Looking south from my office on the 38th Floor of 345 Park Ave., I sat transfixed on the horrific scene unfolding before my eyes. A plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center, and an eerily straight tendril of smoke stretched horizontally from lower Manhattan out over the Brooklyn skyline. Atop my 380-foot perch, the view was absolutely surreal. On one hand, I was only miles away from what would become known as the most deadly terrorist attack in history. But somehow, the inch thick glass window plus the sea of buildings between me and the WTC made my connection to the day's events almost dreamlike, other worldly.
Every New Yorker, and indeed every American, was transformed for better or worse by Sept. 11, 2001. Understandably, many retreated into comfort zones refocusing on personal relationships and long-forgotten hobbies. Others coped by distracting themselves with their jobs.
My response, however, was somewhat different. I am not claiming that Sept. 11 had any profound impact on altering my fundamental values. Rather, it served as a catalyst in re-ordering my priorities. Sometimes it takes a shock of significant magnitude to jar us out of complacency and into action.
Putting a career on hold and leaving family and friends behind, I was on a plane to Kenai less than a year after that fateful day. But, I wasn't coming on a fishing vacation, nor had my employer transferred me to the Last Frontier. Instead, I had volunteered with AmeriCorps VISTA in hopes of using my accumulated experience and skills to help make a difference through work with the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District.
As project coordinator for KPEDD, I have had the privilege of working with many industrious and creative local residents. And, in only a few short months, I've seen firsthand the extensive impact that KPEDD has had working with the local community:
The KPEDD-sponsored Kenai Peninsula Funding Summit matched unincorporated communities with local, state and federal funding agencies to help streamline the grant seeking process for community projects. As a direct result of this innovative event, several communities received tens of thousands of dollars in funding, helping them meet their community goals.
Serving as an impartial facilitator, KPEDD recently assisted the residents of Ninilchik in drafting their first Community Action Plan. Not only has this new document helped Ninilchik qualify for increased public and private funding, the drafting process itself served to help unify the diverse residents of the community.
KPEDD has taken the lead on a Workforce Development Initiative to improve the quality of the workforce in the Kenai Peninsula Borough. This is a local cooperative effort between employers and educators on the peninsula designed to improve the education and training opportunities for local residents in hopes of creating new local jobs and meeting employer needs.
Most recently, KPEDD has been working with the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council to strengthen the local visitors industry. Promoting collaboration among all visitor industry participants, KPEDD and KPTMC are together committed to enhancing the peninsula and its tourism amenities for visitors and residents alike.
However, the legacy of these accomplishments and the momentum they have created is being threatened. In the borough mayor's proposed budget for 2003-2004, he intends to eliminate borough funding for KPEDD. As justification, the mayor has indicated that he hasn't seen a worthwhile project from KPEDD during his term.
And, indeed, KPEDD's undertakings are not attention grabbing or glamorous. How-ever, simply because the majority of KPEDD's projects and services don't generate front-page headlines in no way diminishes their overall value to the community and to the individuals with which we work.
Without the $90,000 from the borough, KPEDD will be hard pressed to expand upon its effort to enhance the opportunities available for the next generation of peninsula residents. The small business owner in need of non-traditional funding will surely be disappointed to discover our Revolving Loan Fund has been reduced. The future entrepreneur in search of an affordable office and expert technical assistance will be troubled to see our Business Incubation Center unable to accept new clients. The unincorporated community hoping to duplicate the successes seen in Ninilchik will be distressed to find no experienced facilitators available at KPEDD.
And, not least of all, I will be saddened to realize that volunteering a year of my life to an adopted community I have grown to love may all be for naught.
Fortunately, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly is in a position to amend the mayor's proposal. With borough support, KPEDD is looking forward to a bright future for everyone on the peninsula!
Andrew Schmahl has been a resident of Kenai since August of 2002. As an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer, he works closely with the nonprofit Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District as its project coordinator. He moved to Alaska from New York City, where he was a financial analyst with KPMG Corporate Finance LLC. Raised in a "concrete jungle" for most of his life, this is his first real experience outside the city. And while it might take him a bit longer than local residents to bait his hook, he said he is eagerly anticipating the long summer days on the Kenai River. He can be reached at 283-3335, ext. 224 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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