re there for the public. As time went on a lot more of our department showed up. Everybody from the transit was there. It was like the first time I ever saw the whole world pulled together in one little tiny spot.” Fire departments arrived from across the country. Dogs were brought in from Switzerland, fire departments from Germany. “Some of us couldn’t [communicate] but we knew what we were doing.”

credit: Gregg Donato
‘”Brian” credit: Gregg Donato

Donato became part of a sort of bucket brigade, passing five-gallon pails. “The digging was the hardest part. We were shoveling up remains of people.”

The North Tower was already on fire.

His friend Brian was with an Emergency Service Unit and was called to the scene. “We never found a piece of him,” Donato says. “I have a picture of him outside the building right before he was to go in. But there were a lot of people who couldn’t get out. Brian went in with a bunch of people to try to help. The rest of the building came down on top of him. It disintegrated into nothing. They didn’t find an article of clothing, his helmet, or his badge.”

The whole city opened up for them.

They were given food, water, clothing and work boots. “We were going through shoes – like every three hours you had to change your shoes.” They were given hotel rooms to sleep in and for part of the time, he stayed on an aircraft carrier. “There was a cruise ship there too,” he says. “There was about ten guys I stayed with that some lived upstate, some from Pennsylvania. We could get a few hours of sleep. My ex-wife was like ‘are you ever coming home?’ and I didn’t know.

“OSHA came down and started fitting us for respirators. We were respirator trained. We were telling the guy the cartridges were not rated for that kind of debris. In turn, people got a lot sicker than I did. A lot of my friends did pass away. I still have my mask in my mother’s garage. With the same cartridges, too.”

credit: Gregg Donato

Some memories still haunt him more than others.

“We had people handing us pictures through the fence, asking us for any hope in finding their family members. We would find pictures in the debris. At a certain point we knew we weren’t going to find more people. We were just looking for things that would ease the families.

“There was also a tremendous amount of stealing. Money, watches off of dead people. Anything they could find. But there was no way we were going to be part of that. There was a Rolex store and it was still intact. These people were like ‘they’re just going to write it off anyway.’ They smashed the booth and cleared the whole thing out. It wasn’t all as honorable as you’d think.”

“We found a child smashed into a beam. The police commissioner went on the loudspeaker and announced a moment of silence. We took our hardhats off and kneeled while they carried this little kid out. The kid was nine years old. We just kept finding bits and pieces of people hoping we’d find someone alive. You were lucky to find body parts.”

Donato remembers finding a wallet. “His last name was White. His whole wallet was like a Shrinky Dink. It was inside an airplane chair. All that was left of the chair were wire pieces. His American Airlines credit card was still in the wallet.

“After a while you just couldn’t help anymore.”

Eighteen years later . . .

Today, Donato has many of the physical and emotional symptoms caused by the attacks.

“They try to give you psychiatric help but most of us didn’t get anything out of it. We all talk to each other. I think about it every day. It never leaves me.”

Those of us old enough to remember that morning remember the images on TV, the stories, the fear. Even though Donato has vivid memories of horror, he says there is one positive thing he came away with. “There really is a world that does want to be one – setting aside political views and what not. It gave me total confidence that people all over the world are on the same page. They showed it right away. Nobody invited them, they just came. That’s about the only good thing I got out of it.”

Recent photo of the Donatos in front of One World Trade Center
Credit: Gregg Donato
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