For more than two decades at this time of year I would be making a list of the local citizens who made the community a better place in the past 12 months. My Sunday column in the Naples Daily News would culminate in the naming of my Person of the Year.
No trophies, no cash, no banquet, no parade. Just a big public pat on the back for jobs well done.
Before I retired as editorial page editor and TV host in 2014, recipients included:
Nancy Payton of the Florida Wildlife Federation, for rising above repeated brow-beatings from hostile Collier County commissioners in the 1990s to help fashion growth management policies in the county’s eastern frontier.
Jack Nortman, who tracked down a Holocaust boxcar in Europe and restored it as a tribute to his mother, a survivor, and as a powerful public education tool at schools and the Holocaust Museum.
Residents of an East Naples neighborhood who stood up to developers who wanted to put multi-family housing on the golf course in their back and front yards.
Local high school alumni who banded together to care for a disabled classmate.
Feeders of the hungry, including one who continues volunteer-staffed assembly lines to make boil-in-bag meals.
Steve Popper launched Meals of Hope as a crusade to feed other nations, until pressing needs surfaced right here at home.
Leaders of three arts and entertainment venues that debuted in the same year – a new headquarters for the then-Naples Art Association in Cambier Park, the Sugden Community Theater nearby and Hertz Arena, originally Everblades Arena. All three uplift and energize the community to this day.
The award winners all had something in common. The inspired. They led. They raised the bar.
If I were making such a salute this year it would not be for a single achiever, though all my champions tackled a common adversary — the pandemic that seemingly would never end, even when we seemed on the brink of the coast being clear.
At the very top of the list would be frontline health care professionals who, after risking lives to treat the first wave of patients, risked treating a second. Those patients showed up on hospital doorsteps because of simple refusal to get readily available and safe vaccines at no cost to them. The patients’ insistence on freedom ignored the high price exacted on caregivers.
Next would come teachers who persevered fluctuating safety protocols imposed from Tallahassee and whether to teach from classrooms or via Zoom.
Moving on, I would congratulate and commiserate with rank-and-file citizens who gave up countless travel plans and chose to stay safely at home. That choice was a bitter pill for those of us who missed family reunions, weddings and funerals – as well as basic sightseeing and globetrotting – solely because of the ignorant and selfish who rejected the science of vaccines.
Parents would be in line for a special shout-out all their own for telling and reminding youngsters what was going on. Parents worked to adjust work schedules and scramble for daycare and other supervision when needed, often without notice.
Employers endured collateral damage when employees got sick or chose to stay home. Restaurants, such a large component of our leisure economy, were hard pressed to stay afloat.
Special kudos go to two special efforts in the community’s nonprofit sector.
First, the Community Foundation of Collier County once again became a first responder.
In addition to all the projects it usually handles, such as grants and scholarships, the foundation launched a special fundraising drive.
Collier Comes Together Fund for COVID-19 Relief brought in $1,644,000 in donations to support nonprofits to sustain their operations when they were most vulnerable.
“While we have not turned the page on COVID yet, together we have taken the rough, jagged edges of the pandemic and are slowly but surely smoothing them out,” says Jerry Tostrud, foundation board chair, and Eileen Connolly-Keesler, president/CEO. “Together we are returning Collier County to the community we all know and love.”
Meanwhile, the Naples Senior Center stepped to the plate –twice. The center collaborated with the Collier Health Department and legislators to cut through confusion and red tape to get the first round of shots into the arms of 7,500 people. When booster shots were ready, the Senior Center-based team went back to work.
“Our pilot program with the Florida Department of Health to help thousands of local seniors in obtaining the life-saving COVID-19 vaccine, and now booster shots, is perhaps the most monumental undertaking since Naples Senior Center opened its doors in January 2014,” says Naples Senior Center President/CEO Jaclynn Faffer. “I cannot think of a more worthy task that demonstrates the vital role our organization plays in serving the critical needs of older adults in Collier County.”