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An Anchorage shelter under lockdown draws on the healing power of art and community

  • Author: Paula Dobbyn
  • Updated: April 17, 2020
  • Published April 16, 2020

The Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission on Wednesday, April 8, 2020. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

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Before the new coronavirus hit, Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission was a bustling place. The mission on East Tudor Road provided overnight shelter and churned out 11,000 free meals a month to the hungry.

The place is in full lockdown now. To control the spread of the virus, no one can come or go.

But rather than the rescue mission feeling like a prison, its director says he’s seeing clients blossom. Because he’s cut the headcount, clients are getting more rest, more one-on-one time with staff and benefiting from therapeutic art classes.

“Where they might have tended to isolate, they’re now talking to one another. They’re smiling. They’re interacting with one another and they’re actually making friends in many cases,” said Pastor John LaMantia, who runs the faith-based mission. “This is a big deal for a rescue mission.”

Clients are also stepping up more to lend a hand. They’re volunteering more with tasks like laundry and cleaning. And they’re taking more responsibility for themselves and others, he said.

When LaMantia learned that COVID-19 was making its way toward Alaska, he decided to reduce the number of clients he would serve to make room for social distancing. The shelter now only houses the elderly and frail, people using canes, wheelchairs and walkers.

Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission pastor John LaMantia at the Midtown shelter on Thursday, April 9, 2020. The shelter normally provides space for 100 homeless people to sleep, but has reduced that number due to concerns about the novel coronavirus. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

“I looked out at the clientele that were sitting in front of me in the nightly chapel service and I asked myself, ‘How in the world are some of these dear men going to make it out there on the street?’”

Rather than having upward of 100 people spending the night, now there are only 30 to 40. They are sleeping at least 6 feet apart, according to federal health guidelines, and they’re not going anywhere until the mayor lifts the citywide clampdown, LaMantia said.

“I told them if they left the mission, they were not coming back in.”

To keep them occupied and alleviate some stress, Terri Ensign, a former hairdresser who was once a mission client, teaches art classes on Tuesday and Thursday from 7 to 8:30 p.m. She had been doing it just one night a week before. But with the lockdown, she and the pastor decided to expand the offerings.

Ensign teaches drawing, painting, collaging, mixed media and an art method called Zentangle that involves creating structured patterns.

“It helps calm your nerves and forget about all of life’s stresses. Art is just good for the soul,” said Ensign, who said she was raised in Fairbanks but lived in Ketchikan, where she became addicted to meth.

After many years of using drugs and making art while high, Ensign said she decided to get help. She moved to Anchorage to attend drug treatment and eventually made her way to the Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission, where she enrolled in a six-month program for women returning to the workforce and transitioning to permanent housing.

LaMantia recognized her talent and sent her to Blaines Art shop in Midtown Anchorage, where she took classes to refine her skills. When an opportunity to teach classes at the mission opened up, Ensign leaped at the chance. She added it to her existing job of running the shelter’s clothing program.

Wayne Walluk, who is living at Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission, holds a drum he made at Southcentral Foundation. He painted it and calls the piece ’Spirit of the Raven. ’ He's originally from Nome. Walluck participates in art classes offered at the rescue mission. (Photo provided by Wayne Walluk)

Wayne Walluk of Nome is one of Ensign’s students. The 60-year-old former cab and bus driver studied art in high school and then on his own over the years, he said. His art tends to explore nature, wildlife and hunting themes, he said.

It’s rooted in the subsistence lifestyle Walluk practiced until addiction, job loss and mental health challenges brought him to Anchorage for treatment. Walluk is halfway through a yearlong life skills program at the mission.

As Walluk continues his journey of recovery and rebuilding his life, art is one of the practices that sustains him.

He recently made drums through a class offered through Southcentral Foundation’s Traditional Healing Clinic and painted them during Ensign’s art classes.

One of the drums features a raven spreading its wings. The raven is an important mythological figure in Alaska Native and American Indian cultures, symbolizing, among other things, creation and transformation.

That’s why Walluk chose it as the featured artwork on his drum.

“I call it ‘Spirit of the Raven,’ ” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Pastor John LaMantia’s name.

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