The Courtyard by Marriott in Jacksonville saw a capacity crowd in its banquet room as more than 200 people attended the 2019 Golden Rule Lightkeepers Volunteer Awards Ceremony, Feb. 21.

Educators, local business owners and all manner of philanthropists attended to recognize the dedication of Onslow County’s many volunteers.

Along with awards given to organizations and individuals, the ceremony also recognized people who have devoted a lifetime to serving the community. The award, created in 2017 by the Onslow Civic Affairs Committee, is called the Fabric of Our Community Award. Raquel Painter

“These are persons whose service represents a lifelong commitment that have advanced citizenship, community infrastructure and encouragement of community,” said Raquel Painter, a retired Marine sergeant major who is the current president of United Way of Onslow.

Among honorees were Joe Houle, a retired Marine sergeant major, Rev. Joel Churchwell and Abe Rosen. All three received the Fabric of the Community Award, an honor implying that they are essential parts of the quilt that keeps our community warm and inviting.

“They have contributed so much to the community and made it a better place to live because of their dedication, devotion, and love for our community,” Painter said.

Onslow Community Outreach Chair Don Herring recalled the ceremony’s connection to the Beirut barracks bombings in October of 1983. Following the event, the community took a hard look at what it meant to be connected to their area.

“Our community lost the potential of what could have been that day,” said Herring.

The award was implemented as a way of recognizing individuals who have given a large portion of their lives to making the community as great as possible.

“This award goes to those who have provided an unquestionable contribution to the betterment of our community,” Herring said.

For some recipients, serving their community came as a natural progression from their service to the country. Houle was among them.

Described as a man who serves his community quietly, Houle is involved in both military support and civilian affairs. He serves on flag details to honor fallen service members, is in line to serve at nearly every USO of NC breakfast, provides support at local festivals from Swansboro to Richlands and assists the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce by being actively involved. He was also described as a fish-frying machine.

“The sergeant major led and continues to lead,” said Ashley Danielson, executive director for the Carolina Museum of the Marine in Jacksonville.

Houle serves as Museum of the Marine director of operations.

“Joe is the kind of person who, when you need volunteers, you call him. … He has that leadership quality so he keeps them [volunteers] on track. He’s a beautiful man inside and out,” said Shelly Kiewig, the United Way of Onslow’s Community Impact Leader.

“To be honored in this group of other recognized individuals is just awesome. It’s a privilege to serve this community,” said Houle.

Churchwell, who primarily serves as the pastor of Sandy Run Missionary Baptist Church in Jacksonville, was also recognized with the award. Churchwell heard the call to preach in 2003 while he was a Marine master sergeant in Pensacola, Florida. Churchwell also serves with organizations such as the Onslow County Board of Education and Jacksonville Weed and Seed.

During his introduction, Churchwell was described as a representative of an underrepresented community.

“That aspect of serving as a leader and the leadership skills, the communication skills, that you learn in the Marines helped a lot,” said Churchwell. “Coming to the area, it’s been a smooth transition here from being a Marine to being a reverend in a diverse military community.”

Rosen, who was responsible for the final push to finish the Beirut Memorial in Jacksonville, was the third living honoree. The bombing, which played such a role in the award’s inception, led to the planting of the Beirut trees.

However, the project stalled after the initial media frenzy. That’s when Rosen stepped in. He reinvigorated the project while being an advocate for families directly affected by the tragedy. Upon the memorial’s completion, he also served as its caregiver and master of ceremonies for annual observances.

“Anybody that is selected for an individual award should never forget the shoulders that he stood on. Looking out here, we’ve got those shoulders,” said Rosen of his selection and other volunteers in attendance.

“October 23, 1984, we dedicated the Beirut Memorial. At the conclusion we made a solemn pledge to the families, to the survivors, to the veterans and our community that we would never, ever forget,” said Rosen.

Rosen’s daughter, Janis Rosen-Perozzi, was very proud of her father.

“My dad has always been so involved with and connected to this community. Seeing him recognized for it, honestly, is incredibly overwhelming. It’s something he loves and he’s always done,” said Perozzi.

Posthumous recipients of the award were Louis Sewell, founder of Golden Corral and lobbyist, and Leon Ward Sylvester, who established Richlands’ Piggly Wiggly and provided the area with strong economic development.

Kiewig, who organized the event, saw the three living recipients’ connection to military service as indicative of the community itself.

“We wouldn’t be here without the service. Jacksonville and Onslow County wouldn’t be here,” said Kiewig. “The best thing about it is that, when people retire, they’re staying here. Jacksonville is an amazing community.”