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Our Town by William Kelly: Civic Association honors local heroes with Kunkel Awards

An educator, a police officer and an emergency responder are recipients of this year’s Raymond J. Kunkel Awards for heroic or meritorious service to the local community.

The recipients, chosen by the Palm Beach Civic Association’s Raymond J. Kunkel Committee, were announced at the Civic Association’s Annual Meeting on Monday at the Flagler Museum.

They are Katie Judge, a third-grade teacher at Palm Beach Public Elementary School; Palm Beach Police Sergeant Kendall Reyes; and Palm Beach Fire-Rescue Lieutenant Michael Bennett.

The Awards were announced by Kunkel Committee Chairman William Matthews and Kunkel Committee member Michael Reiter before an audience of 350 people. Matthews and Reiter are also members of the Civic Association’s Executive Committee.

Katie Judge

Judge was chosen from among 13,000 classroom teachers and 182 schools as the Palm Beach County School District’s 2024 Teacher of the Year.

The honor was announced February 1 during the school district’s Celebrate the Great awards ceremony.

Judge was chosen for the top award because of the strong relationships she builds with teachers and family, according to the school district.

She organizes monthly bike rides to school to get students up and moving before the school day begins, and she said her goal each school year is to create space for students to feel successful, confident, and excited.

Judge has been teaching in Palm Beach County since 2011.

The names of district Teacher of the Year award recipients are submitted to the Florida Department of Education, which will ultimately select one state Teacher of the Year. The winner at the state level will be announced in July.

In an interview after the award ceremony, Judge said the students and teachers at Palm Beach Public are fortunate to have a school that is beautiful and safe while providing an excellent environment for learning.

“I love teaching every single day,” Judge said. “To be honored for something I love doing, with my family and Principal [Christie] Schwab here today, was such a joyous occasion for us.”

Kendall Reyes

In June 2023, Palm Beach Police Sergeant Kendall Reyes saved the life of a distressed woman who was threatening to jump from the roof of a condominium. Sgt. Reyes rescued the 67-year-old-woman from the edge of the five-story building at 2778 S. Ocean Blvd. in Palm Beach.

Sergeant Reyes was one of several Palm Beach officers called to respond on June 18, 2023, to reports of a woman who said she was going to jump from the five-story building.

Another woman was already on the roof trying to help. Sgt. Reyes ascended to the roof where she, with help from the other woman, attempted to create a rapport with the woman in distress as she paced closer to the wall. The woman in distress sat on the roof edge with both legs hanging over the wall.

While the other woman helped to create a distraction, Sgt. Reyes sprinted 15 feet toward the woman in distress, clasped her shoulders and pulled her backwards, away from the edge.

As a result of her heroism, the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission honored Sergeant Reyes in September with a Carnegie Medal, North America’s highest honor for civilian heroism.

Reyes was the only Florida resident among the 16 recipients of the Carnegie Medal in September. The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission announces the awards four times each year.

At the time Reyes said she was grateful for the help of the other woman and for the assistance of the other three police officers who responded to the call.

Officers Michael Lane, Michael Ostrander and Taylor Molinaro were positioned around the roof and ready to spring into action if needed.

Reyes said during an interview after the ceremony that being a Kunkel Award recipient is a great honor.

“I’m humbled by this experience and really appreciative that I was selected,” she said. “I have had almost 16 years in this uniform, and I couldn’t think of anything else I would like to do with my career choice.”

Lieutenant Michael Bennett

On the morning of November 22, 2023, a Palm Beach Fire-Rescue crew, led by Lieutenant Michael Bennett, responded to emergency reports of two youths struggling in the ocean at the Four Seasons Hotel, 2800 S. Ocean Blvd., in Palm Beach.

The day was one of heavy wave action and high winds. There were warnings posted which included no-swim advisories and multiple rip currents present all along the beach.

Upon arrival, Bennett learned that one of the youths, a 13-year-old boy, was secured on a floatation device.

The second youth, the boy’s 18-year-old brother, was with another potential rescuer attempting to swim to shore. They did not have a floatation device.

Bennett entered the water and was able to reach the 18-year-old boy and the other potential rescuer, who was also struggling to swim back to shore. The two were about 50 yards from shore.

Bennett gave them both a floatation device and began to swim them back to shore.

The lifeguards of Palm Beach County arrived and assisted the younger victim and his rescuers in their exit from the water.

The two original victims were taken to an emergency room for further observation. All victims and rescuers were able to make a full recovery.

The Palm Beach Fire Rescue Department recommend Bennett for the Kunkel Award for his “dedicated service and compassion, professionalism, and excellence in this act of heroism.”

Lieutenant Bennett has been with the department for eight years. He is assigned as the Truck 99 Officer located at Fire Station 3.

Bennett said the town’s firefighters are constantly training to handle emergencies like the one they faced that day at the beach.

“We have to prepare every day for the unexpected,” he said during an interview. “We are taught to react. I got to the beach, assessed what was happening, and just immediately jumped into action.”

Monday’s Annual Meeting was sponsored by Palm Beach Island Hospice Foundation.

Katie Judge
Katie Judge 2024 Kunkel Award Recipient
Kendall Reyes
Kendall Reyes 2024 Kunkel Award Recipient
Lt. Michael Bennett
Lt. Michael Bennett 2024 Kunkel Award Recipient


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