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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

2004 Islander of the year: Jeff Croley
A victim of Hurricane Charley in Wauchula gives a cool hug to Jeff Croley in exchange for his offer ice-cold bottled water. Jeff took his vacation to deliver kindness and comfort to many of the needy victims of the hurricane in the area from Wauchula to Punta Gorda.

Jeff Croley of Holmes Beach symbolizes all the good qualities we could ask for in a volunteer - and he symbolizes for Anna Maria Island all the good folks who quietly went about doing anything and everything they could to aid those in need after Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne.

There were undoubtedly many, many volunteers who pitched in many hours, and many folks who gave food, supplies and cash to aid hurricane victims in east Manatee County. Yet somehow Jeff, who came by our office coincidentally, epitomized the selfless nature of those most willing to help.

Jeff, who is a longtime maintenance employee at Veranda Beach Club on Longboat Key, took a week's vacation from work to volunteer wherever needed after Charley hit the Gulf coast Aug. 13.

He joined up with the American Legion in Arcadia, where a supply station was established to receive and distribute aid to those in need. Jeff found a niche in the relief effort and took to riding the back roads in his pickup truck in the hardest hit areas, coaxing the folks he found in need into an icy bottled water, a Coke or Gatoraid.

To further his effort, Jeff needed a BIG cooler, which is what prompted him to stop at our office. That and the fact our lights were on and we were at work very early on Tuesday when he was on his way to Arcadia.

He was absolutely ecstatic that we had just such a cooler, and ice, too, at Ooh La La! next door. And so his routine became a stop for ice in the morning before heading off to do his good deeds, meeting folks who were all too reluctant to accept aid, and then chatting and comforting and soothing them into a cold drink - usually the first cold drink since the storm struck.

Jeff wore out his tires and his back, and no doubt lost 10 pounds, and his heart swelled with emotion over the good folks he met every day and the conditions they had to endure.

He took back up where he'd left off with Charley when Frances struck the east coast and worked its way to some of the same areas of Polk and Hardee counties on roads that had become too familiar to him.

Like Jeff, the stories of Jo Ann Meilner and her husband Don, as well as Nancy and David Ambrose, who didn't hesitate to help victims of Charley and the other storms are moving and motivating.

Each of us gave to the relief effort, but more than some, they continued to do good deeds.

And congratulations to Jeff for inspiring us all.

Hurricane relief

Jo Ann Meilner joined The Islander when asked to help the Chiles Group serve hot lunches in Wauchula a week after Charley. She said she was anxious and curious about the damage there, having believed that 60 miles inland would be a safe haven.

"I wasn't prepared to see the magnitude of the storm's destruction," she said.

"Pulling into the staging area for volunteers and relief supplies, seeing the tents, the huge stacks of bottled water and walls of donated goods lining the parking lot of the Kash & Karry brought a tear to my eye. The steady stream of trucks, cars and semi-trailers pulling up to unload supplies was balanced by the steady, long lines of people who needed those items.

"My sense of obligation for volunteering was balanced by the guilt that we were spared by Charley and others had suffered.

"Also very moving was the unlimited supply of good will by those able to give. As we helped serve Chiles' buffet of hot food, fresh cold salads and dessert, a group in a pickup truck filled to the brim with hot Mexican food came by to ask if they could join our food line. It was quickly unloaded and added to the tables.

"From Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops to the Ed Chiles restaurant group, to the Red Cross and Salvation Army, there were helpers everywhere we looked.

"As soon as my husband Don listened to my stories of the hurricane damage, he didn't hesitate to find a way to help. He loaded his truck and construction trailer with chain saws, tools, a generator and coolers of bottled water and headed to Arcadia, then south to the very tiny town of Hull, where he found a small area of overturned trailers and severely damaged small frame homes. Folks there were living in their vehicles. It was evident that they may never have power restored. He helped cut trees and clear the fallen branches. There was so much damage, the task seemed unending.

"Each weekend for several weeks he returned to help. The most pressing need was shelter. He was able to buy an RV trailer at a great discount. Its size required a tow truck for the move to Hull and Greg Gothier was hired to do the job. As they pulled into Hull and Greg saw the conditions there, he refused any payment and wouldn't even take money for gas.

"The amount of destruction to the homes of people who were living the most basic, simple and humble lives was gut wrenching.

"It made us appreciate how very fortunate we really are. Not just that the storms passed us, but much deeper gratitude for all that we have here on AMI, our homes, our families, our community.

As we learned more about the need, The Islander got more involved in trying to help others deliver aid to the needy.

On behalf of Harvey Memorial Community Church, Islander staff-member Nancy Ambrose took on distribution of aid collected at The Islander office. Croley had told us about a group of people he happened upon that had not been helped after Hurricane Charley at Sunnybreeze Christian Retirement Community - a mix of mobile and block homes where all the mobile homes were destroyed and many of the residents were still up north.

Nancy and husband David found folks there very appreciative for all the aid they could carry, and we would have never found them without Jeff's guidance.

The Ambroses ventured on to Fort Ogden, where Jeff had observed an old church all but fully destroyed, and Nochatee, where they found many people in need. They distributed a cargo-van load of all kinds of needed items to the three communities.

The aid effort by the Ambroses focused in the general area around Fort Ogden. Harvey Church started a fund drive, as did All Island Demonimations and The Islander for the people and churches of that area and all kinds of items were shared with families throughout the area. Our community of residents and visitors was so generous that even an organ was delivered to one of the churches left without music.

"The smiles on the faces and the tears of joy in their eyes said it all. Many people just couldn't believe that people all the way from Anna Maria Island would care so much for their needs," Nancy said. None of the people she met had ever been to the Island and they just couldn't believe that such caring hearts exist here, she added.

And Jeff had already been there ahead of us with his pickup truck and his coolers. He certainly aimed us in the right direction.

Jeff Croley was an inspiration during this time and we thank him for that and for much more. If you ever need a friend ... we've got his number.