Hookers’ history book grows thicker each year
Donna Joe (DJ) Ruscik is the 14th Madame of the Matlacha Hookers, the beloved island philanthropic organization with the unorthodox name.
Nancy Goodwin was the first Madame (president) back in 1998, when the organization began. “She and her husband lived in Matlacha for many years,” said Ruscik of Goodwin, explaining that Goodwin’s husband, Dana, had been wearing a fishing hook on his hat, which is what originally gave Goodwin the idea to begin a fundraising organization called the Matlacha Hookers in the commercial fishing town. According to Ruscik it took approximately five years to become a 501c3 organization.
“They used to meet once a month at Bert’s Bar,” said Ruscik, “and the group as it was then compared to the group as it is now has truly evolved in so many ways. It was sort of a rough and tumble local bunch of girls who liked to get together once a month, have some drinks and think about what they could do to raise money.”
The first fundraiser, she said, was a car wash, and the second was what has become the Pine Island Elementary Fishing Tournament Derby, originally used to raise money for the school’s accelerated reader program.
“That was our focus for many years,” said Ruscik. “First and foremost was education. Over the years it evolved and we began granting scholarships — accepting donations for our scholarship program to award scholarships to anyone seeking higher education.”
Many of the scholarships, she said, are named specifically to an individual or have a particular focus such as community service, the environment or science. In these cases, she said, an applicant is matched to the funds allocated to the area of study they are pursuing.
The first funds awarded by the Hookers amounted to three $1,500 scholarships, totaling $4,500, this amount, she said, was increased to $2,000 scholarships, of which they awarded 11, for the last two years, totaling $22,000.
The Derby, she said, evolved in the same way, steadily increasing with each passing year. Often the organization teams up with other island organizations in an effort to help, such as the Hookers annual Wine Tasting event, which is coming up in February, with proceeds going to the Beacon of Hope’s senior program.
“We also have an outreach committee that helps individuals and families in need,” said Ruscik. “We work very closely with the Beacon of Hope, Pine Island Community Church, with the Methodist Church, the American Legion, the Chamber of Commerce, the Kiwanis and this network of island organizations like FISH” (Fellow Islanders Sending Help).
She makes it clear that when people ask the Hookers for assistance, they are networking with everyone else to make sure the organization is the best possible fit for each situation they encounter.
The Hookers set aside $1,000 per year for the Back to School Clothes program offered by FISH. “We adopt 20 children, and we get them a couple of different outfits,” said Ruscik.
For the Basket Brigade, another FISH program, Ruscik said the Hookers go Christmas caroling for donations.
“We sing maybe six or seven different times a year,” said Ruscik, explaining that although most of the focus is on-island, they do go into Cape Coral a bit as well.
Precautions were taken in the past year, she said, to keep members and the community safe from the pandemic, resulting in far fewer of these types of exhibitions. Even a global pandemic has not gotten in the way of fundraising for these women, though, as they gave over $1,000 to FISH for this year’s Christmas caroling.
The Hookers, said Ruscik, are the official beverage team for Artfest Fort Myers.
“Every single beverage station at Artfest Fort Myers, by the river, is manned by Matlacha Hookers or friends, family, neighbors, spouses or significant others.”
They are allowed to keep their tips, she said, which go directly to their scholarship program. Artfest Fort Myers, she added, also makes a donation to the Pine Island Elementary art department.
Another annual fundraising event is the Bag n’ Tag Breakfast event.
“It’s a glorified tag sale,” said Ruscik, “where we go through anything donated to us, such as household items, clothing, tools or sport equipment. We have people buy brown paper grocery bags for $5 and they can fill the bags with whatever clothing they want.”
The other items, she said, are then sold in a tag sale, although she admits if someone wants something, they will work with that person to make sure they leave with the item.
The Hookers take a great deal of pride in getting money back into the community, Ruscik said.
“We take care of what’s in our own backyard. Our mission statement is to make a positive difference in our community, and we do that. We help other organizations achieve their goals as well as our own.”