A Homer volunteer can add a trophy to the sash and tiara she received this fall at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer. Countess Nona Safra, the oldest Alaskan to compete to be Alaska State Fair Royalty, last week was named by First Lady Rose Dunleavy one of five recipients of the First Lady’s Volunteer of the Year award.
Safra received her honor in an awards luncheon last Thursday at Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s Anchorage office.
“Being an Alaskan means going above and beyond to help our neighbors and communities,” Rose Dunleavy said. “This year’s honorees are remarkable pillars of the community. They dedicate their time, energy and talent to improve Alaskan’s lives. We live in a better Alaska because of these selfless honorees. My selection committee and I am proud to recognize this year’s volunteers.”
Safra, 71, received the honor in recognition of her personal commitment to long-term volunteerism, according to a press release from the governor’s office.
“Nona is committed to finding solutions for seniors, veterans and people who require assistance,” the press release said.
Safra currently serves on the Alaska Commission on Aging and as a volunteer for AARP Alaska, the state branch of the national senior advocacy organization. It was through her work for seniors that Safra sought to be state fair royalty.
“If I want to be on the Commission on Aging, I want to effect change,” she said. “It can be through advocacy with the Legislature or advocacy with organizations.”
Safra ran for the honor of Alaska State Fair Duchess, a title that goes to women 30 and older. She didn’t win that honor, but her history of community service and volunteerism left such an impression on the royalty committee they created the title of “Countess.” Safra had also pushed for honoring elders.
“‘You know what?’” Safra said the royalty committee told her. “‘You have a really good point that we don’t honor people who are seniors.’”
Safra said it’s a title that should remain — and there should be a “Count” title for men, too, as with the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous Lady and Lord Trapper honors.
“Why in our royalty program do we have no men?” Safra said of the state fair. “… Why not a count?”
As Countess, Safra attended the entire run of the state fair. That meant she got to spend some time with the late Hobo Jim.
“Which was a blessing,” she said. “He was the one who was so excited I became the Countess.”
Raised in Philadelphia, Safra was one of the first women to break the glass ceiling in radio journalism. She moved to Alaska in 2011 and married Iditarod Sled Dog Race veteran Fred Agree. She met Hobo Jim shortly after she came to Alaska, and credits him as being her mentor in what it means to be an Alaskan.
“It’s in your head. It’s in your attitude. It’s in your love of the land,” Safra said Hobo Jim told her. “You couldn’t ask for anybody better to teach that.”
Safra said she went in 10 years from just knowing Agree to getting the First Lady’s award.
“It’s an amazing state,” she said. “If I can do it, anyone can. This is the land of opportunity.”
Alaska’s 730,000 people become your extended family, Safra said.
“You get to know everyone to the best of your ability,” she said. “Above all, above politics or ethnicity, you’re Alaskan.”
Alaska can be the kind of state where it’s easy to make connections, Safra said. Gov. Dunleavy is from Pennsylvania like her. One treat Pennsylvanians appreciate is Tasty Cakes. Safra had recently visited Pennsylvania and brought Dunleavy a box at the First Lady’s luncheon.
“His eyes just lit up,” she said. “… Isn’t that cool in a state where you get to know the governor and you can do stuff like that? … What other state can you do that?”
That’s part of why Safra said she wanted to be state fair royalty, to make connections to the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and Anchorage.
“We’re blessed in so many ways,” Safra said of those connections. “If we stop the infighting and find the ways we have in common, we can just rock. That’s the Alaska I want to focus on.”
Safra said she recalled one other bit of advice from Hobo Jim that inspired her to volunteer.
“Get involved, love Alaska, love Alaskans and you’ll do great things,” she said Hobo Jim told her.