Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

When Deborah Sounart came to Alaska, she had a roundtrip ticket and a plan to leave one year later. She’s starting her 25th year teaching music at Kenai Central High School this month.

“It’s been a very long year,” Sounart said.

In April, the band teacher received a citation of excellence award from the National Band Association, the largest coalition of band educators in the country. Former Kenai Central High School choir teacher Renee Henderson presented Sounart with the award at her spring concert.

“I worked with her for 20 years exactly,” Henderson said. “I hired her. She was a wonderful candidate. She had good credentials, and was even better than her credentials, actually. She runs a superior classroom. Her teaching techniques are top of the chart.”

Sounart said she was shocked when she first heard about the recognition. After making the decision to leave her home state of Florida in the summer of 1994, she said she didn’t think she would amount to any national success after a former mentor told her she would be better off, professionally, in the Lower 48.

“To me, it was like this is where God put me and I’m supposed to be here,” Sounart said. “I had kind of given up on any type of professional recognition in that setting, so when (I won the award) I was just in shock. Those type of awards goes to huge, huge programs in the Lower 48. Not little programs here in Kenai.”

Before moving to Alaska, Sounart taught music for eight years in Miami-Dade County in southern Florida. She found herself homeless in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Her home was ground zero for the hurricane, and for the next two years, Sounart couch-surfed with friends and family while working full time as a music teacher.

“I wasn’t destitute,” Sounart said. “There’s a difference between being destitute and being homeless. I still had a full-time job and a full-time bank account, but I did not physically have walls and a roof. I bunked in a warehouse, I bunked at my grandma’s house after hers got reconstructed.”

Exhausted by reconstruction, Sounart decided to teach in Alaska for a year and experience her birth state. Her father served in the Coast Guard in Cordova between 1955 and 1965, where she was born at the end of his 10 years.

“I always grew up with the mystique of being the only Alaskan in the family,” Sounart said. “My dad told me before I came up here, ‘You’re going to go there and you’re going to love it and you’re going to stay and then we’re going to lose you.’ I said ‘No, I’ll come back.’ Dad was right. I had a roundtrip ticket back to Miami and I never used the second half.”

That summer, Sounart was hired to teach at Kenai Central High School where she’s been working ever since. She is the district coordinator for high school band festivals. At Kenai Central High School, Sounart teaches the concert band class, along with several extracurricular band classes like the jazz band, the pep band and the drumline. In addition to her responsibilities at Kenai Central High School, Sounart also works with the band at Kenai Middle School.

Every year for the district music festivals, a guest composer is invited to work with the school bands. Marywood University professor of music David Romines worked with Sounart and her students during their spring music festival. Not shortly after, Sounart received a call from Romines congratulating her on her citation of excellence award, which he nominated her for.

“I got to see her band perform and her work and logistical effort on the festival,” Romines said. “It was so well-run I just thought she needed some recognition. She’s a real advocate for the band, an easy person to work with and she’s very professional in her approach to things.”

Although Sounart is thankful for the recognition, she said her students and community are a major part of her success.

“As much as this award comes to me personally, and it does, I have to turn around and recognize these kids have all been a part of it,” Sounart said. “We have a pretty special community here. I am very blessed to be a part of a very strong music community.”

Sounart’s drumline starts Aug. 13. She created it to take the place of larger marching bands that are common in Lower 48 schools. The Kenai Central High School drumline performs at every home football game and even does a halftime show. The drumline also marches in three local parades: the Kenai Homecoming parade, the Christmas Comes to Kenai parade and the Fourth of July parade. It’s the only marching unit in the school district, and this year’s group is the largest Sounart has ever had with 31 students.

“We live in a very blessed community financially and educational wise and it’s been good to me,” Sounart said. “On the other hand, I’ve worked hard to make that Kenai program what it is. It was pretty small when I first took it on, but I fell in love with the Kenai school and the Kenai community and I stayed.”

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