Rural Alaska

How Bethel came together to help an elder

BETHEL — Bethel elder Lydia Wheeler lost so much. She lost her health. She lost her sweetie. She lost her home.

But now, she not only is poised to move into a new home built by her tribe, she'll be able to furnish it with the help of her hometown.

Wheeler, 75, had lived 40 years in one of the last houses on Hangar Lake Road at the edge of Bethel. Then four years ago longtime boyfriend Peter Thompson died with no will. He owned the house where, as a friend put it, Wheeler thought she would stay in "until the end of her days." It eventually went to one of his relatives.

So about two years ago, Wheeler was forced to start anew, a cancer patient in her 70s. She moved between relatives. She didn't want to go into a care home.

"We were all very concerned," said Gloria Simeon, who has been her friend for decades. "She's original Bethel."

Wheeler had long worked as a housekeeper for Bethel Native Corp. but no longer could do that physical job, cleaning apartments. She had battled colon cancer and advanced lung and pancreatic cancer.

Then she got good news. She made it to the top of the waiting list for a tribal home.

Orutsararmiut Native Council, the tribe for Bethel, builds and renovates houses through the federal Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act program for low-income Native Americans. The program has been small, with just two new homes completed last year. But the program is building six homes this year and is working toward building a 48-home subdivision, said Calvin Cockroft, ONC's housing administrator.

The scoring system gives preference to the elderly, those with disabilities, working families and those who have lived in the area for more than 10 years, among other factors, Cockroft said. Individuals pay 15 percent of their income for rent and will own their own home after 15 years. Most pay $200 to $800 a month.

Wheeler was delighted with her nearly complete, two-bedroom home just off Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway near Mission Lake.

Simeon wondered how she would furnish it.

"When I come over and visit you, do I have to bring my own 5-gallon bucket to sit on?" Simeon asked. "What do you have?"

A bed and not much else, Wheeler told her.

Simeon spun into action. She enlisted Bethel Search and Rescue, a nonprofit, to help with a fundraiser. She asked businesses to donate door prizes. The tribe pitched in with the use of its multipurpose building, the old Bethel bowling alley.

Though this effort was just to help one elder, it is symbolic of how Bethel rallies as a community for those in need. When an elementary school and boarding academy burned last year, local leaders gathered before the fire was out to figure out where to put the kids and how people could help.

On Aug. 13, the community came together at a fiddle dance for Wheeler. Willie John and his band donated their time. Dozens of people showed up including both of Wheeler's children, three granddaughters and three great-grandchildren. Marlis Fox made her a new qaspeq, or kuspuk. Her son, Fred Wheeler Jr., brought her an Elvis DVD as a housewarming.

"Gee whiz!" Wheeler said.

"She's been through so much, but she never complained or made a big deal out of it," granddaughter Samantha Olrun said.

Simeon took the microphone at the dance to thank everyone.

"For tonight is really proof positive that way deep inside — sometimes we forget — that at heart this is the village of Bethel, a village of people who really care," Simeon said. "If we can do this for Lydia we can do this for other people, too."

Wheeler went on stage. She was nervous. She didn't know what to say but then she did.

"I wasn't even expecting anything like this at first," Wheeler said. "I thank God for everyone who is really helping, making donations just for me."

The dance raised more than $1,500, but the effort kept going.

A couple of days later, Wheeler walked through her home. An old broken house was on the property before hers was built.

The lights still needed to be hooked up. The bathroom needed handrails for safety. But it was nearly done.

She walked into what will be her bedroom and looked out the window at the Bethel Moravian Church, which she attends.

"Unimaginable things are coming to me," she said.