2019 Hometown Holiday Heroes
Oct 24, 2019 11:00AM
By Enjoy Magazine
2019 Hometown Holiday Heros
Story by Enjoy Magazine
Carole Lester, Clovis
“I live and breathe what I do.” These words, spoken by Carole Lester, say a lot about her.
Lester grew up first in Chino, then moved to the tiny town of Minkler near Sanger, where she says the population sign reads “36, plus or minus.” She was always busy working with her family’s quarterhorses and Angus cattle, hanging out on the Kings River through their property and participating on the pep squad at Sanger High School. She graduated in 1969, then on to college, and marriage in 1971. But when she and her husband moved to the Bay Area, her talents for organization and administration were sharpened.
Working for a commercial title insurance company, Lester says she was “often the one putting on the office parties and seminars for attorneys getting their continuing education credits.” Once she had children, she got involved in the things that they did. “I did a lot of fundraising for their schools,” she said. This was a good training ground for her future career.
After living in the Bay Area for 32 years, and wanting to be closer to family, Lester and her husband moved back to the Valley. They landed in Clovis in 2003. She went to work for the Fresno Historical Society, putting on its annual Civil War Revisited event. She spent six years as its director of public relations and events, which led her to organizing the Christmas at Kearney Mansion event, the Home Tour and more.
In fall 2010, Lester became executive director of Clovis’ Business Organization of Old Town (BOOT). “I was attracted to Old Town because of the community,” she says. “It felt like a little Disneyland to me. I wanted to see the businesses grow and flourish, so I began to work on enhancing existing events, such as the Farmers Market and Antique Fair, and I added new ones – Farm to Table Dinner down Pollasky Avenue, Glorious Junk Days (an antique fair) and a car show.”
Lester enjoys working with Old Town merchants, helping them remain vital and prosperous, and serving the community at large. “We like to call Old Town the Jewel of Clovis,” she says, “but to have a viable Old Town takes a lot of things coming together – family-owned businesses, vested property owners, support of the city and all its departments. If those elements are not in place, it’s hard to have a town full of vitality.” And under her leadership and with the help of her staff, “2½ people” put on 89 days of events each year, bringing 220,000 people to Clovis.
Lester also works with Pinkie Heals, a cancer support group, and she has helped raise funds for Valley Animal Center. She’s proud of her work in Clovis and says, “People want a sense of pride where they live. We’ve created a safe and child-friendly environment here.” In turn, Clovis is proud of Lester – in 2017, she was named the Professional Person of the Year by the Clovis Chamber of Commerce. •
Amy Ward, Lemoore
“I believe in servant leadership. You can’t lead if you don’t serve,” Amy Ward says about her motto for life – one that she’s taken seriously. Ward, president and CEO of the Lemoore Chamber of Commerce, had a whole lot of challenges that got her to this place.
Born and raised in Temecula, Amy graduated from Temecula High School in 1998. “I loved that small-town part of my life, which is probably what drew me to Lemoore,” she says. “It reminded me of home.”
She started college with plans to become a teacher, but quickly discovered it was not what she really wanted to do. She switched majors to event marketing, which led to a job as a director for a large corporation.
In 2010, as a newly single mom of two, she started losing consciousness and knew something was terribly wrong. It took six weeks for doctors to come up with a diagnosis. While waiting for those test results, Ward began to look at her life. “I realized that at 30, I had been very career driven, materialistic and self-focused,” she recalls. “You realize, and it sounds very cliché, that if this is really it, did I do right by my kids, my family and my community?”
She had a condition called Chiari malformation, which led to brain surgery. As she waited to be sedated, she made a promise to God: “If I make it through this, I will be a better person, and I will show my children how to be better people.”
The surgery and ongoing treatment have slowed the progression of Chiari, but Ward will always have limitations and headaches. “I truly felt blessed just to be alive,” she explains. “I didn’t want to waste the rest of my life, so I became service oriented. I first got involved with the Navy Marine Corps Relief Society.”
She married Jason, a Fresno County sheriff’s deputy, in 2012 and had another child. And in 2017, she became president and CEO of the Lemoore Chamber of Commerce and set her eyes on helping improve the business community.
“I’m proud of building relationships and partnering with the community on behalf of the Chamber,” Ward says. “I’ve reached out to local heads in the city, police, fire departments and more, talking about sharing resources. I’ve felt that the Chamber has a goal of being a convener, realizing that businesses and community are not mutually exclusive. Now the Chamber is readying to launch a full non-profit organization under the Chamber banner. This is new, and if it’s going to be a non-profit, we must truly serve the community.”
Under Ward’s leadership, the Lemoore Chamber held a community clean-up day, with businesses donating some of the necessities. Ward has also raised money for Conquer Chiari, and partners with her daughter to make blankets for kids at Valley Children’s Hospital, living up to that promise to God. “I’m teaching my children to give back.” •
Char Tucker, Selma
“Cancer does not discriminate. It not only affects the patient, but their family, caregiver and friends.” This understanding led Selma’s Char Tucker to get involved.
Selma was Tucker’s first home, but after she married, she spent 23 years in Long Beach. She was thrilled to move the family back to Selma in 1991. The Tuckers went into real estate together and opened their own real estate and property management company. “People asked us how we did it, how we worked together all the time, but it worked for us,” she says. They have three sons and
Tucker also got involved in volunteering. “I started volunteering for the American Cancer Society Relay for Life in Selma,” she said. “I lost my father, mother, and both of my in-laws to cancer, but that’s not really why I got involved. I did it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Cancer patients would ask Tucker how they could get help for issues they were facing due to their diagnosis. “Doctors diagnose them and get them quickly into treatment, but what about all the other problems they face?” she asks. “Most of the time, they can’t work, so how do they pay their bills?” In 2005, she brought together 12 volunteers to discuss it. They formed Selma Cancer Support to help cancer patients financially, spiritually and emotionally.
“Sometimes all they wanted was for us to sit with them,” Tucker says. “Families often shut down and don’t want to talk about the cancer, hoping it will just go away. Often, we just lent an ear.”
In 2008 the group wanted to grow, but realized they would need nonprofit status to receive donations and recruit volunteers. Their first big fundraiser was the Circle the City cancer walk. “We wanted to circle the city with help and support,” Tucker explains.
Originally, they helped only cancer patients in Selma, but about four years ago added Central Valley Cancer Support to their name so they could seek donations and help people in other communities.
The youngest cancer patient they’ve helped was 2, and the oldest 86. They provide companionship, counsel, payment of bills and whatever else someone may need. They seek donations and do fundraisers, and this year for the first time, they held a benefit concert with musical guest Ramon Ayala. “People couldn’t believe he was coming to Selma,” Tucker says.
Selma Cancer Support is run by a board of six. “We have no staff, and the only administrative bill we have is for the phone,” Tucker says. “My husband and I donated a room in our office for an office for the organization. That’s where we meet with people. God has always provided. We have never had to turn anyone away. And we have a dozen volunteers. I may be the face of Selma Cancer Support, but I’m only as good as all the volunteers.”
For more information, visit www.selmascancersupport.com. •
Mary Alice Escarsega Fechner, Visalia
“My mission is to make a difference in my community and in my own neighborhood,” Mary Alice Escarsega Fechner says, and she has backed up her words with action.
Escarsega Fechner grew up in Goshen but moved to Visalia in junior high. She earned a sociology degree from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1989. “Sociology was good for my goal,” Escarsega Fechner says. “I knew I wanted to work for a nonprofit with a mission in the community that would bring people together.” It didn’t take long to find that fit.
Community Services Employment Training (CSET) was a young organization at the time. “It was great to be part of the foundations of the agency,” she recounts. “There has been such growth for a private non-profit organization whose roots are founded in the fight against poverty. In 1994, CSET had a very small budget. Now it’s $21 million.”
CSET consists of a board of directors and an executive director, among other positions. After 23 years with the organization, Mary was made the executive director, and she oversees day-to-day operations. The board sees that the organization ensures that poverty continues to be its mission. “Not many can say that they are working in the very neighborhood they grew up in. I lived two streets away from my office. I’m honored to be able to do the work I love here. How can I make my community better?”
Escarsega Fechner sits on various community task forces that address poverty. “Poverty is a complex issue,” she says, “so it will take many people to address the needs in our community. I call these people working on this issue my heroes – people like the Rev. Susie Ward, whom I’ve worked with to help others. We love Visalia. We want every single person in Visalia to live a humane life with access to all the resources they need.”
One program that Escarsega Fechner works on involves volunteers doing taxes for those who need help and can’t afford it. “CSET started this program and it has grown in leaps and bounds. I’ve done taxes for a lot of people over the years, and we really promote this program. I do it because I have to practice what I preach.” This group of volunteers did taxes for more than 3,000 people last year.
Escarsega Fechner says the greatest thing people can do is give of their time. “I have had wonderful people in my life that pushed me and helped me along – how can I not pay it forward? I’m hoping now that I can be a role model. We do nothing alone. There are always people who come alongside us.”
Escarsega Fechner speaks at junior leadership programs telling her story, and encourages others to volunteer and make a difference. Married with two children and “four doggies,” she does take time to read, listen to music and go for walks. •
Jake Highfill, Hanford
“I don’t see myself as a hero,” Jake Highfill says, “because I couldn’t have done this by myself.” Still, Jake, 25, a native of Hanford, led the charge to come to the aid of someone in desperate need.
On September 13, 2018, Highfill was working as a foreman at a water treatment plant when his boss called and asked him to go to the UPS store to pick up some supplies. “This request was so unordinary,” Highfill says. Now he believes it was providential.
At 9 am he was driving back to the office when he saw smoke near 12th Avenue and Highway 198. “This is in the southwest corner of town where the railroad tracks run perpendicular to the street; they had built a fence there to push the homeless further out,” Highfill recalls. “I saw smoke topping a building, but I thought it was the In-N-Out firing up their grills. When I drove over the railroad tracks, I saw a homeless encampment, and that’s when I knew exactly what was burning.”
He pulled his truck over and called 911. “I saw a gentleman trying to pull pieces of burning cardboard off this maybe 10-foot-tall by 10-foot-wide cardboard shack,” Highfill explains. “I heard him screaming, but couldn’t understand what he was saying.
“Then I saw her hand coming out of the fire, and that’s when it
He ran to the shack and another man, Dennis, ran up alongside him. He told Dennis, “On 3,” and began counting. “I pulled her hand and her skin came off in mine. It was hard to hold onto her. She was unconscious, but we got her most of the way out – then she woke up.”
Highfill says the woman was in a lot of pain, and started crawling away from the fire and up onto the railroad track. Highfill grabbed some unburned cardboard to try to shield her when “things started exploding in the back portion of the shack. That’s when she went unconscious again and hit the ground.” Dennis and another man carried her off the tracks by her hands and feet. Highfill got on his knees, planning to start CPR, as the EMTs arrived and took over.
She had third-degree burns over 85 percent of her body. “It was terrible,” said Highfill, who was not burned in the incident. “I went to sit in my truck and just cried.” Highfill never got her name, but when he was honored by the City Council for his actions, he learned that was she was alive in a local burn center.
“For a while, it did wake me up in the middle of the night,” he says. “And at the end of the day, I know that God put me there, and I’m reminded to thank Him every day for what I have.”
Jake is married to fourth-grade teacher Haley, and they are “parents” to two fur babies. •
Susan Lusk, Reedley
“My son is the hero, not me,” Susan Lusk is quick to assert, but many in Reedley would disagree with the end of that statement.
Susan spent her summers tramping around the woods in her hometown near New York City, got her degree in education from Northeastern University in 1970, and was married to Kevin soon after. They moved to Illinois where her first two sons, Scott and Kevin, were born.
The family moved to Gilroy in 1976. “We attended the first ever Garlic Festival,” Lusk says. In Gilroy, Lusk gave birth to her third son, Joe. The family ultimately ended up in Reedley where Jeff was born. Susan taught school until she retired in 2009, and as a teacher, she went beyond the call of duty for her students and her community.
But it’s her son Joe – she calls him Joey – Susan wants to talk about.
Joey graduated from West Point, was deployed to Kuwait in January 2005 and died there just 10 days after arriving. “It was a Friday and I was home from school when I saw two Army guys standing on my porch,” Lusk remembers. “One said, ‘We regret to inform you…’ and I knew. Joey was just 25 years old. I fell apart and Jeff came running. I called work and Jeff called Kevin.”
During a routine training mission, Joe was killed after he was in an Apache helicopter that crashed. More than 1,000 people attended his funeral. Lusk said it was her students and community that got her through that horrible time. One time, three of her students came over to her house with chocolate and coffee. She said, “Wait, why aren’t you in school?” They said, “It’s your class period. We are in school!”
“At first it’s one minute at a time, then one hour, and then one day. And you look back and think, ‘How did I get through that?’” She started a journal and eventually a foundation – the CPT Joe F. Lusk II Memorial Fund came into being in July of 2006. It began with a fundraiser golf tournament, which became an annual event. This foundation has helped more than 50 veterans over the years with rent and mortgage payments, utility bills, car repair, childcare payments and more.
Five years ago, Lusk started campaigning to raise money for more than 1,800 wreaths to go on every veteran’s grave in the Reedley Cemetery. It took three years to buy them all, and this year, there are also stainless steel stands for each wreath. They are up from mid-December until after New Year’s Day, and there’s always a ceremony with a dove release.
Now Lusk has joined the fight to save the Reedley Armory, a building that veterans organizations use for meetings and events. The state wants to sell the building. Lusk is passionate about this new project.
“All of this has been cathartic, because I’m doing something positive in his name.” •
Chris Brewer, Exeter
Chris Brewer doesn’t miss a beat when sharing why he’s so interested in local history. “Oh, yes, no doubt it was my great-great-grandfather who passed it along to me.” Col. Thomas Baker was the founder of Bakersfield and one of the first four families in the Visalia area. His father, Harold Brewer, was an active member of the Kern County historical community. His passion for history is practically genetic.
Born and raised in Bakersfield, Brewer graduated from Bakersfield High School in 1968 and served four years in the United States Navy, stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Having loved music since childhood, it was in Hawaii that Chris got the opportunity to hone his musical skills. Over the years there, and later in Las Vegas, he worked with some of the most famous musicians of his time – Elvis Presley, Don Ho, Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr. and eventually Paul Anka, who he stayed with for two years. He played bass trombone. “Music was my first love,” Brewer says. After he met Sally Botkin, he says he “put my horns away and went home to Bakersfield,” and the two were married in 1977.
Brewer went to work as a volunteer for the Kern County Museum in 1977, and worked his way up to acting director. He went back to college to get his degree, started a historic preservation consulting firm and opened an art gallery. In 1987, Sally took the position as hospital administrator at Exeter Memorial Hospital and the two moved to Exeter. “My father-in-law, Chuck Botkin, was very involved in the city here and he is the one who introduced me around and showed me what the town was about,” Brewer recalls. “I loved that guy.”
Brewer’s philosophy is simple: “Life is fluid. Everything changes. You can plan, but be ready for change.” For him, those changes included a master’s degree in public administration, a 12-year stint on the Exeter District Ambulance Board, trustee of Exeter Union High School District, authoring a number of books, starting a publishing company and, with Sally, opening Exeter Flower Company and The Book Garden in downtown Exeter.
But one of Brewer’s favorite projects was the Exeter Courthouse Art Gallery and Historical Museum. Back in 2001, with a grant from the city redevelopment money, the art gallery building was gutted and rebuilt. In 2007, Brewer started working on the Museum, which opened June 1, 2008. Some 80 to 85 percent of the items in the museum are his; he’s been collecting since the 1970s. “I did a lot of Dumpster diving, gathering stuff that was representative of the community,” he explains.
Among his many accolades are Exeter’s Man of the Year 2012, the Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation 2014, the Conference of California Historic Societies Award of Merit 2019, Exeter Heritage Award 2000, and Exeter Lion of the Year 1977. He is president of the Exeter Art Gallery and Museum, acting as curator/director since it opened. •