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 cancelled due to the pandemic shutdown,” said John Lai, chamber president and chief executive officer. “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 her 14 years as the natural resource policy director at Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF). Her advocacy and outreach work brought sound scientific grounding to policy development, protection, and restoration of water resources, 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,” said Lai. “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,” said Wessel. “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.”

Kingfisher Vacations and Real Estate claimed the award for Best Business of the Year. The vacation rentals aspect has been in business for a decade under the leadership of Jeff McDermott, while the real estate arm opened two-and-a-half years ago, said broker/owner Phaidra McDermott, Jeff’s spouse.

“That we have joined forces is exciting, to be able to offer our boutique service and attention to detail,” she added.  “We have no intention to be the biggest on the island. Our tenure on the island helps to excite people about being part of the community. To be recognized this way by the community and chamber tickles me.”

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 opened Malia in November 2018; Spoondrift, which started as a Sanibel Farmers Market concept, 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,” said Malia Samson. “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 volunteers, were the late John Carney and his wife Fay.

“John was a big presence on the island, no matter how you look at it,” said Lai. “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,” said Fay, 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, starting the annual Polar Bear Plunge, judging the shell museum’s photo contest, being active in the Rotary Club, and acting as chamber liaison to America’s Boating Club (aka the San Cap Sail & Power Squadron).

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



The Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce is dedicated to promoting the prosperity of its members and preserving the quality of life of our community. With over 560 active Chamber members from both islands including businesses from Lee and Collier counties, the Chamber plays a key role in facilitating communication and cooperation between business, residents and government to enhance the economic health of the islands. The Francis P. Bailey, Jr. Chamber Visitor Center is located at the entrance to Sanibel Island and welcomes over 160,000 visitors each year. VISIT FLORIDA named the Visitor Center one of thirteen official Florida Certified Tourism Information Centers. The Visitor Center is open 365 days a year and provides visitors with comprehensive information about things to do, places to visit, where to stay, shop and dine. The Chamber website receives over 1.3 million website visits per year.


For more information about the chamber, visit or contact Ashley Pignato, member services manager, at 239-472-8255  or [email protected].