Chamber gala honors citizen, volunteer of year

Lance Shearer

You could say the two honorees represented history and current events.

Marco Eagle Manager T.J. Boone presents Austin Bell, left, curator of collections for the Marco Island Historical Society, with the Naples Daily News Citizen of the Year award on Saturday at Hideaway Beach Club.

Saturday evening, members of the Marco Island Area Chamber of Commerce met at Hideaway Beach Club, and awarded their two highest honors. The Naples Daily News Citizen of the Year award went to Austin Bell, curator of collections for the Marco Island Historical Society, for his work chronicling the island’s past at the Marco Island Historical Museum. The Marco Eagle Volunteer of the Year award went to Erin Mia Milchman for her efforts spearheading the Marco Patriots, an ad hoc group of islanders who came together to provide substantial relief to stricken individuals and communities after Hurricane Irma.

Erin Mia Milchman is presented with the Marco Eagle Vounteer of the Year award by Marco Eagle Manager T.J. Boone. Milchman spearheaded the Marco Patriots, a group of islanders who provided relief to stricken individuals and communities after Hurricane Irma.

Both awards were presented by Marco Eagle manager T.J. Boone. While those in attendance might not have known the identities of the honorees beforehand, they were left in little suspense as Boone recited some of the work that led to their nominations.

Santa never looked so good as evidenced here by Jim Gratkowski in a revealing Santa costume.

The Volunteer of the Year award was presented first, and Milchman stressed that the honor was not really hers alone.

“Although I stand up here alone, this award truly belongs to our amazing community,” she said. “Without the support of our donors, volunteers and a very dedicated board of directors, none of what we do would be possible. As they say, it takes a village.”

Sandi Sims-Ravage, who was recognized for her work with the chamber’s social committee, is decked out in white, complete with halo, accompanied by Santa.

What Milchman and the Marco Patriots did was “mobilize close to a half a million dollars in funding, food, supplies and volunteer hours” in just three months, at a time when the local community was still reeling and infrastructure just being put back in place. After initially meeting in the kitchen of Milchman’s brother Matthew Melican, the group realized they could replicate their Irma efforts and be a force for good. They applied for and obtained 501(c)3 status, and this hurricane season, sent over $25,000 in aid to hurricane victims in North Carolina and the Florida panhandle, as well as, locally, sponsoring the Marco Island Charter Middle School Boots & Blues fundraiser.

Austin Bell was equally humbled and stressed the collaborative nature of his work at the museum.

Curt Koon, in a festive Christmas suit, dances with wife Jacquie, in her own holiday dress, at Saturday's Chamber-sponsored bash.

“It seems a little ridiculous to give an individual award, when it’s such a team effort,” he said, thanking those who work with him to present and support the island’s history. On a personal note, Bell, who last year was honored as the Marco Island Foundation for the Arts’ Artist of the Year, despite his protestations that he is not actually an artist, said the last few years have been a whirlwind, sort of a personal hurricane.

Ryan Darling and Tripleshot provided rousing holiday music for Saturday's Jingle Bell Bash.

“Six years ago, I was defending my thesis,” and only hoping to find a fulltime job in his profession,” he said. Since then, in addition to coordinating the exhibit space for the return of the Key Marco Cat, he published a book, and has another one coming out in days. Both are works of Marco Island history drawing from the collections at the museum, and Bell refrained from plugging his upcoming work, even though it might make an ideal Christmas gift for those who love the island.

Saturday's Jingle Bell Bash was held at Hideaway Beach Club on Marco Island.

Christmas was much in the air at the Hideaway Beach Club. The dining room was a hall that had been decked, and in costume and décor, the room and its occupants were beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Jim Gratkowski wore a T-shirt that revealed Santa Claus’s seldom-seen sixpack abs, and Sandi Sims-Ravage, who was recognized for her work with the chamber’s social committee, showed she had been a good girl, dressed all in white topped by a fluffy halo. But Curt Koon nearly stole the show with his over-the-top Christmas suit, featuring a jacket with matching shorts. Wife Jacquie, in her own holiday dress, was tame by comparison.

Chamber president Erik Condee gave an additional award, the President’s Recognition, to Rick and Lisa Popoff of Rick’s Island Salon, for their longtime efforts in support of the chamber and providing free back-to-school haircuts for all students and school staff.

With the business concluded early under the event’s new format, at its new venue, there was nothing left to do except win prizes and dance to the tunes of Ryan Darling and Tripleshot.