Nearly fifty years after President John F. Kennedy proclaimed the week of May 15 as "Peace Officer's Week," the Gilroy Exchange Club spent Wednesday honoring outstanding service by peace officers and firefighters in the annual Blue & Gold Awards luncheon at Gilroy's I.F.D.E.S. lodge.
When Exchange Club President Erwin Boggs thanked this year's honorees, as well as the many police officers and firefighters in the room, he said that the annual event represented year-round appreciation.
"We took one part of one day to honor you. You do that for us 24/7," said the president.
Several agencies were in attendance: Gilroy Police and Fire, Morgan Hill Police, Cal Fire, South Santa Clara County Fire and the California Highway Patrol.
Each agency elected an individual honoree, representing both aspiring new recruits and long-time staff who have gone above and beyond.
“There’s a lot that we do as a small club, but one of the most important is what we do today,” said Gilroy Mayor Al Pinheiro, who served as the event’s master of ceremonies and was the local club’s founding president in 1990.
The local Exchange Club, part of a national network of volunteer organizations, conducts several events and services within the city.
“Whatever monies we raise in Gilroy, stay here,” said Director Shirley Willard.
Among the gleaming badges and dress uniforms in the audience were several recognizable faces from Gilroy, including many dedicated volunteers, Councilman Dion Bracco, Chamber of Commerce President Susan Valenta, and members of city staff.
The county supervisor representing Gilroy, Mike Wasserman, also spoke at the event.
Addressing the honorees and the many police officers, firefighters and paramedics at the event, the supervisor said, “A lot of people take you for granted. I don’t."
Attendees were treated to a lunch made and donated by Mama Mia's Restaurant.
In addition to the awards given to emergency personnel, long-time volunteer Joanne Kraemer received the club’s “Book of Golden Deeds” award.
A current board member of St. Joseph’s Family center as well as a volunteer at public schools, Kraemer was praised for her selflessness and modesty during her efforts.
“I’m not used to getting awards–I prefer to volunteer and do things,” she said.
Gilroy Police Officer of the Year: Maribel Gutierrez
Gilroy Police Officer Maribel Gutierrez received honors at the event for her continuing dedication to the city’s D.A.R.E. program, even when budget cuts made her the only officer available to teach anti-drug strategies to 800 students in ten schools.
“Maribel stepped up to the plate and said, ‘We can’t let this program fail,’” said Gilroy Police Chief Denise Turner.
Gutierrez joined the department in 1996 and has taught the D.A.R.E. curriculum and taken at-risk youth to various activities for the past ten years.
“These aren’t small things to do–if you’re ever escorted kids anywhere, you know,” said Chief Turner, “She does it, day in, day out, with enthusiasm.”
“I truly believe in this program,” Gutierrez said. “A lot of parents don’t realize what their kids are facing at school.”
Gilroy Firefighter of the Year: Steven Hayes
Another advocate for Gilroy’s youth, Firefighter/Paramedic Steven Hayes helped to found the city’s Fire Chief Dale Foster said that Hayes has become a mentor within the department and spent his own money to attend the recent Fire House World Conference in San Diego.
“Steven is an outstanding example of a young firefighter,” said the chief, “We’re very proud of him–he’s a leader.”
“I’ve just been blessed to have great people around me,” said Hayes, thanking his fiancée, the department and the City Council.
South Santa Clara County Fire District Firefighter of the Year: Jason Falarski
Fire Battalion Chief Richard Salazar held up a 2008 copy of People magazine when he introduced Capt. Jason Falarski, opening up to a two-page spread reading “Fire Storm.” The article featured Falarski helping to battle flames in Southern California.
“Jason is one of those guys who’s turnkey–you tell him how to do something, and he does it.”
Salazar cited Falaski’s leadership as one of the reasons for his nomination. The 20-year veteran came to the fire district from Cal Fire, now serving as a captain and paramedic.
Cal Fire Firefighter of the Year: Darren McMillen
“South County…I’ve called it my home,” said Capt. Darren McMillen, listing the many regions he served in before coming to Cal Fire in the South County.
Division Chief Derek Witmer said that McMillen’s expertise with EMS was a great asset to the agency.
“He’s one of your go-to folks,” said the chief.
California Highway Patrol Officer of the Year: Dakota Smith
When the CHP tightened its belt and there weren’t enough officers to lead the Gilroy Division, Officer Dakota Smith stepped up to become an officer-in-charge, said Lt. David Hill.
“I’ve never seen the guy get riled,” said the lieutenant.
Smith thanked the Exchange Club and CHP, but spent extensive time recognizing his wife for her support.
“We don't expect anything except to go home to our families at night," Smith said. "When people go out of their way to nominate you or throw your name out there for anything, it’s great."
Morgan Hill Police Officer of the Year: Carlos Guerrero
Part of the Morgan Hill Police Department’s mission is meaningful community engagement, and Chief David Swing said that Detective Carlos Guerrero set a prime example.
The detective came to the department two years ago after 15 years in the Campbell Police Department, lending his expertise in foreclosure cases.
“You really made me feel at home,” Guerrero said to his fellow officers.