Longtime St. Vincent de Paul board member and Exeter Rotarian Rachael Ela was named Citizen of the Year at the Exeter Area Chamber of Commerce’s Business of the Year awards.

The annual ceremony, which honors businesses and community leaders, took place March 28 at the Ashworth by the Sea in Hampton.

Ela was named Citizen of Year for her numerous contributions over the years to the Exeter community, including her work organizing the annual Rotary Club’s “Stuff a Bus” food drive to benefit the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Exeter and for running the club’s annual charity auction. As a past president of the Exeter Area Rotary Club, the group awarded a grant in partnership with Christ Church to provide water filtration systems to Cuba, she said.

Ela said she looked up to the former director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Exeter, Cleo Castonguay, for his generosity and kindness he showed towards those in need during his 30-plus years at the organization before his death last spring at the age of 71. She said one of the first events she ever attended in Exeter after moving to town seven years ago was the Chamber’s Business of the Year Awards when Castonguay received the inaugural Citizen of the Year Award in 2012 and he was the primary reason why she decided to volunteer at the organization.

“Cleo was such an important part of my life and I strive to emulate him as best I can in everything I do, so to be recognized in the same way he was, it’s really beyond comprehension,” Ela said. “This is an incredible honor. Service is a reward in itself; you get so much more than you give. I hope people see the opportunities there are to give back and they ask more questions about how they can get involved serving the community.”

Also recognized was retiring Seacoast School of Technology Principal Margaret Callahan.

Callahan has worked as SST principal for the past 14 years and was honored with the Chairperson’s Award for her years of service at the technical center, which serves five Seacoast school districts beyond SAU 16. She said the enrollment at the school has increased “dramatically” since beginning her tenure and the school now offers 33 dual-enrollment programs, which allow students to earn college credits while taking SST classes.

SST was also recognized as a Business of the Year in the education category by the chamber.

“This was an incredible honor when I looked around the room; it was just so inspiring to be in the same company as everyone there who serve the community so well. A lot of them have been great supporters of SST through the years,” Callahan said. “Our certifications are just as valuable as a degree depending on the industry. Students and families see the value in tech education and if it’s something they think they want to pursue professionally; our programs are designed to prepare them as much as possible.”

The other individual award winners included Cooperative Middle School English teacher Melissa Tobey as Educator of the Year; Derek Foley of Liberty Mutual as Ambassador of the Year, and Chamber Director of Member Partnerships Bobbi Vandenbulcke received the President’s Award.

The other Business of the Year winners were Clean by Sea, for business services; ReVision Energy, for manufacturing, construction or real estate; Staples, as a large retail or wholesale business; Wireless Zone, as a small retail or wholesale business; Sea Dog Brewing Company, for large tourism and hospitality; Laney & Lu, for small tourism and hospitality; St. Vincent de Paul, as a non-profit; Elliot Evans, of Edward Jones, for independent financial services; and Kennebunk Savings Bank, for commercial financial services.

Jennifer Wheeler, president of the chamber, said each of the award winners made significant contributions to making the Exeter area a thriving community.

“We are so proud of this year’s award winners,” Wheeler said. “There is so much to celebrate in our communities and it is important that we take time to recognize these outstanding businesses and individuals who continue to make this region a vibrant community to live, work and play.”

Exeter Hospital was the Business of the Year Awards’ diamond sponsor and Mark Whitney, vice president of strategic planning at Exeter Health Resources, said though the hospital is a major economic driver in the region, maintaining a healthy community takes the entire business community pulling together in the same direction.

“We see both Exeter Health Resources and the Exeter Area Chamber of Commerce as community leaders and catalysts and that is why we value our partnership so deeply,” Whitney said. “Improving the health of the community is a team sport and we like being part of this team.”

LaCasse, Alex, and Alex LaCasse. “Exeter Chamber Honors Community Leaders, Businesses.” Seacoastonline.com, Seacoastonline.com, 4 Apr. 2019, www.seacoastonline.com/news/20190404/exeter-chamber-honors-community-leaders-businesses.