Tara Schmidt dedicated to community service
As a child, Tara Schmidt spent hours in conversation with her parents, learning how to navigate the world.
"They encouraged me to serve others and try to make the world more just," she shared.
Schmidt followed in her parent's footsteps and studied broadcasting. Raised in Nome, she worked at the Nome Community Center in the summer months when college was out, producing radio and television ads to address social problems in the community.
Feeling stuck, eager to expand her boundaries and excited to explore different possibilities for community service programs, Schmidt sought out programs with strong leadership development components. She eventually settled on the AmeriCorps VISTA program.
"The goal of VISTA volunteers is to give non-profits the structural, fiscal, and labor support needed to start something new," she shared. "It sounded like a good challenge."
In 2013, Schmidt moved to Homer to volunteer with Haven House in their fledgling Prevention Department.
"Violence prevention was a innovation in Homer and is still a relatively new field in the state of Alaska," she shared. "Coming in on the ground floor and building the program up from the foundation was very rewarding."
Schmidt's one-year commitment to Haven House turned into two years and then into three.
"There wasn't any doubt in my mind that I would be staying after being a part of Haven House and spending a summer here," she said. "I loved how busy I was, the work I was doing and the people I was doing it with."
Among the projects Schmidt was involved with were Green Dot, a statewide movement of communities who stand together against interpersonal violence, Girls on the Run, an afterschool program for third to fifth grade girls that teaches healthy habits and integrates running, Lead On, a teen leadership group facilitated in collaboration with Kachemak Bay Family Planning Clinic, PhotoVoice, a program that teaches teens how to use photography to convey their hopes and concerns for their community and the Homer Prevention Project, a five-year-long grant aimed at reducing underage drinking and adult binge drinking.
During her time with Haven House, Schmidt's job faced several obstacles, including repeated threats of state budget cuts; however, in 2015, community partners advocated to restore funding for Alaska's Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault to the state budget.
"Everything we have been able to accomplish is because of the vocal support of the community," Schmidt shared.
Last November, encouraged by her work with Haven House, Schmidt left the organization to go back to school. She is working toward a Master of Public Health and plans to work in research and program evaluation.
"Program evaluation is essentially finding out whether you are accomplishing what you set as your goals and research can help inform what goals to set," she said. "I want my work to help promote health and wellness by investigating socially complex issues alongside people and organizations seeking social justice."
With her background in broadcasting, Schmidt is also interested in applying communication theory and practices to whatever project she is working on.
"Most of the prevalent health issues are socially and behaviorally driven," she said. "Usually, you have to change people's minds and hearts to get them to change their behavior."
Schmidt works part time for the University of Alaska Anchorage Center's Behavioral Health Research and Services, working under evaluators on a suicide prevention project in Northwestern Alaska.
While she no longer works with Haven House, Schmidt is still very active with Green Dot and Girls on the Run. She is a substitute coach, co-leads violence prevention workshops for workplaces and volunteers at community engagement events in Homer.
"Green Dot has a steady presence and recognition in our community and now at Homer High School," she said. "The idea that violence is preventable is almost mind blowing to people sometimes. It's good to share that notion with people and empower them to challenge current norms. I was just at a city council meeting where the mayor talked about his Green Dot moment, when he took the time to let someone know that violence is not acceptable in Homer. That's a powerful change that the people in and around Homer helped bring about."
In addition to her community service work, Schmidt enjoys ceramics. In Homer, she found a mentor in potter Ruby Haigh, with whom she worked for a year and a half.
"Having someone who critiqued my work, taught me about studio upkeep and let me explore creatively was wonderful," she said.
Schmidt is also a runner, having completed two marathons in the last two years. She is currently training for a 22.5-mile trail run from Girdwood to Eagle River.
Schmidt shared that while she came to Homer for her work, she stayed because of the people.
"In Homer, people step out of their individual job descriptions and are willing to be creative about community solutions," she said. "Homer is incredibly resilient and the main work culture is overwhelmingly collaborative. This is so inspiring to me, both personally and professionally."