Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series of thoughtful narratives about people, places or phenomena in the SouthShore and Brandon community.
VALRICO — A little girl in bright summer colors knelt over the treasure box. She methodically peered at the contents, going over each gold coin and strand of parade beads, every candy-pink plastic costume ring.
Jenna Conti patiently stood over her. She made a mental note: Bring more tiaras next time. That's what the girl was looking for, and those go fast.
Conti is a FishHawk Ridge resident, a full-time hairstylist, a wife and mother.
She's also Eden Sirene, professional mermaid.
It has been a few weeks since she caught flak for trying to swim with kids in one of the pools at FishHawk Ranch in her custom-made silicone mermaid tail. She was told her tail violated the pool's no-fin policy.
But she didn't let the setback, or the negativity of some vocal detractors, keep her from swimming after her dream. She wants to swim in the Florida Aquarium mermaid shows. But for now, it's enough — more than enough — to swim with the kids in the community, to meet their families and make them smile.
Conti went to the Campo Family YMCA on Sunday for the FishHawk Area Networking Group's 11th annual Back to School Festival. She was scheduled to swim and take pictures with kids from 3 to 4 p.m., but Florida weather had other plans.
A small group waited by the fence surrounding the pool. Conti — with elaborate iridescent sequins around her eyes that help turn her into Eden — sat on the edge of the pool in her blue bathing suit and shimmied into her tail. It's thick, but the plastic is soft. It's a little like putting on a wet suit. The pool staff got a lightning alert around 3:10. The thunder started at 3:14.
"She's almost ready," a lifeguard gently explained to the children, "but she's not going to be able to swim until it stops thundering."
Eden smiled to them, the tip of her tail in the water. She wants to swim in the pool and take pictures with them because it makes them happy. That's it, really. Because it makes them happy.
She knows what it's like when things aren't so happy. About seven years ago, she had a brain tumor. She lost the use of her legs and had to learn how to walk again. She's a mermaid now because she wants to be, because life, she has found, is too short, too unpredictable to spend time worrying that your crazy hopes and dreams are too crazy.
But that day at the YMCA, the weather put a bit of a damper on that dream. The thunder continued and the lifeguards sent everyone back inside. Conti went back into the gymnasium with the treasure box.
As a few more children came over to dig through the gold coins, she talked about the real money she hopes to raise for kids. She has found another way to try to make them happy, through her new nonprofit Scales for Tails. She'll hold events, swim and raise money to fund hairpieces for children who have lost their hair because of cancer or other serious illnesses.
She also wants her 10-year-old son to learn to have big, crazy dreams, to know that as long as he's not hurting anybody, it's okay to be different.
"It's teaching him it's okay to just do good," she said, "to be a good person, to have fun and make believe, and be who you are."
Keeley Sheehan may be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2453.