Last week the entire Rasmuson staff travelled to Nome and Unalakleet. On the itinerary were visits to see some Foundation-funded projects, and meetings with those who provide the nonprofit and community leadership so vital to the Bering Straits region. In this post, many of our staff share a few sentences about their experiences, the lessons they took away, and the incredible generosity show to us by all we encountered. We have lots of photos too!

Every year or so, Rasmuson Foundation staff travel together to a community in order to accomplish a few important goals: to build our interpersonal relationships; to learn and gather information that informs everyone’s job; to connect with existing and new partners; and to recharge the internal batteries that keep us committed to our work.

Because of the market downturn in 2008, it had been a while since the Foundation had been able to mount a staff retreat. But last week, on July 11 and 12, Rasmuson staff travelled to Nome and Unalakleet. On the itinerary were visits to see some Foundation-funded projects, and meetings with those who provide the nonprofit and community leadership so vital to improving lives in the Bering Straits region.

We were fortunate to have in our group for the trip Gail Schubert, president of Bering Straits Native Corporation. Born in Unalakleet, Gail provided a wealth of information for Rasmuson staff, introductions, and solutions to any obstacles that we encountered.

Rather than read one author’s account of the trip, many of our staff took a few minutes to jot down a few sentences about their experiences, the lessons they took away, and the incredible generosity shown to us by all we encountered.

Aleesha Towns-Bain:

“It’s a tough life out here,” Middy Johnson (Mayor of Unalakleet) said to us with a sly grin, as we ogled a young golden eagle surveying Unalakleet River and motored back to the Village with four freshly caught salmon in a plastic bag at our feet. We all know the beauty and abundance to be found in rural Alaska. Still, I think it’s easy to become problem focused when we talk about these rural places—there’s not enough resources, services are overwhelmed, the housing shortage is acute, the list goes on. But there is much to be celebrated and preserved. Unalakleet is a beautiful place with people that are passionate about building their community. I’m excited to work with them to provide additional resources to make it an even better place to live.

Bridget Brunson:

I really enjoyed Aurora Johnson (a dental health aide therapist). She was bright, enjoyable, great attitude, and enthusiastic about what she does. The Anikkan Inuit Illagutaat Clinic in Unalakleet was beautiful. Mayor Middy Johnson was an outstanding host in Unalakleet. The Bering Sea Women’s Group safe house in Nome was a place that made my heart cry out for the people. The needs they have are so great. The staff was very humble and the people of Nome are lucky to have them running the safe house. The fishing in Unalakleet was awesome, fun, breathtaking and more. Darlene Thiel at the pre-maternal home was great, sweet, knowledgeable, and nice. Roy Agloinga was a great tour guide at the old hospital in Nome.

Carmen O. Goodwin:

I was particularly impressed with their sense of community. I felt it was admirable how every person in the village plays an important role in their community and how they come together to make it happen even if it means wearing different hats to make it possible.

Cassandra Stalzer:

I was struck by the quality of home-grown leadership that exists in Nome and Unalakleet. The challenge in smaller communities, it seems to me, is not just doing more with less, but acquiring and using the same amount of data as larger communities only with fewer people-brains to host the memory and expertise. For example, while waiting for coffee and cinnamon rolls, Unalakleet Mayor Middy Johnson (a position that is unpaid), City Administrator Herbert Ivanoff and I slid from topic to topic that each of them had mastery of: law enforcement and public safety, education and the school system, housing, the Indian Health Service, the governor’s capital budget, the state redistricting plan, the need for assistive housing for Elders, the market for salmon, if salmon were biting on that day, and on and on. Another example was in Nome where the Norton Sound Health Corporation is preparing for a leadership transition. From what I observed, there is a deep well of passionate, smart professionals from which to draw. While the Bering Straits region faces some significant challenges, there certainly seems to be much promise as measured by the caliber of its leadership.

Diane Kaplan:

A wonderful moment for me was our visit to the Norton Sound Development Corporation’s fish processing plant. While watching the fish slide off the conveyor and the roe being packaged for Japan, I couldn’t help but think that Senator Ted Stevens would have a big smile on his face at seeing 100 jobs created in Unalakleet as a result of his Community Development Quota legislation. Since our Chairman, Ed Rasmuson, was the citizen leader on this effort, it was an especially inspiring moment.

Jayson Smart:

Our visits to both communities really reinforced for me how much better Alaska’s smaller towns and villages integrate private, tribal, and government-based services and resources to address community needs than what you see in the larger metropolitan areas. We can all learn much from this level of cooperation and community spirit. The generosity, kindness and goodwill of the people in Nome and Unalakleet is unmatched. And, if you didn’t already know it, the fishing is really great!

Jeff Baird:

The rain was blowing sideways in Nome last week, but it was going to take a lot more than that to dampen the spirits of our generous nonprofit hosts. My lasting impression of our whirlwind trip is that even on the harshest of days, one doesn’t have to search too far to find bright spots. I found them in the energy of the kids running around Nome’s Kegoayah Kozga Library and in my conversation with Austen Erickson, an extraordinary young Unalakleet man who was gracious enough to share some of his community with us. I have since been assured that the clouds do occasionally part in Norton Sound region. I can’t wait to experience it on a “good” day.

Jordan Marshall: Our tour of Norton Sound Seafood Products plant in Unalakleet was inspiring. There are between 70 and 100 jobs at the facility, depending on the season, and approximately 700 residents of Unalakleet. Talk about a local economic engine! NSSP manages Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation’s (NSEDC) commercial seafood activities in the greater Norton Sound region, including salmon, herring, halibut, king crab, bait fisheries, and pink salmon. NSEDC is one of Alaska six community development quota (CDQ) companies created in 1992 with the goal of promoting fisheries related economic development in western Alaska. Sixty-five communities within a 50-mile radius of the Bering Sea coastline participate in the program. We saw in Unalakleet an elegant dance of cranes, boats, conveyors, and workers transforming fresh caught wild Alaska salmon into clean, orderly packages ready for market. Yum.

Kirsten Williamson:

I had an absolute blast on our visit to KNOM Radio! I really got the sense that this was not just an organization situated within Nome city limits, but that it is very much a part of the community itself. By sending radio personnel into the smaller villages of Western Alaska to interview residents, KNOM not only broadcasts to these regions, but actually tells their stories. It was a privilege to talk to General Manager Ric Schmidt, and a big thank you goes out to all the dedicated staff and volunteers who keep this inspiring and influential organization running!

Sandi Miller: Aurora Johnson – wife, mother of three, dental health aide therapist (DHAT) extraordinaire! Upon first seeing the “DHAT program student recruiting” poster, Aurora knew she wanted to become a DHAT. After a considerable amount of discussion, prayer, saving, planning, studying, and training, Aurora graduated from the training program. She is completely dedicated to providing excellent dental health to her community and neighboring villages. Not only did she say it, but the smile on her beautiful face as she is talking about her career shows that Aurora LOVES being a DHAT. What an inspiration Aurora was for me.

The roily, stormy, angry Bering Sea in Nome could not have been more cathartic. At first, as I stepped onto the huge rocks lining the bank, my smile could not have been bigger. In time, after seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, and touching my surroundings – tears came. Tears of joy, happiness, thankfulness, and tension release. I took away from those rocks a vivid memory of the lovely people I met everywhere we stopped, the fun and laughter with my fellow staff members, the beauty of the area, and the real things – a piece of driftwood, some sea glass, and a smile.

Sharity Sommer: Last week, I had the great opportunity of visiting a part of Alaska that was new to me: Nome and Unalakleet in Northwest Alaska. I loved every minute of it. It was wonderful to meet and learn from individuals providing essential services in the region. Meeting Aurora Johnson, a dental health aide therapist (DHAT) from Unalakleet, reminded me of the great impact philanthropy can have. Her training was made possible through grants awarded to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. She passionately spoke with a smile on her face about being a part of a small group of DHAT’s that are positively changing dental care in rural Alaska. Thank you, Nome and Unalakleet for welcoming us so warmly!