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Published Jul. 2, 2010

What's been happening in Tampa? Gen. David Petraeus for one. Praise for Our Man in Afghanistan gushed from vocal locals at a check presentation last week at the original Outback Steakhouse on Henderson Boulevard. The president's pick to replace Gen. Stanley McChrystal met their approval, at least judging by the scene convened that night.

We were gathered for the conclusion of the restaurant's Thanks for Giving program: a $1 million donation to Operation Homefront. That stash of cash means the Texas-based nonprofit will pay for essentials - rent, food, car, clothing - for hundreds of hard-hit military families.

The million bucks came from a percentage of food sales in March, ordered off a special Red, White and Bloomin' menu. Some also came from T-shirt sales on Tim McGraw's Southern Voice Tour.

"People want to help, but don't know how," said U.S. Central Command Sgt. Maj. Marvin L. Hill, who accepted the giant check on behalf of Petraeus.

"Outback figured it out with your bling, bling and ching, ching."

OSI Restaurant Partners CEO Liz Smith returned the salute, adding that since 2002, the company's Operation Feeding Freedom has delivered steak, shrimp, calamari and more seven times to Middle East bases, feeding 137,000 troops.

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A book premiere on Bayshore Boulevard brought tears and laughter. For years, author Paula Stahel has taught a class she calls Pages of My Life - Writing Your Autobiography. In a typical eight-week session, she asks for three stories, usually childhood reminisces and sweet romances, which she critiques and edits.

Stahel said there's decent work in every group, but nothing she has ever wanted to publish. Until this past winter.

This particular class at the Life Enrichment Center on N Boulevard, said Stahel, expressed "powerful, raw emotions" unlike any she has encountered in a decade of teaching. Like Barbara Kennedy's memories of growing up in Japan and the African nation Eritrea. And Barbara Wolfe's year with the Ngombe tribe in Congo. Sally Baker relived a long trip with her teenage son.

Retired Hillsborough County sheriff's Maj. Walter "Bud" Fisher, who has taken Stahel's class four times, broke down and cried when he wrote about his partner's murder.

For the first time, Stahel selected two dozen stories and published them in an anthology, presenting each student with a copy at the launch party last month. Center director Ronna Metcalf tucked the rest away, to accompany grant applications to keep the program going. Says Metcalf, "the works should speak for themselves."

Stahel's next session starts Sept. 3.

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Nearly 100 supporters of the Akilah Institute for Women packed Malanie Knight's living room last week to hear CEO Elizabeth Davis deliver a report card in person. There was much to tell about the school she co-founded last year in Kigali, Rwanda.

The first semester ended, and 10 of the 50 girls immediately found jobs. They studied English, health, leadership and ethics in junior college-type classes, and will now follow a hospitality career track. Davis, who turns 26 on July 11, is developing the curriculum with guidance from Johnson & Wales University.

Knight kept the wine coming, fueling a lively brainstorming session. Harriet Plyler, Susan Steen and Peggy Davis (proud aunt of Elizabeth) agreed to head a committee to organize an Oct. 1 fundraiser, location to be announced, featuring two visiting Akilah students.

Davis returns to Rwanda to prepare for an accreditation review with the minister of education, one of the school's biggest cheerleaders. Visit to learn more.

Summer Breezes is an occasional column about interesting Tampa happenings. Amy Scherzer can be reached at (813) 226-3332.