Skip to main Content
Alaska Life

‘Swimming to the other side’: A big move for Bethel’s Jesuit volunteers

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: July 22, 2017
  • Published July 22, 2017

Come this way, she says. Some things are worth seeing before they are thrown away.

A big old house in Bethel's City Subdivision is ending its time as Jesuit volunteer central. Since 2006, it has churned with group after revolving group of young college graduates, and it's stuffed with everything they left behind.

A Saturday in July was moving day.

Chelsea Gulling, a former Jesuit volunteer in Bethel, walked out back to show two paintings on plywood that her "house" — her Jesuit volunteer group — made in 2008 as a goodbye gift. One represented the Kuskokwim River; the other, the tundra.

"I want to know if you can see the beauty even when it's not pretty," someone painted on the tundra, quoting "The Invitation" poem by Oriah "Mountain Dreamer" House, a storyteller and poet in Canada.

Chelsea Gulling with painted panels from the old Jesuit volunteer house. (Lisa Demer / Alaska Dispatch News)

Jesuit volunteers land each summer in Bethel, the Southwestern Alaska hub, hoping to make a difference. The "Jesuit" name only semi-fits. Volunteers don't have to be Catholic or even part of any organized religion, but must be spiritual, one of the four core values of the Jesuit volunteers. They get a bit of spending money, $100 a month. Their basic needs, including health insurance, are covered through the program.

Everyone just calls them JVs. Some never leave. Some boomerang back. Bethel does that to people.

Gulling, who lived in the old house on Napakiak Street years ago as a JV, is one of those who came back. She's in Bethel for a temporary job at the Tundra Women's Coalition, a shelter and advocacy organization where she started out.

Chelsea Gulling, a former Jesuit volunteer in Bethel, suggests the group take the list of phone numbers but ditch the rest of the bulletin board materials during a move to a new house July 15. (Lisa Demer / Alaska Dispatch News)

The JVs are moving to another home farther out in a neighborhood on the tundra. They could use some donated bikes to get around.

As they first tried to figure out what to with the stuff in the old house, "nobody was making executive decisions," Gulling said.

JVs are really into costumes but two sombreros were enough to keep, the helpers decided. How many Hawaiian shirts? Gulling asked. Seven, someone said, the number of JVs in the new house come August.

Some old things were going to the dump, some to the Tundra Women's Coalition thrift store. And some would make the move.

Yup’ik flash cards are heading to the new house for Jesuit volunteers. (Lisa Demer / Alaska Dispatch News)

Yup'ik flash cards? They are keepers. An old stereo system? Trash it. Happy lights for Bethel's dark winters? Definitely coming with, said Cece Franko, one of two current JVs who made it through the year.

Franko arrived in Bethel last summer to work at the Tundra Women's Coalition, and signed up for a second year, this time with the Alaska Public Defender Agency.

JVs often end up with random donations from the comings and goings of Bethel residents. The kitchen was so full that its cupboards could barely fit another bowl.

Boxes of DVDs and special books inscribed for the volunteers made the cut, said Mary Calderon, the other JV this year. Some of the old books being given away sounded interesting.

"But we don't have room for interesting," she said.

They've been purging to prep for the move. The house had at least three fake Christmas trees in the attic, and who needs all that, Franko said.

Among the truckload of boxes heading to the new house was a tote of off-brand peanut butter.

Cece Franko, a Jesuit volunteer who has signed up for a second year of service, holds up a jar of peanut butter to show some of what she is moving from the old house to the new one. The donated peanut butter expired in 2014 but still is good for cooking, she said. (Lisa Demer / Alaska Dispatch News)

"It's not the tastiest. It's also super expired," Franko said, checking the date — 2014. Yet it's still good for baking treats, she said.

Scarves and gloves, winter coats and Carhartts are making the move too, said Calderon, who is from Phoenix. Twenty-somethings from the Lower 48 often don't know what they are getting into when they arrive in Bethel to share a house and a life, meals and bills.

'It's my home'

Jesuit Volunteer Corps is an old organization that began in Alaska, connected to an order of Catholic priests and brothers dedicated to missionary work and education. Back in 1956, a group of Jesuits and nuns started the Copper Valley School near Glennallen. Volunteers — mainly engineering students — were brought in to help run it.

That school is long closed but now there are two main JV branches: Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest, which supports communities in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana, and a separate group in Baltimore that serves everywhere else.

About 7,000 volunteers have come through the Northwest branch, including some 200 who did their service in Bethel, according to alumni coordinator Sarah Jones with the Northwest group's headquarters near Portland.

Merrill Lake helps Jesuit volunteer Cece Franko (driving) take a load to the dump as the longtime Jesuit volunteer house in Bethel is cleared out. (Lisa Demer / Alaska Dispatch News)

In this small place, population about 6,300, a steady stream of volunteers can have a big impact, and remote Bethel has a big impact on them.

"It was the most extreme experience they were offering," said Paul Basile, another former JV who came back to Bethel.

Yup'ik news plays on the radio and fish hang from eaves to dry.

"It's more of an international experience than going out of the country would be," Gulling said.

Books pile up in a bedroom being cleared out of the Jesuit volunteer house. (Lisa Demer / Alaska Dispatch News)

Basile married a Bethel resident, and they now have a young son. He works at the Kuskokwim branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and was one of the designated local supports for the JVs over the past year.

"It's my home," said Basile, who is from Long Island in New York.

Former JVs are drawn to public service, Jones said. Its alums may not be celebrities but many do big things, she said.

Washington state's attorney general, Bob Ferguson, was a Jesuit volunteer, as was Jenny Durkan, a former U.S. attorney running for Seattle mayor.

In Bethel, state Rep. Zach Fansler came to town as a JV. So did Michelle DeWitt, who for years ran the Tundra Women's Coalition and now heads the Bethel Community Services Foundation. The current director of the women's coalition, a public defender, a probation officer and the school district's lead social worker all came to Bethel as Jesuit volunteers.

The program says it influenced other services that rely on volunteers, including the Peace Corps. It now is connected to AmeriCorps, which brings benefits including a $5,815 education award for those who complete their year.

'Swimming to the other side'

The old house is leaving its stories behind. In one bedroom, Gulling found a worn floral print chair.

"There it is," she said. "The nightmare chair." During her year, it was a force. Touch it or sit on it and you'll get a nightmare, she said.

Upstairs, handmade quilt curtains walled off a little nook that sometimes was a cozy sleeping space. It had a nickname too: the makeout room.

This past year, the volunteers had a snack bowl. Among the packaged treats were some condoms. One day a priest stopped by and reached into the bowl. What's this? he asked. Someone told him. He dropped it fast.

In the house, they must live intentionally, as a community. That's one of the four core Jesuit values, along with spirituality, social justice and simple living.

In Bethel, it's easy to live that way, Gulling said.

Roxanne Girdlestone, then an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer from New York, speaks as Caley Terry, then a Jesuit volunteer from Michigan, and Wendy Spencer, who heads AmeriCorps as the nation’s chief service officer, listen in Bethel during a gathering in June 2016. (Lisa Demer / Alaska Dispatch News)

There aren't a lot of places to spend money. Volunteers can walk to the store, share a dinner of salmon from the Kuskokwim River, hang out around a fire pit, perform at open mic nights, organize a march.

In DeWitt's house, they talked about everything — who among them was drinking too much, how to cover the heating oil bill.

"Some houses are smoother than others," DeWitt said. "In all of them you essentially have young adults facing adulthood for the first time in a pretty extreme way."

For many it's their first real job, with emphasis on real. At the shelter, they work with children whose families have broken apart because of violence. They talk to schoolchildren about sexual abuse. They anchor teenagers from disrupted homes.

They often must step in on the worst day of their client's life, DeWitt said.

"It's a pretty heavy lift," she said.

For all the good the JVs do, many don't stay, and she sees that as the downside.

"I think it's hard on our community to have people who come and go," DeWitt said. Agencies invest in them, train them, work with them.

"Suddenly, they are gone and take all that learning with them," she said.

Yet the good they do is lasting, she said. Even those who go usually become allies for Bethel and the region.

Now a new group — six from elsewhere and Franko — is about to begin its year. Among the assignments is a new one for Bethel: connecting with homeless people who hang out in the library.

The Jesuit volunteers will gather anew in a house they make their own, creating their own community within its walls.

On the old river painting, the one set aside for "discard," painted words give a lasting message:

"We're all swimming to the other side."

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.