Meet the top three nominees for Bonners Ferry Living Local's Finest Person of 2022 By Christian Weaner
In the several years that Bonners Ferry Living Local has held a vote for the "finest" businesses and individuals in the community, some truly inspiring people have been recognized.
This year, the three finalists for the annual Finest Person of the year award are no exception. Eli Pine, Dr. Hank Willis and Ron Sukenik are three men dedicated to serving the Boundary County community in both their professional and philanthropic work.
So, without further ado, let us get to know Eli, Hank and Ron.
Even if you do not know Eli Pine personally, you likely know him as the guy you often see walking along the side of Highway 95.
What you may not know is that Eli is one of the most plugged-in people in Boundary Country, serving as the director of Hope House, working at the Boundary County Community Restorium and volunteering with the Rotary Club.
"I love this town," Eli said. "I love how people come around [each other] in times of need and help each other out, and I just wanted to be a part of that."
In May 2022, at the suggestion of the Friends of the Restorium fundraising group, Eli raised $39,000 with the support of several local businesses that gave money for each mile that he walked that month (345 miles in total, which is a "normal month" for Eli).
Around that same time, Eli and his wife Anna also took over Hope House, the charitable organization that donates clothing and school supplies to students and families in need throughout Boundary County.
In addition to their current services, starting January 6, Hope House is launching a weekly soup kitchen that will be held every Friday from 5:30 to 7pm at the Senior Hospitality Center.
Whether he is talking with a resident at the restorium, handing out clothing at Hope House or serving the Foundations Committee with the Rotary Club, all that Eli does for the community comes from a deep sense of gratitude for the opportunities he has been afforded.
"It comes back to pride in my country and the fact that I'm blessed to be here," Eli said. "It's the least that I can do for what I have been given."
Dr. Hank Willis
Hank Willis moved to Bonners Ferry in 2004 after he completed his dental school and residency at the University of Washington, and North Idaho quickly became home for Hank and his family.
"I was drawn to this close-knit, family friendly community and small-town values," Hank recalled. "I felt immediately welcomed by the people here, and Bonners has been a very good place to raise kids."
After working at a nonprofit clinic in town for several years, Hank opened his own private practice in 2007, and his dental work has become a stalwart in the community. A big passion for Hank is serving others through dental mission work. Hank has traveled to several countries in Africa, Haiti, Mexico and the Philippines to provide free dental care.
"Dental care is desperately needed in many parts of the world," he shared. "There are people in other countries who have never seen a dentist and have no access to care. Serving people in greatest need has been a privilege to me."
When Hank could not travel during COVID-19, he got the idea to host several free dental days right here in Bonners Ferry, hoping to help those in the area who struggle to afford dental care. Hank has also supported the community through sponsorships and donations to the annual Turkey Trot, Boundary Ambulance, 9B Trails, Distinguished Young Women and the Parks and Recreation Department.
"Over the years I've felt very supported by this community, and I think it's important to find ways to 'give back' to help make this town a better place and support others," Hank said.
Back in 2002, a friend asked Ron Sukenik to help raise support among local businesses to start a Rotary Club in Bonners Ferry. Despite knowing nothing about Rotary International at the time, Ron diligently began inviting people to the inaugural meeting designed to charter the group.
"After the meeting, when the dust settled, they had 24 businesspeople sign up," Ron remembered. "But it takes 25 members to charter a club."
Ron did not attend that meeting, but when he found out they only needed one more member, he decided to join.
Now more than 20 years later, Ron is one of several charter members still actively participating in the club. His wife has given him the nickname "Rotary Ron," a fitting title for a man who has spent approximately 15 years serving on the Rotary Club board in some capacity and actively involved in nearly every fundraiser, scholarship fund and event that the group supports.
During his time as a Rotarian, Ron has helped plan and execute numerous events ranging from the Swish Basketball Tournament and Polar Bear Plunge to the Kootenai River Ride and Food Bank Turkey Harvest.
"It just seems like the right thing to do," Ron said of his volunteer work. "It's become second nature, and sometimes it's a lot of work, but when you see the net results … the hope for our future as a society is what motivates me."