Anchorage hasn’t changed.
I returned here after a 26-year career in public health in Washington state to become President of United Way of Anchorage. And I can tell you it’s heartening to say Anchorage hasn’t changed.
I don’t mean that it’s the same city I left a generation ago. Of course, there have been changes. Anchorage has grown. Some old landmarks are gone, some old friends moved on. Demographics have changed. So has the economy.
But one of the elements that drew me back to Anchorage and Alaska remains fundamental to life here: We look out for one another.
I moved to Anchorage when I was 2, as my family followed my father in his calling to Gloria Lutheran Church. It was an amazing time and place to grow up. My neighborhood provided friends to have a pick-up hockey game and in the long days of the summer plenty of time for bike rides, kick ball games, and neighborhood family barbeques. I spent many weekends on the rivers or in bigger water out of Homer coming away with many tall stories and full freezers of fish, where then I was taught how to share our catch with those in need through my dad’s church.
When I look back that was when I first learned without knowing it about strong communities and what it meant to be a neighbor. I learned how important a healthy safe community is, one that provides places to be connected to others and for people to share resources and support each other. Today you and I would call that social capital and community resilience.
As we all work to meet the many entrenched social problems in our community and the new ones that are thrust upon us – that’s what we need more of!
When the pandemic struck like lightning with its economic shutdown in March, Anchorage rallied to its out-of-work neighbors long before the first federal stimulus checks went out. United Way, its partners and donors set up Anchorage Cares, and in days donors gave more than a quarter million dollars in rent assistance that Alaska 2-1-1 and Lutheran Social Services funneled to people in dire need. Anchorage Cares evolved into AK Can Do with even more partners and a statewide reach, and later provided the conduit for millions in federal pandemic relief that went to the municipality.
This was LIVE UNITED writ large when the chips were down, and an Anchorage that made me feel right at home.
Community didn’t stop there, and neither did resilience. Back on Track, United Way’s partnership with the Anchorage School District and Covenant House Alaska, shifted gears when schools went online to keep working with students struggling to earn their high school diplomas. It would have been easy to shelve the program and blame the virus. Instead, Back on Track improvised, adjusted and refused to quit. The result? More than 110 new graduates since March.
United Way and its partners helped to stock area food pantries, especially the mothership Food Bank of Alaska, to make sure financially strapped families didn’t run out of groceries.
Home for Good, the unprecedented public-private partnership to house the most vulnerable and hardest-to-house of our neighbors, pressed on through the pandemic and won final Assembly approval, with the ambitious goal of permanent supportive housing for 150 people. Nineteen of 21 clients have been stably housed in the pilot program.
Across Anchorage, people have come together in virtual and actual community to support one another, with everything from online concerts to schooling pods to mutual child-care to grocery and meal deliveries for seniors. In ways public and private, we’ve responded to the cruel ambush of COVID-19 with a generosity of spirit and treasure. This is the community I remember.
But our community faces a make-or-break challenge now. Far from being over, the pandemic has been surging for weeks at a rate that threatens to overwhelm our hospital and tracing capacities, and stresses wobbly businesses and livelihoods. At the same time, we’re just tired of this, tired of masks and social distancing and a muted existence. That’s understandable. But COVID fatigue is an insidious foe, because this virus has legs.
We need to fortify the grace and gumption that got us through the spring and summer in reasonably good shape. We have the means to outlast the pandemic, to cut off its communications, pre-empt its spread and diminish its numbers.
My last job before returning to Alaska was as Director of the state of Washington’s COVID-19 response. I can say unequivocally that we need to wear our masks when we’re in public, maintain social distancing outside our family bubbles, minimize our trips outside the home, and avoid indoor gatherings. And I can say unequivocally that COVID-19 doesn’t care what your politics are.
These protocols are how we look out for one another and ourselves. Masks not only lessen the chances of transmitting the virus, but they can also lessen the viral load that afflicts us when something is transmitted our way. Social distancing severely cuts our chances of infection; the same applies to hand washing and sanitizing.
For now, the mask is our handshake, physical distancing our warm greeting. Counterintuitive on the surface, these are acts of care and community. Continuing them is hard but staying power in the face of the viral scourge will speed the way to recovery – recovery of economic growth, in-class schooling, and the simple pleasures of dining out or seeing a movie.
We have learned the term social distancing over the past few months. I would revise that – yes, we need to continue to be physically distanced from one another. However, maybe even more importantly, we need to maintain and build upon our social connection with our neighbors and those in need of support.
That’s how we LIVE UNITED through a pandemic – and prepare to build a thriving, more equitable community on the other side.