While Gov. Sarah Palin has taken heat from political foes over the state's handling of appeals from Western Alaska that the region is suffering a fuel and food crisis, count 28-year-old Russian Mission resident Jojo Changsak as a fan.
"It felt like someone actually cared about our small villages," Changsak said after Palin visited the Yukon River community of 330 people Friday alongside evangelist Franklin Graham.
Graham's international Christian relief group, Samaritan's Purse, planned to deliver 44-pound boxes of food to every household in the village. It's part of an aid effort, announced this week, that's expected to send more than 40,000 pounds of donations to hard-hit Alaska communities.
Churches, nonprofits, bloggers and donors scattered across the country have been gathering food and supplies for cash-poor Yukon River communities over the past several weeks after reports of people struggling to feed their families emerged from the region.
Regional leaders say an awful salmon fishing season, combined with expensive gasoline, left some fishermen losing money for the season. They pushed for the state to declare an economic disaster in the region, which Palin's team has declined to do, saying it doesn't meet legal requirements.
As of December, the unemployment rate in the Wade Hampton Census Area, which includes Emmonak, Russian Mission and Marshall, was more than 19 percent. The statewide rate was less than 8 percent.
"Another purpose of the trip today is not just delivering food for a short-term solution, but to remind those, especially young people, in rural Alaska of the job opportunities that are available, albeit it requires in some cases leaving the village for a short time," Palin said.
Palin's team has talked about getting more regional workers employed in the fish processing industry, but details of any program she might propose remain unclear.
The governor planned to travel to Russian Mission and Marshall with Graham -- who owns a home in Alaska -- and Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell. Parnell said Graham called him about the trip on Saturday.
"He made a very generous offer, saying that Samaritan's Purse would be willing to offer their airplanes to transport food," Parnell said.
A letter out of the lower Yukon River village of Emmonak describing hardship in the village drew a wave of attention to the area beginning in mid-January.
"Frankly the first weekend that this particular regional hardship hit the Web from Emmonak, both the governor and I tried to get out there and we were hampered due to weather," Parnell said. "But a team did go out there, as you know, and in fact this whole week a team has been out there that includes state officials."
On Friday afternoon villagers in Russian Mission waited at the airport for Palin to arrive and gave the governor a warm welcome at the city gym, said Changsak, who said the governor brought the community home-made cookies.
"I got a picture of my baby with her."
Find Kyle Hopkins online at adn.com/contact/khopkins or call him at 257-4334.
Graham leave Wasilla for Western Alaska
By KYLE HOPKINS