For years, Key West has been one of the top destinations for the LGBTQ community, and for good reason. What other gay mecca in the U.S. boasts incredible sunsets and palm trees?
For many, Key west is home. One of our favorite organizations benefiting from this year's 2017 Stoli Key West Cocktail Classic is the Sister Season Fund, created in 2005 as a way for locals to help locals during times of hardship. In the off-season, when that glorious Florida sunshine isn't shining quite as bright, money can often be tight. To help support and maintain Key West as a thriving destination, the Sister Season Fund provides financial assistance to the locals who are the backbones of the Island's economy.
We sat down with the organization's original sponsor, Joey Schroeder, to hear more about his passion for the Sister Season Fund. Not only is Joey the owner of the New Orleans House & Bourbon St. Pub, one of the hottest LGBTQ bars and hotels in Key West, he is also a standing judge in the 2017 Key West Cocktail Classic.
OUT: Joey, tell us about your involvement with Sister Season Fund?
Joey: Sister Season was started by a good friend of mine, James Thaller (AKA "JT"), who has since passed away from cancer. He saw a gap for people who worked in the service industry, who need health insurance, when they got hurt they had no way to cover rent or utilities. So we started a nonprofit to address it.
JT came to me with this idea, while sitting at my bar, and I said, "sign me up." I wanted to be proactive in helping any way that I could. I had a venue to host events and raise money where people could attend these benefits. It became natural for me to work with Sister Season and see my own bartenders benefit from their services if anything happened to them.
Sister Season helps anyone in the service industry - whether gay or straight - eventually get back to work if they are injured and can't pay to recover.
Above, Sister Season Fund originator, James Thaller (second on the left), and Joey Schroeder (second from the right) stand with two volunteers after Joey's receipt of the Certificate of Apprication for continuance of support to Sister Season Fund throughout the years.
Are there any stories you can share about the direct impact you've seen from Sister Season's work?
Well some of the stories are funny, and some not so funny. When someone crashes their bike after a night of drinking and isn't able to work for a week or so, Sister Season comes in to help them out. Sometimes it will be a broken leg or some sort of sickness, and we will host a fundraiser to help them out. It's really a great benefit for locals helping locals in the service industry.
Key West is home to many wonderful small businesses; does Sister Season Fund also help those businesses?
We're helping them by allowing these ma' and pa' businesses to tap into this fund when one of their own is hurt. All the small businesses contribute and host events to help the charity. For such a small town, Key West has so many wonderful charities that all work together to help the larger community.
What makes you passionate about this organization?
I think without our service industry, and without our blue-collar workers, we wouldn't have Key West. In resort towns, we're losing the middle-class because of rising rents, and this fund protects these people in Key West. When I came here in the 80's, I was one of those worker bees. Without them, I don't know what would happen to our resort towns. You have to help everyone out.
Key West has long been a home away from home for LGBTQ people. Why is it important for us to help?
Without our workers, we wouldn't have a fun place to be anymore. We need the bartenders and the waiters. We need them to be happy. And we need to help them when there is a gap so that they can keep going and be citizens of our community.
What's your part in this year's Stoli Key West Cocktail Classic?
This year they're going to 17 cities, and I've signed up to go to 5 of them to represent Key West and New Orleans House & Bourbon St. Pub. I'll be judging as a Key West ambassador because I've been here for 38 years now. I go at my own expense and enjoy these cities, and get to know the bartenders and the locals. I chose one city to sponsor, and that was San Diego. If that contestant wins, he earns $7,500 for his charity, as well as $5,000 for Sister Season Fund.
As you're judging the competition, what are you looking for in someone who is going to represent that community on the grand stage at the finale?
It's fairly broad, but I look for presentation, personality, how they talk, are they comfortable with the people, how they present themselves as a bartender, and what their drink looks/tastes like. Overall, why are they there, and why do they want to go to Key West, and are they are passionate about their charity.
As the final weeks of the competition approach, do you have any advice for the bartenders who are flying down?
I would say don't pack any warm clothes! Think tropical, light, fruity and think customer service. Not only do they have to make the judges cocktails, but also drinks for 100 people. They all need to taste the same, so try not to fall short.
To keep up with the 2017 Stoli Key West Cocktail Classic and read more behind-the-scenes exclusives, visit OUT.com/KeyWestCocktailClassic. To find out more about Sister Season Fund and their work in Key West, visit SisterSeason.com.