Lifelong, youth learners to be honored

The time’s come again for the Friends of the Homer Public Library to recognize two community members for their dedication to learning through the years. The Celebration of Lifelong Learning event and fundraiser is at 7 p.m. this Saturday at the library.

This year’s honorees are Flo Larson, who has been selected for the Lifelong Learner Award, and Homer High School senior Theodore Castellani, who has been chosen for the Youth Learner Award.

The lifelong learner is one who “is always trying something new and sharing what they have found with others, and who has an infectious passion for learning and exploration,” according to a press release from the Friends of the Homer Public Library.

Larson, a former math teacher, has lived in Alaska since 1969. She and her late husband, Peter, moved to the state to teach. In addition to teaching math in Alaska, Larson has shared the subject with students in Jakarta, Singapore and Kuantan, Malaysia.

The capacity of the human brain is a thing of wonder, its elasticity,” Larson said in the press release. “It is important to understand that what works for one student may not work for another.”

Larson is from a family of 11 and grew up going to a one-room school in North Dakota. She always had a dream to travel the world, and said of her later travels: “I learned how small the world is and how we need the same things — love, simple comforts, and the need to be recognized for who we are.”

Larson retired from Homer High School in 1992, at which point she went to teach abroad or six years. When she returned, Larson taught math at Kachemak Bay Campus.

As an educator, Larson has plenty of first hand experience with the importance of learning. As a math teacher, Larson said she worked to show students that anyone can learn and enjoy subjects like math and chemistry. All too often, she said, math is approached from a place that does not encourage students to engage with it in a positive way.

“I think it’s a disservice that’s done in the way that mathematics is approached in this country at an early age,” Larson said.

She emphasized that, from birth, we are all learning. We’re all born with 10 fingers and 10 toes she said, and the ability to count is something people learn before they can explain the concept itself.

Larson said it could help if it was more common to teach math similarly to how languages are taught.

“It’s an abstract, universal language that every single culture knows,” she said.

That’s why Larson says she had such success teaching abroad despite the language barriers.

What Larson enjoyed so much about teaching math and the sciences was the way her students would light up and come alive when they understood the subject matter. Larson has also always been interested in human interaction — in her words, what makes people tick.

“I know what really drives me is to get to know people from other cultures, and to know people in general,” she said.

The implication that comes with a lifelong learner is that they’ll keep up the practice long into the future. Something Larson currently enjoys learning more about is the art and process of cooking, something she said she became more interested in when she realized it was essentially chemistry.

“I think I’ll learn my whole life how to cook and that’s a direct result of once I got into the chemistry lab,” she said.

Specifically, Larson is experimenting with a new method of making sourdough bread.

“There’s always something to learn, always something to learn,” she said.

Larson wasn’t expecting to be named this year’s Lifelong Learner. If fact, she said she can think of several local residents who she would have nominated for the honor.

“When I found out, I thought actually that Andy Haas was playing a joke on me,” she said of the friend who told her the good news.

Larson said she thinks one way about it and feels another.

“I think that it’s wonderful that the library and the Friends do this for people in the community every year,” she said. “… That I was chosen — I’m still in disbelief that I was chosen, because I can think so so many other people in this town that I would think of as lifelong learners that I would nominate.”

Larson said the Celebration of Lifelong Learners is one of many testaments to how much the library does for Homer and the surrounding community.

“This is just one more indication of how the library, and the heart of the library, is the heart of the town,” she said.

Castellani has had fewer years to learn, perhaps, but shows no signs of slowing down in that endeavor. A member of the Homer High School swim team and the Drama, Debate and Forensics team, he also has performed in school and community musicals over the years. Castellani’s family was heavily involved in starting the Homer Farmers Market.

Growing up home schooled on a farm between Homer and Anchor Point, surrounded by the natural world, is what kick started Castellani’s love of learning the sciences, he said.

“I guess I’ve just always had a pretty innate fascination with the way that the natural world around me works,” he said.

From helping his family grow vegetables to sell at the market to reading issues of National Geographic, Castellani has been actively learning from a very young age. It was one of those early National Geographic articles that ignited his interest in his future career: genetic engineering.

Castellani recalls reading an article about genetic engineering and how it could be used to bring some extinct species back.

“Little Theodore was like, ‘I want to see mammoths here again!’” he said.

As he got older and learned more, Castellani said he realized he could do more good by taking his interest in biology and ecology, pairing it with genetic engineering and using it to help the industry he grew up in. He said the ways genetic engineering is currently used in agriculture to make produce resistant to pesticides can be problematic, as it doesn’t necessarily take into account the damage those pesticides do to surrounding ecological life.

Having recently been accepted to Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, Castellani plans to study biochemistry and ecology with the goal of moving into genetic engineering.

Castellani has branched out into so many different activities and interests not because he was interested in getting involved in as many as possible, but because he’s tried several things out and has enjoyed them so much that he just doesn’t stop. Swimming was one of the first activities that introduced Castellani to other kids while he was still being homeschooled, so he stuck with that, he said.

When he broke his leg and couldn’t swim for a season, he tried his hand at the DDF team. That awakened his passion for performance and entertainment, he said. Castellani was able to find another community of people in DDF that he hadn’t experienced up to that point.

Asked what makes him such a voracious learner, what makes him so excited about new information, Castellani said, “I wish that I could answer that question for myself.”

One thing he’s noticed about himself is that he tends to get highly excited by some new piece of information, no matter how small. He wants to share it with everyone. That’s not how some of his fellow classmates are.

Castellani shared an anecdote about the time he discovered the truth about willow roses.

“You’ll see these bright red, rose like shapes on the very tips of branches,” he explained. “And so what those are, are they’re not flowers. They’re insects that lay its egg inside of the wood.”

When the egg hatches into a larva, it alters the way the tree’s leaves grow. What forms is a rose-like cluster which essentially houses the insects.

“I learned that one day and I was blown away,” Castellani said. “And I was obsessed with these things for weeks.”

As he moves on from high school and Homer, Castellani said the things he’s most excited for in college is the opportunity to meet new people who are completely different from him.

Tickets for the Celebration of Lifelong Learning are $35 and on sale on the library. The celebration is a fundraiser for the Friends of the Homer Public Library to help support its various programs and services.

The event’s keynote speaker is Don Rearden, author of “The Raven’s Gift.”

Reach Megan Pacer at

Photo courtesy Friends of the Homer Library                                Theo Castellani, pictured here in this undated photo, is being honored as the 2019 Youth Learner by the Friends of the Homer Library.

Photo courtesy Friends of the Homer Library Theo Castellani, pictured here in this undated photo, is being honored as the 2019 Youth Learner by the Friends of the Homer Library.