On Saturday, the citizens of Mexico Beach and Port St. Joe, Florida, rocked out at what was one part neighborhood block party and family reunion, held at Beacon Hill Veteran’s Memorial Park, to mark one year since Category 5 Hurricane Michael tore through these towns. The event was called, “Stronger Than The Storm” and organized by the owner of Annie’s Café in Enterprise, who started helping the area in its recovery over the summer. 

A long list of performance artists included Dothan’s Mike VanDusen Band and Sampson singer-songwriter Otha Allen, plus Nashville-based Dustin Herring and Allison Clarke who played on a stage still missing part of its awning. Food was also served free all day to more than 3,500 people, thanks to a massive t-shirt sale launched on Facebook.

Larson’s goal? “Take the focus off what’s left to fix and just let people have fun,” he said. 

This is not the first time Larson has lent his time and talents in the restaurant business to charity. For the last five years his nonprofit, Annie’s Outreach, has served more than 2,000 Christmas dinners to families in need in Coffee County all the way to Cottonwood that earned him the nickname, “The Korean Santa.” Larson’s team just finished its back-to-school drive, which accumulated 270 backpacks in response to this year’s tornado in Beauregard. 

For last weekend’s event, volunteers began smoking meat on Friday in an on-site kitchen and served family-style ribs and pork chops, plus, cookies sporting the event’s logo. “We didn’t want to lean on businesses,” said Larson, “but got help from Chopper’s Ol’School BBQ, TNC Custom Trim, and Dennis Chastang at The Craft. Plus, 75-80 companies sponsored shirts and The Blue Parrot and Paddy’s Raw Bar on St. George Island sold them. I couldn’t have done it without Sand Dollar Café, and Killer Seafood, too,” Larson said. “It was blown away, but re-opening,” referencing a Cypress table guests signed for the new establishment.

“This originated because of the Enterprise tornados, in 2007 when eight kids died,” Larson said. “I bought the restaurant in 2008, and in 2011 we went to Tuscaloosa to serve disaster relief meals. We did a lot of meals after the hurricane to Marianna and a Thanksgiving feast. The community requested a cookout and it went from one big meal to a 15-hour event.”

For a first-time festival on the Forgotten Coast, Larson faced resistance that it was something he could pull off. To show his solidarity and prove his determination, Larson walked 14 miles with son Caden from Port St. Joe United Methodist Church to the Mexico Beach Marina in August. “We’re going to be here” said Larson, who was pleased with a good reception. 

He kept the event intentionally small, but still, a steady 1,500 people used the park on Saturday.

Music came together after Larson met Bainbridge, Georgia entertainer, Kevin Whoo, who orchestrated local sound. “This is new to me,” said Larson, “but we made sure, is was professional.” Many of the singers, including Florida native, Kristi Leann, also met, at Annie’s, leading up to the show, to shoot videos, and practice. “This built  friendships, and generated hype,” said Larson.

Musicians have also been wearing the shirts at gigs. Allen said, “Working with Matt was easy,” adding, “When we met I was burned out and searching for a spark of energy. From the first day, he has been a big inspiration. No one word, describes this man’s drive to see others smile.” 

VanDusen said, “Matt saw us at The Craft and after hearing his story we knew we wanted to do it. Driving down, and seeing devastation a year later, there is a long way to go, but we gave people a day to put aside their loss.” 

 “I dream big,” said Larson. “Combine that with the beach and it was amazing. It wasn’t for me, or for the people of Enterprise. We just realized residents still need encouragement.”

Larson’s brother and Annie’s partner, Jeffery Larson, said, “If all you can do is pray or give a dollar, you’ve got to give back. We know how to cook and were able to do this, with customers’ help. One woman gave a can of green beans, but she knew it was coming here.”  

Donations made on Saturday included $1,000 to Gulf Country Schools, a $600 check to the Student Government Association for helping with parking, plus, $250 to the Humane Society. 

Larson hopes people will march on with this spirit. “I had one family say they were about to tap out and move to Alabama, but because of this experience, they are going to persevere.” 

Event volunteer, Natalie Dolan, posted in its Facebook group, “For everyone who doubted Stronger Than The Storm, this was a day of fellowship, love and hope and an atmosphere of unity prevailed.”

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