Lee tourism leaders honor most hospitable workers

Jose 'The Magic Waiter'

Bonita Springs waiter receives award for his ...

Jose the Magic Waiter is not a fairy tale.

Jose Cereceda is actually a very real waiter, working at Carrabba’s Italian Grill in Bonita Springs.

When a 9-year-old cancer patient came into his restaurant to celebrate the end of her chemotherapy, Cereceda turned into something more.

Cereceda befriended the self-conscious girl, appointing her “chef” for the evening. He brought dough to the table for her and her 5 year-old brother so they could create their own dinners.

After they’d eaten their pizzas - made with fresh dough from the kitchen of course - Cereceda brought more dough, explaining that other customers had seen their special dinners and requested pizza as well.

The children remember Jose as “The Magic Waiter.” Wednesday morning, the tourism industry recognized him as winner of a an E Award, named for longtime TDC director Elaine McLaughlin.

Tourism is off in Lee County. There are fewer and fewer people making less and less money in area restaurants and hotels. Visitor numbers are flat - at best - and tourist tax collection is down.

But the industry is still the biggest employer in Lee County. Visitor and Convention Bureau deputy director Tamara Pigott said Wednesday that last year’s 5 million visitors meant $3 billion, pumping $8 million daily into the economy. More than 61,000 people are employed directly or indirectly in tourism.

A few hundred from the industry gathered at Harborside Event Center in Fort Myers on Wednesday to recognize those whose hard work is keeping the industry afloat. Some 222 were nominated for awards.

“You are pulling us through,” said County Commissioner Tammy Hall, who chairs the Tourist Development Council.

The E Awards are given annually to recognize exceptional hospitality and customer service. The others went to:

■ Anthony Almeida, Inn at the Springs in Bonita Springs. Almeida was checking in a guest when the man discovered to his horror that he’d grabbed the wrong jacket coming off the plan. He calmed the distraught man and drove to Cape Coral to exchange the jacket.

■ Barbara Prater, Edison & Ford Winter Estates, Fort Myers. Prater works at the Cottage Shoppe at the attraction. She led a blind man and his companion on a special cottage tour, allowing him to feel the artwork and merchandise and describe every item in detail.

■ Dr. PJ Deitschel and Dr. Amber McNamara, Care and Rehabilitation of Wildlife, Sanibel. The veterinarians received the Good Samaritan Award. They work countless hours caring for an array of wildlife from alligators to pelicans, treating more than 4,000 animals yearly.

■ John Bradfield, Johny Myers Discount Tires, Fort Myers. Bradfield wasn’t recognized for the long hours he works or his hard work. It was the way he helps customers, even giving away products and services to those who could not pay.

■ Edward Brown, Standard Parking, Fort Myers. Brown helped a panicked woman who at midnight left a bag on an airport shuttle at Southwest Florida International Airport. Brown had the drivers search their vehicles to no avail. When the bag, containing the woman’s medicines, cameras and gift cards, wasn’t found Brown mounted his own search. He found the bag, never telling anyone.

■ Jennifer Wilson, Lee County Port Authority Police, received Honor of Distinction. Wilson heard a woman yelling for help as she was directing traffic at the terminal. Rushing to her side she learned the woman was an Alzheimer’s patient in the company of her husband. Wilson stayed with the woman and calmed the situation.

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