Jennifer Steele fell in love with Grayton Beach when she was 5 years old and said she wanted to live there.

But in college, Steele discovered art. when she returned to Grayton Beach, she encountered a community that needed to be educated about why the arts are important.

"They improve the quality of life," said Steele.

So after college when Steele returned to Grayton Beach to live in 2000, she brought art with her.

In the years since, Steele has touched all the arts, and lent her ideas and leadership to bring tourists to the area to attend these artistic events.

On Oct. 11, South Walton Tourist Development Council rewarded her for her hard work by naming her as the 2016 Van Ness Butler Jr. Hospitality Award winner at their 30th anniversary annual meeting.

"Winning this award is a true honor," Steele told The Sun. "Especially because it is the first time someone in the arts industry has been recognized with this. It is personally meaningful because of my family's history with Grayton Beach and the Butler family. And, professionally, it is affirming to know that the work I have dedicated my life to -- building the arts -- has made a difference in people's lives and in the growth of our community.

"This award represents to me that the Cultural Arts Alliance, which I have led since 2008, is reaching our vision to be the driving force in making Walton County a destination for artistic and cultural excellence and showing that art truly means business," she added.

Steele moved here to co-found Seaside Repertory Theatre. She served as managing director there for seven years before leaving to found her own consulting firm for non-profit organizations.

She took the helm as executive director of the Cultural Arts Alliance in 2008.

Steele has successfully led the CAA the past eight years. The organization supports local artists and students with grants, workshops, event productions, and she recently led in opening the Foster Gallery artist co-op featuring area artists and their works on a seasonal rotation.

Steele also spearheaded bringing the acclaimed 30A Songwriters' Festival to South Walton during the off season; the Valentine Tour of Homes; oversaw the initiation of the Seaside Writers' Conference; South Walton Fashion Week; the A+ Art series; and growing the annual ArtsQuest art festival, and Flutterby.

Steele oversees grant awards made to teachers, students, artist, and other arts organizations.

She has served on the county's RESTORE committee, as a member of the Tourist Development Council, as a board member for the group A Better South Walton, and as chair for the TDC's advisory committees for new product development.

Steele was nominated for the award by Stacey Brady with Grand Boulevard.

"Jennifer Steele has made it her life's work to bring, foster, and nurture all aspects of one of South Walton's most beloved, unique, and valuable commodities: art," Brady said in her nomination. "She has guided the CAA to initiate and oversee many of the most popular and important events in our market. A true visionary, Jennifer's innovation, tenacity, and creative dedication make her a worthy recipient of the Van Ness Butler Jr. Hospitality Award."

"Tourism in South Walton succeeds through the efforts of dedicated, enthusiastic, and innovative people, and this award recognizes an outstanding woman who has made a significant impact to enhance South Walton as a destination," said Visit South Walton's Executive Director Jay Tusa.

Steele said the award means so much to her as her grandfather was a friend of Van Ness Butler.