Scott Gerke is a local DJ and events producer who started the series “Once a Stranger” in June 2020. CONTRIBUTED

With a smile on his face and camera in hand, Key West resident Scott Gerke explores the power of human connection through a simple “hello.” 

Having traveled the country to learn more about people, the local DJ and adventurer is setting his focus on his fellow island residents.

Gerke loaded his van and traveled the highway as he searched for people, from a dairy farmer and an Amish man to a skateboarder. A COVID-19 pandemic crippled events and weddings in the Keys, including Gerke’s DJ gigs. Instead of sitting around, Gerke jumped on a filmmaking opportunity. 

“As a community activist, I knew that if I moved into my van and traveled, I could create a new life for myself, documenting positive messages through experiences with people I once never knew through a simple ‘hello,’” he said. 

Getting rid of his belongings in preparation for the adventure, Gerke built out his van and left the Keys with new uncertainties of the future, but confidence in his decision. 

Curious about others since his early years, Gerke said the whole mission of his filmmaking adventure, called “Once a Stranger,” was to search for people from different backgrounds to better understand their struggles and triumphs. Illinois, Pennsylvania and Maine were among the stops for Gerke. He also visited the House of 5,000 Dolls in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. 

In the Keys, Gerke spent some time on the streets of Key West during Fantasy Fest. Gerke said the run-ins and connections made with different people helped shape who he is today. 

“I learned about the Amish industry and farm industry in my travels. And holy cow, no pun intended, but things are a mess for farmers,” he said. “I’ve done a couple surprise videos where I found people who were willing to drop everything they were doing and go on a surprise adventure. I even picked a guy up at the airport and took him skydiving.”

He also asked someone to be his granny for the day, and he even took her parasailing. His adventures can be viewed on YouTube and Instagram. 

“As humans, our need for love and belonging helps shape who we are and is the driving force in how we treat one another. I wanted to document that,” he said. “The idea was to start off with me reaching out to someone who’s making a positive impact or just interests me.”

Gerke’s last trip was on the eastern side of the Appalachian Mountains in the little Tennessee town of Elizabethton. He was on a traditional summer fly-fishing trip with his family when he decided to explore. While never knowing how a filming might go, Gerke quickly saw the town’s Southern charm after visiting a local festival and a diner. 

“I learned it was a cool town with a lot of awesome characters,” he said. “It was a really beautiful town, and I found that Jesus rules these towns. Religion is a very big deal in Appalachian culture.”

Among the memorable moments in his filming on the road was an Amish man. Gerke said the man never opened up to someone outside his community.

“He appreciated my willingness to learn about him and listen to what he had to say,” Gerke said. “At the end of the day, everybody has that same desire to be heard and loved.”

With life as a DJ back, Gerke is seeking to bring his video series to include his island neighbors as far south as Key West and north to the Everglades.

“Everyone has a whole story to tell,” he said. “If I have enough weddings and gigs to keep me in town for the next several months, I am going to start doing stuff here in the Keys and the Everglades. I’m looking for people, communities or industries that don’t get press often, or something people find interesting. 

“Getting to meet your neighbor, I get to know them and create an experience,” he continued. That’s what I’m trying to showcase: the power of a simple ‘hello.’”

This week, Gerke is heading out on a stone crab boat as part of a commercial fishing series in the Keys. He’ll then head on a shrimp boat in mid-December, and he said he’s hoping to connect with other fisheries.

Gerke is a kiteboarder who went on a two-day, 100-mile trip in the Keys with his friend, Joe Tatangelo, in December 2020 to raise awareness about mental health. A little over $2,000 was raised to support mental health services in the Keys. 

To learn more about Gerke and his “Once a Stranger” series, visit scottcgerke.com, his Instagram handle, scottcgerke, or YouTube.

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Jim McCarthy is a Western New Yorkers who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 3-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. Jim is a sports fanatic who loves to watch football, mixed martial arts and golf. He loves to hit the links and play some softball with his Make A Play team. He also enjoys time with family (he's expecting a little boy in October).