September 2, 2014

Acts of Kindness

During a bad winter a few years ago, Immokalee Friendship House executive director Ed Laudise appealed to the community to send blankets. He received dozens, then realized he needed shelving to store them. Enter retired Naples economist-and carpenter-Ray Fales, tools in hand. Soon what had started out as a one-time good deed became a weekly part of Fales' life.

Although it's not unusual for Gulfshore homes to sport custom cabinetry made of premium hardwoods, it's not the sort of finishing touch you'd expect at a homeless shelter. But at the Friendship House, Fales has created mahogany cabinets for the water cooler, a piece of medical equipment, the telephone and more. He sees it as his way of honoring the shelter's mission-to make a temporary residence feel like a real home to people who are trying to rebuild their lives.

Collier County's oldest homeless shelter, the Friendship House helps more than 1,000 people each year and serves almost 30,000 meals. Fales first toured the shelter several years ago with a group from his synagogue, Temple Shalom, where he is now chair of the social action committee. From the well-scrubbed floors and newly painted walls to the sounds of children laughing, the shelter, he says, feels more like a home than an institution. As Fales got to know Ed Laudise and his staff, he was impressed with the way they helped the residents tackle any obstacle to self-sufficiency-assisting with job searches, faxing immunization records, even collecting the bottles and diapers necessary to place an infant in daycare. "They treat people with dignity, but they have a bottom line," Fales says.

The son of a cabinet maker from Boston, Fales was an engineer before receiving his doctoral degree in economics from Northwestern, going on to teach at Rutgers before retiring from a position at the Boston-based think tank the Mitre Corporation. His second, less theoretical, career bloomed about eight years ago, when his wife, Judy, couldn't find an entertainment center. He volunteered to make one, although he had never attempted anything more difficult than household repairs. Although he never realized that he had absorbed so much from his late father, Fales says, "He probably knew that I could do it. Doing this is a way of remembering him."

His showpiece cabinetry at the Friendship House was the happy result of having wood left over from a home furniture project. "The mahogany is only for the things that people see, but it seems to be my trademark," Fales says, smiling.

The residents share housekeeping and other chores, but Fales often pitches in on maintenance projects. Now he's building dollies in his home workshop so that fixtures and furniture can be moved around as Laudise reconfigures shelter space to serve more people. He's also responsible for dropping off donations.

A member of the 1964 Olympic luge team, Fales moved to Naples from Vermont four years ago. With friend Paul Rosofsky, who introduced him to the area, and others from Temple Shalom, he volunteers at the Sunrise Home and with Habitat for Humanity. He and his tool belt can also be found at the Southwest Florida Holocaust Museum, where he installed the double doors that lead to the anteroom.

What makes Fales special, Laudise says, is that he puts his whole being into each job, large or small. There's no artifice, no sense of separateness. "He treats us like family," Laudise says.

For more information about the Immokalee Friendship House, call (239) 657-4090. 

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