Florida Keys

‘Everybody gets to eat.’ How a couple’s cookouts are helping the Keys heal

Geno Miletti carves out ribs during a recent cookout on Big Pine Key for locals.
Geno Miletti carves out ribs during a recent cookout on Big Pine Key for locals. Keynoter

When Lisa Miletti is cooking, everybody gets to eat.

That’s the rule, as Miletti and her husband Geno have become familiar faces on Big Pine Key in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. They have fed thousands of people over the past three months.

They’ve been cooking on weekends for the locals, who they call “the hardest hit” by the Category 4 Irma, which struck the Florida Keys Sept. 10, serving up fall-off-the-bone barbecue ribs, burgers, nachos, soup with biscuits and corn on the side. Sodas and water and coffee are also for the taking.

They take donations but the food is offered up for free.

“If you can’t pay, you don’t have to,” Lisa told a tourist from Michigan, who ordered up some ribs to go on Sunday at the Big Pine Flea Market. “Everybody gets to eat.”

The woman chipped in $10. “That’s more than enough,” Lisa replied.

Since Irma, Lisa Miletti has become known for helping hurricane survivors get mattresses, furniture and mailboxes. When a need arises, Miletti takes action.

The cookouts and delivery of food are simply her way.

“My wife’s got a big heart for feeding people,” said Geno, a native of Akron, Ohio, like Lisa; the couple has been in the Keys for nine years. “She always has.”

People ask the couple if they’re caterers, which makes Geno, a contractor, laugh.

“We had four teenagers and all their friends came over to eat at our house because Lisa was cooking,” Geno said.

The couple, who lived in Tavernier before Irma, even moved closer to Ramrod Key a month ago so they could be closer to Big Pine and the other Lower Keys communities still recovering from the storm and the flood waters.

“I was doing a two-hour drive,” Lisa said. “People would call me and say they need something.”

She spoke from the road Tuesday, driving up to the mainland to gather more items for the hardest hit, like Christmas gifts, school supplies and other necessities. She shies away from talking about herself when asked. She wants to talk about Irma survivors and their needs.

“Have you seen the area?” Lisa asks when asked what motivates her. “The things that are wrong. Everything was so busy originally, I had high hopes. It’s almost as if the pause button got hit.”

The Milettis say they’re not the only ones stepping up to help the people who lost everything to Irma.

“It’s more gratifying to see people get help,” Geno said. “And to see people who do help a lot. You don’t have to ask them, they just show up.”

“I cried when I opened the mailbox and found handmade Christmas cards, hand-painted ornaments and cookies were nestled inside. All made by the children of the Middle Keys,” Stephanie Wickwire Sanderson Foy posted on Facebook. Her mailbox was delivered, as promised, on Dec. 3.

“All I want is for people to be OK,” Lisa said. “If they need something to eat, get them what they need. Clothes, resources. My biggest thing is getting them resources to talk to somebody, counseling. There’s so many people with PTSD right now, anxiety, depression. It is one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen. I’m talking about people who are strong and you would never think they would be broken down and they are.”

“I love it down here,” said Geno, who wears a tattoo on his left forearm that reads “Without struggle, there is no progress.”

“Hurricane or not,” he said, “it’s worth the price.”

The cookouts have become a communitywide attraction. Lawyers eating alongside the homeless, Lisa said.

“It’s just everybody hanging out together, in the same spot, saying how can we help,” Lisa said.

Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen

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