NAPLES — Gov. Rick Scott joined a legion of volunteers Thursday at St. Matthew’s House in East Naples, doling out Thanksgiving dinners, taking orders for desserts – and getting political advice from the jobless and homeless.
Scott and his wife, Ann, served the first of five shifts at the homeless shelter on Airport-Pulling Road, where about 1,000 people were expected for dinner, about 300 more than last year on Thanksgiving.
“You never know how many will show up,” said Vann Ellison, the shelter’s president. “You invite the world and hope you have enough.”
The behind-the-scenes work that goes into feeding about 7,000 families in Collier and Lee counties began Monday, Ellison said, with roughly 200 volunteers packing and distributing meals to homes and shelters.
The Scotts and other volunteers gathered together before the sliding glass doors opened, getting directions from executive chef Brian Elwell, and holding hands as Ellison led a Thanksgiving prayer.
As eight tables of eight filled up in the bustling dining room, where pumpkin, pecan, apple and lemon meringue pies lined several side tables, the Scotts rushed back and forth, grabbing plates heaped with fixings for their two tables from an assembly line of volunteers at the kitchen counter.
“I care completely about all these programs,” said Scott, whose budget cuts earlier this year slashed funding to some veteran and farm surplus programs that helped the homeless.
“All the programs are very important, but nobody wants their taxes to go up,” Scott explained, noting that businesses also can help spur the economy. “They’ve got to grow. We’ve got to make this a place people can do well.”
Phillip Bardell, 30, commended the governor on his first term.
“You’re doing a fine job,” Bardell said, shaking Scott’s hand.
Bardell said he keeps up with politics by reading the paper daily at The Clock restaurant.
“I’m certainly up on current affairs,” said Bardell, who is “temporarily displaced” after losing his tree-care job a year ago, so he’s staying with friends and eating lunches at the shelter.
Eyeing Scott’s slender build, Michael Evans, a 30-year-old shelter resident, told the governor, “You’d better eat, too.”
But the governor, who planned to have dinner with his family, newborn grandson and friends later today, didn’t want to spoil his appetite.
“I ate breakfast. I won’t starve,” he told Evans.
Evans, who lost a retail job, just landed a night cleaning job -- with the shelter’s help -- for the Ritz-Carlton resorts.
“I’m saving all my money to move out of here,” Evans explained. “I want to move to Naples Park with my fiancée.”
Michael Stevens, 54, who has a job and home, came for dinner just to speak to Scott because he’s upset by illegal aliens taking away jobs he says could go to the homeless.
“Is there any way you could get a bill passed that if you’re hiring illegal people you get a fine?” Stevens asked Scott, who promptly replied, “It’s already the law.”
Stevens urged him to do more to enforce it.
“Somebody ain’t listening,” Stevens said as he walked back to his table.
The Scotts, who served, cleared and wiped tables, joined longtime volunteers that included “Happy Harry,” who shaved beards and provided haircuts in the courtyard. Mary Louise “Bubbles” Faust greeted everyone as they entered, and waiters Crawley Joyner and Rev. Michael Orsi took orders and served food.
Orsi and Joyner have been volunteering three years. Joyner is usually accompanied by his wife, Norma Jean, but she stayed home in bed due to a sore back after recently winning an award for fundraising for the Harry Chapin Food Bank.
“It’s just a small way of showing thanks, to be of service,” Joyner said.
Orsi, a chaplain and fellow at Ave Maria School of Law, selected the shelter for his volunteer work when he came to Naples three years ago.
“I asked myself ‘Where would Jesus be?’” Orsi said, adding that he’d read about St. Matthew’s House.
After 24 years as a volunteer, beginning at the Guadalupé Center in Immokalee, 80-year-old Faust knows most of the regulars.
“I’m at the soup kitchen five days a week,” Faust said. “I know so many people after all these years, so that’s why they made me the greeter.”
In all, there were 120 turkeys, too many pies to count, and other food that was paid for by local firefighters, Naples police, local businesses -- or donated by retailers, including Publix.
“No community resources were used,” Ellison said. “It’s just a lot of people doing a little bit. It’s amazing how the community comes together to help.”