Matt Stringer, executive director of Four Rivers Cultural Center, will be honored as Ontario's man of the year at the Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce banquet. (Photo courtesy of Tanya Navarrete)

ONTARIO – The annual Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce Banquet honoring local citizens is back to get the year rolling on a high note.

The event is set for Friday, Jan. 10, at Four Rivers Cultural Center. Tickets are $40 each and reservations are required by Friday, Jan. 3. The event kicks off at 6 p.m. with dinner set for 7 p.m.

Each year the chamber puts out a call for nominations for several categories including man and woman of the year and business of the year.

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The result is a yearly celebration to honor distinguished citizens of Ontario, such as Charlene Pelland, who will be honored as Ontario’s educator of the year.

For five years, Pelland headed a pilot program for high school students interested in health careers.

She had no formal experience teaching in a classroom when she was tapped by the Malheur Education Service District to teach the course.

But Pelland said her 31 years as a nurse, including teaching new parents inside the neonatal intensive care unit at a hospital in her native Florida, gave her the background she needed to teach in schools.

Pelland retired – for the second time – in June. She no longer teaches the course, but now she has former students working in health careers all over Malheur County.

Last year, four of Pelland’s students qualified for a national competition as part of the Health Occupations Students of America, a club similar to Future Farmers of America but with a healthcare bent.

“I learned how vulnerable students can be but how much hope they can have when they are given a safe place and a caring environment,” Pelland said.

She has fond memories of watching kids who were failing in school suddenly thrive because they found their niche in her classroom.

Pelland helped students discover different careers in the field of healthcare. Her second-year students were taught nursing and had the opportunity to work as certified nursing assistants straight out of high school.

“The award isn’t about me,” said Pelland. “It’s about the students and what caring can do to help people blossom.”

For Man of the Year Matt Stringer, his award, he said, was a surprise.

Stringer, executive director of the Four Rivers Cultural Center, recently joked that his life felt like the plot of a Hallmark Christmas movie.

The Nyssa native made his career in Manhattan before moving back to Malheur County to care for his sick mother. He said when his mom died, he assumed he would move again.

But after some soul searching, Stringer realized he belongs here.

“Since I moved back to this community people have been so gracious to me, so kind,” Stringer said. “People befriended me quickly and so many people have embraced me, bolstered and helped me.”

Stringer said he’s grateful to the community and for the opportunity he’s had to make contributions here.

Stringer was appointed to the Oregon Arts Commission this year, a governor-appointed body for arts advocacy that funds artists throughout the state. His appointment, along with grants he’s written and events he’s founded, helped put the cultural center on the map.

“One of the things I’ve been trying to do here is increase our imprint to become a regional or a statewide treasure rather than just an Ontario treasure,” Stringer said.

He credits his staff of “10 people that easily do the job of 15” for the center’s success.

“We all realize there’s nothing we can do by ourselves and somebody always steps up to help,” he added.

This year’s woman of the year award went to Cheryl Farley, a certified nursing assistant at Saint Alphonsus Medical Center-Ontario.

Farley has been nominated year after year, said John Breidenbach, chamber president.

She does so much in the community outside of her job at the hospital, said hospital spokesperson Claudia Weathermon Tester.

“We are very proud to call her one of our colleagues,” she said.

This year the chamber will also recognize the hospital as a community business partner of the year. It’s not a yearly award, explained Breidenbach, but the hospital’s contributions as a major employer in Ontario deserved recognition.

“We have so many people that have been working hard for a long time, it feels good to get this kind of recognition,” said Weathermon Tester.

Business of the year went to Second and Vine Bistro, a wine bar in Ontario. A nominating form praised owners Terry Dols and Suzi Ireland for adding ambience to the city and “working with locals to promote the best.”

The restaurant at 288 S.W. 2nd Ave. opened in 2016 after a 15-month restoration project of a home built in 1934.

“Terry could have relocated anywhere,” wrote Debbie Blackaby in her nomination, but he “chose to come back to Ontario.”

He and Suzi, added Blackaby, “have worked hard to be outstanding. They have added value to a corner like no other.”

The chamber will have a special honor this year in memory of Trevor Frahm, a Malheur County farmer who died in October in a farming accident. Frahm, 42, managed the family owned and operated Frahm Fresh Produce in Ontario.

News tip? Contact reporter Yadira Lopez: yadira@malheurenterprise.com or 541-473-3377.

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