ColorOcala Contest

Grab your crayons, colored pencils, watercolor markers and cray pas, and join the hot new coloring craze!

Floridians, are you ready to COLOROCALA? Create beautiful art and compete for valuable prizes in Ocala Magazine’s latest big giveaway contest. You could win tickets for four to the Walt Disney World® theme park in Orlando, a family Christmas for four at the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center in Kissimmee, and more. Color us excited!

Our latest contest is specially designed with family fun in mind. With a contest for both children and adults, you and your kids will have plenty to do this summer. And best of all, you can be creative together!

You can always count on Ocala Magazine for the best in news and entertainment, family fun, and fabulous prizes, so let’s get coloring! Show off your artistic side, and you might have a summer you’ll never forget.

Feeling Social?

Visit Ocala Magazine’s Facebook and Instagram pages and Colorala’s Facebook and Instagram pages – and while you’re at it, we hope you’ll Like our pages!

Here’s How You Enter:

You must complete Steps 1 through 4 to qualify for prizes!

  1. Download, print, and color your favorite specially drawn Ocala-themed coloring page from contest sponsor Colorala. (You can download pages as many times as you like.)
  2. Fill out the entry form (below) on the Ocala Magazine website before 6 p.m. Eastern time, July 22, 2016.
  3. Upload a photo of your completed coloring page using the File Upload feature provided on the form.
  4. Post your photo on Facebook OR Instagram before midnight, July 22, 2016. Use the hashtag #ocalamagazinecontest on Facebook OR Instagram in your post. Don’t forget to tag your friends and show off your creative genius!

That’s it. You’ve entered!

Click Each Image to Download a Coloring Page! (PDF Format)

Adult Coloring Page – Thoroughbred
Adult Coloring Page - Thoroughbred
Adult Coloring Page – Silver Springs
Adult Coloring Page - Silver Springs

Children’s Coloring Page – Thoroughbred
Children's Coloring Page - Thoroughbred

Children’s Coloring Page – Silver Springs
Children's Coloring Page - Silver Springs


Entries Are Now Being Judged, Stay Tuned!

Click for Contest Rules

Official Rules

  1. By entering, you agree to abide by The COLOROCALA Official Rules.
  2. All contestants must reside in the state of Florida.
  3. The contest will be administered by contest sponsor 7Hills Communications of Tallahassee, Florida.
  4. Entries must be submitted through the online form located at and all entry requirements must be met before midnight, Friday, July 22, 2016 in order to qualify.
  5. Entries submitted will be screened by 7Hills Communications and/or contest sponsor Colorala of Newport Beach, California, to ensure all entries meet contest requirements.
  6. Ocala Magazine, 7Hills Communications, and Colorala cannot be held responsible for email that is misdirected or undeliverable.
  7. Entries that do not meet all the “Here’s How to Enter” criteria will be disqualified.
  8. 7Hills Communications may, at its sole discretion and depending upon volume of entries, notify contestants whose entries are incorrect and must be resubmitted.
  9. 7Hills Communications will send only properly completed entries to Ocala Magazine.
  10. Completed coloring pages, along with the artist’s name, will be posted on the Ocala Magazine Facebook page and Instagram profile, and the Colorala Instagram profile. If the artist is 12 years of age or younger, the artist’s age also will be published.
  11. Following the conclusion of the contest, a team of fine artists from Colorala will judge the entries and select the winners.
  12. A list of winners will be published on the COLOROCALA Contest official web page, located at; the Ocala Magazine Facebook page; the Ocala Magazine Instagram profile; and the Colorala Color Instagram profile.
  13. Winners must claim their prizes by 5 p.m. Eastern time Monday, August 22, 2016. Any prize not claimed by Monday, August 22, 2016 will be awarded to an alternate winner.
  14. Ocala Magazine and/or 7Hills Communications will make every effort to notify winners via email, telephone, or postal mail within the 31-day prize redemption period. Ocala Magazine and 7Hills Communications cannot be held responsible for winners who cannot be located for notification within the prize redemption period.
  15. Ocala Magazine, Colorala, and 7Hills Communications will hold all contestants’ personal information except name, age, and city of residence confidential, and will not reveal said information to any third party unless required by law.
  16. By entering, contestants agree to allow Ocala Magazine, Colorala, and 7Hills Communications to post their names, ages if applicable, and photographs of their coloring pages to social media.
  17. By entering, contestants grant Ocala Magazine permission to publish their coloring pages in Ocala Magazine without remuneration. Published entries will be credited.
  18. By entering, contestants grant Ocala Magazine permission to publish photos of the winners, if applicable, without remuneration.
  19. Anyone employed as a professional artist, or who holds a college or university degree in studio art or graphic design, is not eligible to participate.
  20. Employees of Ocala Magazine, Colorala, and 7Hills Communications and their families are not eligible to participate.
  21. Each participant may enter the contest only once.
  22. All children 12 years of age or younger in a single family may submit one entry each for the children’s contest.
  23. Only one contestant 13 years of age or older from a single family may submit an entry to the adults’ contest.
  24. Only one prize per family will be awarded.
  25. While we encourage parents and legal guardians to experience the joy of coloring together with their children, contestants 12 years of age or younger must color their own coloring pages without physical assistance from any third party.
  26. All contestants 13 years of age or older must color their own coloring pages without assistance from any third party.
  27. Because children must be 13 years of age or older to have a Facebook or Instagram account, entries from children 12 years of age or younger must be submitted by a parent or legal guardian.
  28. Entries submitted by children 12 years of age or younger without parental supervision and consent will be disqualified.
  29. Contestants must abide by all Facebook and Instagram rules. Ocala Magazine, Colorala, and 7Hills Communications cannot be held responsible for any adverse decisions made by Facebook or Instagram as a result of a contestant’s violations of their Terms of Service.
  30. Contestants may use crayons, colored pencils, watercolor markers, or oil pastels (cray pas) to complete their coloring pages.
  31. Contestants may not use online or electronic coloring apps to complete their pictures. All entries colored with electronic coloring applications will be disqualified.
  32. One grand prize and two honorable mention prizes will be awarded in the children’s coloring contest.
  33. One grand prize and two honorable mention prizes will be awarded in the adults’ coloring contest.
  34. Contestants, or the parent or legal guardian of contestants 12 years of age or younger, must pick up prizes by appointment at the offices of Ocala Magazine, located at 743 E. Fort King Street, Ocala, Florida 34471. Ocala Magazine, at its sole discretion, may waive this requirement for winners who are not area residents.
  35. Winners must present a picture ID to receive their prizes.
  36. Ocala Magazine may, at its sole discretion, require a scanned or faxed copy of a picture ID before shipping prizes to winners who are not area residents.
  37. The Children’s Grand Prize Package is subject to the terms and conditions of the Walt Disney World® theme park.
  38. The Adults’ Grand Prize Package is subject to the terms and conditions of Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center.
  39. While we invite contestants to be fans, liking or following any Facebook page or Instagram profile is not required to win a prize.
  40. No purchase is necessary to win a prize.
  41. All judging/winner decisions made by Colorala Color are final.
  42. All contest decisions made by 7Hills Communications are final.
  43. Questions about The COLOROCALA Coloring Contest must be submitted via email to No telephone calls, please.

Food as Art – Sometimes, it really does look too good to eat!

Food as art 2020


















The culinary arts and presentation of food has long been considered a legitimate art form. It is a creative process that requires knowledge, patience, skill and talent. Toiling in the kitchen feeds the soul and provides one with creative, artistic satisfaction the same way it does for any artist creating in a studio. It also serves as an expression of love to family and friends, with the added bonus of  providing nourishment for our bodies. 

Food As Art 2020

















Gretchen Röehrs

Gretchen Röehrs is a San Francisco based painter and illustrator who has been profiled and featured in The New York Times, Vogue, Cherry Bomb Magazine, The Guardian and many others. Many of her delightfully, whimsical fashion illustrations incorporate the use of food and flowers. In 2018 Rizzoli published her first book titled “Edible Ensembles.”


















These food-themed mood boards are created with random objects that may have no other connection to each other except for the color palette. Some inspiration comes from a particular recipe and it’s ingredients. There is a talented community of food artists out there to discover and we have put together a sample of these amazing creatives. Their work is original, whimsical, and exploding with beautiful color. Open up your mind to exploring this unique art form. Just be sure to bring your appetite along with you on the journey. 

















David Allen Burns and Austin Young

David Allen Burns and Austin Young of “Fallen Fruit” fame began in Los Angeles by creating city maps of fruit trees growing on public property.  It has grown into art installations, photographic portraits and documentary videos. As their website explains,  “We believe everyone is a collaborator in making something special – even the stranger or passerby. We believe that artwork has a resonant effect. Fruit is a universal gift to humanity and fruit is always political.” 

Ocala’s Art Castle – Amidst these uncertain and turbulent times, up pops an artist collaborative

Amidst these uncertain and turbulent times, up pops an artist collaborative


Art Castle pop up at NOMA
















The scene may well be at The Brewery in Los Angeles or somewhere in the Rovinj Art Colony of Croatia: virgin canvas scattered in the middle of the room, a barefoot artisan delicately applying bright oil-based hues to his newest creation while an inspired colleague peers over his shoulder. One artist drops a box carrying the tools of her trade onto the broad drop cloth protecting the floor while another is too busy priming canvas to notice.

From the sgraffito and glazing, mixing and dry brushing, the collaboration on this drop cloth island yields the artwork that currently adorns the surrounding walls of this historic venue.

This is not some art commune at Yaddo or in Amsterdam, but a collaborative artists workplace in Ocala’s north Magnolia district.

Taking up residence in the former Coca-Cola bottling plant building located on the corner of N.E. 10th Street and Magnolia Avenue is ArtCastle, a “pop up” art gallery that is more than just a place for displays of paintings and sculptures, but an exhibition that allows artists to create together and share ideas all in public view. Comprised solely of local artists, this temporary gallery boasts no single theme of art but creations ranging from abstract to realism, photography to clay and even performance and health.

With ArtCastle, the public can enjoy completed works but also spectate these pieces in medias res.

Local entrepreneur and art lover Lisa Midgett, along with her husband David, made possible ArtCastle and the rebirth of the iconic structure they have re-named NOMA (North Magnolia). What takes place inside ArtCastle is about more than just producing art for the public to admire – it’s as much about the process.

Mel Fiorentino

Mel Fiorentino, painting

“What’s cool is that we’ll be able to be inspired by each other,” said Mel Fiorentino, among the featured artists who helped organize ArtCastle with Midgett and fellow artist Diane Cahal. “The goal is for us to all work in the same area and that way we can talk, we can laugh, we can make jokes, we can help each other out with our artwork.

“It’s like a working gallery. You can walk around and see all the pieces that are hanging and as you’re walking around, you’ll be able to see all these artists going to town on their new pieces.”

ArtCastle (the name given by Fiorentino’s 6-year-old daughter who said the building looked like a castle) runs through Sept. 26 and is open to the public from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturday. All the while, artists will come and go, making the gallery floor their own personal studio – no partitions, just an open safe space for the free exchange of ideas, constructive criticism, assistance and, of course, the typical jocularity that comes from putting a bunch of artists together into a single space.

The notion of the solitary artist playing hermit in some studio loft only to emerge with the latest masterpiece for a clamoring public may be cliché, but also carries a grain of truth. At ArtCastle, art transforms from an individual to a team sport. Oil painters are not just able to knock around ideas and techniques with other oil painters, they gain knowledge and inspiration from watercolor artists, photographers and even welders.







“I get to benefit and learn,” said Cahal, whose artistry spans several genres including miniatures and abstract paintings. “When everyone started bringing their artwork in, there were a couple of days I thought, ‘I don’t belong here.’ I intend to make the most kick-ass painting you’ve ever seen by the time I’m done here because I want to be able to rise up to the level of everyone else around me.”

“Everybody here paints so differently and that’s what’s so great about it, all these different ideas coming from different people,” Fiorentino said. “I feel it can really help push people in a different direction with their art because sometimes you get stuck in an area.”

While the collaborative nature of ArtCastle may have been a strong motivator for the project’s genesis, another factor played a strong hand – the dreaded pandemic scare.

Jessica Carter

Jessica Carter, working on her multi-media piece

With art shows being cancelled and many galleries shutting their doors, the financial well-being of many artists, like most businesses, was under serious threat.

“COVID was a motivator to get this project up,” Lisa Midgett said. “I cried a lot just trying to figure out how we can help. We just decided to push through with this project and try to help artists recoup some dollars and really to help lift their spirits.”

The pandemic has taken its toll not just in financial terms, but mentally as well. Fiorentino admitted that she lost her motivation to paint, her tools gathering dust for a month. 

“Once we started buckling down and getting ready for this project, I told Lisa I feel like it breathed life back in me,” Fiorentino said. “I didn’t even want to paint with what’s been going on – I felt not inspired. Since we’re doing this now, I feel like this is exciting.”


From Art House to ArtCastle

ArtCastle is the highly organized and structured legacy of some spontaneous movements that took off under Midgett’s lead.

It all started with what is now referred to as Art House I, something artist Jessica Carter refers to as a “free-for-all” at the Midgetts’ latest purchase of the time, a Victorian home in Ocala’s historic district. 

It was the summer of 2019 and Midgett owned an empty building awaiting renovation which likely would not start until December. That’s when local artist E.J. Nieves walked into the offices of the Marion Cultural Alliance asking for a place to take poignant photographs to promote an upcoming show. Midgett, who is Chair-Elect at MCA, informed Nieves of the vacant house.

“I said, ‘oh god, you could just paint on the walls in there if you want; I don’t care,’” Midgett explained. “I gave them absolute free reign.”

What started as a simple promotional photo-shoot turned into an artists’ collaboration hosted by Nieves and fellow artist Teddy Sykes. A barnstorming of artists ensued as every wall, ceiling and even fixture became fair game for the brush.

The creative juices flowed freely – no commissions, no rules, no inhibitions; just naked artistic expression manifesting itself in large, vibrant murals destined to be short-lived once the reno crews took over.

“They had no specific client in mind, no specific end result they needed; they weren’t entering a show so they weren’t tailoring the work to please a juror,” Midgett said. “They did what they wanted and they helped each other. It was that experience of being able to collaborate together and have this sort of fun freedom to do what they want.”

Artists of many stripes soon flocked to the Victorian house to be a part what seemed a mini version of “THE HAUS” in 2017 Berlin. A canvas of seemingly limitless drywall and opportunity awaited as well as the prospect of unfettered interaction with highly respected peers.

Then came the shocker: Midgett’s contractor was ready to work a lot sooner than anticipated, meaning it was time to pull up stakes – the fun was over.

But Art House I proved to be a spark that would conflagrate in the spirit of the artists and Midgett herself. Although a sad day when forced to leave, the moment begged the question: Can we continue this elsewhere?

“We thought to ourselves, ‘when are we going to have this opportunity again to have vacant buildings that we can do anything we want to?’ That doesn’t happen.” Midgett said.

Enter phase two of Art House, another recent purchase of the Midgetts: the former Ocala Lincoln-Mercury dealership on south Magnolia. The vacant building with its large expanses looked to be the perfect canvas for artists hoping to re-gain the momentum of Art House I.

Midgett let some of her friends in the artist community know there was potential for Art House II at the old car lot. The Midgetts had ideas of what they wanted to do with the property, but for the time being it would stand vacant just as the Victorian house stood while awaiting renovation.

Again, the artists flocked to this newest free-form canvas.

Great expectations awaited artists who hoped to create monuments of their work. Fiorentino salivated over the chance to create something on a scale of grander proportion than she’d ever experienced. Her obsession with the late David Bowie could come to glorious fruition.

“When it came to Lincoln-Mercury, I was like ‘if I have a chance to paint Bowie on a massive scale, this is my chance,’” said Fiorentino, who can fill multiple galleries with her stunning portraits of musicians and other celebrities. “I just wanted to do something that was on a way bigger scale than I usually do.”

But the artists had jumped the gun. Permitting and coding issues meant they would have to wait before entering to bring their visions to life.

“There was some breakdown in communication,” Midgett said. “We were still working with the city, then the next thing you know the building had artists in it and we had to shut the project down.

“I was heartbroken because I know materials are expensive. It wasn’t a money-maker; it was just fun. I just felt bad that we couldn’t let them finish the project.”

Midgett said the slight possibility of Art House II being revived exists, but all attention is now on ArtCastle, the next phase which seemed unlikely at the time.

Already owners of the old Coca-Cola bottling building, the Midgetts turned their attention toward that property. Originally, David and Lisa had in mind a whiskey distillery and have pondered many other ideas that include fine arts, and that is where the natural progression to ArtCastle seeded.

Hannah Matos

Hannah Matos, playing and singing as part of the live music at ArtCastle

For Midgett and the artists, for the third phase to be successful the “free-for-all” approach would have to be scrapped. Perhaps anathema to most artists, rules and guidelines plus a lot of waiting would be necessary to bring ArtCastle to reality.

Before leaking word of the idea to artists, Midgett made sure all her ducks were in a row regarding building and fire codes.

“This time I was definitely heading it myself because we had enjoyed a good partnership with the city,” Midgett said. “Before I even said a word to anybody, I asked (City building inspector) Tyrone (Mahnken) and Brian (Cribbs) our fire marshal to come up and talk to me and tell me what we could do here. They basically held my hand through the permitting process which was very complicated for this building.”

With the building on schedule to pass muster, Midgett brought in Fiorentino and Cahal to join as a team of organizers.

“Lisa’s like the queen – none of this would be possible without her,” Cahal said. “It was her vision and then she collected the people she knew could probably see and share that vision.”

As artists, Cahal and Fiorentino brought to the table a strong idea of what schematics would work for both the talent and the public. Drawing upon their experiences with Art House I and Art House II, a floor layout was developed as well as rules and protocols for artists and public alike.

On August 13, ArtCastle opened with a soft opening for certain invitees and continues for public viewing and sales.

“The cool thing is that it’s happening at all,” Fiorentino said. “Everybody is bringing their best work.

“I feel like it’s definitely more important than just a show because this is an opportunity that brings all us artists together and really gives us a chance to not only get to know each other but work with each other and help each other.”

What separates ArtCastle from the two earlier projects is not only its tight organization and adherence to guidelines and protocols, but also the opportunity for artists to earn some financial rewards for their efforts, something slow to happen in the age of pandemic shutdowns. Artists will be able to give lessons and sell their work at ArtCastle.

“Art House was absolutely for the fun of it,” Midgett said. “It was a party; it wasn’t a money-maker at all for anyone. For those guys, it was the cost of their materials and their time.”

“It’s literally like  a dream when I come in here,” Fiorentino said of ArtCastle. “I’m excited to come here; it’s beautiful here.”


An art community emerged

A collaboration of artists in a single spot with the public allowed to witness the creative process in real time may be a concept unthinkable not long ago in Ocala. Thirty years ago, the terms “burgeoning art scene” and “artistic haven” would have never been used in talking about Ocala.

But here we are in 2020 with numerous galleries, a bit of avant guard quality to the local art scene and art-loving entrepreneurs willing to take risks on the local talent with their hearts and their wallets.

Cahal noted that spontaneous art projects tend to “pop up” in major cities quite often but would not happen in a place where art plays little role in the local culture.

“It’s unique to Ocala, but it’s not unique to national or international types of places,” Cahal said of the collaborative process taking place at ArtCastle. “A lot of times you’ll see what happens in cities in the industrial edge of town, artists will take it over because you’ll have welders that are sculpture-making and people that are making big pieces out of marble – they need huge warehouses. Then a painter will get inspired and take over a corner and then it turns into a collaborative, organic type of thing.”

ArtCastle represents not a starting point for Ocala’s emergence as a thriving art community, but rather a sign that it has already arrived.

The difference between now and then is palpable, according to Cahal, who remembers attending the Fine Arts For Ocala festival in years past when artists attended “just for the prize money” and didn’t expect to sell anything. That has changed as many artists sell out their entire exhibits during FAFO.

“What (ArtCastle) does is it puts the stamp of validation,” Cahal said. “All these people keep saying we have a thriving arts community and this is an example. This would not be possible if we didn’t have the (community) support.

“For the longest time I looked at other cities that had great, thriving art communities so maybe I should move there at my retirement. Then, I realized ‘why can’t we just do it here?’ I get to live out my days in a thriving art community and not in some other artsy town.”

New art galleries sprouting up every year, veteran and rising talent relocating to Marion County in scores and FAFO artists cashing in as never before have made Ocala an actual player in the realm of art communities. 

Still not convinced? Head to ArtCastle.  

ARTCASTLE – 933 North Magnolia Avenue – 11 a.m.- 6 p.m. – Thursday-Saturday through Sept. 26 – Public welcome, free of charge

ArtCastle at NOMA group of artists

Standing: Jessica Carter, Jessi Miller, Jordan Shapot, Maggie Weakley, Justin Alsedek, Greg Gwilt, David Kellner and Leslie J. Wengler. Seated: Mel Fiorentino, Ralph Demilio and Diane Cahal. Splayed: Olivia Ortiz





















ArtCastle Artists:

Justin Alsedek – Oil paintings, murals

Mitchell Brown – Industrial sculptures

Diane Cahla – Watercolors, miniatures, dioramas

Jessica Carter – Mixed media

David D’Allessandris – Mixed media, paintings, tableaux

Ralph Demillo – Photography

Mel Fiorentino – Oil paintings

Greg Gwilt – Clay

Leslie J. Wengler – Photography

David Kellner – Modern sculpture

Jessi Miller – Acrylic paintings, mixed media

Leighton Okus – Dance

Olivia Ortiz – Music

Jordan Shapot – Oil paintings, drawings

Teddy Sykes – Watercolors

A’Aron Thomas – Mixed media, acrylic paintings

Maggie Weakley – Paintings, wood art, ceramics



Second Chances and A Hopeful Future

By Louisa Barton 

Much of the Thoroughbred industry is made up of horse owners who have modest incomes, and even with the best of intentions, only some can afford to support and care for a Thoroughbred once it has completed a career at the racetrack.

The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) had its first retired racehorse two years after its founding in 1983. The TRF’s mission is clear and simply stated: To save Thoroughbred horses no longer able to compete on the racetrack from possible neglect, abuse and slaughter. That first horse was Promised Road, a 9-year-old who ended his career in a claiming race. Today, the TRF is the oldest and largest equine sanctuary like this in the world.

One of the ways TRF has helped save retired racehorses has also helped people in need. Founder and Eclipse Award winner Monique S. Koehler negotiated an agreement with the Department of Corrections in New York to staff and maintain a vocational training program in equine care and management for the inmates at the Walkill Facility. Upon the completion of their sentences, many former inmates who had worked with the horses credited the TRF program for their life successes after their release. There are certainly emotional benefits derived from programs like this and equine therapeutic programs seem to always be physically, emotionally and psychologically beneficial to children and adults from all walks of life. There is just something about caring for and loving a horse and it loving you back! The TRF program has been replicated at correctional facilities in eight states since its inception.

Most horses under TRF care suffered injuries on the track making them ideal candidates for pasture retirement.  However, many TRF horses have successfully been retrained and adopted out to homes where they have begun new lives as competition horses, members of mounted units, therapy programs or as well-loved pasture pets.

In 2001, TRF opened at the Lowell Correctional Institution here in the “Horse Capital of the World” and is home to more than 50 horses and is the only women’s program in the country. This program is great for character building for the inmates and offers a haven for ex- racehorses. Caring for these horses changes the mindset of many inmates, often teaching them great life skills to use after release while also improving their self-esteem. 

For those of us who own horses, we know the hard work, dedication and intense work ethic required to do all that is necessary to care for them, but we also know that the reward of the relationship, trust and love of a horse is priceless. 

The TRF is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit tax-exempt organization entirely dependent on public contributions.  One hundred percent of its budget comes from generous individuals, businesses, and foundations which support its network of farms across the country. The local Lowell program is funded by Florida Thoroughbred Charities’ local fundraisers via the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association. How great it is that Ocala, Marion County is home to wonderful organizations like this doing double duty, helping the horses and the inmates by providing a second chance and a hopeful future.

A Literal Hand Up

Marion County Literacy Council tackles the problem of adult literacy in our community


Marion County Literacy Council. Photo by Joshua Jacobs.

The abundance of breathable oxygen, the taste of food on the tongue or reliable shelter in a storm: All simple and commonplace matters of our existence we take for granted, rarely giving more than a thought during the course of a day. Remove any of these and their importance suddenly dwarfs any other hardship faced.

The ability to read for most of us falls in line with many activities relegated to mere afterthoughts, but approximately 20 percent of fellow Marion County citizens would disagree. Those are the 20 percent of adults here who are classified as functionally illiterate.

Unable to understand a restaurant menu or instruction manual, the functionally illiterate among us face not only an embarrassing stigma, but also the greatest obstacle toward financial success. Most are adept at hiding this reading deficiency but will likely never be able to parlay their otherwise hard-work ethic into significant career advancement.

The Marion County Literacy Council is stepping in to help reverse this trend and provide a “hand up” as opposed to a “hand out” to these adults in need.

“I don’t know that people fully appreciate how serious a problem it is,” said MCLC Executive Director R.J. Jenkins. “It’s not just a human problem, but a real economic problem for our city and for Marion County. It’s difficult to have a growing and prosperous economy when 20 percent of your population is functionally illiterate. 

“We have a big job ahead of us.”

The MCLC, with over 75 volunteer tutors, helps around 500 Marion County adults each year and the success stories are overwhelming and heartwarming. Some fell through the cracks in the educational system while many are learning English as a second language. All have one thing in common: Improve their own lives and the lives of their families.

The MCLC utilizes a three-pronged attack in combatting illiteracy: 1. Adult Basic Education program which helps adults learn to read or improve reading skills; 2. GED program which helps adults earn their high school equivalency diploma; 3. ESOL program which is to help non-English speaking adults become more capable and competent speakers of the language.

“One of the things that’s important for people to understand about the work we do, it takes tremendous courage for people to seek our services,” Jenkins said. “There is a kind of filter on the front door of our building and that filter is for courage. People don’t walk into our building unless they’ve made a decision to do something to better their lives and the lives of their children.

“It takes a lot for a grown woman or grown man to admit they have trouble reading – there is still, unfortunately, a bit of a stigma around some of this kind of help. That’s a challenge for us. It’s difficult for us to get to the people who need us most because they’re intimidated or frightened.”

The numbers for the past year have been quite encouraging for the MCLC:

  • 15,000 hours of volunteer tutoring equal to over $370,000 worth of services
  • 100 hours of adult tutoring and instruction leading to an average $10,000 increase in annual incomes
  • 20 adults sent through the Equal Opportunity Program at the College of Central Florida to help pay for GED and further their education
  • 223 adults increased their English skills by one grade level per semester
  • 30 adults received their GED
  • 40 adults increased their reading by more than two levels in the ABE program

The numbers are nice, but the human stories paint a better picture. Even during the pandemic as the MCLC’s doors were closed, one student stuck to his guns with online tutoring and passed his GED exam. Another lacking computer literacy was kept from professional advancement, but after three weeks of one-on-one tutoring had mastered the skills that would secure him a promotion.

The MCLC’s annual report notes one man from Cuba who spoke virtually no English before enrolling in ESOL classes. Now, he is a student at the College of Central Florida with plans to transfer to the University of Florida and major in engineering.

The council relies heavily on the work of program coordinator Yamila Acosta, who oversees the volunteers.

“She is the face of our organization as far as our students are concerned,” Jenkins said. “There is not a person in Marion County who receives services from us and doesn’t know who Yamila is. She is an astonishing person and is really the heart of the organization. She works tirelessly to make sure folks get access to these life-changing services.”

RJ Jenkins at the Marion County Literacy Council. Photo by Joshua Jacobs.

Jenkins is quick to point out that although the MCLC operates with volunteer tutors and relies heavily on the support of donors, the program is not free for the students. There is a $40 registration fee that covers unlimited support for an entire semester.

“That does two things: It obviously provides a very small amount of support for our organization, but it also means that the people who seek our services have some skin in the game,” Jenkins said. “They have made an investment in their own education. It resonates with our donors that our students our also invested in their education, that this in not a hand-out but rather a hand-up organization.”

The MCLC, in addition to reading services which include group and one-on-one instruction, also offers help in the realm of math, financial and computer literacy. Even adults seeking treatment for drug and alcohol abuse at Phoenix House in Citra can take GED classes there and elsewhere such as in Marion Oaks and at College Park Elementary School.

The physical facility had been closed during the pandemic and is now enjoying a soft opening. During this time, students have been tutored online and the MCLC seems to have navigated the crisis thanks to its minimal bureaucracy and generosity of its donors.

“We have tremendous support from our community and we are a really lean organization,” Jenkins said. “We have not experienced the kind of financial hardships that some non-profits have.”  

For more information 

The Marion County Literacy Council is located at 120 SW 5th Street in Ocala. Anyone who would like to donate money or services may phone 352-690-7323 or visit for more information.

40 Under Forty: Alexander Everts

Alexander Everts

Age 27

Owner, Marion Fence LLC

Empathy, because we can always remember that we wanted someone to be there for us in our hard times so even when we can’t directly sympathize, we should really do our best to understand when others face hardships we don’t personally understand.

Aspirations I have are to go back to grad school and finish with a PhD in History, and to make sure my son has a healthy and wholesome community to grow up in.

My favorite way to give back to the community is through art and education. I have taught middle school and acted in plays at Ocala Civic Theatre.

What I love about Ocala is our perfect blend of growing urbanity surrounded by agriculture in the county.

Movies I’d bring to a deserted island would be all the Harry Potters as well as a documentary titled “how to escape desert islands.”

Never leave home without both my cell phones.

If I could tell my 16-year-old self one thing it would be to not drop out of high school; it just made college harder.

I’m very passionate about ending arguments between college education and vocational schools — I know both trades and average academia myself and they are both needed in society.

40 Under Forty: Stephanie Bonner

Name: Stephanie Bonner

Age: 30

Title/Main life pursuit: Registered nurse and full-time family nurse practitioner student

What is your word and why did you choose it? I choose the word ‘blessed.’ This word is very close to my heart and I feel as though I find myself saying this word quite often. In every aspect of my life I truly feel blessed with my son, my fiancé, family, friends and with my profession.

What aspirations do you have for yourself in the next 40 years? My goal is to graduate as a family nurse practitioner and to some day run my own clinic. I look forward to my future making memories with my family.

Favorite way to give back to the community? My family and I sponsor families during Christmas and help those in need.

What do you love and/or hate about the Ocala area? I love that Ocala has a great healthcare system. I do wish that it was closer to the coast, but it is a beautiful place to spend time outdoors.

A few albums and movies you’d bring to a deserted island? Carrie Underwood, Jason Alden, Cardi B, and Journey.

You never leave home without? I never leave home without bringing a water bottle, lipgloss, and my wallet.

If you could ever tell your 16-year-old self one thing? If I could go back in time I would tell myself not to worry or stress about the small things in life.

Anything else you’re super passionate about? I have a passion for fishing and being outdoors. I hope to travel the world fishing in different places.


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