Tragedy sparked youth funds

Another in a series of short historical reminiscences to mark the 30th anniversary of the Homer Foundation, Alaska’s first community foundation. The series has been produced by the foundtion and written by board member Tom Kizzia.

When Robert and Melon Purcell suffered the loss of their son, Sheldon, one of their responses in 2010 was to set up an endowment in his name at the Homer Foundation. It would not be a scholarship, however, the devastated parents wanted to do something to enhance the lives of kids growing up in Homer.

The Sheldon Youth to Youth fund was set up to provide money to one of the community foundation’s unique operations: a committee run entirely by students, assigned the task of making grants to support Homer’s young people.

The Youth Advisory Committee (YAC) had been formed in 2002 under the guidance of board member Susan Cushing, an artist who also designed the foundation’s logo around the idea of growth. In 2001, after spruce bark beetles had decimated miles of old-growth forest on the Kenai Peninsula, her design included a seed and a spruce tree: a symbol of hope, and of expectation of growing endowments.

The shrewd idea behind YAC was to direct money to activities that youths themselves considered important. But the aim was also to grow young philanthropists. That included the obligation to go out in the community and raise funds that they could give to good causes.

In their first year, the YAC group voted to grant funds to start a recycling program at Homer High School. The committee’s students also agreed to fund an emergency taxi voucher program to help athletes without transportation. Equally important, the students learned the hard lessons of saying no to some applicants.

The YAC had a singular source of funds from the beginning, derived from another tragedy. In 1998, Ashley Logan, an 8-year-old girl living on East Road, was struck by a car while dashing to catch her school bus. Doctors held out little hope, but Ashley beat expectations and survived — though she remained in a wheelchair and unable for a long time to communicate.

A lawsuit resulted in a settlement to Ashley’s family, after which an anonymous donor created the Ashley J. Logan Fund in 2001.

More than $60,000 has been donated around the community by students serving on the YAC group. One of their big efforts was to help launch the REC Room afterschool youth center. Other projects included a batting cage for little leaguers, books for the Homer Public Library, equipment for ski programs, and support for the Homer Wilderness Leaders summer program, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Project GRAD and Popeye Wrestling.

Recognition from afar for Homer’s innovative YAC program came in 2008 with an award from the Alaska chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Two Homer YAC members were also invited to Juneau to help a new community foundation there set up a similar program.

Finding a fresh batch of students every year to serve as young philanthropists has not always been easy for the foundation’s volunteers, whose effort was led for many years by longtime board member and middle school teacher Bonnie Jason. Indeed, the YAC program is once again looking at possible revisions, in the aftermath of the pandemic school year.