Three South Florida teens win honors from Disney

A warm Friends and Neighbors salute to the three South Florida youngsters have been selected to participate in the Disney Dreamers Academy with television personality and comedian Steve Harvey and Essence Magazine. Out of 5,000 applicants, the students were among the 100 selected for the innovative, once-in-a-lifetime, outside-the-classroom educational and mentoring program at the Walt Disney World Resort. The program will take place March 7-10.

Those from South Florida are:

• Cesar Castillo of Miami, a 17-year-old, who describes himself as "an ambition driven [person] who strives to become a successful social entrepreneur." Castillo speaks English and Spanish, and attends Miami Springs High. He enjoys public speaking, attending government and business meetings and playing golf and the violin. He wants to attend Stanford University.

• Kalin Houston lives in Davie and attends St. Thomas Aquinas High School, where she is a junior. She also is a member of the National Honor Society, Chapter Teen Vice President, Jack and Jill Inc. and co-founder of ThinkBIG. She plays varsity basketball and is an all-American in track and field. Her dream is to become a perinatal specialist to help high risk women deliver healthy babies.

• Aisha Louis, 17, lives in Hollywood and attends Archbishop Curley Notre Dame Prep School in Miami. She is a member of the Knightingales Concert Choir, a cheerleader for the boy’s varsity basketball team, a Student Council representative and junior class president. Her passions include health, writing, and music. She wants to attend Columbia University to study to become an obstetrician -gynecologist.

Each student and a guardian will be provided with an all-expense paid trip to Walt Disney world Resort. The teens will participate in and learn skills such as communication techniques and networking strategies. They will also participate in workshops with professionals and celebrities.

Dade Heritage Trust honored at UF

Here’s more good news: Dade Heritage Trust has been honored with the prestigious Beinecke-Reeves Distinguished Achievement Award in Historic Preservation. The award was presented on Feb. 15, at a reception on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville.

The award was presented by Morris Hylton III, director of Historic Preservation for UF’s College of Design, Construction and Planning. He mentioned the many accomplishments of Dade Heritage Trust since its founding in 1972. He especially noted the Trust’s advocacy battles to save the Miami Circle, the Freedom Tower, the Miami Marine Stadium and the Miami Herald building.

In accepting the award, Becky Roper Matkov, CEO of Dade Heritage Trust said, "Preserving old buildings in development-obsessed Miami has been an exhilarating adventure... Buildings of the past tell the story of a community’s history in three dimensions."

Jewish, female and funny

"Real to Reel", a documentary film series sponsored by the Miami Beach JCC, is now in session through March 19, at various venues.

"Making Trouble," will be shown at 7 p.m. Monday and at 1 p.m. on Tuesday at the Miami Beach JCC.

The film tells the story of six of the greatest female comic performers of the last century — Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner and Wendy Wasserstein. The screening will be hosted by four of today's funniest — Judy Gold, Jackie Hoffman, Cory Kahaney and Jessica Kirson. The documentary tells what its like to be Jewish, female and funny.

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Modern Family Stars Get Stuck in Crowded Elevator

No good deed goes unpunished.

PICS: Candid Celeb Sightings

While on their way to a fundraiser for the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Kansas City on Friday night, three stars of ABC's hit sitcom Modern Family were trapped in a crowded elevator for almost an hour, ABC News reports.

Julie Bowen, Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson took pictures together during the ordeal, which Ferguson posted to his Twitter account.

"This is us right now. 45 minutes stuck in this elevator," Ferguson wrote, captioning the snapshot from the Sheraton Kansas City Hotel's third floor.

The actors were an hour late to the event after the Kansas City Fire Department rescued them, but they maintained a good sense of humor about their plight, reportedly joking about the ordeal on stage.

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Debt trumps savings

Forget deleveraging: Nearly half of all American families carry a credit-card debt load that exceeds their stash of emergency cash.

As 2013 unfolds, Americans are also feeling more insecure about their finances. Worries about job security, savings, debt and overall financial health are on the rise, according to new research by the personal finance website

In February, the company’s Financial Security Index slid further into the troubled territory below 100 (which signals deteriorating financial security), dipping to 96.8 from 98.6 in January.

“Despite all the talk about consumers paying down debt and boosting savings, very few people have moved the needle of one relative to the other,” said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at

Rainy-day funds aren’t the only area where Americans fall far short as savers. Squeezed by stagnant wages (which fell 3.2 percent in January, largely due to tax hikes), fallout from the housing crash, rising food prices and high unemployment, Americans are not socking away enough cash for retirement.

In a new survey from a group of organizations, including the Consumer Federation of America and the Employee Benefit Research Institute, less than half of the respondents who were not retired expect to have enough money saved to enjoy a desirable standard of living in retirement.

Lack of retirement savings is a ticking time bomb for both baby boomers and Generation Xers. Skimpy emergency savings and heavy debt loads, however, are already sending local families to bankruptcy court after a sudden financial shock.

That was the case for a Westchester family of four who recently turned to attorney Linda Tirelli for help. After 25 years of steady employment, the father lost his job in 2012.

The family turned to credit cards to pay its bills, expecting to repay the debt after the breadwinner found work again. He did get a new job, but at salary that was 20 percent less. The cut proved too severe for the family to climb out of debt without reorganizing in bankruptcy court.

Families must find ways to overcome the biggest hurdle to savings: the belief that it can’t be done, said Nancy Register, associate director at the Consumer Federation. She suggests tapping that coffee can full of spare change that many families keep. It can be hiding as much as $90 — enough to start a savings account.

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When the latest layoff story is about you

It’s an odd feeling reading in the newspaper about losing your job. I didn’t learn about being fired in the newspaper but the story of losing my position was there. Why I lost my job (along with more than a dozen of my colleagues) was the lead story in the business section of The Miami Herald on Feb. 22. It even had a picture of me right next to the paragraph describing how we lost our jobs with the public television program Nightly Business Report.

What’s nice about sharing your employment woes with the entire community is the outpouring of support you get. I received dozens of emails from friends, fans and colleagues across the country, expressing sympathy and pledging to help any way they could. It is humbling to hear how you have impacted people’s lives, especially those you don’t know directly. The range of emotions you feel when you face a job loss can be overwhelming, but a short email or voicemail from an associate can lift your spirits, giving you the strength to press on. The medium of the messages does not matter. A tweet of support, LinkedIn endorsement or text message of sympathy fuels the encouragement to face the anxiety of joblessness.

After news of my job elimination was in the newspaper and blogosphere, there were compassionate glances from fellow parents on the sidelines of the kids’ weekend soccer games. I didn’t have to break the news — most had already read about it. A pedestrian on the sidewalk stopped me in mid-stride to express his disappointment. The inevitable questions came: What are you going to do? Will you stay? Do you have anything you’re working on?

I am lucky my employment status was on the business front page. Thousands of other people are treated as statistics. As a business journalist, I have been guilty of that. Company layoffs numbering in the dozens as ours did rarely demand attention. The cuts have to be in the thousands to have any hope of getting much media attention. Even then, it’s only a number. The names of those losing their jobs are known only to their HR departments, in order to fill out the paperwork. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the nature of job loss. Each job cut is a story that begins en masse in boardrooms and offices but plays out individually in kitchens and living rooms across America.

In January, there were more than 1,300 mass layoffs of U.S. workers. A mass layoff impacts at least 50 people from a single company. More than 134,000 individuals were involved in such action, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. My job loss and that of my colleagues won’t show up in February’s report. There were too few of us. Some of us will appear in other employment data, but we will be just statistics. Each of those statistics has groceries to buy, bills to pay and hope for a new opportunity.

In a $16 trillion economy, it’s understandable that we become statistics. The stakes are just too big to pick up the noise from any of our individual unemployment stories. The weekly and government reports I have spent my career reporting on don’t ask why. They don’t ask who. They only ask how many. It’s our friends and family and colleagues who ask, “How can I help?”

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Attorney for dad of missing Hallandale Beach baby says evidence was damaged

The tiny bones recovered from a backyard grave have a story to tell: Are these the remains of Dontrell Melvin, a baby whose family didn’t report him missing for 18 months? And how was the baby killed?

According to notes in the Hallandale Beach police lead investigator’s file, there was blunt force trauma to the child’s cranium after his death, likely caused during the search and recovery of the skeleton.

And that, says attorney Ed Hoeg, who is representing the baby’s father, could have an impact on the case against his client.

“If evidence is compromised, it could change how the case goes,” Hoeg said. “You would hope the evidence would be in pristine condition.”

Meanwhile, the missing child’s parents remain in Broward County jails. Brittney Sierra, 21, faces two counts of felony child neglect; Calvin Melvin, 27, was charged with three felony counts of providing false information to police.

But those charges could be increased if a Texas lab confirms that DNA from a tiny skeleton unearthed in January behind the couple’s former Hallandale Beach rental home matches that of their baby, Dontrell Melvin.

Dontrell, who would have turned 2 last month, had not been seen for nearly 18 months before police learned of his disappearance on Jan 9.

At first, Melvin told Hallandale Beach police that the child was with his family in Pompano Beach. But when police went there, they were told by the grandparents that they didn’t have the child and hadn’t seen him.

During questioning by police, Melvin changed his story several times, investigators said.

At one point, he told them he’d taken the baby to a fire station under Florida’s Safe Haven Law.

But police didn’t believe him and began questioning Sierra, as well. The couple, who have another child together, pointed fingers at one another, police said.

Their answers led police to the backyard of their former rental home at 106 NW First Ave.

It was there that tiny bones were found.

Nearly 90 percent of the baby’s remains were recovered and reconstructed. An initial review of the bones did not reveal any trauma to the bones, said Hallandale Beach Police Chief Dwayne Flournoy.

However, on Jan. 25, forensic anthropologist Heather Walsh-Haney briefed investigators, including Flournoy, Maj. Thomas Honan and Capt. P. Abut, on the case. In his notes, a Hallandale Beach investigator, who was not identified, wrote: “Dr. Walsh-Haney stated that there were no signs of perimortem blunt trauma. However, there was evidence of a postmortem blunt trauma to the cranium. She stated that said postmortem trauma had probably occurred during the search and recovery of the skeleton.”

The notes were provided to The Miami Herald by Hoeg.

The damage to the cranium, Hoeg said, could prove problematic for the case against his client.

“If there is only trauma afterward, did the damage destroy evidence?” he said.

But on Friday, Police Chief Flournoy insisted there was not any damage caused post-mortem to the skeleton. “The bones were not compromised in any way,” said Flournoy.

Regardless, the Texas lab working to identify the baby’s remains has enough evidence to work with.

All a scientist needs is a small bone fragment to create a DNA profile, said John Fudenberg, the president-elect for International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners.

“Unless there is significant trauma noted, it’s very difficult for a medical examiner to determine the cause of death,” Fudenberg added.

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Ellen DeGeneres Pens Open Letter to Supreme Court to Pass Prop 8 for Gay Marriage

With a touch of her trademark humor, Ellen DeGeneres tackles a very serious topic close to the talk show host's heart: gay marriage.

In an open letter posted to her website, Ellen reaches out to members of the Supreme Court, who will soon decide the fate of same-sex couples who wish to wed.

Pics: 'Amazing Race' Stars Cheer Up Bullied Gay Fan

"Portia and I have been married for 4 years and they have been the happiest of my life," she blogs of her longtime partner Portia De Rossi. "And in those 4 years, I don't think we hurt anyone else's marriage. I asked all of my neighbors and they say they're fine."

Ellen, who tied the knot in 2008 during a brief period when gay marriage was legal in California, now urges the powers that be to open their heart and extend the privilege to every gay couple.

"I hope the Supreme Court will do the right thing, and let everyone enjoy the same rights," Ellen writes. "It's going to help keep families together. It's going to make kids feel better about who they are. And it is time."

Related: Neil Patrick Harris: I Knew I was Gay at 6

In closing the comedian writes, "In the words of Benjamin Franklin, 'We're here, we're queer, get over it.'"

Read Ellen's entire plea to the supreme court here.

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Business briefs

Bid for Kings

The NBA has received an official offer from 24 Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov and billionaire Ron Burkle to buy the Sacramento Kings and keep the team from moving to Seattle.

Fraud queen

A former Chicago lawyer, Donna Guerin, who participated in what authorities have called the largest tax fraud in history, has been sentenced in New York to eight years in prison.

Autos roll on

US auto sales in February were on track to show a fourth straight month of strong sales with new vehicle purchases on pace to come in around 15.3 million for the year, according to Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas.

Pay up boys!

Ernst & Young will pay $123 million to settle a tax-fraud probe as part of a non-prosecution agreement, according to the Manhattan US Attorney’s Office.

Still spending

The Commerce Department said consumer spending increased 0.2 percent in January as Americans spent more on utilities after a cold snap during the month.

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Jackson Health System -- in “the calm before the storm”

With the latest audit offering a new perspective, Jackson Health System’s long-troubled finances are looking better in some basic areas, but underlying problems linger and a precarious future lies ahead.

After losing $419 million over three years, Jackson eked out an $8.2 million surplus in its fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, according to the audit released earlier this month, and its most recent monthly report, for January, showed a $5.5 million surplus.

“What a difference a year makes,” Chief Executive Carlos Migoya gloated to Jackson’s board on Monday . “We made the tough decisions,” which included laying off a thousand employees and collecting payments more quickly.

But he didn’t try to sugarcoat the future. “We have a clear picture of our challenges.”

Those challenges include finding new ways of attracting paying patients, attempting to repair Jackson’s strained relationship with the University of Miami, finding hundreds of millions of dollars to fix up its aging facilities and adjusting to state and federal healthcare reforms that could cause Jackson’s poor and uninsured patients go to other facilities.

“We’re literally in the calm before the storm,” said Marcos Lapciuc, Jackson’s board chairman.

Up to this point, Jackson’s turn-around has been funded by cost-cutting. That has resulted in “positive results,” said Sal Barbera, a veteran hospital administrator who now teaches at Florida International University, but it’s “unsustainable, as expense cutting has a limit and will not bring prosperity to the organization. Revenue growth will not be easy.”

Even the present remains tenuous. At the end of January, Jackson’s cash on hand — a basic measurement of money in the bank — remains a low 14.5 days, far below the 175 days of cash that executives want to have to ensure smooth operations. “We’re not going to solve that cash problem in one or two years,” Migoya said.

What’s more, the recently announced audit revealed a profound weakness in one often-ignored sets of figures: In fiscal 2012, Jackson’s current assets were $450 million, while its liabilities were $495 million. In accounting terms, Jackson doesn’t have enough money to pay its bills.

That’s why Joshua Nemzoff, a Philadelphia hospital consultant who used to live in Miami, says, “They continue to be in very serious trouble. My opinion is they’re insolvent. Anyone else who had financials look like this would have declared bankruptcy a long time ago.”

Lapciuc acknowledges that the discrepancy between assets and liabilities is a problem, but the $45 million shortfall in 2012 is considerably better than the $112 million assets discrepancy in fiscal 2011. “Although we’re not in a healthy status, we seem to be on the mend,” he said.

Part of that mending has come with improvements in the economy. Duane Fitch, a Chicago hospital consultant who advises Jackson’s unions, points out that the increase in local tax revenue last year was $8.6 million — more than the audited surplus.

Fitch wonders how much longer that local tax revenue — in property taxes and a half-penny sales tax — will be available for Jackson. It amounted to $335 million last year, while Jackson provides services to fewer patients: In the past four years, in-patient admissions have dropped 21 percent.

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’Les Mis’ touring company works out to stay in shape at Wilton Manors gym

Even if you’re a Broadway dancer in top shape, it’s not easy looking good and staying fit when you’re on the road with a show like Les Misérables.

"Touring is a difficult life because you’re constantly moving," said Trinity Wheeler, production stage manager for the Les Mis touring company, playing through Sunday at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami.

"It’s not like you can go to a grocery store and have a kitchen and cook the foods that you want and have a consistent workout schedule. We created something that is consistent for the cast," said Wheeler, who is also a certified trainer. "Eating out every meal and stuff can be challenging to stay healthy. Being healthy and on tour is a goal we all try to accomplish."

Thursday morning, Wheeler held a “Guns of the Barricade” boot camp at Steel Gym in Wilton Manors. The workout session allows cast members and others to stay in shape while they’re on the road, Wheeler said.

The Les Mis touring company has 89 people who travel with the show: cast members, crew and musicians, according to Wheeler.

"It’s a large group of people that have this nomadic lifestyle," he said. "Having fitness incorporated into it, you feel better, you wake up, have more energy. It’s been really great for us as individuals, but also for the show."

Among the touring cast members: Wheeler’s partner, Alan Shaw, who plays Joly. The couple own a house in Fort Lauderdale’s Poinsettia Heights neighborhood.

" Les Mis is three hours long and we do eight shows a week. I realized early on because I’ve been with the show over two years now that if I don’t take care of my body and if I don’t eat right and if I don’t really stay on top of it, I can’t do eight shows a week," Shaw said. "We’re onstage in front of 2,000 people on average every night. You have to look your best. It’s part of our job."

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The CW Says Goodbye to 90210

The CW's remake of the '90s hit show 90210 will reportedly end its five-year run in May.

PICS: The High School Hotties of 90210

According to Us Weekly, the show (starring AnnaLynne McCord, Shenae Grimes, Matt Lanter, Jessica Stroup and Jessica Lowndes) has been canceled due to meager ratings.

The show has reportedly averaged 1.23 million viewers this season, being overshadowed by new hits The Vampire Diaries and Arrow.

"The CW has had five great seasons with America's favorite zip code, 90210," CW network president Mark Pedowitz announced in a statement. "I'd like to thank the talented cast, producers, and crew for all their hard work and dedication to the series. We are very proud of the West Beverly High alumni."

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