Photo by Louis Venne

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#GulfshoreStrong

Inspiring examples of people helping each other and the community during  the pandemic.

COOKS ON THE FRONTLINE  

Faced with shuttered dining rooms and dwindling business, chefs, restaurateurs, and even home cooks, are stepping up to keep everyone fed. The admirable examples of this are endless. Here are a few making big strides. 

 

Lake Park Diner, Naples

In April, Lake Park Diner started delivering 100 free meals a day to NCH Healthcare Systems hospitals. The restaurant is asking for $10 donations to help fund the program, with the owner Paul Fleming matching the donations. As of mid-April, more than 3,000 meals had been donated. 

Teachers On a Mission, Fort Myers 

Kids on free or reduced lunch programs have been greatly impacted by the school closures. In Lee and Collier counties, many groups are working to ensure kids don’t go hungry. We’ve been inspired to see the citizen-led efforts, such as Teachers on a Mission in Fort Myers. Armed with hairnets, gloves and masks that read “Teachers on a Mission” a group of Franklin Park Elementary educators have been working together to safely prepare and deliver homemade meals to families in Dunbar. In the initial weeks of the pandemic, the teachers were delivering up to 150 meals a day, three days a week. Though the efforts have slowed down, one of the organizers Ra’Nitra Codie says they will continue to provide meals as long as they can.

Campagna Hospitality Group, Naples

For some culinary businesses, being #GulfshoreStrong has been about pivoting and employing maximum resourcefulness to provide us a sense of normalcy through good food. A constant supporter of our community, Vincenzo Betulia, of Campagna Hospitality Group, has  doubled-down to keep his kitchens working by offering takeout and creating an online pantry, where people can safely shop for batched cocktails, bottles of wine, meats, cheeses and prepared meals. In his most recent relief efforts, the chef turns his attention to over-stretched teachers who are tasked with keeping kids engaged through distance-learning. Through his restaurants, Betulia’s team is running a challenge to raise $100,000-worth of gift cards for local teachers to use at either restaurant. The chef has promised to match the total amount of gift cards sold through May 31. (Order through the restaurants websites, The French and Osteria Tulia. Select the “pickup” option to order a gift card for donation). 

Crave Culinaire, Naples

Brian Roland of Crave Culinaire is another chef who immediately shifted his strategy to offer takeout and chef-curated menus, as well as rolling out an online pantry for groceries and essential supplies. The famously philanthropic chef has also partnered with groups to help feed those in need. This week, Roland joined the nationwide Frontline Foods initiative to deliver 120 lunches—filled with superfood-powered salads and sandwiches—to the workers at Gulf Coast Medical Center. He recently also partnered with Fort Myers’ Mr Greens Produce to hand out 700 healthy, boxed meals to restaurant workers and families in need.

Brooks Burgers, Naples

Soon after restaurants had to close their dining rooms, Brooks Burgers’ team started driving its food truck to NCH locations, providing free lunch and dinner for thousands of healthcare workers. Todd Brooks, the owner, has also come up with creative ways to help his employees, some of which have lost their jobs. One way is to have customers chip in with an 18% carryout fee, which goes directly to the workers. 

The Great Foodini’s Mobile Bistro, Naples 

The Great Foodini’s Mobile Bistro is also helping fill the gap for kids and their struggling parents with its Collier County “No Hungry Little Tummies Left Behind” initiative. Chef and owner David Yarinsky simply has parents text him their needs and location, and he shows up where requested, no questions asked. The chef has set a goal to deliver 500,000 meals to families in need and is working to raise $500,000 for the effort. The team requests donations to Venmo (send to @PHDFOODINI) or online at christmasinjulycollier.com

The Standard, Fort Myers 

In Fort Myers, The Standard restaurant is focusing on industry workers. Monday through Friday, the chefs cook hot meals for out-of-work restaurant employees, which are handed out from 5 to 6 p.m. The Standard’s owners also launched the Lee County Restaurant Workers Relief Fund to raise $10,000 to help industry employees who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19. Once they reach the target goal, the funds will be distributed evenly among those who apply.

Sails, Naples 

In addition to keeping spirits high with its sophisticated-as-ever takeout menu, $50 gift cards (when you spend $100 or more) and wines delivered by bike by the sommelier, Sails has also spearheaded major efforts to feed people in Naples. The owner has made sure to keep his “family meals” (a restaurant industry practice in which the owner feeds the staff during a shift) and expanded it to be open to anyone who wanted to buy into the daily special for only $15. Perhaps even more significant is the way the restaurant has been partnering with regulars and other local businesses, such as William Raveis and Bentley Naples, to sponsor hundreds of these meals to be delivered to NCH healthcare workers. 

Harry Chapin Food Bank, Collier and Lee Counties

Another group helping underserved kids is Harry Chapin Food Bank. The Naples Children and Education Foundation has funded “Harry’s Helping Kits,” a $100,000 initiative to deliver meal kits to 3,500 families in Collier County. For its part, the Southwest Florida branch of the food bank, which serves Lee County, is hosting drive-thru food distributions up to 12 times a week, loading families trunks with groceries while following CDC safety guidelines. 

Liberty, Fort Myers 

Thinking about the many Southwest Floridians who are currently out-of-work, Liberty’s Bob Boye started putting a $5 item on his takeout menu to be accessible to anyone. Working with his vendors, the chef gets resourceful in using ingredients that have been discounted due to decrease in demand. The food might be cheaper, but  it’s no less delightful—Boye follows the same standards of quality and creativity as for the rest of his awesome small-plate dishes. Plus, those who can’t afford the $5 won’t go hungry, either. The chef says people can simply reach out to him and he’ll make it work. 

FK Your Diet, Fort Myers

Former foster kid Doug Miller opened FK Your Diet with his girlfriend Amy Eldridge to share recipes from different families he grew up with, and to give back to local foster kids—5% of all revenue from its two locations is donated local children’s charities helping foster kids, such as Every Child Initiative, Lutheran Services and Children’s Network of  SWFL. As COVID-19 hit the community, the couple set out to help, donating more than 3,000 meals to healthcare workers and essential workers. They also gave out meals, bicycles and backpacks to local foster children.

Bakeries on the Move 

Sometimes nothing will brighten a sour day quite like a sweet treat—something these two local-favorite bakeries know well. Since March, Karen Vazquez and Ricardo Albertori, the husband-wife team behind the Naples branch of Nothing Bundt Cakes, have donated more than 2,000 bundts to various locations, including St. Matthew’s House, the Naples Police Department and NCH (the couple also recently dropped off close to 6,000 boxes of protective gloves at the hospital). Similarly, in Fort Myers, the owners of Divine Donuts have worked with their customers to donate more than 164 dozen donuts to hospitals, fire departments and public safety offices throughout Lee County.

More Do-Gooder Restaurants and Chefs 

If we were to list all the restaurateurs contributing during this time, it would take you all day to read through the roster. Some stellar standout food heroes include Angelina’s Ristorante, which has attempted to foster a sense of normalcy by hosting virtual wine dinners and giving back by accepting donations with online takeout orders to support its ongoing effort to feed the staff at the NCH Healthcare Bonita. Chef Asif Sayed of 21 Spices, recently started serving 100 meals a day, three days a week to anyone affected by the pandemic. At Seminole Casino Hotel Immokalee, the team donated $10,000 worth of food to feed Immokalee locals. Sanibel’s MudBugs Cajun Kitchen has donated 50% of all sales to Golisano Children’s Hospital (totalling more than $12,000 so far). And the teams at Cape Coral sister restaurants Gather and Fathoms, are delivering free meals to fire stations around Lee County. Keep the good news coming! 

Clubs Give Back 

Communities are also doing their part. Members of Stonebridge Country Club in Naples and Six Lakes Country Club in Fort Myers have teamed up to provide supplies, food and water for their local hospitals as a part of the Clubs HELP Foundation, which encourages clubs nationwide to support local hospitals during this time. Meanwhile, Vineyards Country Club and Moorings Golf and Country Club are delivering meals to Physicians Regional Medical Center and NCH, respectively. 

Port Royal Inspires Community Giving

Port Royal homeowners’ association members have come together to buy thousands of gift certificates to feed frontline workers, while supporting local restaurants. The group started by buying gift cards from 29 restaurants to donate to NCH’s Naples’ campuses, EMTs and Naples police and firefighter departments. More recently, Port Royal residents funded another $60,000 worth of gift cards from restaurants on Fifth Avenue South, adding to the districts #UnitedonFifth efforts, a campaign to rally the downtown small businesses together. The residents’ generosity is inspiring other restaurants to pay it forward. BiCE Ristorante agreed to put in $10 for every $40 worth of gift cards bought, and The Dock at Crayton Cove matched the association’s entire $7,000 donation, giving the same amount in gift certificates to healthcare employees and first responders.

 

DEFENDERS OF THE ARTS 

We might not be able to gather at the theater or go catch a live music act, but that hasn’t stopped Southwest Florida artists from spreading joy and beauty with their talents. In many ways, the pandemic has further emphasized the power and importance of our creative community, proving that art really makes the world go round (or, at least makes it a whole lot better). 

 

The Naples Players, Naples  

The Naples Players has been among the most proactive arts institutions in providing high-value entertainment to the community with its virtual shows and wellness resources, including yoga classes, improv sessions and online benefit concerts. The theater group also puts its talents to (more) good use, with volunteers from the costume department sewing masks for healthcare workers. Recently, its CEO  and executive artistic director, Bryce Alexander also announced a task force to tackle the state of the arts in a coronavirus world. 

Art Aid Launches Instagram Forum for Local Artists, Naples

Having started just two years ago, Art Aid has become a significant arts nonprofit and event for the region, joining some of the biggest names in Southwest Florida (Paul Arsenault, Juan Diaz, Muffy Clark Gill and Cesar Aguilera, to name a few) for an online auction that supports Legal Aid Service of Collier County. On April 26, the group launched an Instagram Live “meet-up” to keep creatives connected during the pandemic. During the Sunday morning “Coffee Talk With Artists: Art in the Times of Corona,” the Art Aid founder, Laura Barnard, and photographer Lisette Morales, moderate the virtual gathering, bringing in local artists to discuss needs, opportunities and current projects. Not only does this unite creatives who are affected by coronavirus economic pressures, but it also provides a forum where creative solutions can blossom as we all look forward to the post-COVID-19 future of our community.

Florida Repertory Theatre, Fort Myers

When the coronavirus shutdowns halted Florida Rep’s premiere of A Doll’s House, Part 2 in March, Greg Logenhagen and his team decided to record the production to air online. They also successfully hosted a virtual gala with more than $500,000 raised, and they’ve hosted weekly [email protected] series on Fridays for patrons to tune into jam sessions and discussions.

Muffy Clark Gill, Naples

Naples mixed-media artist Muffy Clark Gill is using her time in quarantine to create, while spreading an important message about victims of domestic abuse who are particularly vulnerable while sheltering in place in unsafe homes. To support The Shelter for Abused Women and Children, the artist created a digital painting called Looking to Leave, which contrasts a girl’s black-and-white world inside with the colorful scene beyond the window. Enter the free drawing for a chance to win a signed, framed, 16-by-21-inch print of the piece. When you register, you can download a copy of the artwork with the message, “Home should be a safe place to shelter in place,” which Clark Gill encourages people to post on social media to promote support for the shelter. The winner will be announced on May 21. In the meantime, you can also buy prints of the digital painting online, with 25% of the proceeds going to the shelter.

SWFL Cultural Centers Spreading Positivity 

All across the region arts organizations have been continuing to provide cheer and inspiration online. Alliance for the Arts, in Fort Myers, and Gulfshore Playhouse are two groups who have created initiatives specifically designed to encourage positivity. The Alliance does it through its Creativity Crate newsletter, which goes out early in the morning everyday from April 11-30, so you can start the day on a bright foot. Meanwhile, Gulfshore Playhouse launched an Artful Distancing series with weekly Zoom chats on Wednesdays that feature top theatrical talent discussing the industry and their work and a weekly Bright Minute segment sharing recent “bright spots” within the theater troupe. 

Local Artists Stream Their Talents

One perk of being in isolation? Artists have more time to do what they love, and many have been sharing their gifts online. Popular Broadway Palm pianist Marc Collins plays live on his Facebook page on Fridays at 5 p.m.; local professional actors Rachel Burttram and Brendan Powers created their Tiny Theatre out of their well-lit closet to perform Facebook Live reading of plays submitted by playwrights from around the world; and local actresses Stephanie Davis and Liz Abbott started a virtual Homebound Happy Hour on FB, in which they talk about anything fun and bring on artist friends, such as Fort Myers’ Terry Tincher, as guests. 

And Others Perform Live While Maintaining Proper Social Distance 

Sometimes there’s no substitution for the real thing. Lucky high-rise condo dwellers have been privy to world-class performances by talented Southwest Floridians. Pelican Bay in Naples has had quite a few of these concerts. In a couple instances, opera singer Jodi Keogan has sung from a central pool area up to the residents listening from their balconies. The same happened at the community’s Montenero condos, where resident keyboard player Gary Kearns played for his neighbors. In Fort Myers, at the St. Tropez and Riviera condos, residents gather on their balconies nightly for a group singalong and to cheer for healthcare workers at 7 p.m.

Naples Philharmonic, Naples

Though Hayes Hall at Artis—Naples is currently closed, the musicians from the Naples Philharmonic are posting virtual concerts to the Phil’s YouTube channel. The series kicked off with a video featuring some of the orchestra’s greats, including concertmaster Glenn Basham, as well as principal oboist Judy Christy and assistant principal cellist John Marcy performing with their children, which are members of the Naples Philharmonic. The musicians will continue posting music so long as the center is closed.

 

DOERS, MAKERS & INNOVATORS 

What’s that saying? When the going gets tough, the tough get going. And these #GulfshoreStrong businesses are all finding ways to leverage their existing resources to find solutions to COVID-19-related problems. Whether it’s by turning a distillery into a sanitizer-making facility, developing new technologies to help us get back to normal or channeling funds the right way, these groups are setting us on the right path. 

 

Wicked Dolphin, Fort Myers 

What do you do when you have all the equipment to distill alcohol, but limited options for selling your boozy products? At Wicked Dolphin, the team decided to turn the business into a godsend for hundreds of first-responders and other locals struggling with the shortage of sanitizers. Though the distillers are still making rum (which you can buy online or in the store), they are also making tons of surface and sanitizer, and giving it away for free. Wicked Dolphin has donated to Lee Health, the local police department and nursing homes, among many others. They recently partnered with Florida Crystals and Fort Myers Brewery to get enough sugar and space to keep the supply going. When it reopens on May 2, the distillery team will be giving away bottles to anyone who visits (or drives up) to the distillery. Families get up to four bottles, while front-line workers get larger gallons.

Nor-Tech, Cape Coral

Trond Schou mobilized his team at Nor-Tech, a boat manufacturing company in the Cape, to feed and protect people. In addition to hosting a food drive for Cape Coral Caring Center, the company is leveraging its skills and tools to make hundreds of masks. They follow a University of Florida prototype for N95 mask-like alternatives, which are more protective than cloth versions. Schou intends to continue the efforts until the need subsides, and he encourages fellow high-performance marine industry companies to do the same. 

BCI Integrated Solutions, Fort Myers

Florida-based security company BCI Integrated Solutions developed a thermal imaging camera to detect elevated skin temperatures in busy environments like airports, hospitals and other places where large public gatherings may occur.  The device, which looks like a typical security camera, can scan multiple passersby at a time and sounds an alarm if it detects a potential fever. Though this technology is not meant for diagnosing, preventing or treating any illness, it can help as the first line of defense to stop the spread of the coronavirus. 

Benison Center, Immokalee 

A serendipitous delivery of medical supplies for the Benison Center of Immokalee in 2018  turned into a big blessing for NCH. When the pandemic first took hold of Southwest Florida and the need for supplies was dire, the group was able to deliver the 4,000 gowns and 400 masks that they’d had in storage for two years after World Vision donated 10 trucks worth of medical gear they did not need at the time. The group has also been rallying volunteers from other nonprofits, like Guadalupe Center and Pathway Early Education Center of Immokalee, to help create and deliver kits for at-risk senior citizens.

The Community Foundation of Collier County 

Another big supporter of NCH has been the Community Foundation of Collier County. In March, CFCC contributed a $25,000 grant toward the healthcare center’s goal to raise $100,00 for needed COVID-19-response supplies and equipment. The grant was matched by NCH Philanthropy Committee chairman William F. Allyn—a move that inspired others to contribute, ultimately raising more than $180,000 for the hospitals. Beyond its work for NCH, the foundation has also distributed close to $150,000 for Pandemic Emergency Kits for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers; a grant to the Collier public school system to ensure kids have internet and tablets for virtual learning; and grants to Marco Island to cover basic needs. 

Beverly’s Angels, Naples 

Little things add up. Faith Schwalback heads up a team of 60 “angels” who volunteer through her Beverly’s Angels nonprofit, which officially got its 501c3 certification on Christmas Eve 2019. The angels take turns suggesting and tackling various tasks, like cooking up weekly dinners for people from the service industry affected by the pandemic. Gulfshore Life advisory board and Beverly’s Angel member, Shirlene Elkins, suggested the group write letters to people in assisted living, and the Angels gathered around 100 letters, along with artwork created by members and neighbors kids, to deliver doses of joy to seniors who are isolated during this time.

Southwest Florida Stronger Together

NCH and Lee Health created the SWFL Stronger Together fund to collaborate to provide critical resources for the hospitals. The Cape Coral Auxiliary, Gulf Coast Medical Center Auxiliary and Lee Memorial Auxiliary quickly stepped up to give $50,000 each for the fund. With this combined $150,000 contribution, the hospitals can buy additional ventilators and masks to fight the spread of the coronavirus. Earlier this month, the crew from Habitat for Humanity of Lee and Hendry Counties donated 375 hazmat suits, 120 pieces of eyewear, and 40 boxes of medical-grade disposable gloves to Lee Health. And the hospitals are giving back, too. Lee Health recently donated 40,000 diapers to the nonprofit Healthy Start Coalition of Southwest Florida.

Arthrex, Naples

With students out of school, kids aren’t exposed to the socially rich learning environments where our emotional intelligence naturally develops. To help ensure children are still developing in healthy, productive ways, Arthrex’s Charitable Giving program gifted a $15,000 grant to Charity for Change, which funds the nonprofit’s Giver Program, a learning curriculum that instills self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making. The group recently aired Giver TV on YouTube. 

The Greater Naples YMCA and Bikes for Kids, Naples

Though the stay-at-home mandate has majorly affected The Greater Naples YMCA, which had to furlough many employees, the team continues to serve the community. Recently they created a virtual Y experience to share at-home workouts, virtual field trips and learning opportunities for kids; partnered with Meals of Hope to serve as a distribution center for groceries; and recently teamed up with Bikes for Tykes to donate more than 60 bikes and $600 to be distributed to families from the YMCA’s early learning school on May 2. 

 

RETAILERS ON A MISSION 

While storefronts may be closed, these shops keep providing retail therapy and taking it up a notch by using their goods to give back. 

 

Naples Soap Company, Naples 

While most small businesses are struggling, there has been an uptick for health and hygiene-related retailers. One such group is the Naples Soap Company, who has seen a sharp increase in online soap sales since the pandemic started. Instead of just racking in the profits, the owner Deanna Wallin, a former nurse, is opting to give back. In early April, she and her team created hundreds of care packages—stocked with soaps, shampoo, toothpaste and sweet somethings like chocolate and bath bombs—for the overstretched employees at Lee Health and NCH. To brighten little ones’ Easter weekend, they also assembled more than 200 goodie bags for kids from Village Oaks Elementary, in Immokalee, and for families at the Shelter for Abused Women and Children. 

Shopping Centers Give Back

Businesses within some of our favorite local shopping hubs are banding together to help, too. California Pizza Kitchen partnered with Waterside Shops to donate nearly 1,000 take-and-bake  pies, hot pizzas and boxed lunches to first responders in Lee and Collier, The Shelter for Abused Women and Children, Youth Haven and other nonprofits. Meanwhile, businesses within Bell Tower Shops have partnered with The United Way of Lee, Hendry, Glades, and Okeechobee Counties in an initiative they call #KeepFirstRespondersStrong! Call to purchase a gift card for $25 or more (mentioning the initiative) from Blue Pointe Oyster Bar & Seafood Grill, Grimaldi’s Pizzeria, DaRuMa Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi Lounge or TGI Fridays. The restaurant will prepare meals for The United Way to deliver to workers at Lee Health’s Gulf Coast Medical Center.

Marissa Collections, Naples 

Since having to close its shop Marissa Collections has doubled-up on its online presence, hosting social media chats with jewelry designers and offering one-on-one virtual styling consults. The company’s CEO Jay Hartington has also teamed up with several groups, including Ridgway Bar & Grill and Foundation 33 to provide hundreds of meals for the healthcare workers at NCH. The boutique has also been raising money to donate, like they did through the Mother’s Day Flash Sale with Kwiat jewelry. Every purchase benefitted NCH, and items had descriptions detailing the donation amount and how the funds can help the hospital. Plus, through its #MCGIVESBACK social initiative, the shop encourages people to support local businesses and healthcare workers.

To the Moon Boutique, Bonita Springs 

Since the pandemic started, To the Moon Boutique has been spreading positivity online and in its store. Before closing the brick-and-mortar, owner Tiffany Buntzman set up a donation bin for the Community Cooperative soup kitchen to collect canned food for the nonprofit to distribute to families. She has hosted online sales with everything in the store going at 40% off, offered virtual shopping appointments and created “Moon Boxes,” filled with goods the staff picks out for a nice pick-me-up for shoppers. On social media, the team reminds us of the many ways we can help support local businesses and each other with their encouraging daily posts. 

Local Businesses Making Masks

One big way retailers have been helping out is by making masks. One of the largest such initiatives is run by the team at D. Lacquaniti Bespoke, which started sewing masks with the same dapper, Italian fabrics used for their custom men’s shirting. Once the word spread on social media, owner Dominic Lacquaniti was flooded with requests for more. He’s currently running a GoFundMe to raise enough money to make another 3,500 masks to donate to healthcare workers and people in need. Likewise, Leslie Tarasyuk, owner of Cape Coral Custom Upholstery and Drapery, is working with her family and one employee to create washable masks; the seamstresses at Claudia Giraldo Bridal in Cape Coral sew stylish masks for first responders around the country; and Naples outdoor furniture atelier Shape of Wicker shifted their business to start making colorful masks with 10% of the proceeds going to the Community Foundation’s Collier Comes Together Fund.