Vision, hard work, money create great place to live

Posted in the Homer News, November 25, 2015
By Mercedes O’Leary Harness

I was 5 the first time I flew to Alaska by myself to visit my dad. We drove the impossibly long road to Homer, and when we arrived I was sure we were in the wrong place.
In my absence a real grocery store had been built, roads were paved, and everything seemed somehow bigger. Every summer thereafter I would hold my breath coming into Homer and scan for the changes winter brought: homes blooming across the hillside, new businesses along Pioneer, landmark businesses like Proctors and Uminskies retired, and more fresh pavement.
In junior high I settled into Homer for the winters, after school trudging up Pioneer with friends to the library. Do you remember what the old library smelled like? Sweat, rain, backpacks, bodies too close together. On Saturdays you had to get there early or there would be no place to sit. Often, I would stay until closing, Sue Gibson locking the door behind me.
Back then, we were always on our way to becoming something. None of my friends talked about growing up and living in Homer. We were going to leave town, go to Anchorage or Portland or New York City, some place that had opportunities.
Meanwhile, Homer continued to grow: both the city’s infrastructure, the businesses providing services, and the non-profits meeting the needs of the community. After high school I was in and out of Homer: college happened, mapping out a life happened, and suddenly I had a family of my own, and found myself back at the library for storytime.
Someone asked me recently what it was like to grow up in Homer. “Not much different than now,” I replied. But I was wrong. Our capacity, our abundance has flourished.
My daughters benefit from a remodeled hospital, an awesome park, a thriving library, the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, a hockey rink, dynamic art programs, several very good options for school, and more. Some of this existed when I was a kid, but not nearly as well developed. Homer grew up. I grew up.
These days you can find me in the back of the library coordinating events for the Friends of the Homer Library, promoting services, writing grants, scheming on the next big project. I look around me, and so many of us intent to get “somewhere else” are here, reaching down to pick up our young kids. Recently a visiting author gave a reading at the library, and on hearing that 10,000 people a month visit the library, and that more than 130,000 items were circulated in 2014, she announced, “This is the kind of place I want to live. A place with a library like this.”
Me, too. From my little corner in the library, I parse out the busy calendar and try to squeeze in one more program requested by a community member. To take a break, I stretch my legs and walk into the main library area and this is what I see: kids with backpacks still trudging in after school, grad students using our Internet to stay connected with professors, business owners asking for help using GrantStation, a home mechanic asking where our Chilton collection is, tots reaching up to get their hands stamped.
Then I stop to say hi to my friend and her 6-year-old son in the kids’ room. She is picking out books for his homeschooling. This is one of the same friends, all those years ago, I walked up Pioneer with. We didn’t come back to Homer by accident.
We choose to be here, because community matters, because while we were busy trying to figure out what to do with our lives, people were making serious investments of
time, grit, passion, and, yes, money, to make Homer a place where young people wanted to come back and raise their families.
This Thanksgiving I celebrate all the sweat and effort community members have made to make this town great, a place to be proud of, not only for its beauty, but for its sense of community and tenacity. How many times in Homer has the impossible been made possible? The very library I’m writing in is evidence of just that.
I celebrate all the volunteers making the impossible happen, all the board members, council members, and people doing the sometimes thankless tasks of making a small town remarkable.
For me, “pay it forward” means giving back to the community that has given me so much. It means, in times of fiscal instability, to believe in abundance, the spirit of giving, and to carry on the legacy of community involvement. After all, I may wake up tomorrow and find my daughters grown, and what kind of community do I wish for them to have?

Mercedes O’Leary Harness is the coordinator for the Friends of the Homer Library, a non-profit whose mission is to provide volunteer support for library programs and services, to raise funds that enrich the library experience, and to promote the use and enjoyment of the library. She holds a master’s of fine arts degree in creative writing and is finishing her first collection of poetry.

Homer Foundation fund will help honor teachers

Posted:  June 25, 2015 – Homer News

Years ago I remember being at the chalkboard in mathematics class, my back to a class of students, and saying, “If you are going to write notes (this before cell phones and texting), you best do that between classes.”

Later a student asked how I knew and I remember saying, “A teacher and mother has eyes in the back of her head.” Another way to say this is a teacher sees with his/her heart, the way all of us see truth.

You have all had a teacher who knows the truth about who you are and supported you in your endeavor to become human, a teacher who saw into your heart and through you to imagine you whole and a citizen who contributed to society and taught you life lessons whether that teacher was a parent, aunt/uncle or teacher in public or private school, friend or foe.

As teachers, we often never know the difference we make until years later, yet teachers continue this most noble of professions in faith our efforts make a difference in the lives of children who grow up to become adults in a community.

The other day I received an email from a former student I taught in the International School of Kuantan located in Malaysia when I lived in Southeast Asia and want to share it. She now teaches mathematics at the University of South Carolina after receiving her Ph.D. at age 27. She was a sponge for learning and excelled. She loved a challenge.

Hi Flo,

I left a meeting at my college recently and it resulted in much reflection on my own educational experiences that I wanted to share with you.

The college is moving forward on a “distance learning” initiative and the meeting was about standardization of online courses. Most of the work is to bring consistency in formatting online courses so that students will have a similar experience regardless of the subject and not become frustrated with online education (which I support). For example, we will all take attendance through a discussion board. However, some of the conversation turned to managing content of the course and this becomes a slippery slope as the next step is to bring this to traditional classes (which I do not support).

I left the meeting understanding what was expected of me, but feeling saddened by the movement to standardization of education. And this caused me to reflect on my most memorable and beneficial educational experiences. Many of these involved Peter and Flo Larson and the two years I spent in International school overseas.

I recall very little “lecture” during my time under your guidance. I remember examples of math problems being worked on the board and then the opportunity to actively practice those solutions at my own pace. I remember engaging science labs and designing our own experiments. I remember field trips to Taman Negara and the Cameron Tea Plantation. I remember lively discussions in English, painting on the sets of our theater productions, and our make-shift Olympics for PE. I remember watching videos, playing with models, using technology, and thinking about what I was learning.

My fear is that we are being asked to create “cookie cutter” courses with no imagination, creativity or inspiration of the individual faculty involved. That we will be expected to stand in front of a class for two hours and lecture instead of create lesson plans our students will thrive on.

Did you ever struggle with this? What are your thoughts?

I guess what I’m really trying to say is thank you! Thank you for teaching in a manner that inspired me to become the person I am today. Thank you for leading by example and reaching many different students across learning styles and cultural boundaries. Thank you for teaching me the soft skills of respect, critical thinking, and compassion for those around me. Thank you for being such a beautiful person that I wanted to model my life around you.

Love, Courtney

Like Courtney, many of us have had a teacher that has made a difference, and thanks to a community effort, a new endowment fund is being established at the Homer Foundation that will be a repository for gifts in memory of teachers who have passed, or in honor of a favorite teacher — a way to give back in gratitude for what he/she gave to you or your children.

The fund’s purpose will be to recognize and provide support to local educators for continuing education, inspiration, health and well-being.

You could help this effort by joining the steering committee, making a contribution to the fund and/or telling a friend. Contact the Homer Foundation for more information. This is one way to pay it forward.

It takes a community, a global community, to educate a child.

Flo Larson is a retired teacher, mother, grandmother, gardener, Homer Foundation board member and volunteer.

People’s Choice Award Winners

To kick off the celebration of our 25th Anniversary we awarded three $250 People’s Choice Awards at our Annual Meeting held Wednesday November 11th. Three names were drawn from those present at the meeting, and each individual told us about their favorite nonprofit and why they should receive the award. Winners were:

Mary Epperson, who selected the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra
Dave Nofziger, who selected the Homer Community Food Pantry
Lynn Spence, who selected the Homer Council on the Arts

Thank you to these committed citizens, and thank you to these nonprofits who do such amazing work in our community!

HF Annual Meeting and Community Foundation Week

HFlogoThe Homer Foundations holds their annual meeting Wednesday, November 11th in the Atrium at the Homer United Methodist Church. We will hold a Meet & Greet from 5:30 to 6 pm with refreshments and music by the Homer Youth String Orchestra Club. The meeting begins at 6 pm. The 2015 Annual Report will be presented, board appointments announced.


To kick off the celebration for our 25th Anniversary there will be a drawing for three $250 grant awards. If your name is selected you get to select which of your favorite nonprofits will receive the award. So please do come and join us Wednesday. Call 235-0541 for more information.


We are also celebrating National Community Foundation Week, November 12-18, 2015. Community foundations impact lives, solve problems, and improve futures. As many residents grapple with limited resources and a growing need for services, we are more determined than ever to bring our community partners together to find innovative and effective solutions for some of our most challenging social problems.


Community foundations are independent, public entities that steward philanthropic resources connecting donor generosity to local nonprofits that are the heart of strong, vibrant communities. Community Foundation Week recognizes the work of community foundations throughout America and their collaborative approach to working with the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to address community problems.


Thank you to the seventy-seven PICK.CLICK.GIVE. donors who chose to support their community through the Homer Foundation using the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend charitable check-off program, PICK.CLICK.GIVE. Through your support we have $10,725 to put to work in our community to help build stronger, more vibrant communities on the southern Kenai Peninsula.

The Homer FLovalaska logo smoundation encourages everyone to give to their favorite causes when applying for their 2016 PFD starting January 1st.

Residents who invest in community make this special place to call home

As posted in the Homer, October 2015

Last month I had a bitter-sweet experience, but mostly, it was beautiful. Buffeted by wind and rain kicked up by a mid-September storm, I took part in the gathering of over 200 friends and neighbors at Mavis Muller’s 12th annual Burning Basket celebration.

Its purpose?  To commemorate and pay tribute to love and loss, to let go of emotional burdens, to reach beyond them, and to celebrate life. Sadly, prior to this year’s celebration, a few mean-spirited people, under cover of darkness, tried not once but twice to destroy this beautiful piece of community art created by local volunteers of all ages, from 9 to 90.

At first I felt angry at this senseless violation. But as the heart of the community, like a phoenix, rose to rebuild, my anger quickly turned to pride. As the basket burned brightly that night, transforming personally inscribed and decorated paper cranes, photos, notes, and letters into sparks of light drifting into the night sky, I was reminded that despite the efforts of a heartless few to destroy something beautiful, every day many among us choose instead to invest their time, their efforts, and their caring spirits to pay it forward with love. We live in such a naturally beautiful place. But it’s the people who live here, who invest themselves in building and maintaining its fiber, that make our town such a special place to call home.

Everywhere I look I see evidence of friends and neighbors who volunteer their time and resources to pay it forward. On the Homer Spit, the Seafarer’s Memorial, imagined and built by Drew Scalzi and an eclectic team of local volunteers, stands as a poignant, permanent tribute to the many local fishermen who have been lost at sea. Inside WKFL Park in the heart of Homer, over 200 memorial pavers and a summer garden quietly honor lost loved ones thanks to a program sponsored by Hospice of Homer donors and volunteers. And in Karen Hornaday Park, a wonderful state-of-the-art public playground now delights our youngest generation thanks to an ambitious project imagined and managed by local moms, built with love by community volunteers, and largely funded by local donors. These are but a few examples of the physical evidence of volunteerism and giving found all around us.

Less visible but equally important examples of the power of volunteerism in our community include a wide range of events and services.  Volunteers organize and fundraise. They run, jog, walk, ski, jump into freezing water, play music, and reach into their pockets to support research and find cures for life-threatening diseases, to honor loved ones lost to these diseases, and to celebrate survivors. They serve on non-profit boards that support the arts, family services, furry friends, the environment, young athletes, and a hundred more worthy causes. They visit shut-ins. They collect and distribute food and clothing to the hungry and homeless. Volunteer firefighters and EMTs sometimes even risk their lives as they come to our aid in times of need.

We all stand on the shoulders of those whose efforts and contributions help shape the soul and spirit of our community. It feels good to be among them. It feels good to take part. So whether you give of your time, your talent, offer financial support — or all three — it matters. When we help pay it forward, we enrich ourselves as well as our community.

Beth Graber is a professor of English at the Kachemak Bay Campus of KPC/UAA and serves on the board of directors for Hospice of Homer.


The Homer Foundation will hold its annual meeting on Wednesday, November 11, 2015 in the lower level of the Homer United Methodist Church, 770 East End Road. The public is invited to join us for a meet and greet and refreshments at 5:30pm, followed by the meeting 6-7:30pm. Meeting highlights include People’s Choice Grant Award, distribution of the 2015 Annual Report and short presentations by the Executive Director, Board Chair, and Investment Committee. Contact 235-0541 or for more information.

New Fund to Support Local Educators

The Homer Foundation would like to thank all the dedicated educators who have participated to date in our exploratory process to create a new endowment to support, celebrate and educate public school teachers on the lower Kenai Peninsula.
After holding several meetings to germinate the idea, there is now a steering committee and one third of the $10,000.00 goal has been raised. Most recently we held a luncheon at the home of Flo Larson with the intention of involving retired teachers in the process going forward. Enthusiasm is growing, ideas are forming and the process is moving ahead.
There are continued opportunities to become involved and make this dream happen. There will be a meeting in late July and we are looking for educators, past and present, who would like to serve on the fundraising committee, the policy committee, and participate in the grant review process. We welcome any level of participation and encourage you to join this dynamic group and/or contribute monetarily to the creation of this fund. Contact Joy Steward at the Homer Foundation.

Opportunity to Help Meet $15,000 Challenge

The Homer Foundation has the opportunity to increase its unrestricted funding with the generous donation of $15,000 from an anonymous donor. This donor will match all donations to unrestricted funds donated to The Homer Foundation up to $15,000. With the current state of Alaska’s finances and the loss of federal funding flowing to non-profits, the need to support all non-profit organizations is steadily increasing. The Homer Foundation is working proactively to recognize and fill those needs. This fundraising effort will directly raise funds to be distributed through our year round grant giving process. Please contact Joy at the Homer Foundation for more information or to make a donation today!

SAVE THE DATE – September 17th

The Homer Foundation presents a Nonprofit Forum with Dennis McMillan from the Foraker Group for nonprofit leaders-staff and board members on Thursday, September 17th tentatively from 4-7pm at the College, Pioneer Hall. Light refreshments provided.
This forum will include:
• a brief overview of the economic reality of the state and the effects on communities and nonprofits.
• the importance of the nonprofit sector in the state.
• the need to work more collaboratively.
• highlight some of the successful collaborations that are occurring in the community right now.
• and capture ideas for future community collaborations.
Free and open to nonprofit board and staff members.
Seating is limited and registration is required.
To register email Joy Steward at by September 15th.