Meet Your Neighbor: Samantha Cunningham and Thea Person

Award sponsored by Friends of the Homer Public Library honors Lifelong Learner Samantha Cunningham and Youth Learner Thea Person.

Every year, the Friends of the Homer Public Library honors an adult community member who has made a lifelong commitment to acquiring an exceptional skill or knowledge, enjoys trying new things and sharing with others, and has an infectious passion for learning and exploration. They also honor a Homer youth who exemplifies a zest for learning, shares what they’ve learned with others, and has a passion for exploration and knowledge.

This year’s Lifelong Learner Honoree is Samantha Cunningham and the Youth Learner Honoree is Homer High School Senior Thea Person.

Friends of the Homer Public Library Board Member Lin Hampson spoke of the criteria they sought in honoring Cunningham and Person.

“In both cases, we are looking for individuals who continue to find challenges in life, who don’t settle into one thing,” she shared. “So many people in Homer do so many things, have lots of interests, and are inspired to learn new things. Those are the folks we’re excited to honor.”

Cunningham has dedicated nearly 30 years to serving her community as a volunteer paramedic, teaching CPR/First Aid to thousands of individuals, from youth to doctors to fishermen, mentoring young adults as a host through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and investing her time and energy in local youth with the Live Action Role Play (LARP) group.

“Samantha is the driving force behind so many things and the fact that she teaches doctors, leads youth and teaches others to save lives is pretty incredible,” said her husband, Robert Walsh, one of several individuals who nominated her for the award. “Her drive to learn is tremendous.”

Cunningham grew up in Nova Scotia, Canada in a one-room dry cabin on a homestead and did not attend formal school until high school.

“Mom said that if I could read I didn’t have to go to school, so from second grade through seventh grade on, I stayed at home,” she shared. “She called it homeschooling, but nowadays we would call it un-schooling.”

Reading everything she could get her hands on, from Whole Earth catalogues to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Cunningham returned to public school for eighth grade. She didn’t go to college until she decided to become a medic, inspired by a car accident she witnessed as a young woman.

“I was driving along a tiny dirt road in Vermont and came upon a car accident where a woman was unconscious, in her car, in a ravine,” Cunningham said. “I saw a crowd of people on the bank looking down, but nobody was doing anything. I remember trying to help her, waiting with her for the rural ambulance to come, and seeing the rescuers with ropes and pulleys hauling her out of the ravine. I went home in a daze, shaken that no one in the crowd was doing anything. Everything shifted for me and I knew that I wanted more than anything in the world to be able to help people like that.”

Within two days Cunningham had signed up for her first CPR class, and then joined a volunteer rescue squad.

“I put that pager on my belt and never looked back,” she said. “Inspiring other people to make a difference and save lives is incredible.”

Cunningham enjoys being involved in a lot of activities. Beyond being a paramedic and teaching CPR and First Aid, she co-founded Smokey Bay Air, dyed her own fabric to make quilts, taught herself to knit, offered cheese making classes, made and sold jewelry at the Homer Farmers Market and Nutcracker Faire, and wrote cooking columns in the Homer News. Two of her favorite activities are preparing meals in her home for large groups of people and hosting weekly Live Action Role Play group with her sons Thane and Rowyn whom she homeschooled.

“I’m inspired by making the community a better place,” she shared. “If I’m working on a quilt, it will go on someone’s bed. If I’m teaching CPR, it will save a life. If I help a kid with social challenges have a safe place to run around outside and interact with other kids … these give me immense gratification at the end of the day.”

This year’s Youth Learner Honoree, Homer High School senior Thea Person, is passionate about reading, community theater, swing choir, and Drama, Debate & Forensics (DDF), as well as mentoring others. As much as she loves to learn, she also loves to share what she has learned.

“I like being busy and involved in as many things as I can be, and inspiring as many people as I can,” she said.

Born and raised in Homer, Person has been an avid reader since a child, devouring books, and has for a number of years participated in the Battle of the Books, a statewide program sponsored by the Alaska Association of School Librarians that is intended to increase reading and promote academic excellence for grades 3 through 12. Students are given a list of books to read and then tested for their knowledge of the books they’ve read.

She also enjoys the performing arts, is currently in rehearsal for the upcoming musical, Newsies, had principle roles in last year’s High School Musical, and performed previously in School House Rock.

Her first stage performance was Wind in the Willows with Pier One Theatre when she was 12 years old and she recently ran tech for Beauty and the Beast.

“My best friends are all theater people and it’s just a really fun and creative group to hang out with,” she said.

Very involved in her school, Person is in the swing choir, attended the All-State Music Festival and received second place at this year’s Poetry Out Loud event. Funded by the Alaska State Council on the Arts, students memorize and present poems with their performances voted on by teachers and peers. Person will head to Juneau this March to compete at the statewide level.

Person is also captain of the high school’s DDF team. The only freshman on the team when she joined, she shared that older students took her under their wing and mentored her, inspiring inspired her to in turn mentor others.

“Through DDF, I gained public speaking skills and became more confident overall,” she said. “I also learned how important it is to share what I’m learning. When I see young people trying things out for the first time, things like theater, the choir or DDF, it reminds me of myself when I was their age. I like helping them develop their passions and getting better at whatever they’re involved in.”

Person’s mother Adele shared that a great part of her daughter’s joy of learning comes from being with others.

“Thea has become a choir kid, reaching the All-State Festival, and the joy of choir is being in a choir, being among others, singing together,” she said.

Person also shared that she appreciates the way her daughter learns while teaching others, finding the joy of learning in learning together.

“I believe one reason Thea is such a good learner is her delight in sharing knowledge,” she said. “As captain of the DDF team, she deeply cares that other kids have the opportunity to connect and find their voice in a way that has served her well.”

Outside of school, Person works as a deckhand and tour guide on the Danny J, providing tours between Homer and Halibut Cove during the summer months, sharing her knowledge of the local wildlife and landscape with visitors. Looking to her future, she hasapplied to the University of Alaska Fairbanks to study history and is looking forward to becoming involved in the northern arts community.

“I’m very grateful for all the people who have been in my path, inspiring me,” she shared.

Board member Hampson was Person’s counselor her freshman year. She considers Person’s strengths to be her curiosity, intelligence, appetite for life, and ability to inspire those around her.

“She’s always eager to learn something new and seems like she’s enjoying her life and everybody around her,” she said. “She is a remarkable young learner and I hope she holds onto that quality. She reminds me of what I valued as a youth, my own aspirations and dreams, and the importance of keeping in touch with that part of ourselves as we get older. I fully suspect that in 25 years Thea will be one of our Lifelong Learner honorees.”

This year’s Celebration of Lifelong Learning takes place at 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25, at the Homer Public Library. Tickets are $40/person and are available at the Homer Public Library and the Homer Bookstore. Enjoy food by Redbird Kitchen, live music by Spit City Slickers, a live

LARP demonstration, youth poets, swing choir singers, Trivia Tree with Kathleen Gustafson, and a silent auction. For more information, stop by the library.