An artist, a bartender and a Navy commander.
All women. All over the age of 50. All kicking ass in the Florida Keys. One overcame unimaginable hardship to lead others. One arrived bravely in the Keys, alone, with $10 to her name and no job. And one finds and spreads joy through art, while forever grieving the loss of a child.
These are their stories.
By Mandy Miles
With every sentence Valerie Littlefield uttered, my jaw dropped further and my eyes popped wider. Her calm tone and classy demeanor belied the contents of her conversation as she recalled a childhood of unimaginable hardship, but without seeking sympathy or showing a trace of self pity.
“My father was a pimp and a drug dealer. I used to think I had all these aunties coming to the house, but really, they were just hos bringing my mom money,” said Littlefield, who grew up — more quickly than any kid should — in Louisiana and Texas. “Then, when I was 5, my mom had left my dad, who had become a heroin addict, and my stepdad was a reign of terror who was arrested for being a pedophile when I was 13. I remember my mom taking the typewriter, sewing machine and TV to the pawn shop to bail him out of jail. Then she told my sister and I that we needed to find someplace else to live because there wouldn’t be any girls living in the house with them.”
Valerie lived in a refrigerator box under a bridge, then entered the foster care system. “I went to school so I could eat,” she said.
It’s also where two people gave the often-suicidal teen a reason to live. A kindly lunch lady gave her extra servings, and a compassionate janitor let her into the school building early in the morning.
“I’d steal soap from the school and clean up in the bathroom,” she said. “The lunch lady would smile at me with a motherly smile. You never know how the little things you do for someone will change their life.
“As humans we are very resilient,” she said. “I was a throwaway baby and became a commander in the Navy. Every place I was stationed, I would find a place to volunteer, often in the mental health field. I also became a foster parent.”
While in the military, Valerie earned a bachelor’s, then a master’s degree in nursing, and then an executive MBA.
Her last duty station before retiring was in Key West, where she headed up the Naval Branch Health Clinic on South Roosevelt Boulevard. But never one to slow down, she now serves as volunteer post commander for the VFW and American Legion Post 168 on Emma Street.
What piece of advice do you wish you could give your younger self? It is not about if he loves you, it is about whether he loves you the way you deserve to be loved.
What is your fondest memory? When my mother left her abusive husband (my stepfather). I remember feeling like I could breathe for the first time in my life (at that time). It was one month of heavenly bliss. Unfortunately, it was short-lived.
What shows are you currently watching? Not a regular television watcher. I guess I’ve been a bit of a nerd. I love history and documentaries. Thus, I watch a lot of Netflix and YouTube videos on real-life stories or documentaries.
What’s your secret to a lasting relationship? Most therapists will tell you about communication. But it starts before then with the selection. Therefore, I guess you can say it goes back to communication. You have to listen during those initial conversations to what is not said just as much as to what is said. During the ‘honeymoon phase’ of courtship we can easily mold the person into what we want by not paying attention to what is being communicated. So if you pick the wrong person to ‘hitch your wagon’ to, it will not matter how effectively you communicate if you guys are just not compatible. With that said my answer, I guess, is communication, verbal and nonverbal. Watch those nonverbs!
Which fashion trend/decade was your absolute favorite? Without question the 1970s.
What was in the last package you received? Tailor-made African dress.
What would be your theme song? Marlena Shaw’s “Women of the Ghetto.”
Robe or pajamas? Pajamas.
If you had to be a color, which would you choose? Royal Purple.
Soup or salad? Soup. Soup feels like a warm hug. Salad feels like a prospect.
Who would narrate your life story? Viola Davis.
Who was your first celebrity crush? Billy Dee Williams.
Do you talk to animals? Of course, don’t you? LOL.
Favorite lunch spot? Home on the patio.
What do you hope to be remembered for? Service to others and being inspiring.
How often do you cry? I cry about something at least once a quarter.
What was your first job and what year was that? Catfish Palace in Athens, Texas in 1984.
Where did you grow up? Dallas & Tyler, Texas with summers in Bunkie, Louisiana.
What was your favorite childhood pastime? Books. Reading is the greatest escape.
How many times have you been in love? Three.
What makes you smile? Smiling children.
Favorite smell? Early morning after a rain.
By Alex Rickert
When we first approached Florida Keys Steak & Lobster House bartender Sidney Owen about a Keys Woman profile, she was hesitant because she didn’t “fit the mold.” Little did she know that’s exactly why we wanted her on these pages: She embodies so much of the unique spirit that draws people from all over to our islands.
Since 2013, Owen has been a mainstay as the restaurant’s bar manager, recently transitioning to part-time work. She’s known and loved by so many all over the country – to the point that travelers visiting the Keys ask for her by name because simply meeting her is on their bucket list.
“I got here with $10 to my name, walked into the Cracked Conch Cafe and lied about being able to wait tables, and here I am today.” she told us.
We could fill 10 pages with the stories she told us about the years since, including roller skating from Marathon to Key West in 2001 to raise scholarship funds for Marathon students as she collected dollars per mile – and dollars per drink – and solo sailing her 26-foot antique wooden sailboat to the Bahamas. Though we can’t officially confirm this, everyone’s favorite tree Fred has hinted that Owen is even one of the elves who help to decorate him each Christmas.
Who has your longest friendship been with? I would say my success on this planet is based on the friends that I have. I’ve had them for so long it’s hard to pick out one. I have a friend, Pamela Krohn, who’s a part of our tribe of at least 35 people that go to different festivals and camp, but she’s the person I text every day.
What piece of advice do you wish you could give your younger self? Don’t sell that first house you bought, because it’s worth about $800,000 more than what you sold it for.
What is your fondest memory? As a kid, I played the accordion. When I would stay with my grandparents in northern Ontario, they would march behind me as I played English sea shanties, and we’d go visit their friends and stand on their porch and play music.
What shows are you currently watching? I watch anything that has to do with Star Wars & Star Trek. I’m a big fan of Pedro Pascal’s, so I’m watching “The Last of Us,” and I hate zombie movies. He wouldn’t even have to take off his helmet, if you know what I mean.
What do you think is the secret to a lasting relationship? First off, you have to be lucky enough to find that person, and wake up every morning and look and say, “Am I ever fortunate to have found this wonderful person.” I unfortunately have not, I’ve found 100 others that I had to ditch. But I haven’t given up hope, and I’m not jaded. You just can’t be with the right person if you’re with the wrong one.
What fashion trend or decade was your absolute favorite? The ’60s were fabulous. They were about social change and mind-bending things, and I bent my mind considerably.
What was in the last package you received at your house? Supplies for the bar.
What would be your theme song? “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell. It’s just fun to sing that one.
Robe or pajamas? I sleep naked.
If you had to be a color, which one would you choose? Olive green.
Soup or salad? Salad.
Who would narrate your life story? Meryl Streep.
Who was your first celebrity crush? John Lennon.
Do you talk to animals? All the time.
What’s your favorite lunch spot? (Other than Steak & Lobster, of course) The Island Fish Company.
What do you hope to be remembered for? Being a good friend.
What was your first job ever? From the time I was 8 years old, I worked for my father. He was a real estate broker, and he would take me to a clothing store and dress me up for two weeks’ worth of secretarial work every summer. I could type an offer to purchase, I could file all of the MLS listings and answered the phone.
Where did you grow up? Toronto.
What was your favorite childhood pastime? Every sport.
How many times have you been in love? At least 100.
What makes you smile? Seeing little kids play a musical instrument, or seeing someone doing something nice for somebody.
What’s your favorite smell? Lavender. My mother and grandmother were freaks for lavender, so it reminds me of them.
By Kellie Butler Farrell
Artist Jacqueline Campa calls herself a visual storyteller and colorist.
Colleagues and collectors describe the 75-year-old Key Largo resident as a trendsetter and risk-taker, someone not afraid to experiment, whether with acrylics or watercolors.
“Jackie is one of the most prolific artists I think I’ve ever known. She is constantly trying new things. It’s inspiring to me,” said Key Largo Art Gallery co-owner Tere Kelley. “Everything she brings in has some sort of story and whimsy to it and it makes you happy. It makes you smile.”
Campa’s vibrant artwork has been on display at Kelley’s art gallery, located on the bayside at MM 103, since the studio opened its doors in 2005.
All of the paintings portray a certain degree of playfulness; many are expressive paintings of women. “I seem to have a thing with mermaids and women’s faces lately,” Campa said.
She believes her interest in painting women dates back to her childhood, growing up in a house with a single mother and a sister.
“As a girl, I enjoyed drawing women because I didn’t grow up in a household with men,” she explained.
Many of Campa’s colorful paintings are inspired by her extensive travels through the Caribbean. Case in point: one she fondly named “Tutti Frutti.”
“’Tutti Frutti’ is just an island girl with a cute little thing on her head; I just thought she was funny,” said Campa of the vivid painting of a woman wearing fruit and flowers on her head.
Campa grew up in Tennessee and became interested in painting while attending Middle Tennessee State University. She moved to Key Largo 25 years ago after spending seven years living on a boat with her husband, Paul, a certified public accountant.
“He has one side of the brain and I have the other,” joked Campa.
Once in the Keys, Campa joined the Art Guild of the Purple Isles and quickly came to know other local artists. About six years ago, she began sharing her talents at weekly free art workshops inside the Key Largo library.
“I want to keep painting as long as I can contribute and make art that’s important and enjoyable for other people,” said Campa.
Key Largo resident Deb Riolo is one of her students and biggest fans.
“I fell in love with the vibrant colors. I fell in love with how it made you feel alive,” said Riolo, who has bought five of Campa’s pieces. The most recent purchase was one Campa titled “The Queen,” inspired by the late Queen Elizabeth II.
“She was such a strong and gracious lady. She sure did love colors and wore them beautifully,” said Campa of her fondness for the late British monarch.
Besides being vivid and vivacious, Riolo also loves the fact that all of Campa’s pieces are one-of-a-kind. “She doesn’t make prints of anything,” said Riolo. “Everything is an original.”
At any given time, Campa can be working on five or six paintings. She usually completes 10 to 15 pieces a month.
“There is nothing she won’t try,” said Kelley. “She’s always got something new on her plate.”
Campa does not take on commissioned work because she does not want to be boxed in. If she has an idea, she wants to be able to pursue it.
Art is not only a passion for the grandmother of three; painting with vibrant colors can also be therapeutic.
“I use art as therapy or my place to heal from whatever happens to me,” said Campa.
Today, Campa says, she is living a dream. The island lifestyle in Key Largo consisting of crystal clear waters, abundant nature and colorful people continue to inspire this artist.
“Many years ago, my dream would be that I could paint all I wanted to paint every day and I’m getting to do that,” said Campa with a smile. “How many people can say that? It is truly wonderful.”
Campa has some advice for artists who are starting out.
“I think you have to keep focused on just being honest with your art and try to be yourself and not be disappointed because you’re rejected. Maybe you haven’t found the correct audience for you,” she said.
Those wanting to check out Campa’s artwork can stop by the Key Largo Art Gallery, located at 103200 Overseas Hwy. She also teaches free art classes every Tuesday from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Key Largo library, 101485 Overseas Hwy. in the Tradewinds Shopping Plaza.
Who has your longest friendship been with? How often, if ever, do you fight or have heated moments? The longest friendship is with my husband. We have differences of opinion but don’t fight and respect each other.
What piece of advice do you wish you could give your younger self? My advice to my younger self would be gentle and enjoy all of the differences of your stages of life.
What is your fondest memory? My fondest memory is living on our boat the SandDollar.
What shows are you currently watching? TV shows aren’t my thing. I like to watch YouTube on art and listen to podcasts about art.
What’s your secret to a lasting relationship? Being sincere and caring how you treat others.
Which fashion trend/decade was your absolute favorite? Fashion trends of the ‘60s were cool. I loved hip huggers and halters.
What was in the last package you received? The last package I received was a motherboard for my dryer. My husband and I repaired the dryer.
What would be your theme song? “Three Little Birds Singing Don’t Worry,” about every little thing is going to be alright.
If you had to be a color, which would you choose? I love color and it is one of my focuses in my art. I could just be a tie dyed shirt of colors.
Soup or salad? I enjoy homemade soup in the cool weather and salad in the summer. So most of the time in the Keys it is salad.
Who would narrate your life story? My friends.
Who was your first celebrity crush? The Beatles.
Do you talk to animals? I talk to my dog, Daisy, and she loves to hear me tell her she is beautiful.
Favorite lunch spot? Shipwrecks.
What do you hope to be remembered for? Making art that brings joy to others and helping people when I can.
How often do you cry? I cry for the loss of my son. He was the light of my life. I miss him every day.
What was your first job and what year was that? My first job was in a shirt factory when I was 16. I worked there in the summer and it helped me realize I wanted to go to college and get my degree. I was very grateful for the job that helped me pay for my school.
Where did you grow up? I grew up in Bruceton, Tennessee.
What was your favorite childhood pastime? Swimming in the Blue Dip every day in the summer. My sister and I would ride our bikes to and from there everyday.
What makes you smile? When I see people enjoying making art, it makes me smile. I volunteer for our Key Largo library once a week to lead art activities.
Favorite smell? I love the smell of rain.