“Compassionate-Caring-Community” is the theme for the 2016 South Peninsula Haven House Women of Distinction awards. This year’s honorees embody that spirit, said Haven House volunteer Sherry Stead.
Haven House honors Homer women of all ages who contribute to the community and encourage women as leaders. At 5 p.m. Friday in a banquet at Alice’s Champagne Palace, Haven House presents awards to Woman of Distinction Carmen Field, Woman of Wisdom Caroline Venuti, Young Woman of Distinction Lilli Johnson and Hero of the Heart Chris Fontaine. Tickets to the award ceremony can be purchased at the Homer Bookstore or by calling Haven House at 235-7712.
Woman of Distinction: Carmen Field
Biologist, naturalist and educator Carmen Field might be the only Woman of Distinction who counts as one of her achievements getting kids muddy. Field helped found Nature Rocks in 2008, a local organization that seeks to get children outside in nature. Inspired by author Richard Louv’s book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” Field has organized programs like the annual Mud Wallow. Through her work as an educator with the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, she also has inspired and taught hundreds of children and adults to learn about the outdoors.
“I’m honored,” Field said of the award. “It’s very special to know that there are people thinking of me in that role. Hopefully I will be gifted many more years to make a difference.”
Almost 52, Field grew up in Palos Park, Ill. Field graduated with a degree in wildlife management and biology from the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, where she met her husband, Conrad Field. They have been married 26 years and have a daughter, Eryn, 10.
She first came to Alaska in 1986, right before Augustine Volcano blew in March. She had planned to take a job on a fishing boat, but that fell through when the boat sank. Field wound up working for Grizzly Gifts in Anchorage.
Meanwhile, she had lost touch with Conrad Field, but they reconnected and he invited to come work with him on a naturalist job in Jekyll Island, Ga.
“That’s where I really started teaching kids,” she said.
Field came back to Alaska in 1989, where she and Conrad worked as guides and naturalists for Diane and Michael McBride at Kachemak Wilderness Lodge. That lead to the Fields meeting the owner of Society Expeditions who came to the lodge. They’ve been doing tours the past 22 years for Society and its successor, Zegrahm Expeditions, to Antarctica and other places.
That first summer in Kachemak Bay got them hooked on the area.
“We really liked Homer. We decided to put stuff in a storage unit. We house sat for a long time,” she said.
They now live in a house in Fritz Creek. Field worked for the Alaska National Wildlife Maritime Refuge as a seasonal employee for seven years and has been with KBRR since 1999 as an education associate. With KBRR now with the University of Alaska Anchorage, Field is an associate of the reserve as an employee of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. She works as an aquatic education specialist.
“I teach about fishing and things that have to do with fish resources,” Field said.
In 2013 Field was diagnosed with breast cancer and took time off for aggressive treatment that included radiation and chemotherapy. This year her cancer came back and she’s going through more chemotherapy. Susan Cushing, the woman who nominated Field for the Woman of Distinction award, cited Field’s experience with cancer as one reason for her to get the honor — but not just because she has cancer, Cushing wrote. Field embodies the spirit of women fighting to survive, whether against violent perpetrators or diseases, she wrote.
“It is the same strength that women must reach deeply to protect each other, our children, our pets, our earth,” Cushing wrote.
Field said she is humbled to get the Woman of Distinction award.
“This town is full of those women of distinction and wisdom who have gifts to bring people to this community,” Field said. “We couldn’t make a distinction and follow our passion if we didn’t have the support of women in this community — and men.”
Woman of Wisdom: Caroline Venuti
When Stead called Caroline Venuti to say she had some good news, Venuti said she thought Stead called to tell her she had won the Haven House quilt raffle. Stead told her, no, she had better news — Venuti had been selected as the 2016 Woman of Wisdom.
“Oh man, Sherry, you’re going to change your mind, aren’t you?” Venuti said she told her. “My heart was pounding.”
Venuti, 69, was born and raised in Kodiak to Canadian parents. Venuti got her bachelor of arts in education from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She graduated in 1972, and her first teaching job was at Joy Elementary School, the same place she did her student teaching.
When the Trans-Alaska Pipeline started being built and rents skyrocketed, Venuti left town and taught on a Cree reservation at the southern tip of Hudson Bay near James Bay, Quebec. After two years she missed Alaska and got a job teaching at the school in Hope from 1977-84.
“It was a small school, but I’d already been teaching at a small school,” she said. “They needed seven students to keep the school open and I stayed there seven years.”
On the north Kenai Peninsula, Venuti also worked in Sterling and Nikiski. She had always loved Homer and applied for and was hired as a 3rd grade teacher at Paul Banks Elementary School.
Venuti met her husband, Franco Venuti, in church at Homer United Methodist Church. They’ve been married 26 years.
“It’s a great place to meet someone, by the way,” she said of church.
She worked at Paul Banks until West Homer Elementary School was built in 1992 and the 3rd grade was moved to the new school. She finished out her teaching career at West Homer, retiring in 2006. Venuti didn’t quit teaching. At Kachemak Bay Campus, she taught in the Youth Training Program “which fit me like a glove,” she said. She’s now coordinator of the Learning Resource Center, working 24 hours a week.
Venuti said one of the accomplishments she is most proud of was starting the Homer Boys & Girls Club. She helped get a U.S. Department of Justice grant to found a club, and served on the first board. Venuti also served on the Library Advisory Board in the early days of planning for the new library. Like several other Homer teachers, she also was a BP Teacher of the Year finalist, in 2002-03.
“I’m humbled,” she said of winning the Woman of Wisdom award. “I’m blown away. Haven House plays such an important role in our community. This is a nice gesture for them to do.”
Venuti also said she was honored to be on the same awards page as Carmen Field. When Venuti went on nature field trips where Field participated, Venuti said she always made sure to be in her group.
“I’d follow her anywhere on the beach. I learned so much from her,” Venuti said.
“I know so many nice women. It’s my turn this year, but next year I’ll be rooting for them, too,” she added.
And about that quilt raffle?
“They haven’t drawn that yet. I might still win it,” Venuti said.
Young Woman of Distinction:
Lilli Johnson, this year’s Young Woman of Distinction, works as a peer educator at Kachemak Bay Family Planning Clinic’s R.E.C. Room, volunteers at Haven House, and has worked on the Lead On program for the last three years. In addition to her work in the community, Johnson is graduating from Homer High School in May, a year early.
“I walked in my freshman year, I remember this very clearly, and I was like, ‘I’m not into it. I want to get out as quickly as possible.’ Not to say the high school’s a bad place,” Johnson said. “I was ready to move on my first day of freshman year.”
Johnson moved to Alaska from Los Angeles with her family. After spending a year in Palmer, she arrived in Homer at age 7. Although she has spent the last 10 years in Homer, she said that she sometimes still feels like the new kid. Over the years, Johnson has grown to be a leader in the community, especially among her peers. As a peer educator, teens in Homer know they can talk to Johnson about just about anything.
“Lilli is unique in many ways. She is pretty unconditional or lack of judgment for others when she meets people or interacts with them and respects and accepts who they are. That’s always come naturally for her,” said Anna Meredith, KBFPC youth health education and programs manager.
Although Johnson’s schoolwork has kept her plenty busy to fulfill the goal of graduating early that she set for herself at the beginning of her freshman year, she spends 40 additional hours a week working and volunteering, she said. Through her work in Homer’s community, Johnson has learned which direction she hopes to take her career. Johnson said she is interested in public health and hopes to work in some capacity related to the field, though she is still working on the details.
“I have a basic idea of what I want to do and that’s basically that I want to help people. I wish I had it more narrowed down, or maybe I don’t wish that, maybe I’m okay with just knowing the big idea and I’ll figure it out as I go,” Johnson said.
Johnson does know that she wants to travel the world and immerse herself in other cultures, which informed her decisions when applying to college. She has been accepted to both her top choices — Long Island University Global and Evergreen State College — and is figuring out which one she will chose, depending on factors such as financial aid. Regardless of the path she chooses, Johnson is determined to make a difference in the world.
“I think what stands out to me the most is her very grounded and solid view of justice and desire for justice, especially social justice. I think that’s why she choose to volunteer with Haven House — she has a drive to reduce or eliminate injustice,” said Haven House violence prevention specialist Tara Schmidt.
Hero of the Heart: Chris Fontaine
Chris Fontaine, this year’s Hero of the Heart, arrived in Homer in 1994, driving a Volkswagen Bus with her then-boyfriend, now-husband John, on a journey to wherever they ended up. The bus became stuck in the sand of the Homer Spit, and here they stayed, Fontaine said.
Since her arrival in Homer, Fontaine has worked with the South Peninsula Women’s Services, which became Haven House, Kachemak Bay Family Planning Clinic, and South Peninsula Hospital. Fontaine started at SPWS as a volunteer and became an advocate, working with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. After working as an outreach coordinator with KBFPC and completing her nursing degree, she became a registered nurse. Through her connection with the hospital’s forensic nurse, Colleen James, Fontaine decided to get the certifications required to be a forensic nurse as well so she could help victims of assault and abuse.
As a forensic nurse, Fontaine provides trauma-informed care to victims of crimes such as child abuse and maltreatment, domestic violence, interpersonal violence, human trafficking, elder abuse, and sexual assault. The job involves medical assessments, evidence collection and documentation, and testifying at trials for cases that are reported. As the person victims come to for medical treatment, even if they are not pressing charges, Fontaine sees more cases of crimes than the public is aware, she said.
“Alaska ranks highest in domestic violence homicides. We have a high rate of domestic violence that we may or may not even see,” Fontaine said. “We have a lot of patients who’ve experienced sexual assault and, since in the state of Alaska it’s not mandatory for health care providers to report for an adult, what we see is much higher than what the community sees as far as crimes of sexual assault and sexual abuse. Over half of our patients are minors, are children, and since all of those are reported, mandatory reported crimes, we also have very high rates — I think Alaska has the fourth highest rate of child maltreatment in the nation — so we have high case loads of that kind of patient.”
Though the daily reality of violence Fontaine is faced with is sobering, she said the numbers do not shock her. She has worked in the field of women’s health and come up against these issues frequently enough to know they are not anomalies, but rather experiences that many women and men have within their lifetime, Fontaine said. By being a part of victims’ care after an incident, Fontaine helps minimize further trauma.
“We now know that how we react to someone after they’ve experienced an trauma is going to impact whether they heal or not from that trauma, so one of the important things I do in my job is listening to people and believing people,” Fontaine said.
Fontaine’s nomination for the award is based on her dedication to advocacy for victims, as well as her compassion.
“It’s a very difficult and damaging process and it’s good to have good people who are gentle and kind and have the people’s best interest at heart, and that’s so apparent with Chris,” said Haven House advocate Donna Beran.