Nothing says love more than a home-baked cookie, according to local resident Charlie Kellenberger.
So far, he has reportedly baked 298,749 cookies that have been distributed to the homeless, first responders, hospital patients and nonprofit organizations - or anyone who could just use a cookie - and that was when he started counting.
Kellenberger's friends call him "The Cookie Man" or "Uncle Charlie," and he has found a unique way to help those who may need it the most at an uncertain time in their lives.
A North Fort Myers resident, Kellenberger spends his days in a sunlit kitchen making hundreds upon thousands of cookies as pleasant music plays in the background.
On Nov. 2, his goal was to make 500 cookies - with 48,665 baked year-to-date and more than 293,000-plus donated over the last few years through his ministry, which he has dubbed "Uncle Charlie's Cookie Ministries."
"I have about 200 recipes, but I use about 40 favorites," Kellenberger said.
He keeps count on his kitchen calendar, amidst numerous baking pans, bulk ingredients and a humming oven. His motto is posted on a sign given to him by a relative: Love baked daily.
Kellenberger's priority is a weekly visit to a local soup kitchen and to a weekly homeless dinner, bringing the sweets that delight.
A Vietnam veteran who has suffered several major health problems, he bakes from his wheelchair. Kellenberger is missing one leg.
"My message is that I want people to know they can still do things, no matter what happens in life," he said.
Kellenberger's story started many years ago.
"I was one of 12 kids. I was called Chucky back then," he said. "You could find me by my mom's apron strings in the kitchen."
Kellenberger said he watched one teen sister burn a cake and asked his mom for help.
"My mother was a master chef in the kitchen with an 8th-grade education," he said.
Kellenberger made his first creation and continued to bake over the years, but he was never a professional. He just loved to bake.
After a military career and running a successful business in Cape Coral for more than 20 years, Kellenberger decided to start his cookie ministry. It stemmed from him making cookies to bring along when he visited those in the hospitals.
Cookies that brightened even those who were incredibly down up, Kellenberger said.
After Hurricane Charley, he took his cookies to first responders, and Kellenberger has visited local fire stations and law enforcement offices to spread his cookie cheer - something few can resist.
"I took 7,000 cookies out to the first responders, FEMA personnel, a Catholic church on Pine Island and a trailer park that was devastated by the storm," he said.
Word spread on what Kellenberger was doing.
"I started taking cookies everywhere and a couple from Chicago read about what I was doing," he said.
When John and Jeanne Gergenheimer heard about Kellenberger's contributions in 2004, they started bringing bulk ingredients to his home.
"There was a knock on the door and they brought 25 pounds of flour, then the next week sugar and nuts, and they kept showing up," he said. "John encouraged me to start keeping track of what I baked."
The numbers were unbelievable, especially after the Gergenheimers got Kellenberger a deluxe mixer, which allowed him to significantly increase his production.
"They said, 'We like what you are doing,'" he said. "And the Bible said to feed the hungry. Maybe it didn't mean cookies, but that's what I do."
Though cookies may be considered a stretch on feeding, Kellenberger said they are almost always a welcome gift.
"The homeless may have teeth problems, but they can eat cookies," he said. "They appreciate them very much."
Kellenberger noted that he does not push his ministry or religion on the recipients of his cookies.
"If they want to pray with me, that's fine. If they don't, we don't," he said.
Kellenberger's family helps with his activities, including his wife, Ingrid, who is "the love of his life." He said he courted her in Innsbruck, Austria, after visiting a foreign exchange student friend from his hometown in Minnesota.
"I met her in a small shop in Innsbruck when she helped me pick out a Christmas card for my little brother," he said.
Kellenberger said he was captivated by Ingrid's sunny disposition, and they had her family in tow for their first coffee date.
"We've been married 46 years," he said.
Also helping him this month is his daughter-in-law, Fabiola, who speaks Spanish. She helped him distribute cookies to Spanish-speaking locals in need.
Kellenberger was the owner of the Back To Nature Health Food Store in Cape Coral for 24 years. He has been a North Fort Myers resident for the past three years.
Kellenberger's stops have included sheriff's office substations, fire houses, local hospitals and the soup kitchen in Fort Myers, as well as a weekly dinner for the homeless in North Fort Myers.
He even traveled to Estero recently to take some cookies to a group.
To contact Kellenberger, call 567-2253.
"That's 567-BAKE," he said.