Individuals, volunteers, businesses, organizations and others were recognized for the outstanding contributions they have made to enhance Goleta during a ceremony at The Ritz-Carlton Bacara on Saturday evening.

The awards were granted as part of the Goleta Chamber of Commerce’s 70th annual Goleta’s Finest community gala.

The semiformal reception kicked off with a buffet featuring multiple food stations serving specialties such as salmon, New York strip steak, penne, orecchiette, salad, and, of course, dessert, wine, beer and champagne.

Kristen Miller, president and CEO of the Goleta chamber, recognized the organization’s board members, event sponsors, elected officials and previous award recipients attending the event.

The honorees make a difference in the Goleta community and they have a positive contribution to society. The awards were given to all walks of life and people of all ages.

“Goleta’s Finest is our community awards banquet,” Miller said. “Community is everything.

“I think you all will experience a theme around community — giving over receiving, connecting over separating, and recognizing effort and heart,” she continued. “Our award recipients have made this the finest community, and we get to elevate them for one night.”

Chamber board president Bill Macfadyen, founder and publisher of Noozhawk, served as the gathering’s emcee.

At the gala, the Goleta Education Foundation held a raffle to support elementary education in the Goleta Valley. The grand prize was an original painting by local artist Emily Murray, and two winners each received a case of wine.

Applause erupted from inside the resort’s ballroom as more than 415 guests celebrated the honorees, who were invited on stage to make brief remarks.

The 2019 Goleta’s Finest winners were:

Woman of the Year

Serial entrepreneur Kathy Odell, incoming CEO of Women’s Economic Ventures, was honored for her more than 25 years of leadership experience.

She got her start in 1985 as co-founder of Medical Concepts Inc., which grew to become the world’s leading designer and manufacturer of video systems for minimally invasive surgery. The company was acquired by Karl Storz Endoscopy in 1990.

From 2002 to 2008, Odell was CEO of Goleta-based Inogen Inc., a manufacturer of advanced therapy devices for treatment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Under her leadership, the company drew more than $53 million in venture capital before taking itself public.

Odell is actively involved in entrepreneurial activities throughout the Central Coast. She has served as a mentor and adviser to start-ups and small business leaders. She also turned her sights from the corporate community to leading WEV, a local nonprofit organization focusing on aspiring female entrepreneurs.

She made a pitch for the involvement of more women in business management, executive and board ranks.

“I am who I am because of this community,” Odell said, adding, “I believe that communities create opportunities.”

Man of the Year

Land-use and environmental attorney Peter Brown, who, after the City of Goletawas& ;incorporated, represented the Goleta chamber as it worked with the city to develop the new municipality’s regulations and its current general plan. He was recognized for his longtime community participation.

Brown, a partner at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, bridged communication between business and government, and he added his insightful analysis and experience to the complex and thoughtful work to create a whole new city.

“A strong local economy is not something that occurs easily, accidentally or without effort,” he said during his speech. “It takes dedication and consistent attention.”

In addition, Brown also served on the Goleta chamber board for 12 years.

In his free time, he enjoys volunteering and singing.

Educator of the Year

Carolyn Ross, music director at Goleta Valley Junior High School, was acknowledged for her commitment to her students’ talents, social development and academics.

For 11 years, Ross worked with students of varying skill levels, not only during the school year, but also at her summer camp, on weekends and during the holidays.

She is known for consistently going above and beyond for each young learner.

“I feel fortunate,” Ross said of receiving the award.

Nonprofit of the Year

Girsh Park was honored for its important community role in the Goleta community.

Now celebrating its 20th year, the park is home to numerous sports and activities, including the chamber’s popular Goleta Lemon Festival, Fourth of July fireworks, family-friendly gatherings, and baseball, basketball and soccer.

Opening in 1999, the nonprofit organization is unique as a private park with city support. It has proven to be a successful model, with more than 500,000 visitors annually.

The 25-acre park is located behind Camino Real Shopping Center at 7050 Phelps Road.

Volunteer of the Year

Dacia Harwood, deputy director of the nonprofit Santa Barbara Historical Museum, was honored for her passion for volunteering.

Harwood’s dedication to the community goes far beyond her previous role as events and festivals coordinator at the nonprofit Goleta Valley Historical Society, where she served more than 14 years. Her community work includes working on the annual Goleta Dam Dinner, as well as encouraging others to support other critical work in Goleta.

“I’m the luckiest girl in the world to, not only live here, but be able to go to work in Goleta every day, and celebrate the community,” she told the crowd.

Student of the Year

Dos Pueblos High School senior Kathy Ramirez-Gijon received recognition for being a wonderful individual, active volunteer and student-athlete.

She has consistently been enrolled in honors and advanced placement classes and dual enrollment courses at school. Ramirez-Gijon is a golf team member and a D’Penguineer, a member of the prestigious Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy.

Ramirez-Gijon is a first-generation college-bound student and she is looking forward to pursuing a career in mechanical engineering.

“I know the value of education,” said Ramirez-Gijon, who graciously thanked her parents for their support and inspiration.

Ramirez-Gijon also is involved in her church and her volunteer work includes 382 community service hours.

Small Business of the Year

Anna’s Bakery was acknowledged for its contributions to the diversity and growth of Goleta.

Co-owners Lisa Boetler and Deborah Weber serve up fresh cookies, brownies, custom cakes and cupcakes, lemon meringue pies and other goodies.

Anna’s Bakery, located in Camino Real Marketplace, has been Goleta’s bakery since 1990.

“Baking is love made edible,” Boelter said during the pair’s speech.

Large Business of the Year

Community West Bank was honored as one of the Goleta businesses that support and make a difference in the community.

The bank is the largest publicly traded and only community bank headquartered and serving the tri-counties with seven full-service branch offices in Goleta, Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, Ventura, Oxnard and Westlake Village, and a loan production office in Paso Robles.

Founded in 1989, Community West Bank provides financing to businesses, families and organizations throughout the region, supporting job creation and vibrant local communities.

Community West Bank employs about 140 people, said Marty Plourd, the bank’s president and CEO since 2011.

“We are truly honored,” he said of the 2019 Large Business of the Year Award.

Innovation Award

UC Santa Barbara’s AlloSphere Research Facility was acknowledged for its desire to welcome research partners and all collaborations while making a difference in the community.

Facility director JoAnn Kuchera-Morin is the chief designer of the three-story facility on the UCSBs campus. The intersection of technology, science, engineering, arts and mathematics has facilitated new approaches for scientific discovery.

Entrepreneur of the Year

Michael Craig, owner and distiller at Goleta Red Distilling Company, was honored for demonstrating best practices of entrepreneurship.

Craig’s business at 93 Castilian Drive opened less than two years ago and all spirits are created locally.

“It’s such an honor to be here,” he said at the ceremony.

Public Servant of the Year

Now-retired search dog Riley received recognition for his valuable work in the aftermath of disasters.

Riley, a purebred yellow Labrador retriever, served eight years at the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

The canine’s handler, county fire Capt. Eric Gray, accepted the award.

In his speech, Gray said he is humbled and honored to be acknowledged.

The pair responded to their first call in 2010, when a gravel truck lost its brakes coming down Highway 154 and plowed into a cottage on State Street, killing a family of three.

Riley and Gray have been deployed around the world. The team worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as after a powerful 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, in the aftermath of the 2015 Nepal earthquake and when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017.

They also were first on the scene after deadly flash flooding and debris flows ripped through Montecito in the early morning of Jan. 9, 2018. The pair search through knee-deep and chest-deep mud in Montecito for 16 days.

“Riley only knew one thing, to search for those who may be trapped and alive, was what we did,” Gray said, adding, “His (Riley) moves were slow and difficult as ours, but it didn’t matter.

“He never stopped and he always looked back to me, looking for the next challenge,” he continued. “I couldn’t be more proud of my boy in those first days, and it was the culmination of our career.”

Lifetime Achievement Award

Michael Bennett received the first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award for his longtime volunteer service and activism.

He retired from the county Fire Department as a fire battalion chief after working for 36 years.

Bennett served two terms on the Goleta City Council and two terms as mayor.

He is known for his assistance with cityhood efforts, work on the Goleta Old Town Area Committee and advocating for a new fire station in Goleta.

Bennett began serving nonprofit organizations in the 1980s.

He serves on the Housing Trust Fund of Santa Barbara County board of directors and he has been a member of the Rotary Club of Goleta Noontime since 1990.

Bennett also is a longtime member of the Goleta chamber.

He has received several recognitions, including Rotary’s Paul Harris Fellow Award for his service to the community, and he was honored by the Goleta chamber as the 2006 Goleta’s Finest Man of the Year.

“It has been an interesting life that I have led,” Bennett said.


By Brooke Holland, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @NoozhawkNews | November 24, 2019 | 11:50 p.m.

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.