Hometown Heroes gala recognizes extraordinary service

First responders and public service employees were honored at the Sixth Annual Hometown Heroes Gala.

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Posted September 11, 2023 | Photos By Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette
Staff report

Recognized for bravery in the face of perilous situations, first responders in Ocala/Marion County and throughout North Central Florida were honored for the sixth year at the Hometown Heroes gala, organized by Marion County Veterans Helping Veterans and Hiers-Baxley Community Care.

More than 300 guests and honorees filled the Circle Square Cultural Center for the Sept. 7 gala that opened with a multi-county honor guard and a keynote address by the National Alliance of Mental Illness. In attendance were first responders from sheriff’s offices, fire rescue agencies and police departments,

A primary recipient award went to the Marion County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “NAMI Marion County does extraordinary work, supporting those with mental health needs,” said Leena Williams, event organizer and Community Outreach Manager of Hiers-Baxley Funeral Services and Highland Memorial Park.

“So many of the reasons that first responders are called upon have to do with members of our community who are having a mental health crisis, and so many of our first responders who struggle themselves are sustaining the trauma and the mental health concerns that go along with it of a demanding job where they’re putting themselves on the line for all of us.”

Recognition of NAMI came through personal experience as well as by recommendation. Leena Williams’ mother, Diana Williams, has been a volunteer with NAMI Marion County for seven years and serves on the organization’s board of directors.

She saw NAMI’s effective support firsthand when her younger brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He received validation and understanding from others who’ve had to contend with their own mental illness challenges and was able to stay employed.

“NAMI is a group that helps tremendously when going through a crisis,” Diana said, adding that she and others in the program have assisted in intervention training with local law enforcement officers.

The event’s keynote speaker Carali McLean chairs NAMI’s board of directors. She replaces the board’s recently deceased chairman, the accomplished and beloved John Podkomorski.

McLean is also the chief compliance officer for Heart of Florida Health. She shared her brushes with local first responders as a licensed clinical social worker and health care risk manager during her talk. With more than 25 years of experience in nonprofit health care management, primarily in the areas of quality improvement, risk and compliance, and clinical program development.

The Hometown Heroes event also celebrated first responders nominated by their department leadership. Active valor award recipients are honorees who actively saved a life in the line of duty, and hometown heroes are a more general recognition for above-and-beyond actions and service.

Active valor recipients from Marion County included representatives from Marion County Fire Rescue, Marion County Sheriff’s Department, Ocala Police Department, Ocala Fire Rescue, Belleview Police Department, Dunnellon Police Department, and agencies in Citrus. Levy, Lake, Sumter and Alachua counties. Nominees from Heart of Florida Healthcare, Ocala Electric Utilities linemen and Marion County Sheriff Dispatch.

Marion County Fire Rescue’s active valor honorees firefighter/EMT Jordon Miller and firefighter/paramedic Keith Owens saved the driver of a sedan from a car fire. They responded to an urgent call and immediately went to the burning car, foregoing their own safety and well-being for the benefit of the patient.

“Remarkably, the distinctive accomplishments of Firefighters Miller and Owens, while remaining calm under pressure, led to their patient’s survival, and reflects great credit upon himself, Marion County Fire Rescue and Fire and EMS services worldwide,” the awards program said.

Some K9 and active valor honorees have had to de-escalate potentially volatile and dangerous situations and prevent harm while enforcing the law.

Marion County Sheriff’s K9 Deputy Gabriel Pulford conducted a traffic stop on a subject he knew to have a felony warrant. Sergeant Rick Palmateer and Deputy Samantha French, also honored, responded as members of the Crisis Negotiations Unit.

The three officers worked together, talking to the subject, who was threatening suicide. While speaking with the subject after he was in custody, he went on the record saying that he was going to kill himself but didn’t because of the compassion and sincerity given to him during the incident. Their honesty and support led to a peaceful surrender.

Active valor recipients from the Villages included Lt. Rocky Hartman, firefighter Lance Roberts and firefighter Zachary Morreale of the Villages Public Safety Department, who responded to a residential fire with someone trapped inside. “The fast thinking and professionalism of these nominees successfully rescued this citizen,” the department reported.

Hometown Hero awards went to, Ocala Fire Rescue staffers who were dispatched to reports of an entrapment in a residential structure.

Battalion Chief Richard Doucett, Capt. Charles Barberie, fire equipment operator Christopher Reynolds, firefighter John Sweeney, fire equipment operator Jacqueline Nettles, firefighter Cale Susdorf, Capt. Joshua Phillips, Capt. Steven Feagle and fire equipment operator Vincent Alexander arrived within four minutes to find a minor trapped under a tree that crashed through a residence’s roof while the family slept.

“Thanks to the crew’s prompt actions, the patient was extricated without incident,” the Ocala Fire Rescue reported.

Ocala Electric Public Education Coordinator Tammy Hoff received a Hometown Hero Award for “effectively communicating the benefits of public power and shares valuable resources to improve the quality of life in the Ocala/Marion County community” and coordinating more than 150 community events.

Victim Advocate Donna Guinn is this year’s Ocala Police Dept Hometown Hero for her continuous and dedicated service.

Her small team assisted 947 victims and responded to 347 calls. She also serves as a liaison for the Seniors Versus Crime Program, serving with the Elderly High Utilizer Team, and Co-Chair Human Trafficking Task Force. The primary instructor within the agency for new employees, Guinn makes community presentations on child abuse, domestic violence, and human trafficking.

Added Leena Williams, “Ms. Guinn has served the agency and the community in this manner over the course of her distinguished 32-year career and is an extraordinary person.”



Other Hometown Hero nominees:


Marion County Sheriff’s Office K9 Jax and handler Calvin Batts, K9 Eli and handler Gabriel Pulford, dispatchers Brittany Lee and Chett Duncan

Officer Joseph Tussey Jr., Officer Prather and his partner K9 Graham and training supervisor Aimee Medico of the Ocala Police

Ocala Electric journeyman lineman Jess Knight and Jazmin Garcia, apprentice of electric systems operator

Registered nurse Omar Ramos, Vascular Service Specialty Coordinator RN Noemi Gutierrez, and RNs Gary Whitney and Crissy Little, Critical Care Nurse Melanie Lloyd of AdventHealth Ocala



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