Some Nuts and Bolts of Work (in Sitka)

For six months I have successfully avoided talking about too many of the specifics of my JV life here in Sitka while still managing to post pretty regularly about the adventures I’ve been having since I arrived in Alaska last August. The title of my blog is “Liz Purdy’s Adventures” after all, so I often leave the “everyday” just out of view. But many have asked how my job is and what I spend my time doing when not hiking on ice-covered trails, so, with a few months under my belt, perhaps now is a good time to do a little explaining.

Obviously there are several things I can’t post on a public blog about my job since I work with domestic violence survivors, so I’ll tread lightly while still trying to present some form of reality. My job title is “women’s advocate” which means exactly what it sounds like: I advocate for women. But that takes so many different forms that rarely do I walk into work ever actually knowing what will happen that day. I will also say that I have been out of my comfort zone so many times since I started work in the shelter and have thought to myself on several occasions, “If only the woman sitting across from me knew how long I’ve worked here, what my background is, and that I’m not really trained for this kind of work . . . I wonder what she might think?” So, yes, often so much of my/our work feels inadequate to actually “solve” or combat many of the issues the women who come to shelter are presented with. I have had to become more comfortable with the idea of “gray area,” which I was told in the beginning, there is a lot of when it comes to shelter work. Staff meetings can seem laborious with no clear conclusions and solutions. The intricacies of people’s lives, relationships, and feelings are our daily work. We are not mental health professionals or counselors . . .  we are women willing to help other women navigate an often challenging legal and social service system that is rarely “user friendly.” Sometimes we care too much, sometimes boundaries are broken, sometimes we fail to know what’s “right.” It’s all part of the day’s work.

There are about seven or eight women who work at the shelter in the same position. As a JV, I just jump in with the rest of the employees and do all the same work they would do on a normal shift. I sit in the “advocate office” each day with the door open and a rocking chair in front of my desk. I joke (rather morbidly, which is common among my burned out co-workers) that it isn’t a successful day unless a woman has cried in my office. That’s a rather crude way of saying that the women who are in shelter or are seeking our services have experienced and are processing a lot of trauma and violence in their past. A woman may come to shelter for a short while to temporarily escape an escalating situation in her home or she may have finally cut all ties with her partner and be trying to get her feet back on the ground and start a new life. Or she might be staying in shelter while she returns to an abuser each night. It doesn’t matter, the doors are open assuming we have room for another warm body. We at the SAFV shelter are there, regardless. I should state, however, that we try to always stick to our no tolerance policy of alcohol and drugs within shelter for obvious safety reasons and to honor the fact that the presence of those items in shelter, even the faint smell of alcohol, can trigger memories of a woman’s violent past.

On a practical level, we offer referrals, help fill out applications for housing, pro-bono legal work, public assistance, prepare protective orders with women and accompany them to court if so desired. In the midst of all the paperwork we offer “personal support.” We are not psychiatrists, but we listen. We never tell a woman what we think she should do, but we let her know what her options are, offer objective feedback, and inform her as best we can about the tools she has at her disposal. After that it is up to her. (Note: Personal support is most definitely the part of the job where I feel the most inadequate. I don’t say this to be down on myself, I say this because it often feels that my life experiences have had few parallels to the women I serve and these times are particularly emotionally draining. How do you care, but not too much? Where do you find the common  ground and connection of spirits between women when hearing her story? These are the questions people spend their lives answering and write dissertations about!).

I’ve learned a bit about the “shelter movement” as it arose in the 1970s and has transformed into what shelters look like today. In Alaska in particular, where domestic violence numbers are about four times what they are in other parts of the country, shelters use the “empowerment model” which tries to give control to the individuals (who likely has come from a situation where they had little to no control) to make changes rather than someone doing it for them or telling them what and how to do it. Some structure is good for people, too much structure is invasive for people, and at times it causes vague boundaries and frameworks to work within. This emphasizes all the more the need of our staff to collaborate on ideas and work as a team as we try to sift through the details of people’s lives and circumstances without being obtrusive. Perhaps I’ve made it clear that it’s a bit of a fine line we walk.

So I write all of this after experiencing my first round of burn out here. It’s a combination of still learning about work and how to make sure I am actively seeking “self-care” as well as living as a JV in a community and attempting to understand and uphold the four values of the program. So I guess I’ll admit (yes, even on my blog) that it’s not all fun, games, and adventures up here. It’s challenging work much of the time. It takes a lot of energy. There seem to be far more failures than successes. So perhaps this isn’t the work that I will commit my life to, but my time here so far has been invaluable. And I can really only begin to imagine what the next six months will offer. I, also, am very happy to entertain any thoughts, questions, reflections, or comments about this work.

Weekend Adventure in Anchorage

First off, I would like to thank my life-long friend Annie Mesaros for writing up a beautiful synopsis and review of the book Faith Beyond Borders by Don Mosley. I had the privilege of living/volunteering at Jubilee while Don was completing his final edits of the book, and later in the spring he received the first shipment of the final copy from the publisher! There was much celebration upon the arrival of his book, and since it debuted in May, he has been working tirelessly to spread the word so others can embrace his ideas of love, service, and peacemaking. Thanks, Annie, for writing about it, and for those of you who haven’t read it, look it up!

OK, obviously I have to report on my weekend in Anchorage. I’m sorry it has taken me this long to do so. I had planned to do a little blog updating this past weekend when I was attacked by the stomach bug that has literally taken out every employee at the shelter except three.  After spending the most time in bed since having mono, I’m recovered and back in action.

This sums up the weekend in Anchorage: On Monday, my last day there, I received a text message from my housemate, Steph, who had just returned to Sitka on Thursday, the day I left for Anchorage. The message read, “OK, time to get off the island again.” To which I responded, “I’m not coming back.” Clearly, the weekend was wonderful. As a disclaimer, for those reading who may be associated or familiar with JVC, I would just like to note that this was not exactly a weekend in which the four values of JVC were upheld. Community? No, it was mostly a party of two. Simple Living? Definitely not. Social Justice? Hardly, though it was discussed. Spirituality? Might be a bit of a stretch, but a little. This does not mean I disagree with these values in any way, it just means they weren’t my top priorities during these four days.

I arrived Thursday night in Anchorage to a lovely pick up at the airport after enduring a flight with screaming children and a high-wind delayed take off from the Juneau airport (after the bumpy landings and the lightning strike of my November 1 flight, I have officially decided I don’t like flying in SE Alaska). Though it was just after ten o’clock when I arrived, Braden understands my needs, and while we waited for my bags to make it to the carousel, we got chai at the airport Starbucks, which, impressively, was still open! After being on the ground for about 15 minutes, I already had Starbucks in hand. Things were off to a great start.

On Friday, I got to see where Braden works at Bean’s Cafe. After hearing many stories of the daily events there I was very glad to see it. I got to meet his co-workers and even managed to embarrass myself by imitating how a giraffe walks (don’t ask). We strolled around town a bit, saw the ice sculptures, enjoyed pho for dinner (yummy), and managed to close down REI on a Friday night.

Saturday began at, where else? REI! We forgot a rather crucial item to take on our camping trip! “Light My Fire” Sporks!

Light My Fire Sporks!!

So after packing up our newly purchased sporks (and a few other items), we jumped in the car and headed to Seward, 125 miles southeast(ish) of Anchorage. We planned to hike a lovely four miles along the coastal trail to Derby Cove where we would find our freezing-cold cabin for the night and sleep. That was the plan . . .

We got to Seward around lunch time and it was REAL pretty. Also, about ten degrees and the wind was whippin’ up Resurrection Bay. First things first, we had to get some lunch . . . and some more chai. We wandered over to a coffee shop Braden knew of, got our chai and struck up a conversation with the barista to inquire about our planned route. She mentioned that she thought there was a bridge out along the trail, but that it was probably pretty easy to pass in winter since everything was frozen. And she gave us the phone number for the people who run the water taxi, which she said were “the only people who will come and get you out there this time of year.” Oh, good to know, ok . . .

Having gathered this information, we moved on to our next priority: lunch. The barista also gave us a great recommendation for lunch and suggested we head to the Train Wreck! This was by far, the best place we could have eaten. Why did I not take a picture of it? I don’t know, but it’s a couple old train cars pushed together and inside one of them is a burger joint where I experienced the greatest black and bleu burger I will ever have. At this point, things were going a little too right: We got our sporks, beautiful drive to Seward, we sipped our chai, incredible burgers . . . it was finally time to hike!

We moseyed our way to the trail head,  packed up as we slipped around a bit on the icy parking lot, and hit the trail. Now, call us crazy, but . . . the term “coastal trail” implied to us that perhaps we would be on . . . the coast. So we start hiking on this ice pathway through the trees thinking, “Huh, that’s not really what I expected.” But we kept going reassuring ourselves with false hope that it wouldn’t be long until we hit the beach. I also left out one small detail: there is a 2.5 mile section of the trail that can only be hiked at low tide. So with low tide at 4:30 p.m. that day, we planned our start time accordingly, about 2:45p.m thinking we could probably cruise through the four miles of trail in about two hours. After about fifteen or twenty minutes of jaunting along the ice in the trees, we came to a hill, covered in . . . more ice. Obviously we didn’t bring any ice equipment (even though Braden has every piece known to man, ok slight exaggeration), because we were going to be on the COASTAL trail. Right, so, we worked our way up the hill on the sides of the trail where the tree roots provided some traction. Which worked well, until items started falling from Braden’s pack. Down the hill went the Duraflame log as we yelled for it to stop while watching it escape down the icy slide we had just worked our way up. Not long after Braden went half way down the hill to retrieve the Duraflame, his travel mug went for an even longer ride down the slick slope. At this point, I’m about to pee my pants laughing. Because let’s be honest, this situation is a little ridiculous!

After collecting ourselves and our items, we reached the part of the trail that switchbacked down to the beach. In case we thought going up ice was hard, it turns out it is in fact, also, very challenging to go down ice safely. The main problem was the creek running down the hill, so at the center of every switchback we encountered the same creek frozen over the trail in multiple layers in sections about fifteen feet across. The trail before and after the creek was bare rock and dirt, but the middle sections proved rather confrontational. After analyzing one section of ice and plotting whether to go up and around, or, down and around, we determined the thing we definitely should not do was slip at the beginning of the ice patch and plummet down to the right where the ice took a rather sharp turn downhill. About two seconds after agreeing on this, Braden slipped, fell, and took a rather sharp turn to the right down the hill. After confirming that he was not (too badly) hurt, I, again, nearly peed my pants laughing. Unfortunately, that laughter ended for me on the next switchback when I slipped and my shin became rather intimately acquainted with the rock jutting out of the trail. Serves me right. So at this point, we can see the beach and just want to make it there. See? So close!

View from Trail

We made it to the water right before sunset and it was outrageously beautiful.

Looking Across Resurrection Bay

We stop and take a few pictures . . .

iPhone Picture Time

Please note the Duraflame, not so securely placed at the top of the pack 🙂

Cold Hiking Fun (Sort of)

Look, we’re having fun!

And we did indeed find the bridge that was out . . .

Apparently that Bridge is Out

So here’s the deal: we get to the beach, we see the point that we’re trying to get to and it’s a lot farther away than we anticipated. The sun is setting. It’s about 4:10p.m. The tide is out now, but the next day (when we would be hiking back) the tide doesn’t go out until 5 p.m. Then we look at the map and realized OHHH… it’s not four miles we have left to hike, it’s three miles to the point, then ANOTHER four miles to the cabin. Ah, this is the moment we looked at each other and said, ok, it’s not going to work, let’s turn around! I’ll admit, I immediately felt better since I knew we just had to conquer the same ice patches in order to make it back to the car. We happily returned to the car right at dark, but when we walked past the marker at the trail head, we saw the sign telling us our mileage. We had gone ONE (?!?!?!?!?!) mile in a little over an hour to the point on the beach before turning around. We were hurt. Well, our hiking, outdoor adventurer egos were hurt. Braden and I aren’t bad hikers, I swear! We didn’t know the trail or conditions and weren’t entirely prepared for the ice slide of a trail that we encountered. We returned to Anchorage that night and rather appropriately made our Kraft Mac n’ Cheese in his kitchen, while warm, but still in our long underwear, and promptly fell asleep around 9:30 p.m. It was a great adventure, not a complete success, but Braden and I agreed, not a total failure either.

We did a little adventure driving and some coffee shop hopping on Sunday before heading to Aleyska Ski Resort where we took the gondola to the top of the mountain and had dinner at the rather fancy Seven Glaciers restaurant. Which was, if I may say so, probably the best dinner date I’ve ever had (thank you Mr. VanDragt!). We enjoyed pretending to be pretentious while people-watching and quietly analyzing the tables around us. It was hilarious, the meal was quite tasty, and we confirmed with our server on the way out that we were in fact his favorite table of the evening! We finished out the weekend with a little indoor rock climbing on Monday (where I was reminded that I possess no upper-body strength whatsoever) and a trip to the wine bar downtown. It was all quite lovely 🙂

Now I’m back in Sitka, working, and enjoying the horizontal rain in my stylish full-body rain gear. Today there were white caps in the channel between Baranof and Japonski Islands, rather unusual! The next adventure takes me to Juneau on February 18 to meet with the other Alaska JV communities for the second retreat of the year! Can’t wait!