Writing Portfolio

 About Sherry Beason-Schmitt

Sherry (formerly Sherry Brunson) has more than 10 years of experience as a newspaper reporter. She can condense often complex material and make it understandable to others. Below are a few writing samples. Others may be found through the Google search engine by entering Sherry Brunson The Apopka Chief.

Writing Samples

Apopka-area school principal survives stage 4 cancer 

By Sherry Brunson 

Printed in The Apopka Chief on July 12, 2013 


Oscar Aguirre, the principal of Lovell Elementary, has a very unusual story that has a very happy ending. 

Aguirre, 56, was born in Mexico then raised in Southern California. He wanted to be a teacher, even when he was a child. 

“I was the oldest of five children,” Aguirre said. “I used to teach my siblings and even would gather the neighbor children and teach them. I was a reading and math tutor in high school and right after high school got a part-time job as a teacher’s aide – and that is how I helped to pay my way through college.” 

Aguirre first attended a local community college and then transferred to California State University – Dominguez Hills, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree. After college, Aguirre taught both regular and special education classes for 16 years near Los Angeles. Then, in 1993, when his children were ages seven and eleven, Aguirre and his wife, Myrna, decided to move to Florida. 

“We felt it was now or never, since the children were young and would be able to easily start over in the schools here and that it would be a safer, calmer environment with fewer drugs and gangs for the children,” Aguirre said. “Orange County Public Schools hired me immediately.” 

After arriving, Myrna began her own interpreting business and Oscar taught at Tildenville Elementary in Winter Garden, was an assistant principal at Union Park Elementary and was a principal at Englewood Elementary. He has been principal at Lovell Elementary since 2006.

In 2009, Aguirre began sensing fullness in his ears. He went to an ear, nose and throat specialist, who treated the problem, but it didn’t get better. For a year, different treatments were used, and none worked. Then, in March 2010, his jaw, tongue and left cheek went numb. He returned to the ENT specialist, who decided to use a scope to determine the problem. 

“He used the scope and said, ‘Oops! It’s cancer.’” Aguirre said. “He then did a biopsy. When I found out, I called my wife to tell her, and then I went out to the car and took about two minutes in the car to cry. Then I told myself, ‘That’s enough. You won’t get anywhere by feeling sorry for yourself.’” 

Aguirre had the biopsy on Monday and on Thursday he was told he had stage four cancer. The problem was a tumor the size of a lemon in the nasal frontal area of his face between his eyes and nose. Roots of the tumor were beginning to move into the brain. Doctors said treatment needed to begin on the following Monday at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. 

“I asked him if I could take a week of vacation before I started treatment and he said, ‘You don’t have a week.’” 

Before he went into the hospital, Aguirre talked to his family. 

“If someone is going to die it will be me – not you,” he said. “I want you to continue your life as it is now – that will give me a lot of positive energy. Don’t die with me.” 

He gathered the teachers at the school and explained what was happening, but since it was near FCAT time, he asked that they just tell the children that he was on a vacation and that he would be back. Then he took a leave of absence.

Once at the hospital, the oncologist explained that, due to the nature of the tumor, treatment would need to be very aggressive. Aguirre asked what his chances were, but the doctor demurred saying he would rather not say. 

“I thought to myself, that if it there was just two-to-five percent of a chance I would be in that percentage that makes it,” Aguirre said. “I asked the doctor why I got cancer since I never smoked or did drugs, and the doctor said that because I did do so much right, my body was now strong and able to fight back. You have to be healthy to fight back, if not, your body is too frail to fight.” 

Aguirre’s aggressive treatment meant he received chemo 24 hours a day for seven days, and then went home to recuperate for three weeks before doing it all over again for three months in a row. He was assigned three doctors, an oncologist, a radiologist and a surgeon 

“The first week I was on chemo I thought, ‘What can I do to help the other patients,’ so I went around and visited with all the other patients on the floor. I figured they were going through the same thing I was and might need cheering up.” 

Aguirre listened to all kinds of music during this time and doctors would come into his room and find him dancing to the music on his iPod, and say, ‘What are you doing?” They were amazed with his attitude. 

One day Aguirre thought about how the nurses who administered the chemo therapy were completely covered from head to foot so they would not come in contact with the toxic chemicals. 

“Yet they were putting that same chemical into my blood,” Aguirre said. “I had to do something. I couldn’t just sit around so I started learning and reading. Before I was diagnosed, I knew nothing about cancer. I changed my diet and began to eat fruits and vegetables that were high in antioxidants to fight the cancer from the inside out.” 

Aguirre also began to walk an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening as well as dance for exercise. 

“The doctors were completely amazed at me because chemo didn’t knock me down,” he said. “I knew how dangerous chemo was, and I wanted it to do its job and get it out. I had no time for self-pity because I wanted to concentrate on living not dying. The battle for my life was the most important fight and given the diagnosis, I had no choice. I did what I had to do.” 

“I surrounded myself with the people who love me,” Aguirre said. “From the beginning I was very open to say what I was going through and it gave people the opportunity to be supportive. I welcomed prayers from everyone and would also connect with my Creator. I had people praying me from every religion you can imagine, in Spain and Brazil. I figure the more people prayed the more positive energy would be released. I believe in the power of prayer. 

After the chemo therapy, Aguirre was ordered to have 36-38 radiation treatments. His daughter, who lives in New York, arranged to come home once a month, and his son, who lives in nearby Orlando, was frequently at his side through the treatments. 

“The radiation treatments were very tough,” Aguirre said. “The doctors told me that the radiation would ‘kick my butt.’ They put stuff on your face that hardens into a mask so when they give the radiation treatment you can’t move – you are restricted completely. You feel like you are dying. There were sores in my mouth so I couldn’t eat or swallow. I cried a second time for just a minute during this time. I am not sure why. I kept pushing. I would call my parents in California and friends for support. Through the process, the doctors became my friends and they also gave emotional support.”

Aguirre got ‘chemo brain,’ which means there are times that you don’t know where you are or what you are doing there are lapses in your short-term memory. It took him a while to return to normal. 

“At the beginning, people would say something, and my brain was like a funnel,” he said. “I would hear them speak and it took a few minutes to process. That happens less and less now. I have to be on top of things in my job so I take a lot of notes. I did lose the use of my saliva glands, so I have to have liquid when I eat or speak, but that could return. My energy level is about 80 percent of what it was before the cancer.” 

While going through the radiation treatments, Aguirre decided to return to work. 

“The doctors asked me why I would return to work,” he said. “I told them that the children were my medicine. Every day I would wake up while it was dark and watch the sun rise and then be thankful that I had one more day. That moment connected me with life every day. I would listen to a song by Michael Bublé called ‘Home’ and think, ‘I want to go home back to my old life – I want my life back!’” 

After a year of treatment, doctors could not find a trace of cancer. 

“After the cancer was gone, the surgeon said, ‘Now I can tell you, I didn’t think you would make it.’ 

Then he hugged me,” Aguirre said. “They call me the ‘miracle man.’” 

Doctors at M.D. Anderson have asked Aguirre to speak to newly diagnosed cancer patient because of his encouraging story. He is on-call for patients that need encouragement. 

“If someone in your family doesn’t have cancer, you probably know someone who has it. I was given a second gift to share my survivor story,” he said. “I think God still has work for me to do. It is a gift that was given to me to help others. I had no connection before I had the cancer. It changes you. It’s a different world now – I am passionate about life now. Then, all I could say was that I was sorry. Now, I tell them you have to have a positive attitude and fight for your life. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my wife and family. It’s a scary trip and you can’t do it without your family being a positive support. My wife and I have been married 35 years and she really babied me that year.” 

August 9 will be Aguirre’s two-year anniversary of being cancer-free. 

“I have tests every three months and after five years with no cancer I will be officially cancer-free of this type of cancer,” he said. 

In light of his experience, he feels he also has a message that is applicable to everyone. 

“I would tell others, ‘Do all you can to enjoy those around you,” Aguirre said. “I would tell them to enjoy every day and to treat others with love and kindness. When I thought I was going to die, I wanted to be remembered for kindness. I hoped people would remember me as a nice guy.” 


Director: Crime doesn’t pay, but Crime Stoppers does 

By Sherry R. Brunson 

Published on Tuesday, January 28, 2014 - 10:58am on JasperCountySun.com 


Fear is a horrible thing. The Good Book says, "Fear hath torment." 

"People know who killed the man at the Day's Inn, but nobody wants to say anything because they are afraid of what will happen if they tell," said a county resident who asked not to be identified. But there is a way to do the right thing and not let anyone know who you are - and you'll get a reward for it. Crime Stoppers of the Low country is a totally anonymous way to tell the authorities who the bad guy is. 

"Anyone submitting a tip to Crime Stoppers never has to give a name," said Fred Bowie, director. Not even Crime Stoppers will know who you are. Rewards are paid in cash. No identification is required, and you don't sign anything.         

Bowie said when a tip is called in the person is given a code number. When they hear the person involved in the crime has been arrested, they call back to Crime Stoppers and give their code number. Crime Stoppers confirms with the arresting agency that the person was indeed arrested. At the next monthly 15-member Crime Stoppers of the Low country Board meeting, the board considers all factors of the crime, such as the nature of the crime solved, the number of arrests made, the number of cases solved, or the amount of drugs or guns seized or property recovered. Rewards range from a minimum of $100 up to $1,000. 

Once the amount is determined, a check is sent to a local bank. The only one who can cash the check is the person with the code number. When that person goes into the bank, they do not give any form of identification, their name or anything else that would give their identity away. The check is simply cashed with the code in the name of Crime Stoppers. The person walks out with the money and no one knows who they are. Emergency tips are immediately directed straight to the agencies by the call dispatcher.

"Crime Stoppers does not wait until a court convicts a criminal - just the arrest is all that's necessary," Bowie said. "We have not received much in the way of tips. We have had 15 tips over the last three years. "I think the low numbers reflect the lack of familiarity with the program. There are not enough police officers on the streets. Our society is highly dependent on the citizens in the neighborhoods in the fight against crime. It is the citizen who may have saw something or may have heard something that solves crime. "Pick up that phone and give a call if you know anything about a crime. It may be the missing piece of the puzzle that the police need. And you could earn a reward." 

Crime Stoppers said it is important that individuals not to confront or attempt to apprehend any fugitives or suspects. 

"If you have any information about a crime - even if you think the police already have the information - call Crime Stoppers." Tips may also be submitted at the Crime Stoppers website at 5541111.com or by texting to 274637. Bowie said Crime Stoppers goes through an incredible detailed process to make texts anonymous. In just 15 seconds, the text is sent to Texas, then to Canada, where it is stripped of all identifying information, then sent back to Texas and then back to Jasper County. The whole program depends keeping the person absolutely anonymous, because they know if they don't, people won't be able to trust them. "We wanted to make it more convenient for our younger people to give tips by offering text," Bowie said. "Text tips should begin with the letters CSL. If the operator needs more information, she can send back a text and they can text back and forth until either party types ‘stop,' then the connection is broken." 

Sometimes families offer larger awards. One family offered a $50,000 reward for information that would lead to the arrest of someone who killed their loved-one. Crime Stoppers also fronts the additional for the party that offers the reward. 

Jasper County Sheriff Gregory Jenkins said there are also numerous rewards attached to cases that have gone unclaimed. Crime Stoppers of the Low Country was founded in 1983. To date the organization has received almost 32,000 tips and has approved more than $327,000 in rewards. More than $2 million in stolen goods and drugs have been recovered as a result of the tips. 

"Crime doesn't pay - Crime Stoppers does," Bowie said. For more information, call 843-554-1111 or toll free 1-888-CRIMESC (1-888-274-6372), visit 5541111.com or text 274637. 


Lake Apopka suffers massive fish kill 

By Sherry Brunson

Published in The Apopka Chief on July 12, 2013 


Lake Apopka suffered a major fish kill in late June that resulted in the death of thousands of fish. 

“The fish kill left many floating fish of several species and many sizes,” said Dr. Jim Thomas, president of the Friends of Lake Apopka. “The Friends of Lake Apopka have continued to express concerns about the current conditions in the lake which can apparently only be improved by considerable rainfall. The fish kill is not related to water levels so much as the massive algae bloom. This had started before water levels began to rise. Algae cells use a lot of oxygen when there is no sunlight so they just depleted the oxygen in the water. The kills are not related to chemical toxicity. The real problem is oxygen deficiency brought about by low water levels and heavy algae blooms. Lake Apopka is large, about 31,000 acres, but the drainage basin surrounding the lake is fairly small. It takes a lot of rain to raise the levels and the area has experienced two years or more with lower than average rainfall.” 

Kevin Baxter, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, said up to thousands of fish were killed. 

“There were a variety of species that were killed, but they were primarily gizzard shad along with a few other species,” Baxter said. “There was a lot of rain and the conditions leading up to the fish kill were primarily responsible. Fish kills commonly occur in summer months because the water is warmer, and therefore it holds less oxygen. There is a lot of rain, so there is not as much photosynthesis, so the water plants don’t produce as much oxygen and also leaves and other items that are brought into the water from the rain decompose and use oxygen. We don’t believe the algae blooms were responsible for this fish kill, although algae blooms have been documented in the lake on an ongoing basis.” 

“When the volume of the water is decreased, levels of phosphorus, the major nutrient problem, are increased due to concentration,” Thomas said. “While no new phosphorous is being added following closing of the farms on the north shore the higher concentrations greatly increase algae production creating dense algae blooms. While green algae carries on photosynthesis when the sun is shining and creates oxygen in the water they also carry on respiration using oxygen. A cloudy day, such as we had that Thursday, causes depletion of oxygen because the masses of algal cells are using more oxygen than they produce and results in death of most species of fish. Some fish species, such as gar and shad, have greater tolerance of low oxygen but others such as bass and bream, are very susceptible.” 

The Friends of Lake Apopka have continued to advocate for keeping control structures at the lake outfall completely closed until there are average levels in the lake and enough water to flood the marshes being restored. 

“Lake Apopka is the headwater of the Harris Chain of lakes and there has always been some competition from downstream lake advocates for water volumes, with decisions in the past sometimes depending on politics rather than science,” Thomas said. “All we can do at this point is hope for enough rainfall to help in restoring the lake. With great plans for restoration of a healthy fishery in the lake and an ecotourism-based economy on the north shore marshes, it is an important issue.” 

Baxter said the FWC wants to monitor any fish kills in the state, and so they established a fish-kill hotline. 

“Residents can report fish kills in natural water bodies to the FWC at MyFWC.com/ FishKill or by calling the FWC Fish Kill Hotline at 800-636-0511,” Baxter said. “It is not necessary to report fish kills in man-made retention or private ponds to the FWC.” 


Gangs a concern for Jasper County law enforcement

By Sherry R. Brunson

Published byThe Savannah Morning News in December 2013


Four local gangs have the potential to bring violence and crime that is consistent with their national counterparts, according to the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Greg Jenkins has asked for community participation as officials work to identify gang members and curtail their activity.

“We have a gang problem and we would like the community to be able to identify gang ‘tagging,’ markings, language and colors,” Jenkins said. “Gangs have gone throughout various areas of Jasper County defacing buildings, state property, road signs — and even the heavy equipment of a logging company in southern Jasper County — with gang signs. A recent fight at the Ridgeland-Hardeeville High School was gang-related. Parents need to be aware.”

The October fight resulted in six juvenile and three adult-aged students given charges ranging from simple assault and disorderly conduct to assault by a mob.

Sgt. Christopher Long of the S.C. Corrections Department, a member of the S.C. Gang Investigators Association, spoke to the Ridgeland-Hardeeville Parent-Teacher-Student Association on Nov. 21.

“Gangs use graffiti to mark their territory, to brag about their reputation, mourn fallen members and threaten or challenge rival gangs,” Long said. “There is a full-out gang war right now in Columbia. We had four people killed in Columbia last weekend. Sumter is the third most violent city in the nation.”

Recruiting children

Long said leaders use extreme deception to lure children into gangs.

“If a kid has a single mother that is struggling to make ends meet, the gang leader may tell him that they can help him earn money by selling drugs to help support the family,” Long said. “If his mother’s boyfriend beats her, then the gang can offer to protect the mother.”

The S.C. Gang Investigators Association website says a gang often meets needs that go unfulfilled in other areas of a young person’s life. The gang may provide a sense of security, loyalty, structure and discipline that may be missing at home.

Long said parents should talk to their children about gangs and how to avoid them.

Parents also are advised to get to know their children’s friends and their parents, to set firm limits with their children and teens and to plan family time.

Jenkins said he has hired a new officer who has extensive gang-related training. He said representatives from the Jasper County School District are expected to join law enforcement personnel for special gang training in Columbia in February.

Let Sherry Beason-Schmitt (formerly Sherry Brunson) write for you!

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