RIVERVIEW — Robin and Ray Castell say establishing residency in the Winthrop Village was one of the best decisions of their lifetime.
"There's such a great sense of community there," said Ray, who cited how the couple's neighbors came together to help one another prepare their homes for the possibility of major damage from the impact of Hurricane Irma.
At the end of a long weekend of readying themselves as best they could for what might lie ahead, they gathered to relax over drinks and conversation on the Castell family's patio.
"It was just great to see," Robin said.
Fortunately, the bulk of the storm spared the homes in their neighborhood, leaving no terrible tales of woe for them to tell. And just one week later to the day the Castells found themselves in a similar supportive environment, albeit under much less harrowing circumstances.
The couple was at the nearby Barn at Winthrop on Sept. 17 amid a group of 30-plus local small businesspersons plus a handful of spokespeople from nonprofit organizations serving the community. All came to the event center with smiles on their faces, eager to showcase their particular products and services.
For the Castells it was an opportunity to publicly launch the new Robin Nest Studio, their family-owned and operated photography business that customizes photos with the use of metallic threads and also designs one-of-a-kind woodcarved plaques with dates to signify a person's particular milestone or special occasion.
"The threat of Hurricane Irma was a reminder of how precious our photos are to us and how important it is preserve these memories," Robin said.
Kelcie Schranck, a merchandiser representing Dot Dot Smile, a manufacturer of children's colorful clothing, signed on several weeks ago as a vendor but because of Irma's possible peril, had serious doubts she'd be able follow through with those plans.
Following Hurricane Harvey in Houston, she and her family had relocated to Auburndale, only to be faced with yet another pending storm. And because her home in Texas escaped the wrath of flooding so many others encountered they decided to temporarily go back to what they determined would be a safe place to stay.
After Irma passed through the state, the Schrancks returned to their new home in Florida to find it suffered some fairly extensive damage in the wake of Irma's path. The good news, though, was that they were able to experience the generosity of their neighbors who offered power tools and whatever other good deeds they could do to assist them in repairing their property.
"After the storm, the children in our neighborhood also came out to play together and the kids got to know one another," Schranck said.
Meredith Tucker of Riverview, the mother of two children with another one soon on the way who turned out to do some shopping at the event, said it gave her an opportunity to get out of the house after being cooped up with her children for several days.
"I read about it on Facebook and thought it would be therapeutic following a trying time," she said. "I believe in supporting our local businesses."
Lisa Lett, an independent retailer for LuLaRoe, a women's clothing line advertised as simply comfortable, also questioned last week whether the event would even take place.
"But wow, what a difference a week makes," said Lett, who lives in Wesley Chapel but commutes daily to her Riverview job not far from the Barn at Winthrop.
She, too, experienced neighbors helping neighbors in her community, recalling one person who offered a hard-to-come-by bag of ice to her family, whose power in their home had been temporarily knocked out due to the storm.
"But just like this event, it presented an opportunity to get out and build relationships with other people," Lett said.
The Sunday before Irma skirted by her home in Riverview, the farthest thought from Brittany Grogan's mind was planning her role in the event as an Avipop For Kids vendor, a business that offers sewing classes for children as well as kid-friendly sewing machines.
Like the event's other small business representatives, Grogan's full focus at the time was directed toward trying to protect her family and their belongings from what could have been major devastation from Irma.
But here she was just days later in tandem with her fellow vendors — which also included a Brandon message therapist, jewelry and makeup company reps, a sweets baker, a Kenyan coffee roaster sales manager, a travel services concierge and others — who'd gathered at the barn, all counting their blessings that the storm caused minimal damage for most residents in the Tampa Bay community.
ECHO's director of development Michele Pruitt was especially grateful to those who dropped off much needed items for people in crisis situations served by the Brandon-based organization, which is celebrating its 30th year in the community.
"Although the attendance at this event may have been a bit overshadowed by Hurricane Irma, we are very appreciative of the things people donated today," said Pruitt, as she stood with her 11-year-old daughter Ajalon beneath a tent near the barn's entrance. "Our sole purpose is to help people solve the root of their problems and to get them stabilized."
The intent of volunteers representing area Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops positioned nearby was to recruit more youngsters into their folds.
"The real purpose of being here is to tell parents and kids about the benefits of scouting and if we can get just one more person signed up that's great," said Danielle McCracken, the wife of Boy Scout Troop 776 Scoutmaster Billie McCracken.
Danielle suggested people visit beascout.org to learn more about scouting.
Event planner Jeanne Baldi of Birthdays to Banquets organized the first-of-its-kind affair in the Riverview community, which also consisted of outside food vendors and a children's bounce house.
She plans to host monthly events at the site, including Shop Local Sunday on Nov. 26.
"I'm really hoping to give local vendors a place to go and to create family-friendly events," Baldi said.
Contact Joyce McKenzie at [email protected]