Evette Wheeler (from left) is honored as 2021 Friend of the Community, along with Citizens of the Year John and Karen Jernigan and Business of the Year Mee Memorial Healthcare System’s CEO Rena Salamacha and board chair Mike Howard, during King City Chamber’s annual awards dinner last Saturday. (Sean Roney)

KING CITY — Community members gathered last Saturday for a “Toast of the Town” awards dinner to honor King City’s top contributors.

The Aug. 6 event, hosted by King City Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture at the Salinas Valley Fairgrounds, paid tribute to 2021 Citizens of the Year John and Karen Jernigan, Business of the Year Mee Memorial Healthcare System, and Friend of the Community Evette Wheeler.

“Karen and I would like to thank you guys for this honor,” John Jernigan said during his acceptance speech. “We continue to be blessed to live in King City.”

“It’s a place I’ve come to appreciate for its scenic beauty,” added Karen Jernigan about King City. “It’s the hardworking and generous people who have impressed me. I became fascinated by the stories from the history of our town and hope each of you will continue to wake up every morning and be grateful for what we have here.”

The couple reflected on the value of rural towns, and King City in particular, with John reflecting on the urge to leave for a short time before returning to start a business and Karen reflecting on her thought she’d merely stay a short while to begin a career in journalism.

John and Karen Jernigan accept the 2021 Citizens of the Year award during King City Chamber’s “Toast of the Town” awards dinner on Aug. 6. (Sean Roney)

The Jernigans, who were introduced by Suzanne Krause, owned the King City Glass business for more than 40 years. Most recently, they’ve worked on sharing the history of the town, from guided history tours to publishing a book of historical images.

“John has some of the oldest pictures ever of the mission that were done on glass,” Krause said in her speech. “Interest in a better community put Karen on the city council for four years from 2012 to 2016.”

Krause continued, “They are a true team. It’s not often you find a couple blessed with such shared interests.”

“Everyone can make a difference,” John Jernigan said. “If you find something you are passionate about, do it.” 

Karen Jernigan added, “It’s not a perfect place, but after enduring troubling times, residents here have continually shown that we can address the problems and work to make the town a better place.”

Mee Memorial was represented by CEO Rena Salamacha and board chair Mike Howard. Both thanked their staff and volunteers and said the recognition was only possible through the work of that team.

“It’s because of them and their sheer force of dedication and drive that we are recognized as Business of the Year,” Salamacha said. “It’s because of them that Mee Memorial Healthcare System is a valuable part of this community and continues to be.”

Mee Memorial Healthcare System CEO Rena Salamacha gives a speech while accepting the 2021 Business of the Year award on Aug. 6. (Sean Roney)

Howard shared the story of the growing King City hospital, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. He also reviewed the renovations, including doubling the capacity of the emergency room, revamping of the radiology department, and opening a new pediatric clinic.

“I am able to witness first-hand how hard work and dedication goes into running a resilient, patient-centered, community-minded healthcare system,” Howard said of his perspective as board chair.

Salamacha brought up the point that rural hospitals require support from their local communities. In addition to praising her team, she urged local support for Mee Memorial.

“We may not be perfect and we’re definitely a work in progress, but I can stand here with confidence and say that we do take pride in the quality care that we provide to you and your loved ones and always strive for excellence in all that we do,” she said.

Oscar Avalos delivered the presentation speech for Wheeler, who was honored as Friend of the Community. He talked about Wheeler’s continuous reminders through text messages to sell Girl Scout cookies and barbecue tickets to support local organizations.

“She’s somebody that really wants to give back to the community,” Avalos said. “She does not look around to see what needs attention, she takes action.”

Avalos shared his perspective on feeling drained and not having the capacity to carry out certain projects, but recognized Wheeler as someone who will get them finished even if it seems beyond her capacity.

Evette Wheeler heads to the stage to accept the 2021 Friend of the Community award on Aug. 6. (Sean Roney)

“If you know me, you know I either have children around me, or Girl Scout cookies and barbecue tickets in hand,” Wheeler said in her acceptance speech. “I find working with children to be very rewarding, and that’s why I have a toddler on the hip or in a stroller on my walk. Being involved with kids sports and being a Girl Scout leader and Boy Scout leader really fills my heart.”

Wheeler thanked all present, as well as her family. She said her desire to help is the reason she takes up a garage wall with cookies during sales season, and a desire to visit friends and catch up as being driving forces behind going out and making fundraiser sales.

“I honestly enjoy everything that I’m a part of and it gives me the opportunity to meet people and make new friends,” Wheeler said.

“We are so fortunate to have a pool of outstanding individuals in our community who truly care,” Krause said of all honorees, past and present. “They are risk takers who have a heart for this community. They see that things could be better and they take a plan of action. They never ask for recognition and they are surprised when it comes their way.”

As part of the evening, a live auction was held as a chamber fundraiser, with the highest bid being $1,200 for a San Bernabe Vineyard tour and dinner. However, a Girl Scout cookie basket that sold for $200 gained an amendment sale of extra cookies, which totaled an extra $820, making it the second-highest item in the auction.

Dinner was catered by the Knights of Columbus, and the evening finished out with dancing to music from DJ Moi.

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Sean Roney is a freelance reporter for King City Rustler and Salinas Valley Tribune, a unified publication of Greenfield News, Soledad Bee and Gonzales Tribune. He covers general news for the Salinas Valley communities in South Monterey County.


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