Homer group thinking globally, acting locally

Posted: Friday, March 22, 2002

HOMER -- If a well-connected visitors center can do wonders for commerce in a tourist destination, a centrally located headquarters plugged into the planetwide Web ought to do the trick for linking good ideas with people with the resources and energy to see them through.

That's the thinking, at least, behind a fledgling grass-roots effort begun in Homer last month called Vessels of Hope, which recently incorporated as a nonprofit organization. Organizers hope their idea will soon have a physical location -- something they've taken to calling a "hope center," though that name likely won't be what it's called once it exists.

Primarily, the center would be a kind of clearinghouse for community resources -- part aid station, part information kiosk, part think tank -- a place for connecting answers to questions, action to ideas.

"We've got about a million ideas on a community and on a global level," said organizer Barbara Meyer, who recently left a career as a guardian ad litem for the state and says she will now devote her talents to creating pathways joining local efforts at community betterment to resources with a global reach -- and vice versa.

If that all sounds a bit nebulous, consider that the kind of global connectedness she's talking about is a brand new phenomenon brought about by the computer-fired communications explosion. A few short years ago the idea simply wasn't realistic.

Meyer and friends Paul McCollum, a natural resources consultant in fisheries, and Laurel Epps, who owns Home Sweet Homer organic food store, first envisioned Vessels of Hope last fall. Meyer said she sees it as a service and educational nonprofit that could become a kind of assistance group providing a launching pad for Homer-area residents with ideas for community betterment.

Just what the nonprofit will finally look like isn't written down, McCollum said in a recent interview. That, organizers say, should be up to the larger community as more and more individuals and groups jump on board.

While doing some research in an effort to focus their ideas, McCollum stumbled on Idealist.org, a Web site of a group called Action Without Borders. The site provided a search engine for linking to more than 25,000 other organizations worldwide.

It looked to McCollum as if people elsewhere were having similar ideas.

Action Without Borders was calling for community meetings to be held on Feb. 5 around the world. According to the site, 136 meetings were scheduled.

About 40 people gathered in the commons at Homer High School on the meeting day. By the time they'd left, they'd generated two typed pages of ideas -- things attendees thought Homer needed, Meyer said.

Ideas included:

n a town-meeting style advisory government with annual or semi-annual meetings to network and set priorities;

n a local ombudsman position;

n community support links throughout the Kachemak Bay and lower Kenai Peninsula area;

n "Welcome to our town" services for newcomers;

n a local resource-management Web site;

n a late-night coffee house and music center;

n new hiking and biking trails;

n a free "borrow-a-bike" program;

n a family support group for single parents;

n a community code of business ethics.

The list went on and is being added to daily, Meyer said.

Tuesday night, more than two dozen attended a second meeting in Homer to further develop Vessels of Hope's idea for a help center. Again, the Homer meeting coincided with similar events around the world.

Still more ideas were generated, focusing mostly on the practical problems to be overcome in creating a help center, such as where it should be, what should be inside it and how it should be staffed.

"It is kind of hard to envision this facility," McCollum acknowledged. "Imagine a well-organized visitors center that happened to have a charter booking agency and bed-and-breakfast referral service. This thing is sort of like that, bringing people to resources and resources to people in a specific world of social and environmental activism, as it were."

Someone else likened it to the University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Service, or a service organization already in existence in Kenai called Love INC, which links church organizations to community needs.

It is also a bit like Bridges Community Resource Network, a Soldotna organization that acts as a referral service to various kinds of services available in the central Kenai Peninsula.

The help center idea has taken off and produced fruit in some places, even since the Feb. 5 meeting, McCollum said. According to Action Without Borders, a help center launched in Belize that very day provided testimony to what can happen on very short notice when folks put their minds together, he said.

"They were so fired up, the place they were meeting at turned into the help center," he said.

Of concern among those attending the Homer meeting was avoiding duplication of effort. The help center ought not try to do what other organizations are already doing. That is, it doesn't need to become a food bank, or a health clinic or a crisis hot-line service -- though someone did suggest it might offer a "warm line," a way for people to discuss their less-than-crisis-level problems.

While Vessels of Hope would focus primarily on local issues, the beauty of the Web connection is that the resources, ideas and even volunteers from around the world could be brought to bear on a Homer project or problem. At the same time, local resources, ideas and volunteer energy could be extended to other parts of the world.

The opportunities may be limitless, McCollum said.

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