It was the common thread linking each of the award winners at Wednesday’s Whitley County Chamber of Commerce annual meeting.
Mike and Kim Balser, owners of the Brownstone On State, were named Small Business of the Year; USSI was named Large Business of the Year; Leadership Whitley County was named the Jewel of the Community; Jacie Worrick and June Keiser were surprised with the Chairman’s Choice Award and Kristi Maloney was honored as Ambassador of the Year.
Worrick and Keiser, owners of J&J Insurance, were perhaps the most surprised by their honor, saying they had no idea it was coming.
“I’m overwhelmed,” Worrick said, wiping tears from her eyes after receiving the award.
The Chairman’s Choice award, presented this year by Mike DeFreeuw, honors someone in the community who has gone above and beyond, who has made a significant impact on the chamber, their community or the county.
After some reflection, Keiser said that bettering the community has always been one of the goals the two business partners share.
“We take out of the community and we think we need to give back,” Keiser said. ”It’s where we live. We’re in this community together and we need to work together and play together.
“It’s a no-brainer; you gotta give back.”
Sheiss, who is the director of Leadership Whitley County, a program designed to give local residents the tools they need to function as servant leaders, echoed Keiser’s sentiments on making the community better.
“I often call Leadership Whitley County the best-kept secret in the community,” Sheiss said. “But this recognition is a credit to those who do so much in this community.
“Our alumni are like family, the community our home and all the projects and the organizations and businesses they are a part of are almost like the children.”
Sheiss pointed out that other nominees for Jewel of the Community, B.A.B.E. and Whitley Crossings, had LWC graduates serving in different capacities within those organizations.
“It speaks to the magnificent things that can be done in the community,” Sheiss said.
Maloney was recognized for her efforts on the chamber’s Ambassador group. Maloney is a constant present at chamber functions, donating her time and contributing her talents to the organization.
Businesses honored at the celebration were also cognizant of their roles in the community.
USSI, the third-largest employer in Whitley County, has been a part of the community since 1998 and now employs 375 people.
“It’s a central part of our core mission to be an important part of our community,” vice president Thomas Link said, noting that the company is supported greatly in that mission by its employees.
Mike and Kim Balser, owners of the Brownstone, which was the site of this year’s chamber celebration, were also surprised by their selection as small business of the year.
“We didn’t expect it by any means,” Mike Balser said. “It caught us off guard.”
The award comes just five years after rebuilding their restaurant following a fire that destroyed it and a neighboring business.
Mike Balser admits it was a hard decision to rebuild and go on after the fire, but chose to rebuild and grow and to become increasingly active in a community that supported them through a tough period.
Now the restaurant is a destination restaurant, drawing customers from a 25-mile radius and catering numerous events.
“Our employees are what make it great here,” Kim Balser said.