Worldwide donations find way to lower Yukon

February 13, 2009 

Hanshew Middle School teachers Sharon Herrell and Lee Butterfield have been collecting food with the help of their students to be sent to people living in the Western Alaska village of Emmonak.


A wave of donated food and cash has swept into lower Yukon River villages over the past month, with more than 19,000 pounds of supplies and $13,000 landing in Emmonak alone.

Money appeared from donors in England and Bangkok. Villagers hundreds of miles away on the frozen edge of the state pitched in dried fish and muktuk. And, organizers say, much more help is on the way.

Cindy Beans has been tracking the gifts of peanut butter and rice and coffee for the Emmonak tribal council, where she watched the scene from her office window on Wednesday. Five, six, seven people passed by within 20 minutes on their way to the warehouse, each hauling away a small box of food on plastic sleds and snowmachines.

"Every day when it opens up, there's a flood of people heading over there," Beans said. When someone donates money, the council gives out vouchers for free fuel, 10 gallons at a time.

About 35 miles away across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is the village of Kotlik, where roughly 4,500 pounds of food arrived by plane last week from Fairbanks. In nearby Nunam Iqua -- where there's 200 people but no grocery story -- a Seattle restaurant is buying locals $1,600 of free fuel using money it raised selling plates of Yukon River salmon. Elders get first dibs on the vouchers, said the owner.

With few jobs and a high cost of living, many remote Alaska villages have struggled for decades, and that's when the economy doesn't stink. This year, stories of lower Yukon River families choosing between food and high-priced heating fuel, following a lousy fishing season, caught the world's attention.

The story began when an Emmonak man described his neighbors' plight in a January letter to rural newspapers. The call for help soon spread to neighboring western Alaska villages, amplified by bloggers who raised money to send a photographer to the village, and then coverage in larger and larger news media, including a CNN report over the weekend that hinged on that same photographer's footage.

Viewers and readers responded. In Anchorage, the Food Bank of Alaska collected more than $8,000 over just 10 days for Western Alaska villages, said managing director Merri Mike Adams.

The money is part of an aid effort organized by state Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, who hopes to send 3,000 to 4,000 pounds to nine Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages starting next week. All this amid a simmering beef between Ramras and Gov. Sarah Palin about how the state should help.

The state has said it can't legally declare a financial disaster in the region, something regional leaders have asked for for months, instead emphasizing existing aid programs and extending the local moose-hunting season. In a news conference in Juneau on Wednesday, Palin and her team talked about getting more regional workers jobs in seafood processing -- an industry filled with out-of-state employees, they say -- but details were scarce.

Even as the governor's new rural adviser plans a trip to Emmonak, similar tales of hardship are emerging from other cash-poor corners of the state.

For now, the focus is on Western Alaska, and the cause makes for an unlikely team of champions:

There are the left-leaning political bloggers and the right-leaning Anchorage Baptist Temple. Fairbanks churches rallied right away. Wal-Mart pitched in $1,000, according to a Ramras aide.

"Spank the Dog," a classic rock band composed of Juneau political-types -- lobbyists, a legislative staffer -- raised $4,500 for villages at a weekend "benefit concert," Ramras said.

In Florida, a travel writer and Web site designer named Jane Townsend read about Emmonak and started a blog of her own, collecting stories about the region and listing ways to donate money and food. She called her site "Anonymous Bloggers," a poke at the complaints Palin made about her unnamed, online critics.

A Yup'ik village 25 miles from Emmonak, Nunam Iqua had received about 2,200 pounds of food and supplies as of Tuesday, said local Ann Strongheart, who emerged as the online voice of the village by telling her story on blogs and news Web sites.

She now fields dozens of e-mails a day from people who want to help, and lately has been playing matchmaker -- pairing local families with donors like Sabine Stanley, of Virginia.

"These folks don't have time to wait on the government to help ... they need help right now," Stanley wrote in an e-mail this week. "So that's what my family and others across the nation and worldwide have done."

Among the other far-flung relief efforts:

• Alaska Newspapers Inc., a subsidiary of the regional Calista Corp., sent 4,300 pounds of food to Emmonak last month and has since gathered 3,200 pounds more. That drive continues.

• Talk radio hosts are talking up the effort of teachers and students at Hanshew Middle School to collect food in and outside their classrooms. Teacher Sharon Herrell said she recently paid $188 in postage to send the first 450-pound shipment to Emmonak.

Students tend to donate the food they'd like to eat themselves, Herrell said, meaning a few village families should expect cookies, cans of SphagettiOs and boxes of macaroni and cheese.

• A statewide nonprofit that serves young Emmonak families spent roughly $20,000 sending 12,000 pounds of food to the village late last month. The group, Rural Alaska Community Action Program, also plans to spend state money on weatherizing homes in the village, said executive director David Hardenbergh.

Last month, Commerce Commissioner Emil Notti mentioned the weatherization program -- which lawmakers injected with $200 million last year -- as a way to lower energy costs and create short-term jobs in the village.

Back in Emmonak, people are doing better since the food drive started, said Nicholas Tucker, who first wrote about the villagers choosing between food and fuel.

But the spotlight shows signs of spreading beyond the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Tucker said he recently saw a letter in the Tundra Drums newspaper from a woman in Ugashik, in the Bristol Bay region, describing hardships of her own: Few moose to hunt, few salmon to catch and -- just like Emmonak -- a missed fuel shipment at a nearby village.

Find Kyle Hopkins online at or call him at 257-4334.

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