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.