ST. PETE BEACH, Fl. — Sea Critters Cafe was one of the only businesses still open on Christmas at Pass-A-Grille, and it was busy.
Bartender Ian O’Connell racks up a lot of tips on a night like this.
“I’m an accidental fundraiser. None of this was planned. I had a customer six years ago who asked me what I was going to do with all the money I made working a double on Christmas,” said O’Connell.
Instead of calling it a Christmas bonus, he said he’d donate the extra cash to a good cause. To his surprise, the customer offered to double it. And ever since, O’Connell’s been volunteering to work double duty Christmas Day and giving away every dime in tips he earns. It started with a few hundred dollars and has grown every year.
“I have people that give me–four people that give me $500, one that gives me $1,000, one that’s going to give me $4,000. So it’s not just the $20 bills adding up. I have a lot of very generous customers here,” said O’Connell.
Last year, his Christmas Day donations totaled more than $11,000. All those holidays tips go to local non-profit the Claybaker D.U.S.T.O.F.F. Foundation, supporting military veterans.
“Being able to come back here and see the huge out pour of support that Tampa Bay has for veterans is just really humbling, and kind of overwhelming, but in the best possible way,” said Charles Claybaker, foundation president.
Most of the money earned will help homeless vets by giving them survival backpacks, and long-term, the organization hopes to build a veterans center in downtown St. Pete.
“We want to get them using their GI bill, get them help with PTSD, drug and alcohol issues, any physical rehabilitation they might need to do–not just a cot for a night. Give a man a fish, you know, or teach him to fish. We want to teach them how to fish,” said O’Connell.
And they’re getting closer to reeling in those goals with the giving spirit of Christmas cocktail customers.