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In Key West, this nonprofit looks out for service workers who have hit tough times

·4 min read

Julie Hanson runs a Key West nonprofit that helps service and hospitality workers who have hit tough times.

The employees work at hotels, restaurants and other tourism-related businesses, and they’ve been hurt or fallen ill to the point where they can’t earn a paycheck or tips for weeks or months.

Meanwhile, the rent is due and the light bill just arrived on an island where costs are already high, housing is scarce and so many live paycheck to paycheck.

They need a little help to fill in the financial gaps.

“They’re temporarily out of work through no fault of their own,” said Hanson, executive director of Sister Season Fund. “We don’t do medical bills. We are here for rent or utilities.”

Hanson is the nonprofit’s sole full-time employee, working out of a compact office on Duval Street. A part-time executive assistant helps out, but Sister Season relies on about 40 volunteers.

Formed in 2005, Sister Season has come through for workers during natural disasters, like Hurricane Irma in 2017. In a typical year, it helps 50 to 75 households. Payments vary by case.

Last year, as the pandemic took hold, the nonprofit stepped up to provide a staggering amount of money. Sister Season distributed $400,000 to locals, helping some 400 households. Each one received $1,000.

“You would have thought it was $500,000,” Hanson said, recalling people’s reactions. “People were so desperate at that time to maintain residences.”

Without Sister Season in 2020, a lot of people would have been forced to leave the island, said Scott McCarthy, a board member and the volunteer coordinator.

“People were so generous in such tough times,” he said. “Everybody was hurting. Who knew what was going to happen next.”

The COVID-19 shutdown in the Keys, which included police-run roadblocks at the Monroe County line on U.S. 1 and County Road 905. The closings, designed to keep out tourists during a peak of the pandemic, left workers at a standstill. The roadblocks were up from March 27 to June 1.

At the same time, Keys nonprofits couldn’t have the public fundraising events they depend on because of the COVID concerns. Many volunteers stayed home.

Nonprofits that provide a wide array of services — housing, groceries, healthcare referrals, and stopgaps like Sister Season’s payments — were forced to get creative.

Early last year, Sister Season started selling masks, as local people volunteered to sew and sell them. They set up shop at the 801 Bourbon Bar on Duval Street, taking donations and distributing them from the front windows.

Then the nonprofit got help from 27 Keys photographers who documented scenes of a nearly empty Key West during the shutdown. The images became “Isolated Island — The Key West COVID-19 Spring of 2020”, a 352-page coffee table book produced by Roberta DePiero, Carol Tedesco and the Key West Photographers Cooperative.

With a limited press run, sales of Isolated Island raised $60,000, Hanson said.

Key West takes care of its own

Hanson knows what it’s like to find yourself short on money despite having worked hard.

In 2010, she was a hairdresser working part time as a restaurant host when she got sick.

After nine days in the hospital with pneumonia, the mother of three couldn’t work enough hours to make rent. Someone told her about a group called Sister Season, which she’d never heard of.

Sister Season came through with $800.

“I just needed one month’s rent and I was able to recover pretty quickly and get back on track,” Hanson said. “My landlady was great and let me pay weekly for a month or so, and I was able to recover financially and continue on.”

Hanson, in return, wanted to become part of Sister Season.

“I was so grateful,” said Hanson, a 70-year-old Alabama native who first landed in Key West in 1976. After a move to Michigan, she returned 11 years ago.

“I went to them when I fully recovered and said, ‘Thank you so much and what can I do?’ I became a volunteer and they asked me to join the board.”

Key West is a place where you can count on your neighbors and friends to look out for you, said Cynthia Braswell, a Sister Season volunteer.

“Everybody falls in line when someone needs help,” said Braswell, a waitress for 35 years and now retired. “I’ve never seen that anywhere else. I love that.”

Braswell has a friend who got help from Sister Season after an injury put him out of work for a month.

“I see so many people helping,” she said.

Sister Season helps those who live and work in Key West. But the board’s plan is to someday expand the coverage area and move up the Florida Keys.

“That’s our mission, to keep growing,” Hanson said. “People need help. It’s all over. Eventually, we’re going to get there.”

To help

Contact Sister Season Fund at sisterseason.com, 305-304-9828 or sisterseasonfundinc@gmail.com.

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