Soldotna chamber of honors residents for service

Posted: Monday, February 16, 2004

Honoring a number of community members whose contributions to Soldotna go far beyond the typical, the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce handed out its annual awards earlier this month.

The chamber gave seven awards Feb. 7, including honors for Volunteer of the Year, Devotion to Youth and Youth Activities, Excellence in Profession, Pioneer of the Year, Honorary Lifetime Membership, Business of the Year and Person of the Year.

Leading off the awards were Gary and Sharon Hale, who have spent the majority of their 18 years in Alaska working to make the area a better place for future generations. Among Gary's contributions to local youth include much of his work at Central Emergency Services, where he works as fire marshal. In his time at CES, Gary helped found the Safe Kids Coalition, which runs safety programs that include car seat inspections and snowmachine safety courses.

One of the more unique aspects of the Hales' work with kids includes their visits to local schools, where the couple has for many years appeared as "Edith and Captain Burnee," two safety clowns with a valuable message.

Besides their work to keep kids safe, the Hales also are active in Little League and Peninsula Oilers baseball, as well as the foreign exchange program. For their tireless work with local youth, the Hales were presented the Devotion to Youth and Youth Activities award.

This year's Volunteer of the Year is a group of young men and women who seem to be everywhere in the community, from helping with parades and color guards to working on riverbank and highway restoration projects. A group whose motto says it all, the Alaska Young Marines were honored for their devotion to the principle of "Ask us and we will be there."

The Excellence in Profession Award went to pharmacist Tom Hodel, who has been active in the Soldotna community for nearly 30 years. Since Hodel came to the area in 1977, he's received a number of awards for excellence in his profession, including the prestigious Bowl of Hygenia award, the highest honor a pharmacist can receive for community service.

Hodel's contributions to the area include serving as a consultant for Heritage Place, coaching Little League, working with hospice, participating in the Village Fair and co-chairing the American Diabetes Walk-a-Thon.

The chamber's Pioneer of the Year award is given annually to a community member who has worked to develop the city's culture and commerce, and this year's winner more than fits that bill. He's Spence De Vito, who came to Alaska in 1968 and fell in love with the area's rich fishing opportunities.

De Vito first came to the peninsula in the early 1970s, to work as a teacher. But it was his love of fishing that would be his true calling, and he quickly became recognized as an expert salmon fisher. He's credited with becoming the first licensed Kenai guide and was honored by the chamber for helping to found a sportfishing industry that is today one of the mainstays of the Soldotna economy.

Earning the chamber's Honorary Lifetime Membership award were Steve and Jeanie Booth, who have spent much of their own lifetimes in the area.

The Booths came to the peninsula in 1963 and were instrumental in helping to secure funds for the building of Central Peninsula General Hospital. They've made countless contributions to the aesthetic value of the area through their work on the city's beautification committee, including work to build the city's famous "Welcome" sign.

The chamber's Business of the Year went to Steve and Jim Stenga of Stenga Brothers Realty. Since the late 1980s, the Stengas have left their mark on the area through the development of a number of recognizable properties around town, including Blockbuster Video, ACS, Grand Auto, Rent-A-Center and the new Soldotna Key Bank.

Finally, the chamber handed out its Person of the Year award, which goes to a community member whose contributions to community affairs stands out above the crowd, and this year's honoree certainly fits.

In more than a decade, Dena Cunningham has in addition to running a successful business with her husband, Scott volunteered time on countless organizations, including the Boys and Girls Club, SAFE Kids Coalition, Blood Bank of Alaska, Public Health Immunization Program and Arctic Winter Games.

In addition to the awards, the chamber also handed out six $1,000 scholarships to area students for their outstanding work in and out of the classroom. This year's chamber scholarships were awarded to Kaitlin Vadla of Soldotna High School and Sara Garrant, Emily Berezin, Matthew Schuetzler, Katina Lagoutaris and David Thornton of Skyview High School.

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