Knights of Columbus hold 27th annual Community Services Recognition Dinner in Exeter

By Crystal Havner
Special to the Sun-Gazette

EXETER – Public service is often a thankless job, especially when it comes to first responders. They are there when we need them the most, refuse credit for their life saving and self sacrificing efforts and are rarely given the opportunity to meet those they save in the aftermath of a traumatic experience.

But at least one organization is trying to make sure to thank the courageous men and women who put themselves in harm’s way and protect us from felons and fire. On March 3, the Exeter/Farmersville Council of the Knights of Columbus held its 27th Annual Community Services Recognition Dinner to honor the police officers and firefighters of the year for Exeter, Farmersville, Woodlake and Tulare County.

“I want to give a huge thank you to those that protect and serve us on a daily basis,” said Ray Rodriquez, a member of the Msgr. Joseph W. Balker Council 9068 of the Knights of Columbus. “We also want to thank the family and friends that support them at home.”

Exeter Police Dept.

Det. Kevin Phelps Exeter PD Officer of the Year

Det. Kevin Phelps
Exeter PD
Officer of the Year

Detective Kevin Phelps graduated from the College of the Sequoias police academy in 2013. After graduation he started work in law enforcement in Kings County. He became a reserve officer in Exeter in 2014 and a full-time officer in 2015. He is currently working on obtaining a bachelor’s degree.

Chief John Hall stated that Phelps had a strong work ethic and desire to learn.

“His hard work and motivation is how he became a detective in 2017,” said Hall. “There was a home invasion in Exeter and Kevin worked nonstop on the case. He tracked the perpetrator to the Porterville area and he was arrested. His hard work helped wrap up that case.”

Phelps said, “It seems odd to get recognition for something I do on a daily basis. This award also belongs to my family and it reminds me of all their support. I could not have done any of this without them.”

Farmersville Police Dept.
Chief Mario Krstic pointed out how willing Detective Kristine Barklow is to do whatever she can to make the department run smoothly.

Det. Kristien Barklow Farmersville PD Officer of the Year

Det. Kristien Barklow
Farmersville PD
Officer of the Year

“One day she may be working on a robbery or some other chase and the next day she is doing patrol duty because an officer called in sick,” said Krstic. “She does it all without complaint.”

Barklow is involved with the Explorers as an advisor and is a defensive instructor. She was a court appointed special advocate and volunteers with Road to Recovery, a group that through the Red Cross provides rides to treatment for cancer patients.

Krstic also pointed out that she is in the process of starting a peer support group for officers in Tulare County.

“She is the epitome of a public servant,” said Krstic.

Barlow said, “I want to thank my family for pushing me towards my goals. I also want to thank my work family that is with me on my good and bad days. They are always supportive.”

Woodlake Police Dept.
Chief Mike Marquez said that in Woodlake this award is voted on by all the department and this year they unanimously voted for volunteer evidence technician Manuel Villegas.

Vol. Manuel Villegas Woodlake PD Officer of the Year

Vol. Manuel Villegas
Woodlake PD
Officer of the Year

“Manuel shows up every Monday dressed, pressed and smelling good,” said Marquez. “He takes specimens to the lab and D.A.’s Office and has been doing that for 18 years. He knows what to look for on the evidence forms and is not shy about letting someone know if they need to correct someone.”

Marquez said Villegas, who was born and raised in Woodlake, has volunteered more than 5,600 hours for the community.

“He has served his community and lived here his whole, life except for the time in which he was serving his community. He severed his country just as honorably,” said Marquez.

Villegas said he liked doing what he does and was glad to see all the youth who were volunteering to help with the dinner.

“I miss that in Woodlake,” said Villegas. “Perhaps the youth programs will come back.”

Tulare County Sheriff

Dep. Rufino Venegas Sheriff’s Dept. Officer of the Year

Dep. Rufino Venegas
Sheriff’s Dept.
Officer of the Year

Deputy Rufino Venegas was born in Mexico and moved to the community of Ivanhoe at the age of 2. He graduated from Golden West High School in 2006. After graduation he went to work at the Boys and Girls Club in Visalia. He then helped to start the Boys and Girls Club in Ivanhoe and went to work there. Venegas wanted to continue to serve so he attended the academy and became the Ivanhoe Community based officer.

“He has works hard and is motivated to serve the community he was raised in,” said Lt. Joe Torres. “He is always concerned with helping youth.

Venegas said he is doing what he loves and is honored to serve his community.

“I have to give a special thanks to my wife,” he said. “She is my backbone,”

Calif. Highway Patrol
Lt. Robert Brunell pointed out that Officer Ben Howell was a devoted husband and father.

Ofc. Ben Howell CHP Officer of the Year

Ofc. Ben Howell
Officer of the Year

“The first thing I have to do is thank them for sharing Ben,” Brunell said.

Howell began his career in Santa Cruz before transferring to Tulare County, where he has worked for 18 years. Brunell added, “Ben has a knack for catching people that need to be caught and helping those that need help.”

He told how Brunell goes the extra mile and sometimes buys meals out of his own pocket for those in need. “He is able to build relationships with people, So much so that one individual that was having some issues requested him by name. He showed up, the man calmed down and was able to get help,” said Brunell. “He is a public servant who never wants any recognition. It took a lot of verbal judo just to get him to accept this award.”

Howell became an Explorer Post Advisor in 2017.

When accepting the award he simply said, “Thank you.”

Farmersville Fire Dept.

Vol. Matthew Epstein Farmersville FD Firefighter of the Year

Vol. Matthew Epstein
Farmersville FD
Firefighter of the Year

Matthew Epstein joined the Exeter Fire Explorers at the age of 14. In 2015 he transferred to the Farmersville Fire Explorers and became a regular volunteer in 2015. He was promoted to Fire Engineer on March 2. He has completed an associate’s degree in fire technology and has perfect attendance at volunteer meetings. Epstein currently serves as the Farmersville Volunteer Fire Company’s President.

“He has 2,440 ride-along hours,” said Chief John Crivello. “That is equivalent to a full-time position. He goes above and beyond. He is well liked by everyone and helps with the Fire Explorers.”

Epstein said, “I want to thank my parents who have supported me through this. I also want to thank Ana, who is like a second mom to me. I also want to thank Mayor Paul Boyer for being here tonight and showing his support. I really want to thank all the people who came out tonight to show their support for emergency services.”

Tulare County Fire Department – Exeter
Tulare County Fire Chief Charlie Norman presented firefighter Robert Macauley with the award following a difficult season. “In this day and age the fire season is year around and these guys work hard,” said Norman

FF Robert Macaulay Tulare County FD Firefighter of the Year

FF Robert Macaulay
Tulare County FD
Firefighter of the Year

Macauley began his service in May 1999 as a seasonal firefighter on Walton Fire Department in Yuba County, Calif. He then moved to Southern California for eight years. He returned to Yuba County and became captain for the Smartsville Fire Department prior to his service in Exeter.

He is a hazardous waste specialist and instructor.

Norman said, “He is one of those people that has great mechanical aptitude and he is such a great guy. We couldn’t do it without him.”

Macaulay said, “I grew up in a small town like Exeter. I always heard that the Exeter Station was the best station. Everyone wanted to work there so when I got the job I was so excited. I’m living a dream. I am honored to be here.

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