An up-close-and-personal look at how five local families handle daily life in 21st century America.
What makes a family? Ask a dozen different people and you’ll get a dozen different answers.
Modern families don’t always fit the Norman Rockwell portrayal of father, mother, brother and sister. Many of today’s families are far less “cookie cutter” but no less committed and loving.
We visited with five local families to discover what matters to them and how they deal with 21st century challenges.
Focus On The Positive
It’s a scenario no parent is prepared for. When her second daughter, Candra, was born with fluid on the brain, Linda Lofton watched as her newborn was rushed to emergency surgery.
When the infant was finally released from the hospital, it was with the grim prognosis that she would never walk, talk or feed herself. Linda and her husband were in shock. Despite also being diagnosed with autism, Candra proved them wrong. In time, she did everything doctors said she wouldn’t and even learned to read. She even went on to compete in the Special Olympics.
Then a seizure in her early 20s left Candra confined to a wheelchair. Linda’s marriage did not survive raising a special needs adult child, but she has tackled the challenge the only way she knows: with grace one day at a time.
A talented makeup artist for 25 years, Linda, an Ocala native, does makeup for weddings and special events, teaches makeup classes and works as a part-time receptionist at Meadowbrook Church.
Three years ago, Linda’s oldest daughter from her first marriage, Leah Taylor, had to give up her job in Atlanta and move back home for health reasons.
“It dramatically affected my physical well-being, and the medication I had to take affected my focus and overall health. I was in a lot of pain,” says Leah, who struggled with depression during this time of upheaval.
“I’m so grateful for my family and my mom,” says Leah, who is working on multiple writing projects. “My hope is to be independent and have a family of my own.”
Inspired by what she saw her mother doing every day, Leah started a small group at church for caregivers and parents of special needs children. The group helped parents connect with support networks and resources and also just gave them a brief respite.
Since she’s been home, Leah has been an enormous help to her mother and sister. When Linda works, Candra goes to ARC of Marion County, a non-profit that serves people with developmental disabilities and their families. The shuttle picks Candra up at 6:15am, and she’s there until 2:15pm. Leah watches her until Linda gets home from work.
Finding the right caregiver hasn’t been easy. Linda is hopeful that she can find someone to help a few hours a week, including taking Candra to physical therapy twice a week.
Constantly having to transfer Candra in and out of her wheelchair has taken a toll on Linda’s back.
“If I had a van with a lift, that would be a huge blessing, but I don’t have the finances to buy one,” says Linda, who is considering starting a Go Fund Me page for this goal.
Despite the fact that, as Linda puts it, “the struggle is real,” the three make it a point to carve out special time together.
“We usually go to Barnes & Noble once a week and spend a couple hours there,” says Linda. “Candra likes having a latte and a cookie; Leah and I use the time to plan our week together. This is our treat for the week.”
All through her life, Linda has been the upbeat person who helped others. To find herself in a position where she needs help has been both mentally and physically draining.
“There was so much help available when Candra was a child, but a lot of that is cut off when they get older,” notes Linda. “I would love to see more assistance for special needs adults over age 18.”
Linda chooses to focus on the positive and hasn’t given up hope that Candra will walk again—even if it’s with a walker.
“A few situations have seemed hopeless, but God has worked them out and He’s kept us sane,” she says with a smile. “Many people would have crumpled under this; staying positive is the only way.”
Modern technology played in role in how Marc and Rouba Palmer met in the first place.
Marc, a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, works in the hospitality industry, creating and managing concierge programs for hotels and resorts across North America.
Born in Lebanon, Rouba lived in four different European countries by the age of 12 before her family moved to Australia, where she lived since the mid-‘80s, working as a teacher and drama instructor.
The couple met through the online dating website Christian Cafe. The odds of them ever connecting were zero until each decided to expand their search areas.
“We had extended our ‘dating parameters’ to the whole world, and that’s how we found each other,” recalls Rouba. “Our mutual interest in the fight against human trafficking sparked our interest in each other online.”
In 2010, Marc launched a non-profit organization called Fashion Hope that provides clothing and accessories for survivors of human trafficking in long-term care facilities in the United States and Africa to help them move on to the next phase of life.
The Palmers married in May 2016. It’s the second marriage for Marc, 56, and the first for Rouba, 45.
“Having dealt with a lot of baggage and issues when I was single made for a much happier transition to marriage,” observes Rouba, adding that this was an advantage for them when compared to many people who marry younger.
Neither had children in past relationships and given their ages, they decided having kids now wasn’t at all practical, even though both have very tender hearts toward children. It’s a decision they’re totally at peace with. When they feel the need to nurture, between the two of them they have 18 nieces and nephews who visit regularly.
“We’re very emotionally connected to them and want to give them good experiences and model healthy marriage and love for them,” says Rouba, who admits that they feel many of the same stresses a biological parent does, including concern about social media and internet exposure and how it affects those children.
It’s easy to see this couple makes their relationship a priority. Both have extroverted personalities; they love people, travel, cooking together and entertaining.
“Because I work remotely from home, we’re together a lot, but we’re close friends besides being married, so we enjoy each other,” says Marc, catching his wife’s eye with a smile.
Both feel one of the greatest challenges to marriage today is the overt sexuality that is rampant in virtually all areas of popular culture.
“We both guard ourselves from too much of that in movies, for example,” says Rouba.
Although they get along famously, as in any marriage, conflicts do arise from time to time, but Marc points out that communication is one of their strong suits.
“We keep short accounts, and if anything comes up, we deal with it straight away so no resentment has a chance to build up,” Rouba adds.
Their work schedules and not having children—or pets—give the couple a freedom parents don’t often experience.
While they were dating and for two years after marrying, they’d spend six months in Australia and six months in the States. In the summer of 2018, they made Ocala, Florida, their permanent home. Rouba is now applying to become a citizen.
Marc’s work doesn’t require extensive travel now—unless he wants it. They recently went to St. Thomas Virgin Islands for a work vacation.
“He worked, I vacationed,” laughs Rouba, who is back in school to obtain her Master of Fine Arts degree. She hopes to have the opportunity to teach drama in local schools once she’s completed that.
“We’ll be doing more traveling once Rouba gets her American citizenship, and we plan to go back to Europe together,” says Marc.
Putting Their Daughters First
Divorce may divide spouses, but it doesn’t have to destroy a family. That’s been the goal for Tim Nelson and Maddy Maddux since they divorced in early 2018 following a two-year separation. They have joint custody and are co-parenting their daughters, Paisley, 7, and Phoenix, 5.
A youth pastor for five years, Tim, 32, recently took a new position as organizational development consultant at Velocity Advisory Group here in Ocala. Maddy, 29, is a medical aesthetician at Advanced Aesthetics in Ocala.
“The girls know they’re the No. 1 priority in our lives, and we want them to see that we work together,” says Maddy. “We put our personal lives aside when we have the kids. We never step on each other’s toes and are good about giving each other time with the kids. They understand we’re not getting back together, but we’re very amicable, and if the girls ask, ‘Can Daddy come?’ I say, ‘Sure!’”
Tim and Maddy spend all major holidays together and regularly do family activities as a foursome, including dinners every week. Maddy’s work schedule makes it tough for her to get away during the day, but Tim visits their daughters’ schools and eats lunch with them once a week.
Most importantly, the girls understand their parents are on the same page—even if they’re not together.
“We have the same rules at both houses,” notes Maddy, “and as a mom, it’s huge to me that Tim always tells them to respect mommy.”
Paisley and Phoenix spend time equally at both parents’ homes. To maintain daily connection, they FaceTime morning and night (and throughout the days on weekends) with whichever parent is absent.
“That’s a good thing about technology in that it closes the gap when we’re not together,” notes Tim. “I feel like we’ve done a good job. It’s really about consistency and communication between Maddy and me.”
Both parents make a point of encouraging their daughters to be mindful of others.
“We’re teaching them to be respectful and have compassion for others, no matter their culture. They need to realize the world is diverse, but we all have the same need for love and acceptance. I want to raise girls who see this and celebrate it in other people. I don’t want them to be narrow-minded about other cultures. I tell them that God loves us all just the same, whether we’re homeless or making $500,000 a year,” remarks Tim, who recently took Paisley with him when he volunteered at a homeless center.
Social media isn’t a fair representation of real families, he adds.
“We all show the best version of ourselves, and at times, it’s easy to believe this is everyone’s reality when we know it’s not. Finding the right example to follow can be hard when all we see is perfect 10s on Instagram,” observes Tim. “When you do fail as a parent, kids are forgiving. I have to humble myself, say ‘Daddy was wrong, forgive me,’ and go on.”
After all, parenting well is really about knowing your children, being consistent and asking the right questions.
“I can think I’m a good dad because I’m coaching their soccer team and going to their plays,” says Tim, “but beyond that, it’s about just being there and understanding them on an individual level. The girls notice when we are on our phones too much and will even ask us to get off. In our family we say, ‘Hang up and hang out!’ We may be trying to capture the moment by videoing when they’re saying funny things, but sometimes they want you to just put down the camera and live in the moment.”
Hearts Bound Together
During an inquisitive conversation regarding a friend’s past, Jeanee Snipes experienced an “aha” moment that would change the course of her life. That friend had spent over 10 years in the Florida foster care system before being adopted at age 16.
Jeanee wondered why a teen who had spent so long in foster care would want to be adopted when they were so close to “aging out” of the system and being on their own.
“She expressed to me that adoption wasn’t just about having a family until you are 18, it was about a lifelong relationship,” recalls Jeanee, whose heart ached for those “aged out” young adults with no family support and no home to visit during the holidays.
Although she’s single with no biological children, Jeanee, 37, knew she could make a difference and began the process of becoming a foster parent. She received her first placement in June 2017 and has since welcomed dozens of children into her home, two of whom she has adopted. Those adopted daughters are now 16 and 18.
“When I started this journey, I thought I’d foster babies, but my first placement was a 15-year-old girl,” says Jeanee. “I realized if I was going to make an impact, it would be with older children. Everyone wants babies, but not many want teenagers, especially teenage girls, so that became my specific focus.”
Jeanee quickly learned to dismiss ideas of the “perfect” traditional family and began to focus on each child as an individual.
“Every child has different emotional, physical, social and mental needs—even if they’re siblings. Just because a child has a troubled past doesn’t mean they’re going to be troubled. It also doesn’t mean they’re going to be perfect. All children have bad days and behaviors we wish would change. We have to tap into the most empathetic parts of ourselves and put ourselves in their shoes.”
It can be challenging for foster and adoptive parents to truly understand how trauma affects a child’s developing brain. Jeanee has studied Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI), which trains caregivers on how to better support children who come from a traumatic background.
Jeanee hails from a biracial background and was raised in a military family without much disposable income. Yet her mother was that person always willing to set another place at the table to help someone in greater need. She led by example and taught her daughter that, “we are blessed so we can be a blessing” and that you can help others, even if you don’t have much money.
Because of childhood health issues, Jeanee endured numerous surgeries. The little girl who had substantial hearing loss, couldn’t read until age 8 and grew up thinking she wasn’t intelligent went on to earn three college degrees, including an MBA. Jeanee now works remotely as an executive marketing consultant for a software company, which affords her the opportunity to be fully present in her children’s lives.
“I had the will to overcome labels and benefited from an amazing mother and incredible support system,” says Jeanee, who is determined to give that same gift to the children she adopts and fosters.
Having traveled extensively throughout the world, Jeanee lived in Atlanta prior to moving to Ocala in 2015 and finds the area ideal for raising a family. She loves the many activity options, from going to the beach or the springs to driving to historic Micanopy and having ice cream.
“It’s really a nice community of people here,” she adds.
With everything she’s learned as a foster/adoptive parent, Jeanee says it all comes back to communication.
“If someone doesn’t know your expectations, standards or needs, they can’t meet them,” she notes, adding that she hopes other single people will realize they too can be foster parents.
“You don’t have to have it all figured out,” Jeanee emphasizes. “You just need to have stability, simple resources, an open heart and open mind. You need to be accepting of children who may not look like you or come from the same place as you. Even if a child only stays in your home for a couple weeks, you can make an impact. You can show them more is possible. These are the children who are going to change the world in 10 to 15 years.”
Blended & Bonded
For Joe Altizer and David Waters, a blended and extended family was the only way to go.
The two will marry in March after being together since 2014. They have shared custody of Joe’s biological children—Cayden, 14, Bellamae, 9 and Lyric, 8—from his previous marriage.
“Their mother and I divorced in 2013, and we’ve shared custody ever since,” says Joe, 35, who works in real estate with Pretty Penny Properties in Ocala. “I was a stay-at-home dad in those days and had been for years prior, so it’s hard now not to have them every day. The kids go to school in Alachua County, where their mother lives, and we each have them half the time. We juggle all the major holidays, but sometimes we throw a joint birthday party together. Every year we do come together for the children when the two of us take them to see Santa.”
“Both of us are very strong on family time, and we like to do things with the kids every chance we get, even if it’s just going to the park or playing board games at home,” says David, 33, a customer support supervisor at ClosetMaid in Ocala.
David’s parents married in 1984 and are still together; he has one brother and one sister. Joe comes from a very blended family, as his parents divorced when he was very young and both remarried.
“I have three biological sisters, a stepsister and stepbrother, but we don’t use the word ‘step’ in my family,” notes Joe.
Joe and David love to celebrate holidays like Christmas; they decorate their home and host a family-friendly holiday party every year. They enjoy incorporating traditions they remember fondly from their own childhoods. One such tradition from both Joe’s and David’s families was each child opening one present on Christmas Eve.
“In my family that present was always pajamas, and we’re doing this with our kids,” says Joe.
The couple says technology is one of the biggest challenges in raising a family today; they agree it’s both a blessing and a curse.
“Everybody’s so wrapped up in their own world with cell phones and computers and no face-to-face interaction,” notes David. “One of the biggest things for us is maintaining interaction; we have a ‘no cell phones at the dinner table’ rule.”
“We have to deal with this on a daily basis. We turn off the TV, put down the phones and eat dinner together,” says Joe. “All three of the kids like their electronics more than going outside, but both older kids have cell phones, and we text a lot. I do monitor their activities online, when warranted.”
Joe and David appreciate the family-oriented atmosphere of Ocala and the many recreation opportunities.
“Ultimately, our goal is to give our kids as much adventure and life exposure as we possibly can, but we also don’t want to spoil them,” remarks David.
“We have fun and enjoy each other. We’re building family bonds and hope they appreciate it,” adds Joe. “David, my ex-wife and I all agree that we raise the kids to be very free spirited. We let them make their own mistakes and teach them how to learn from them. We also believe they need to earn things because they’ll appreciate them more. We’re trying to prepare them for the real world. They’ve always been really independent, and that’s a good thing.”
And how did the kids adjust to their dad being with David?
“At first there was a transitional adjustment,” Joe admits, “but after a while it just became normal. Now they brag that they have three dads (since their mother remarried). The kids are very blessed to have such a large family. Wherever they are, they’re very loved.”