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Islands chamber names annual award winners

By Staff | Jun 11, 2020

SCCF Rae Ann Wessel

The Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce recently announced the winners of its four annual awards: Citizen of the Year, Business of the Year, New Business of the Year, and Volunteer of the Year.

“Normally, we would have hailed these individuals at our annual meeting in April, but that, of course, was canceled due to the pandemic shutdown,” President John Lai said. “We hope the community joins us in applauding these deserving winners and reaches out to express appreciation for their above-and-beyond contributions.”

Citizen of the Year Award went to Rae Ann Wessel, who recently retired from a 14-year stint as the natural resource policy director at Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, wrapping up a 42-year career in Southwest Florida. Her advocacy and outreach work brought sound scientific grounding to policy development, protection and restoration of water resources and critical habitats, land management, and fish and wildlife conservation at the local, regional, state, and federal levels.

“Whether she was working quietly behind the scenes, speaking before local groups about the science and importance of water quality, or standing up to legislative bodies, Rae Ann has been the face of clean water activism on Sanibel, in Southwest Florida, and far beyond,” Lai said. “I can’t say enough about the contributions she has made to this community during her tenure and the contagious passion that has driven reform.”

“I can’t help feeling overwhelmed by this tremendous expression of appreciation for my contributions when I was just doing work I truly felt driven to engage in and could never have accomplished without our community’s broad-based ‘village’ effort,” Wessel said. “I have always believed that success is a team sport. Sometimes it just takes a longer dedicated and persistent effort and a larger team to see results.”

PHOTO PROVIDED Phaidra McDermott

Kingfisher Vacations and Kingfisher Real Estate claimed the award for Best Business of the Year. Kingfisher Vacations has been in business for over a decade under the leadership of Jeff McDermott. The real estate company was founded over two years ago by spouse Phaidra McDermott, a lifelong island resident and a 25-year veteran Realtor.

“We are flattered to be chosen as best business of the year,” Phaidra McDermott said. “At Kingfisher, we are committed to our community and to providing an excellent experience for vacationers and property owners alike. Our accommodating staff and tenured Realtors assist in setting us apart as a boutique company with attention to detail.”

New Business of the Year went to sister restaurants Malia Island Fusion Cuisine and Spoondrift Island Bowls, operated by the family team of Jeff Samson and his daughter, Malia. Jeff Samson opened Malia in 2018; started as a Sanibel Island Farmers Market concept, Spoondrift moved to brick-and-mortar at Bailey’s Center in March 2019.

“This is the ultimate compliment coming from the chamber of commerce and the Sanibel community,” Malia Samson said. “Our family goals are to always put others’ needs first before our own, and we like to infiltrate that into our business. Customer service is so important to us, and we feel building relationships with everyone that comes in the door is our key to success.”

Recipients of the Sue Rosica Gray Volunteer of the Year Award, named for a longtime chamber volunteer, were the late John Carney and his wife, Fay.

PHOTO PROVIDED Jeff and Malia Samson

“John was a big presence on the island, no matter how you look at it,” Lai said. “I can’t begin to list the Carneys’ contributions. The community lost a robust advocate when John passed this year, but Fay carries on the couple’s reputation for generosity.”

“He would have been thrilled,” Fay Carney said, rattling off a few of the volunteer positions he was most known for, such as setting up luminary candles for the chamber, cooking hot dogs for “Ding” Darling Days, helping plan CROW’s 50th anniversary, initiating the annual Polar Bear Plunge, judging the shell museum’s photo contest, being active in the Rotary Club, and acting as chamber liaison to the America’s Boating Club of Sanibel-Captiva.

“Congratulations and thanks to all of our 2019-2020 winners,” Lai said. “They epitomize the island spirit of working together and working selflessly.”

TIFFANY REPECKI John and Fay Carney