Sue Carter remembers when astronaut Jerry Ross was scheduled to speak at the Kenai Chamber of Awards in the 1980s. Days before the ceremony, the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded, causing the speaker to cancel.
The former Kenai Chamber of Commerce executive director said it was a sad time, but everybody understood.
"We all thought that we couldn't go forward," she said.
But at the last minute, they found another speaker, she said. The next year the astronaut came.
On Saturday at 6:30 p.m. at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, the Kenai Chamber of Commerce will celebrate its 50th anniversary at the 29th anniversary Awards Gala recognizing a history of mobilizing community businesses to help turn an empty patch of forest into a thriving community. The awards ceremony will celebrate its 29th birthday the same evening.
Carter knows the Challenger situation was difficult for many. Throughout her life in the community, she has seen the city of Kenai, through a caring community and sheer willpower continually persevere in tight spots.
After Ross' visit the next year, a plan was hatched for the Challenger Learning Center, she said.
Kenai was built from scratch and has always relied on businesses and organizations for contributions of time and money to help it succeed, she said.
Now, it has grown and the contributions continue to roll in, she said. "The Kenai chamber is the heartbeat of the community," Carter said. "Taking a chance on Kenai is what (the chamber) did."
The awards ceremony started as a gathering of members, Carter said, adding that it has grown into the event it is today. The only drawback is that it is impossible to recognize everybody's contributions because there have been so many, she said.
Seven awards will be given at Saturday's ceremony:
The Log Cabin Award will be given to a longtime Alaska resident who has given back to the community. The name stems from an old Alaska philosophy, said Janie Odgers, the current executive director of the Kenai chamber. It is an unwritten law in Alaska a cabin in the wilderness is a refuge to all weary travelers, she said. There is a moral obligation for the traveler to replenish the wood after using the cabin, she said.
The business or organization award will be given to a group in this category who consistently stayed active and contributed to the well-being of the community.
The Community Service Award will be presented to an individual or business who has relentlessly donated time to the efforts of the chamber.
The Volunteer Award will be given to a person who has continually volunteered time and effort to the events and programs sponsored by the chamber or other organizations.
The Pioneer Award goes to an individual or group who has been in the Kenai area for at least 25 years and been instrumental in the development of business, education, culture or recreation activities during their period of residence.
The Service to Youth Award goes to an individual who does something extraordinary for kids.
The President's Award is selected by the chamber president.
Hors d'oeuvres, such as oysters and Kenai Wild salmon, will be served at the ceremony, Odgers said. In addition, the first chamber president, Stan Thompson, will be present.
Outgoing President Tim Navarre will officially pass the gavel to the next president, who will be announced at Saturday's event.
Navarre, who has lived in Kenai since the 1950s, said he has seen many positive things come from the chamber's existence over the years. Weekly luncheons with speakers give the community a chance to network and learn about each other, he said.
The annual Fourth of July celebration and Christmas Comes to Kenai, planned by the chamber, are examples of how the group has reached out to the community, he said.
"Business leaders had very good foresight to start a chamber," Navarre said. "It continues to support and enhance the business community."
To reserve a ticket for the ceremony, call the chamber at 283-7989. Tickets cost $20.
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