By Chelsea Alward
As executive director for the Kenai Peninsula Fair, Lara McGinnis has spent the last decade devoted to the success of the nonprofit event that takes place in Ninilchik every year.
But when McGinnis was seriously injured in a motor vehicle collision March 16 near Cooper Landing, the folks McGinnis has worked to support now were stepping in to hep her.
“They come to see me, bring me food, go shopping for me,” McGinnis said. “The whole community is one giant family.”
While in the hospital, McGinnis received so many flowers that the room ran out of space for more bouquets. The cards, gifts and $13,000 worth of donations demonstrate the love and support McGinnis has earned through reputation and relationship with those around her.
But it hasn’t been enough to surmount a new challenge brought about by the accident.
The fair has gone through financial lean times, when the organization couldn’t afford to pay McGinnis in addition to winter utilities.
“Through that, the board gave me an apartment upstairs at the fairgrounds for myself and my kids,” she said. “So that if they couldn’t give me a paycheck, I at least would have a roof over my head.”
About a week after the accident, McGinnis was told it would be a significant amount of time before she would be able to return to work.
“The reality set in that I would not be able to do my job for anywhere from 12 to 18 months,” she said. “I knew that I had just left myself and my family homeless.”
Or so she feared.
The fair board, however, held a special meeting to discuss what the future would look like for McGinnis and her kids, 22-year-old Ronald and 15-year-old Robert.
“They pieced everything together,” McGinnis said. “Each board member took a piece of my job, and each one of them took a piece of my life, too.”
Each board member filled a portion of McGinnis’ shoes in both home life and work, dividing up responsibilities from monthly bills to coordinating volunteer efforts. The board also elected to transform 1,000 square feet of storage space into a first-floor studio apartment, since stairs were going to be a challenge given McGinnis’ injuries.
“(The board) looked at the facility, and they looked at my knees and they agreed to give up (space) in our exhibit hall and turn it into an ADA-accessible studio for me so that I have a place,” she said.
For the next several months, McGinnis will heal in a wheelchair with her legs held out straight, making getting around “a little awkward,” and stairs an impossibility.
No sooner had the decision been made than the community rushed to work.
“The boys basketball team and a bunch of other kids from Ninilchik School hot-footed it over here on that Monday after school, and moved everything that was stored in this space,” McGinnis said.
Five days later, thanks to Inlet View Construction and many volunteers, the director was able to move into the newly renovated studio, with her sons one floor away.
“It is amazing that I have a place where my boys are still able to live and I have a place to heal,” she said. “The fairgrounds have been my passion and my baby for 10 years, so to try and heal anywhere else just wouldn’t feel like home.”
Help from the community has continued after McGinnis moved into her new space. One individual gathered McGinnis’ family photos to hang on the walls, and another organized the compilation of cards from students at Ninilchik School.
“This whole community, every single person, they are incredible. And I have an awesome board of directors,” she said.
The board — Bob Ferguson, Kelly White, Lyn Patton, Dean and Kathleen Kitson, Jim Stearns, Shirley Cox, Martie Krohn and Helena Bock — offer the same sentiments about McGinnis.
“She is an incredible person,” Patton said. “(McGinnis) has always been the one to do the giving, so (this response) is all a little overwhelming for her.”
Having just finished a degree in business management with an emphasis on nonprofit organizations last April, the hardest one to convince about the apartment may have been McGinnis herself.
“The student in me says, ‘Absolutely not! They cannot do this,’” she said. “It is not what is best for the fair, just because it is what is best for Lara. But the board decided cohesively that what is best for Lara is what is best for the fair, because they want me back. I am so thankful.”
“The life-changing moments and the movie ‘Pay It Forward’ are things that have resonated with me in my heart and my actions my whole life,” she said. “It is not something that I ever thought would come full circle to this magnitude. But it did, and I am blessed.”
A GoFundMe account has been set up for donations to help with her recovery.
And McGinnis, ever the fair supporter, encourages those who would like to support the organization to attend its annual Celebrity Waiter fundraiser at 5 p.m. April 24 at the fairgrounds. Individuals can also support the fair by becoming members for $25 a year.