Saturday, September 29, 2018

Dry Tortugas Camping

So last winter, Michael and I decided that if I ever had to have surgery for the tumor around my optic nerve, that before surgery, we would take a trip together as a couple and then a trip as a family somewhere. Just to have some good family time before a major surgery. We just didn't realize that when I went in for an appointment with the neurosurgeon, that they would want to do the craniotomy less than a week later, so we had no time to plan for anything. So, Michael told me that after surgery, being laid up for 6-8 weeks, I could spend time planning for a little getaway for our anniversary for the two of us in August. As our first big anniversary trip celebrating 13 years of marriage and celebrating making it through some difficult years and a major surgery. Originally, we planned to go to Sanibel Island, which is just an hour away, but due to the horrible red tide issues this year, I had to change our plans and began researching other areas to "get away", but were still in Florida. That's when I found Dry Tortugas. After a lot of research and google-ing, we made our plans and went and had the absolute best time of our lives! It's something I won't hesitate to recommend to anyone and because of our experience, many others have had so many questions and are asking for tips and advice, so I figured it'd be best to just write a blog post about our experience! Here we go!

What are the Dry Tortugas? The Dry Tortugas are a small group of islands, located in the Gulf of Mexico at the end of the Florida Keys, United States, about 67 miles west of Key West, and 37 miles west of the Marquesas Keys, the closest islands. Many people don't know that it even exists - I didn't!

There are two ways to get there: a ferry or by sea plane. Neither are cheap, but taking the ferry is definitely the most inexpensive option. It cost us $185 per person for the ferry ticket, plus $15 fee for the National Park. But - that also includes breakfast, lunch, a tour of the fort, and snorkel gear. So overall, it's not too bad. The ferry takes about 2-2.5 hours to get to the Fort Jefferson Dry Tortugas National Park and you get to spend about 4-5 hours there on an entire secluded beach that also has Fort Jefferson - a fort that was used during the Civil War era. It has remarkable history! You leave the island around 2:30-3:00.

So, while you can certainly take a day trip there and enjoy several hours on a secluded beach with about 150 other day trippers, we opted for something else... Camping! It cost just an extra $15/night to camp. We figured, if we've already paid all that to get there, why not pay another $30 to stay for 2 nights? And we are SO glad we did! Once the day trippers leave - you end up being just one/two of 10+ people on the island. The first night, we were there with 10 other campers. The second night we were there with 7 other campers. It's cool to go to a secluded island that you have to share with only 150 people, but it's even cooler to stay overnight on an island with a very small amount of other people!

So... How does it all work? What tips do we have? I'm so glad you asked!

To book, I suggest doing it WAY in advance. They book up quickly, sometimes months in advance, depending on the time of year you want to camp! We camped in September, which is a slower month. They only have 10 campsites, so they will only allow 10 groups of campers, which is why it gets booked up quickly. To book, call Yankee Freedom, which is the ferry you would be riding on. Their number is: 1-800-634-0939 .

Now, keep in mind... When you're camping at the Dry Tortugas... It is PRIMITIVE camping. There are no showers. There are composting toilets, but that's it. You have to bring your own food, your own water (for cooking and cleaning and drinking!), and all your camp gear. The campsites provide a picnic table and a charcoal grill. You have to bring your own charcoal (Propane containers or any other form of liquid or gas fuels are not allowed. For safety reasons self-starting charcoal or Sterno cans are the only form of fuel allowed) for cooking.

Camping for 2 days when the highs are in the high 80's and lows in the low 80's leave you pretty stinky and sweaty... But being able to dip into the ocean to cool and "rinse off" helped a lot. The ferry comes back each day, in which you are allowed to get back on enjoy AC if you want, along with coffee. They also have fresh water showers that you're able to rinse off with - which we did each day. No soaps are allowed, but it's a good way to get some of the sticky salt water/sweat off.

If you camp, you MUST be at the Yankee Freedom boarding site in Key West by 6:00am. ALL your gear must be packed onto the ferry by 6:30am. It is SO helpful if all your gear is in STURDY plastic tote bins and hard coolers. We took 2 large plastic totes along with a duffle bag, 2 backpacks and a cooler. If we do it again, I'd put EVERYTHING into totes, instead of backpacks and totes. It's so much handier, and it's waterproof if it rains. We got a thunderstorm our first night, which was kinda scary hearing all the lightning and wondering how everything would hold up. But, we survived and everything ended up being fine and we didn't get struck by lightning! ;)

To get your gear onto the ferry and off the ferry and to the campsite, they provide large wheelbarrows in Key West and on the island that you can use to stick all your stuff in. It makes it super easy to haul your stuff!

Make sure that you have your nightly camping fees in exact cash to pay when you get to the island. When you first get to the island, they will release all day trippers and keep all the campers on the ferry to have a meeting with one of the park rangers. He will go over all the rules and answer any questions you may have. After that, they will release you to get all your gear, which will have already been unloaded onto the dock. Most people will go and get their gear first. Our recommendation is to go and claim a good campsite first. Then get your gear.  Like I said above, there are 10 campsites. We got a pretty good one that was secluded and tucked away under some trees. We thought this was great during the day. The downfall was at night, it was hot and we didn't have a lot of airflow. If you really need/want air flow at night, you might opt for a campsite more out in the open, especially where you'd get a good breeze. Below is a map of the island. I added an area in yellow and black that says "CAMPING AREA". These are where the campsites are. The part above the "AREA" would be the area where you'd get the nice sea breeze. Our campsite was right about where the "N" was.

After you get your campsite all set up and organized, now you can go and explore! Don't rush to go do anything. Honestly, we took our time setting up camp and then ate lunch there in our campsite and then ventured out. We swam and snorkeled for a bit and decided to wait to check out the Fort once everyone left. By about 2:30, we had the entire island to ourselves and went and explored the Fort. It's eerily cool to see and explore a HUGE civil war era fort and be the only ones in there. We learned so much history, which was super fun for Michael. He's a huge history buff and loves stuff like that. It was still pretty warm so we decided to snorkel a bit more before supper.  We saw so many beautiful fish and coral. The water is SO crystal clear even far out from the land.

For our gear, we brought a tent, an air mattress, 2 battery operated fans (which were a HUGE blessing in 83 degree nights in a tent with little air flow that we got at Walmart HERE. They worked okay for our little tent), cast iron skillet and cast iron dutch oven, camera, GoPro, water bottles, plasticware, and paper plates and bowls, mugs, sheet, blanket and two camp chairs. You don't have to bring your own snorkeling gear, as the ferry provides it for you and you can keep it until you leave the island!

For food, we brought a lot of different items. We brought things like bread and peanut butter, bananas, instant oatmeal packets, granola bars, hot chocolate mix, instant coffee and boxed meals like organic mac n cheese or canned soups. For our first dinner, I made burrito bowls made with boxed yellow rice, a can of black beans, a can of corn, taco seasoning, and then we topped with corn chips and also had tortillas that we could make burritos out of the mixture with.  It was delicious, filling, and super easy to make!

 And of course we brought stuff for s'mores... How can you camp without one of these??

At night it is SUPER important to make sure ALL food is locked up into the plastic totes and put on top of the picnic table. There are rats on the island that come out at night to look for food. We never saw any or had any issues, but some camp mates at a different camp site said they saw a few, but they looked like cute mice, not like the stereotypical giant rats... As long as your food is put up in the hard totes or coolers, you won't have any issues at all.

Make sure you're out on the beach or on top of the fort for the sunsets. They're beautiful and worth the time to just sit and unwind and relax while watching God's gorgeous creation.

One thing I HIGHLY recommend is to go walk at 3-4am and even grab a blanket and go lay on the helicopter pad and watch the stars. It is AMAZING!!!!! We actually slept there on our second night because it was so much cooler out there in the open. Did I mention that there are NO mosquitoes there? Living in Florida, mosquitoes this time of year or just horrible, so to be on an island and be able to enjoy beautiful views of the stars and not get eaten alive is worth all the money we spent! ;) (Be sure to bring flashlights, but you can only use red lights on the beach during certain times of the year because of turtle nests).

You haven't seen stars until you've seen stars here.... WOW!

You may be able to even see some amazing storms from a distance!

Oh, and don't be afraid when you get to your campsite and see a bunch of these:

 Hermit crabs galore! They are ALL over the island - so watch your feet when you walk, especially at night - we stepped on a couple and cracked their poor homes. :(

And while you're up, you might as well watch the sunrise...

The next morning, you'll still have plenty of time before the next wave of day trippers. We got a good snorkel in and walked around the fort again.

When all the day trippers got there, we went back to our campsite and sat and read for a bit, but as the temperature rose, we decided to find a cooler place. That's when we found a great area in the fort on the second floor where there was a great cross breeze. This became our "secret" place where we would get away and enjoy a cool breeze and we'd sit and read for a couple hours while enjoying the view and sounds of the ocean, while also not being in the sun constantly!

I mean, seriously... Does it get any better than this?

When it's time for your camping trip to end, it's important to have all your gear packed up and ready to go on the dock by 10am the day of your departure. With your ferry ticket, like I said before, you get a free breakfast and free lunch. I suggest you save the free lunch for the day of your departure. All your food will be packed up and stowed away on the ferry. Breakfast consists of fruit, yogurt, cereal, cheese, ham, hard boiled eggs, juice, etc. Lunch is sandwiches (lunch meats and cheeses, PBJ, tuna salad), macaroni salad, chips, fruit, veggies, cookies, and drinks.

By the third day, we were definitely ready for a nice bed, AC and a hot shower, but this trip was one of those things that we will never regret and never forget. I would definitely do it again and I would recommend anyone try it at LEAST for one night!!

For a camping checklist from the Yankee Freedom ferry, go HERE.
For other camping info, go HERE, HERE, and HERE

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

God uses all things for good...

I’ve often wondered why we’ve gone through so much. Why it seems like from the very beginning, we’ve been hit by medical problem after medical problem. 

Pre-eclampsia, cleft palate, Vesicoureteral reflux (kidney reflux), Grave’s disease, preterm labors (31 and 34 weeks), detached retinas, thyroid cancer (in two of us), tumors, broken bones, cardiomyopathy, just to name a few.

Surgeries (I think I’ve lost count. There’s been at least 15 in the last 5 years.) Biopsies. Tests. MRI’s. CT’s. X-rays. Radiation. Radioactive Iodine Treatments.  

Specialists. Too many to count! Cardiologists, pediatric infectious disease doctors, endocrinologist, pediatric endocrinologists, craniofacial teams, plastic surgeons, urologists, nephrologists, pediatric ophthalmologists, retinal specialists, neurosurgeons, oculoplastics ophthalmologists, neuro ophthalmologists, radiation oncologists, oncologists, ENT’s, etc. 

It seems that we just are always hit with one thing after another and I’ve been almost habitually asking God “WHY?” But yet I’ve never gotten an answer. I mean, I know He uses all things for good. I know He will take ALL these ashes and turn them into beauty. But how? What’s His plan? 

Through it all, our family’s relationship has drawn closer to Him and to each other. Was that His whole plan all along? 

Then He began to speak to me through recent situations and I began to see that He maybe is going to use us for something greater.

Let me introduce Peter. He’s our friend from Uganda. Peter runs a ministry called Kyampisi Children’s Ministry (KCM). KCM is a ministry that rescues and cares for children who have been sacrificed by witch doctors. This is a terrible thing that still happens today. Through Peter, we have learned of so many kids with mutilated genitals and bodies – sacrificed for wealth, health, fertility and other various things. It’s sickening! But KCM is doing an amazing thing by rescuing these children and helping them through the physical and emotional trauma they have been through. Many of the kids have to fly to Australia for life saving surgeries. Peter is there now with a little boy named Benson. Benson just underwent one surgery, where they had to take tissue from inside his mouth to recreate a new urethra. In two weeks after recovery from this surgery, they will do a reconstruction surgery as the witch doctors removed his entire penis. I know that is “taboo and personal” to talk about and many don’t want to hear or know about it. Well if that’s you, I’m sorry. But unfortunately this type of thing happens way too often and here we sit in America without any knowledge of it and quite honestly, I think we need to wake to the realities of what happens in this world. We sit in our quiet little corner of the world and feel like all is okay. It’s not. We need to wake up and do something. Of course we can’t help everyone, but we CAN help some!

Through Peter, we have “met” a sweet young lady named Gladys. 

Gladys is a 15 year old orphaned girl who lost both her parents to HIV when she was just 2-3 years old. She has been a part of KCM since. I was contacted by Peter who inquired about medical advice for Gladys’ neck. Peter had followed our journey with our daughter Ilana (who had thyroid cancer) and Gladys’ neck reminded him of Ilana’s. She had a large lump under her chin, similar to Ilana’s, but a little higher. This lump had been there for several years and had been continuing to get worse to the point of affecting her ability to swallow and breathe well. I suggested that an ultrasound should be done. During this time was when I was deep in the midst of my radiation and then later underwent my craniotomy and so I never followed up to find out how she was until February, which I regret waiting so long. Turned out, due to her orphan status and lack of funds in the ministry, no imaging or tests of any kind had been done, since the cost would be around 850,000 Uganda Shillings, equaling around 230 US dollars. 

Here in America, if there’s an urgent need, you go to the ER and you can get medical care whether you can afford it or not. In Uganda, they have to have the money ahead of time before anything can be done. Since she had no money, nothing could be checked. This broke our family’s hearts. Our kids said that wasn’t fair. And quite honestly, it’s not. How is it that we live in 2018 and there are still so many kids in the world who cannot get medical care? It’s something I’ve taken for granted many times… We have been so blessed by so many that have helped us with medical costs and so we felt it was necessary for us to pay it forward and we decided to pay for all the initial testing to be done.
She had a couple ultrasounds done, in which Peter forwarded us her reports. We forwarded them on to Ilana’s thyroid specialist. This is when we began to realize how God was using all that we’ve been through medical wise… I was able to read the report well (as this was NOT my first look at a neck ultrasound report. I've read and researched more about neck ultrasounds than most!). I was also able compare it with Ilana’s and I knew everything it talked about. Thankfully, her thyroid looked okay, but she does have a large growth above her thyroid, which doctors think is a thyroglossal cyst. They won’t know for sure until it is removed and they do pathology on it, but we are praying it’s only a cyst and not cancer. That said, she is in urgent need of surgery to have this removed so she can finally breathe and swallow without complications and to also verify that it’s not cancer. The costs will be roughly $3800. This will cover the surgery, the hospital fees, the labwork and pathology, the room fees, and post surgery care. 

We are hoping and praying that you would be willing to help ease the financial burden from Gladys. Will you come along side us and help?

If we are somehow able to raise even more than the surgery amount, any remaining funds will then be given to the next child on our list. Meet Moris. (isn't he just adorable?)

Moris is a 5 month old boy with 3 significant heart defects (dextrocardia, tricuspid atresia, and double outlet right ventricle) who is also in urgent need of a surgery. This surgery will not be able to be done in Uganda, because it will be a very complicated surgery (or maybe two). This surgery/surgeries is absolutely vital for Moris to live. Michael is looking into US visa requirements to see if it’s possible to get them to the US for surgery. We are also contacting the cardiologists we know and will start contacting hospitals to see if there are any that would be willing to do the surgery pro bono or at a significantly reduced rate. From what I've read, his heart condition is very serious and it's amazing he's lived so long without medical care.

You see? Through all of our medical issues, we have made contacts with doctors in various hospitals, we have learned lots of medical lingo, and we have learned how to fight for good medical care. Perhaps this is what we are meant to do? While we can’t help EVERY child in the world, we can help some and are determined to do so! Which is why we are starting to create RENU Ministries. 

RENU Ministries will be used to support children like Gladys and Moris. Unfortunately, creating a nonprofit takes awhile to get set up, but Gladys and Moris don’t have that time. So we hope and pray that despite it not being a nonprofit yet, and you’re unable to make it tax deductible, that you’ll still feel led to give. 

Like it says in Matthew 25:40, “Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’”

These children are so often overlooked or ignored. Isn’t it time for us to step up and help. Even just a little? 

Would you be willing to give up a Starbucks or fast food run and donate what you would have spent?

Or would you be willing to donate $15 in honor of Gladys’ age? Or $5 for Moris’s age (in months)?
Any and every amount will add up and no matter how big or small, it will help immensely! Every cent donated will be donated directly to Peter and Kyampisi Children’s Ministry to pay for Gladys and Moris’ surgeries. If you have any questions or want to help in any other ways, please feel free to email us at

As a “motivation”, so to speak, we are going to do a sort of raffle. With every $5 donated, you will receive an entry to a raffle. We at RENU Ranch will be raffling off several different items. Some of our kids are adamant about participating and doing things to earn money to help. They were wanting to sell their bikes, sell their animals, bake items, sew items, and such. Anything they could do, they wanted to try! Here’s a list of items we all came up with:

For anyone:

- A tshirt with a custom vinyl design of your choice

- A hand drawn portrait of your choice drawn by the talented Kaelyn Reese

- A custom wreath for your front door made by Ilana Nunez

- 3 custom headbands made by Lydia Reese

- $100 giftcard to Kallie & Co given by the amazing owner who has already donated hundreds of shoes to women in Uganda. This is an amazing, generous company!

For local supporters:

- A date night experience at RENU Ranch “Restaurant” – A completely homemade meal made by the women at RENU Ranch, served by the RENU kids, in an intimate, relaxing outdoor setting with light dinner music. 

- One dozen homemade cinnamon rolls

- One salted caramel apple pie with extra salted caramel sauce in a mason jar

- A custom pallet wood sign (your choice of wording and color)

- Two dozen homemade cookies of your choice made by Mikiyas Nuñez

To enter in the drawing, please email us at after your donation with how many entries and which prize you would like your entries submitted into. We will video the drawings on March 23 and will post the video and winners on the blog and my Facebook page. We will also contact the winners via email. 

Please follow THIS LINK to donate:

Monday, January 1, 2018

Even with Unanswered Prayer, God is still Good...

In two days I'll be undergoing a very serious and complicated surgery that, from the human standpoint, terrifies me. Not many people can go into any surgery without any fear, but a surgery where they have to open up your skull to remove or "make room"  for a tumor wrapped around your optic nerve? A craniotomy with tons of risks? It's scary.

Yet somehow, I'm not really worried about it. Somehow I feel pretty at peace. Initially I was in complete shock. I was unable to really speak and my body shook from the nervousness. As it sunk in, and we shared the news with family and then later with all our support and "family followers", I was covered with a complete peace. A peace that I knew could only come from Jesus...

As I began to speak about this peace to a friend, I was asked how in the world I could still have peace from the Lord when he didn't answer our prayer and how I could trust a God who doesn't answer prayer. It was an honest question and one that I've had to ponder for a couple days... 

So. How do you trust a God who doesn't answer your prayer? How can you still have a peace about a situation when you have no idea what the outcome may be? 

It's truly difficult to answer. We had hundreds if not thousands of people praying for me over the last few months. As I endured 6 weeks of daily radiation and the absolutely horrific and painful "rare" side effects from the steroids, people prayed for me. People prayed for my tumor to be shrunk or to disappear. I prayed this prayer. Our family prayed this prayer. When radiation was finally over and symptoms from prior to radiation began to reappear, we had people pray fervently that the swelling of the eye and the headaches returning were from the tumor shrinking or disappearing. When I underwent another MRI to show if radiation had done anything to the tumor, people prayed the tumor would be gone. I mean, again, HUNDREDS or THOUSANDS of people had been praying for the tumor to be gone. It had to be, right?!

So when we found out last week that the tumor was still there, and not just that, but that the tumor had not done a thing, we were obviously very disappointed. Along with the tumor not shrinking, we found out my vision had gotten worse, I had gotten more blind spots in my vision, my retina was damaged, my cornea was damaged and my optic nerve was even further compressed. We didn't realize how serious the situation was until we met with the neurosurgeon 2 days later, who said something like this can't wait and surgery needed to be done ASAP. We assumed we had a month or so. We didn't realize he meant 5 days later...

So... Back to unanswered prayer. Did God answer our prayer and our kids' prayer and the thousands of other prayers that were prayed on my behalf? No. He didn't. At least not in the way we had planned. My tumor hadn't shrunk. My pain hadn't gone away. The radiation didn't work. Is it disappointing? Yes! Is it frustrating? Absolutely? Was I angry? You bet...

But just because God didn't answer those prayers doesn't mean that he is not a God who listens. That he's not a God that doesn't answer us when we cry out to Him. You have NO idea how many prayers He DID answer while I underwent radiation. You see, while going through the radiation and my head being strapped to a table for 15 minutes everyday, I decided I'd spend that day in prayer. I fervently prayed that entire time every single day for all the prayers people asked me for over 6 weeks. It was a time I spent fully one on one, with no interruption with the Lord. I prayed fervently for friends, for people I didn't know, for health, for marriages, for finances, against difficult things like depression, divorce and cancer. I prayed and prayed and prayed. And you know what? I have gotten COUNTLESS responses near the end of my radiation where God answered the prayers. Where marriages were restored, cancers were gone, finances were suddenly better, and health problems were healed. There were times where I wasn't sure exactly what to pray, but prayed for what the Holy Spirit laid on my heart. And would find out the next day that that exact prayer was needed at that exact time. SO many times where God proved He was listening to my prayers. 

I'm sure some are wondering "Well why didn't He answer the prayers about you?" I really don't know. But what I DO know is that He IS a God who answers prayer (and sometimes His answer to that prayer is different than we hoped for). I DO know that He IS a God that cares for His children. Sometimes His answer to prayer takes time. While my tumor hasn't shrank yet, whose to say it won't shrink eventually?  How do we know that God doesn't have a better plan? How do we know that God doesn't plan to use this horrible tumor for something SO much greater than we ever imagined? While I AM disappointed that the tumor is not gone and I am sad that I have to undergo this surgery, I am most thankful to have that hope in Jesus and that no matter what the outcome may be, God is there with me. That God is good, despite the diagnosis. And for now, my prayer is that God will use this for something great. That He will use this for something so much better than we can even fathom or imagine. 

He hasn't shrunk the tumor, but do you know what He HAS done for us? He has given us the best support system ever. He has given us countless amounts of people who pray daily for us. He has answered our prayer for financial stability as we've been so blessed by countless amounts of people who have given to us financially which has allowed us to not worry so much about medical bills and travel bills. We found out that Michael will have to take off this entire week to be with me in the hospital. And because of all the health issues in our family, he has used all his sick and vacation days (which doesn't renew until July) and will have to take the week off unpaid. We were worried, but I said we would be okay and God would provide.  In just the last week since sharing the news of the upcoming surgery, we have been given almost the exact amount of Michael's paycheck. For 4-6 weeks, I will be unable to cook or clean or do much of anything. I was worried about how I'd be able to do it. But my sister and mom will be stepping up majorly to help and we've gotten a bunch of people on standby, ready to help with anything needed. Along with this, we are being blessed with giftcards for gas and giftcards for food for us after surgery because I can't do anything for 6 weeks. And in addition to that, my sister set up a mealtrain for us for every other day for 4 weeks and within 2 days it was filled.  Our church has rallied behind us and yesterday we had dozens of church members and elders surround me and my family to pray for us. It was amazing and I'm so absolutely grateful to have a church that has such huge prayer warriors!

We are so grateful to each of you who have supported us and are continuing to support us on this long and difficult journey. Thank you for showing us that even if the tumor hasn't shrank, God still is answering our prayers. Through each of you. Days when we can't pray, you're covering us. Days when we worry about finances or a bill, in comes a random donation. He has answered our prayers and given us such a huge support system and we are SO grateful...

Please continue to pray for us this week... Tonight Michael and I head to Miami and will stay in a hotel so we don't have to wake up super early where we're able to get one more good night's sleep and we can get one last date night, before all the chaos begins. Tomorrow I meet with the orbital surgeon and then in the afternoon I will be admitted to the hospital as they prepare me for surgery  Wednesday. I will be in the hospital until Sunday. Please pray that the surgery goes well. Please pray that the kids do okay with Mommy and Daddy being gone for so long. Please pray for them to be covered in a peace that surpasses all understanding. Please pray that God uses this situation and that He gets glory throughout it all!