Former Culver, Plymouth student’s journey grows from launching a book to launching an island

Tonia Allen Gould, right, holds a copy of her recent children’s book during a recent book signing at the Culver Coffee Company, where she visited with former teachers and friends (from left) Theresa Jacobson, Peggy Arquette, Gloria Mclaughlin Ballard, and Vickie Benner
By: 
Jeff Kenney
Citizen editor

Among the many accomplishments of the graduates of Culver Community High School through the decades, Tonia Allen Gould may be in a rather unique category. Launching her own marketing company? Check. Authoring a children's book? Check again. Parlaying that children's book into an ecotourism-oriented tropical island geared towards helping Third World children and educating American youth -- that might be a tough one to beat.

What makes Gould's story all the more remarkable is the role Culver Community (and Plymouth) schools and teachers played in it, and the difficult odds Gould overcame in order to be where she is now.

LOCAL BEGINNINGS

Tonia Allen Gould grew up both in Plymouth and Culver, attending school in both communities, though she graduated from Culver Comm. High School after two years of attending classes there.
Gould's father was a worker for the state highway department and, she says, she grew up well below the poverty line.

Her home situation also led to Gould being placed in foster care at age 15 with a well-known Culver family at the time, that of Bud Cartwright. Cartwright was being transferred out of Indiana at the time, however, so Gould's stay was short-lived.

At the time, Gould was part of the staff of CCHS' monthly newspaper, The Caval Crier, then (as now) under the watchful eye of English teacher Vickie Benner. When Gould reported to Benner that her father wouldn't allow her to walk the streets of town to collect advertising money from Culver businesses, Benner made some inquiries with CCHS guidance counselor Brenda Sheldon.

"One thing led to another and Brenda mentioned my foster care," Gould recalls, "which led Larry and Vickie Benner to start figuring out how to go about getting me (as a foster daughter)."

Gould would live with the Benners for about a year, and during that time, she says "they taught me about consistency and that I didn't have to come home to a volatile environment.

"In the State of Indiana, the goal was to work the child back into the home no matter how bad circumstances were, so it was eventually time for me to go back home. Another...situation happened and I ended up moving out. I was (on my own) at almost exactly age 17, holding down three jobs, and I had graduated early, during the first semester of my senior year."
Upon hearing Gould's circumstances -- including the fact that by then she had enrolled at Ancilla College -- a judge hearing her case determined she was capable of taking care of herself, and emancipated her at age 17.

"So now I was on my own, providing for myself," she says. "I was renting a house for like $100 a month from a local farmer."

FINDING HOPE AND INSPIRATION

Gould says her time with the Benners was the capstone to a childhood of gradual internal growth by way of teachers and books.

"My time with Larry and Vickie (Benner) was very transitional and integral," she explains. "I saw how life could be for myself. Also there were books and teachers. I was an avid reader growing up, in school. Books saved me. I would lose myself in a book...they taught me the life I was living was not the life I should be living.

"I knew I was different from my family," she adds. "I was the first in my immediate family to graduate high school. I knew there was a life that was tangible and within reach; I just had to grab it. And I got support in school along the way. The teachers I had recognized my artistic talents along the way."

As one example, she cites current Plymouth Schools superintendent Dan Tyree asking her to be on the Speech team among "some pretty pivotal moments" during her scholastic career.

Eventually Gould moved to California ("In some ways I was probably running as far away as I could without getting wet," she muses) and started her own family and a new life.

"I forgave my father and family a long time ago," she says. "In many ways, they were babies making babies. It's really hard to be angry too long once you realize (how young they were when they began having children)."

At her first job in California, for a mutual funds company, Gould met her husband John. The two have been married for 22 years now.

"I know I'm a little unique in that I broke the cycle (of poverty and dysfunction)," she says. "I attribute that to the extraordinary people along the way."

FINDING SAMUEL T. MOORE

Gould would go on, 21 years ago now, to start her own marketing business called Tagsource, (AKA TAG!), which led to her authoring a children’s picture book, "Samuel T. Moore of Corte Magore," which was released in July, 2013 on iTunes in the App Store, and subsequently in softcover in January, 2014 and then hardcover in February of that same year, by Mira Publishing.

The book was co-illustrated by “Mr. Lawrence,” the voice of Plankton and an original storyboard director of SpongeBob SquarePants, along with another SpongeBob storyboard director, Marc Ceccarelli. Its audio version was narrated by two-time Marconi Award nominee, and one of the top radio personalities and broadcasters in the country, Steve McCoy.

"Samuel T. Moore" was intended to bring some of Gould's marketing knowledge into a children's book format, she says, though only after the first draft of the story did she realize that, "I'm Sam (the lead character). This is me, searching for a home, and I landed in California and had to overcome a lot of obstacles. That just naturally flowed into the book."

(Details about the book, which can be purchased locally at the Culver Coffee Company, as well as information about Gould and her efforts, along with her blogging updates, are available online at http://toniaallengould.com)
The anti-bullying message in the book, she adds, hearkens back to her own childhood experiences as well.

"When I got past the second or third draft of the book I knew it's really about me and how I overcame obstacles and didn't give up. That's the big message I want kids to understand when they read the book. A lot times it's easier to do the work, then fail, and then give up. I wanted (the character of) Sam to fail in the book before he succeeds and is victorious. That's the big grain of truth in my life: I never really gave up on my dream."

FINDING CORTE MAGORE

That, she says, is also why the story of the 29-acre island of Hog Cay, Nicaragua, is all the more remarkable.

"I remember thinking, 'If you can name a star in the sky, why can't I find a postage stamp-sized island and that be my marketing buzz (for the book)? It would elevate my story above others."

After some searching, Gould's efforts would hone in on the country of Nicaragua and its adjacent islands. It was an appropriate fit for her focus.

"One-third of all the children in Nicaragua drop out of school before 6th grade," notes Gould. "I wanted to know what's causing that, so I had to research it. They go to work in the fields or watch their siblings. They have no shoes, no access to good clothes -- it's so much. So I asked myself, 'How can these kids break free? How did I?' I did it with teachers like Vickie Benner and with books giving me hope. And I thought, 'That's it. These kids don't have hope.' If they go to school there's no job waiting when they get out."

Gould had spent some time, just over a year ago, touring a Nicaraguan free trade coffee plantation owned by a client's father. She spent a day there afterwards with 100 local children and "began to understand who we're trying to help."

During her first visit to the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, she met an American expat, Randy Poteet, who learned of her venture and pointed her in the right direction.

There were several islands for sale, she explains, along the Atlantic coast of the country, and she and some partners began investigating a five-acre island initially, an award-winning film-maker alongside them, with discussions of a documentary film about the endeavor.

When Gould discussed using an island as an ecotourism opportunity for social good, she was told by Poteet, "You're looking at the wrong island."

Instead, she says, the aforementioned 29-acre island owned by the family of Ambassador Francisco Campbell, the Nicaraguan Ambassador to the U.S., had been bandied about (by Poteet) within the context of his wish to use the island to drive tourists to the depressed, Third World area of the Atlantic/Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua.

"I thought, 'I don't know how to fund a five-acre island using crowd-funding. How can I fund a 29-acre one?'"

After touring the island with the Ambassador's son, Michael, Gould learned it wasn't for sale or lease. Instead, she was told he envisioned his family aligning with Gould's efforts in a joint partnership to use the locale for the project she envisioned.

Returning home and not hearing anything for a time, Gould decided to take the initiative to call the Ambassador in Washington, DC.

"He invited me to D.C. He said, 'I've never heard anybody more passionate in my life...your idea aligns with the human rights organization I founded plus the (hoped-for) use of our family's island.'"
Ironically, the Ambassador's son would call 30 minutes later and say he'd spoken to his father the night before and that the Ambassador wanted to keep the island, rather than partnering. Michael Campbell was stunned -- if pleasantly so -- to hear that Gould had since spoken to his father and the door had opened to partnering.

"Had I not made that call to Ambassador Campbell when I did," muses Gould, "it would have been wrong of me to go over his son's head...to pick up the phone."

And so with seemingly providential timing at her back, Gould flew to D.C. and presented a draft proposal, using the thesis of University of California Santa Barbara Bren School of Environmental Science student, and now Ocean Scientist, Pablo Obregon, on ecotourism in poor Latin American countries as the framework from which to develop a business plan.

Gould and company were then invited to meet with representatives of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Oceans for Life program, who put her in touch with Martha Honey. In another twist of fate -- call it ironic or Providential, once again -- Honey's writings had formed much of the basis of the student's thesis Gould had used to build her business plan.

"Everything was very serendipitous," she says. "I kind of open my mouth and whoever I look for and need happens to be right in front of me!"

She's been in touch with TV producers about a show on the island and the endeavor is now fiscally sponsored by From the Heart Productions, a non-profit group with a mission to encourage and bring to fruition unique projects with compelling stories that might otherwise have never been made.

Through their fiscal partnership and sponsorship, explains Gould, anyone who donates to the Finding Corte Magore project receives a tax credit. There's a PayPal “Donate Now” icon on the project's website (www.findingcortemagore.com).
"I feel like I'm working on my legacy here on this earth. That's why it's so incredible to me," she says.

HOMECOMING

And while Tonia Allen Gould is engaged in some pretty big things, she hasn't forgotten the seemingly small things which helped sustain and inspire her years ago, here in Marshall County, Indiana. Last month she returned to Culver and Plymouth for a series of readings and book signings, including at the Culver Public Library and Culver Coffee Company, where she also reconnected with some of the teachers -- and former fellow students -- who impacted her along the way.

One of those, Vickie Benner, calls Gould "a remarkable woman...who has always been motivated to succeed at whatever she puts her mind to accomplish. She makes her dreams become reality. I am extremely proud of her."

"Coming back to Culver for me is a little painful, a little hard," Gould acknowledges, "but also Culver is truly my favorite place on earth. I worked at the (Culver) Marina, and I love that lake. I have the most amazing memories; I worked at the beach lodge and was in the Miss Max contest. I love the town. And while I spent a lot of my time in Plymouth...I have a strong support network in both communities. I feel like I'm home in both."

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