Instructor Bios

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Cheray Bixler started learning sign language at the age of seven, when her sister was born deaf. By the age of fourteen, she was interpreting at a special needs school for deaf students in upstate New York. When she entered high school, Cheray took American Sign Language as her language requirement for graduation. After moving to Alabama in 2004, she studied ASL at Bishop State Community College for four years and worked as an aide for the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Mobile. She has also worked as an interpreter in the Pensacola school system, with people who are both blind and deaf. Cheray sees a great need for people who can sign and learn ASL and believes this is especially important for professionals who may come in contact with the deaf.


Jerry Blacklaw  was born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a graduate of Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, and Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He received his Doctoral degree from Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta. Early in his career he was in youth ministry, before becoming a Contemporary Christian music artist, recording three albums of his own songs, performing around the country, and publishing over 25 songs. In 1985, Jerry was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and served for 28 years in churches in Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. He retired in 2013, and, two years later, published his first novel—Hot Coffee, Mississippi.

Cynthia Blacklaw is a graduate of Loyola University and received her Master’s degree from Troy State University. During her career, she worked in a variety of fields, including business and social services. For 20 years, she held a number of positions at the Children’s Home Society of Florida, serving as a Division Executive Director and, later, Vice President of Operations. Since retiring, Cynthia has continued in her long-held volunteer role as a Team Leader and reviewer for the Council on Accreditation of Services for Children and Families in New York City. 

Amanda Blackwood is a graduate of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, the publisher of and the co-founder of Creek House Media, a digital marketing service in Fairhope, who is fascinated by all things technology. Her background is in the newspaper business, where she has won awards for her editorial writing.

Anne Brooks earned a Bachelors of Interior Design degree from Auburn University and an M.A. degree in Art from Spring Hill College. She is a member of the American Society of Botanical Artists and the Watercolor and Graphics Society of Mobile. Her work has been exhibited in various venues in Demopolis, Mobile, Dauphin Island and the Eastern Shore. Anne has taught art at the Sybil Smith Family Village in Mobile and the Fairhope Artists Co-operative Gallery.

Billy Brown is a published author and motivational speaker as a result of being in Toastmasters, which helped to transform him from being uncertain and shy to a truly bold and confident individual with a positive message to share.

John Brown holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Marketing and Finance from Florida State University and is a Certified Financial Planner. In 1986, he founded Brown Financial Advisory, a fee-only financial planning/investment firm located in Fairhope. During his career, he served on a number of local and national professional boards, wrote financial columns for a local newspaper, presented financial and retirement planning seminars for employees of various companies, and taught financial classes for the University of South Alabama. Since selling his business in 2010 and retiring, he has served as a Certified Financial Mentor. After his retirement, Brown met author Mitch Anthony and read his book, The New Retirementality, about achieving a fulfilling, purposeful retirement. He found the work both inspirational and practical and is basing his course on its methodology for guiding anyone who is already retired or planning to retire soon.

Mike Bunn is the Director of Historic Blakeley State Park. He is author or co-author of a number of books, including Civil War Eufaula; Battle for the Southern Frontier: The Creek War and the War of 1812; and Images of America: The Lower Chattahoochee River. His book Alabama: From Territory to State is scheduled to be published by the University of Alabama Press in 2018. He is also co-author of Mississippi: 1798-1840, which is forthcoming from the University Press of Mississippi.

Christina Caprez  has been studying yoga since 1997 in Fairhope and around the country. One of the very first yoga instructors in the area, she started teaching at ESILL in 2000. Shortly thereafter, she began teaching at the Grand Hotel Spa. She also teaches at the Lakewood Club, taught at the University of South Alabama and the Eastern Shore Arts Center among other places. Christina is constantly learning new ways to strengthen the body by using the breath and releasing tense muscles. She firmly believes that a regular yoga practice will give you a deeper understanding of your body’s needs..

Loran Chavez-With a father in the Air Force, Chavez traveled extensively as a child. The zest for life she acquired with those experiences followed her into adulthood and has been a major influence on her artwork. She is a self-educated artist who works with a limited palette of non-fugitive colors, providing her work a crisp quality. Her style tends toward photorealism and is inspired by the world around her. She is now in her second series of "100 Paintings--100 Days" and maintains a blog about the paintings ( Chavez teaches for the Mobile Museum of Art's Art Blast summer program for children, the Daphne Art Center, Eastern Shore Art Center, Space 301, and the University of South Alabama Continuing Education program. She has run workshops in watercolor and oils/acrylics for groups from Dauphin Island to Ocean Springs, MS. Her work has been in several galleries on the coast, including Cathedral Square Gallery and Fairhope Connections.

Barb Comstock comes from a green thumb family: her father was a research geneticist with the USDA and her mother was a florist. Along with her husband Peter, she raised her three children on an apple orchard and small crop farm in Minnesota. While her degrees are animal oriented, and her career was in human resources, when they moved here six years ago, she fully embraced the “gardeners paradise” of gardening in the South. Her specialties are tropical and sub tropical plants and propagation. She is a Baldwin County Master Gardener and on their Speakers Bureau.

Carl Couret, a retired fish and wildlife biologist who worked in Hawaii, New Mexico, Alabama, and Florida, has been a resident of Mobile Bay’s Eastern Shore for over 30 years.  Although he played woodwind instruments in the school band while growing up in New Orleans, it wasn’t until 2010 that he became interested in playing music again, bought his first ukulele at a flea market, and took an Introduction to Ukulele course with ESILL.  He has been playing ukulele since then with local folk music groups and clubs at various venues in Fairhope, Pensacola, Albuquerque, and Hawaii.  Carl is a longtime member and “luna” of the Eastern Shore Ukulele Club (on Facebook), which has open, informal jams most Mondays at the Unitarian Fellowship in Fairhope.

Margaret Davis  Davis is a retired professor from Spring Hill College where she taught courses in Latino/a-American literature and American literature of all genres.

Dee Donaldson grew up in Pensacola and graduated from the University of Louisville in Kentucky. She taught art in Pensacola as a county adult education instructor and at Pensacola State College. At Louisiana State University, she taught creative wall art and also worked on a local television show demonstrating a variety of painting techniques. Since moving to Fairhope, she has given private art classes and has her own work hanging in galleries and businesses throughout Baldwin county. Although Dee's first love continues to be canvas painting, she is fascinated by the manipulation of color and paint involved in the art of faux finishes.

Rhett Ellis is a graduate of The University of Mobile (B.A.) and the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv). He has worked as both a Southern Baptist pastor and Unitarian Universalist minister and taught philosophy at Alabama Southern Community college.

Emma Rose Fry, has been a demonstrator for Stampin Up! more than five years. During that time, she has taught many classes in how to make greeting cards by hand and enjoys the process of making a beautiful card and personalizing it with a heartfelt note. She particularly loves helping others learn the pleasures they can derive both from making their own cards and from discovering how much others delight in receiving handcrafted cards.

Lal Goel is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and International Studies at the University of West Florida. An author and lecturer on world religions, he was raised in India’s northern state of Punjab and educated both in India and the U.S.

Michael Healy's lifelong personal and professional interest in plants began with plant tending at an early age, and, by the time his formal education was complete, he had three degrees in plant science. His first job after graduate school was in the R&D division of a large agrochemical corporation, and from there he migrated to smaller and smaller companies. In 1973, he began a part-time business that became full-time self-employment two years later. He has been self-employed for the majority of his career and has also taught plant science courses at both the community college and university levels. 

John Helmstadter has been sailing for over 60 years, owning and sailing several types of small sailboats: Snipe, Sunfish, Thistle, Lightning, Butterfly, Catalina 22, and an S2-6.7. He has been active in a number of yacht clubs, most recently including the Fairhope Yacht Club, where he is in charge of the Adult Sailing Program, and scorekeeper of Sunday and Thursday night races. He says, “Sailing has been a very important and exciting part of my life, and I enjoy sharing my experiences with others.”

Art Holder, Vice President of the ESILL Board, has a B.A. in Education and a Master’s in Psychology from third rate institutions.  He has been a laborer, paperboy, gas station attendant (back when they actually washed your windshield), Peace Corps volunteer and a member of the FBI. 

Brenda Huchingson holds a Ph.D. degree in English literature.  She taught college English for over 30 years at Tulane University, the University of South Carolina, and Hampton University in Virginia.  Brenda is the ESILL Registrar.

Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan is the Interim Rabbi of the Springhill Avenue Temple in Mobile,  His rabbinic ordination is from Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem.  He also holds a Ph.D. in American Jewish History from Tel Aviv University. From 2001-2011, he led Temple B'nai Israel in Albany, Georgia, and from 2011-2015 he was the Rabbi of the United Congregation of Israelites in Kingston, Jamaica.  Rabbi Kaplan is the author of The New Reform Judiasm; Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal; The Cambridge Companion to American Judaism; American Reform Judaism: An Introduction; Platforms and Prayer Books; and Contemporary Debates in American Reform Judaism.

Rebecca LaNasa has been a fitness instructor at the Whitney Laboratories at the University of Florida Center in Palm Coast, Florida, for seven years. She is a licensed Fitness Instructor and member of the Zumba Instructor Network; is certified as a Group Fitness Instructor; and is a member of the Aerobic and Fitness Association of America. She holds a CPR Certification through the American Red Cross and has recently completed the AFAA specialty workshops “Golden Hearts Senior Fitness Training” and “Exercise Design for Seniors.” 

Donna Lewis has worked in the Family History Library at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints for more than 10 years, and she has been active in doing family history for over 50 years. She has successfully found and documented over 2,000 family members going back over 15 generations and 350 years. She loves sharing her passion with others and helping others learn how and why to do family history.

Robert R. Maldonado, PhD, BBHS, CEMP/I, CHTP is a Certified Energy Medicine Practitioner/Instructor, Reiki Master Teacher, Barbara Brennan Healing Science Practitioner, Shamanic practitioner, Certified Healing Touch Practitioner, and teacher of Chinese Integral Qigong and Tai Chi. He has also completed additional studies in Bert Hellinger’s core constellations; mediumship and crystal healing. Robert is a retired military officer and teacher dedicated to helping people discover their innate abilities and their potential to heal themselves and find their true purpose in life. He is the author of The Calling of the Heart: A Journey in Self-Healing describing his spiritual journey as a healer and international travels with Energy Medicine Partnerships. Additionally, he is the author of “My Maori Experience: New Zealand2007”; “A Spiritual Journey to the Sacred Land of Mystical Peru”; and, “A Healers Journey: My Return for the Deactivation of the 20th Special Operations Squadron and the Retirement of the United States Air Force MH-53M Pave Low Helicopter.” His hobbies include traveling, Qigong, writing, reading, pastel painting, triathlons, and walking his dog Buddy.
Frank Martin is a native of Alabama who learned French as a teenager from a French war bride living in his home town. Because she was the daughter of a French university professor and had a classical education herself, she insisted that her student pronounce the language correctly. Martin took French literature courses at Vanderbilt University and, throughout his professional life, kept reading French and speaking it when he had the opportunity. After his retirement, he spent summers in Paris, Tours, and Montpellier and, as a result, has learned to speak the language in the informal way of native French speakers.

Mary Gorton McBride received a doctorate in English literature from LSU and was a professor of English/administrator for more than 35 years in Louisiana and Florida. She loved Emily Dickinson's poetry from elementary school, but when she began a serious study of the poems a few years ago, she realized that most of what she had learned about Dickinson’s life and work in graduate courses in the 1960s was outdated by the work of the scholars and critics of the 21st century. This brief seminar will bring the new scholarship to our reading of our greatest American poet.

Susan Morgan is an award-winning quilter and member of Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA), the Modern Quilt Guild, the Azalea City Art Quilters, and the Azalea City Quilters' Guild. She has had quilts exhibited in numerous national, regional, and local shows, and her work has been featured in several publications. She lives in Mobile where she is very active with the art quilters, and loves helping others develop their own creativity.

Fred Nation, who lives in Daphne, is a field botanist and environmental consultant and is certified in herbicide application. He has documented and photographed the wildflowers and native plants of South Alabama for 20 years. Nation teaches for the Baldwin and Mobile County Master Gardener intern classes; has offered courses for ESILL; conducts regular classes on habitats and ecosystems for the Friends Groups at Weeks Bay Reserve; and has conducted numerous workshops and seminars on native and invasive exotic plants for national and state groups. Currently, he is a member of the Baldwin County Forestry Planning Committee. Nation has nominated or co-nominated more than 20 Alabama State Champion Trees and is the author of Where the Wild Illicium Grows: Historic and Medicinal Plants of the Central Gulf Coast.

Growing up bilingual, Jeanine "Dr. Jazz"Normand earned several M.A. degrees, including in both French and English. While teaching in university, she also became ABD in French literature, language, and history, and was awarded the honorary PhD in French. She has lived in France twice and taught French one summer at the Sorbonne in Paris. She is an international business consultant and a concert jazz pianist now living in Fairhope.

Billie Reinhart, at the age of 17, was drawn to the spiritual, non-competitive, and pain relieving aspects of yoga.  A Hatha certified instructor, Billie has been studying Anusara since 2006, the same year she began teaching yoga. She is certified with Yoga Alliance, ACE and AFAA. Her special interest in therapeutics and anatomy led her to study Thai Yoga Bodywork in 2010. Her style is also influenced by her personal Anusara, Acro-yoga, and partner yoga practice.  When she's not in class, she's sewing, camping, getting ready for her next concert or music festival, or in a lounging lawn chair with her feet in the creek. 

Michael K. Renalds received his undergraduate degree in International Studies from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and an M.A. degree in International Studies from the University of South Carolina.  His academic interests include comparative politics and the politics and international relations of East Asia, particularly those of China and Taiwan.  He is a frequent visitor to Taiwan, where he has lived, worked, and studied Chinese language.  Mr. Renalds is currently an instructor and curriculum developer at the International Language Institute in Washington, D.C.

Tony Rhodes- graduated from Florida State University with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering and has done graduate work at the University of Tennessee. He served as a Naval Aviator for 21 years, with tours at Top Gun, CIA, and Air Force Exchange in Europe, and flew four cruises, including a combat tour in 1972 over North Vietnam. After retiring, he served in the Federal Aviation Agency as an Automation and Safety Engineer and as an Air Traffic Controller. Since 2010, he has taught lifelong learning courses at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Charles Scovil graduated with a degree in geology from Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA, and was Curator of Stamford Observatory in Connecticut for 50 years. He has taught astronomy at both the grade-school and adult levels. His hobbies are astronomy, archaeology, and photography.

Gene Sellier is a founder of a computer company that developed hardware and software solutions for small business systems. After selling his computer business, Gene managed the largest independent camera store in St. Louis for almost two years before retiring. He is a photography enthusiast and former ESILL board member.

Jane Sellier is a teaching artist who believes in the freedom and fun art can provide.  Her philosophy is to “have fun, be experimental and share it with others.”  Painting in soft pastels, watercolors, oils and acrylics, she enjoys switching mediums because each one stays new, fresh and exciting.  She continues to take classes and workshops and says, “If I’m not teaching, I’m taking a course.  Art is a never-ending learning process and so much can be learned from other artists.” Jane has won awards that include ribbons, cash prizes and best of show.  Her paintings are in private and corporate collections both in the United States and in Canada.  Her work has been published in The Artist’s Magazine and Artist’s Sketchbook Magazine.  Jane’s paintings can be seen at Eastern Shore Art Center.

Rabbi Steven Silberman: Before he received his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Rabbi Steven Silberman received a B.S. degree in psychology from UCLA, pursued rabbinical studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and studied in Jerusalem at the Neve Schechter campus. He has lived with his wife and their four children in Mobile for the past 25 years. Rabbi Silberman values family time and the opportunity of learning and spiritual growth, and he appreciates the significance of sharing special life moments and ordinary time with his synagogue members (Cong. Ahavas Chesed) and members of the local community. He is active in Jewish-Christian Dialogue and five years ago was asked to help start the Muslim/Jewish/Christian Trialogue. He also writes occasional newspaper columns and teaches in various communal settings. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, music, and traveling with his family.

Jere Trigg, a resident of Spanish Fort for 33 years, was born in Mobile and graduated in 1975 from the University of Alabama with a degree in Chemical Engineering. Until his retirement in 2009, he worked for the UOP Molecular Sieve Manufacturing Plant in a number of positions, most recently as the Health, Safety, and Environmental Manager. Trigg became interested in growing African violets when he was given a plant 40 years ago, and he quickly developed an appreciation for their beauty and ease of culture. Since his retirement, he has been experimenting with African Violet hybridization and has produced hundreds of seedlings from his cross pollinations. As a member of the African Violet Society of American and the Baldwin County Master Gardeners, he volunteers for the Master Gardeners Speakers Bureau and has given presentations on African Violets to numerous area garden clubs. His goal when speaking about violets is to create interest in this rewarding hobby and to encourage others to give it a try.

Eleonore Verfaillie ,a native of France, will be teaching the course, French Cultural History from Lascaux to Lady Liberty, with Jeanine Normand. Additional biographical information will be posted shortly. .

Susie Weiss has spoken at conferences, both on a local and national level, and attributes Toastmasters with helping her polish her speaking abilities to better connect with her audiences.  Public speaking is a skill she uses as an inspirational speaker, a natural health advocate, and a mentor.  She is passionate about living and sharing the principles of a natural lifestyle, using the plants and natural resources given to us by our creator, and has a business that sells natural oils.

Maria Whatley, who moved to Fairhope in 2010 with her husband and two children, is a native Spanish speaker from Loja, Ecuador. She holds a B.A. degree in Linguistics from the Central University of Ecuador and an M.A. degree in Spanish Literature from the University of South Carolina. Maria has taught basic, intermediate, and advanced Spanish, as well as literature courses, at Samford University, Montgomery College, and the University of South Carolina.

Karen Rhea White is a Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM) and Master Gardener. She has a flair for entertaining her listeners and for mentoring others to success.!

Vincentine Williams is an accomplished pianist and the teacher of approximately 35 piano students, many of them gifted.   She belongs to six professional organizations and chairs three local music events for students.  Much in demand as a musical adjudicator of student performances, she has studied in France and holds music degrees from Tulane University and the University of Southern Mississippi.  In 2008 she was the recipient of the Alabama Music Teacher of the Year Award.  Since 1982 she has been the organist and choirmaster at Ascension Lutheran Church in Daphne, and as our longest serving ESILL instructor, since 1980, we couldn’t do without her!


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