Bethel: Where Alaskan JVs See Russia

Alaska JVs in Bethel

Ok, not really, but last weekend, I made my first trip to western Alaska and visited the largest town in the Yukon/Kuskokwim Delta Region: Bethel, a town of about 6,000. The other Alaska JVs and I gathered there this past weekend for our final retreat of the year. Due to extremely expensive flights in and out of Bethel, the JVs have not had the chance to gather there for several years. Thanks to the Bethel Alternative Boarding School (BABS), which employs a JV for the year, we were able to stay in the now-empty boarding school and use the classrooms as our retreat center for free, allowing JVC the opportunity to fly us there for our retreat! Father Ted, a Jesuit priest who lives in St. Mary’s, Alaska, joined us to facilitate our retreat and led us through a weekend of wonderfully thoughtful reflections. We were also joined occasionally by Father Chuck, the comedian (he sang a song about the 7 constipated men in the Bible at our coffeehouse social, highly entertaining) and resident Jesuit of Bethel. Though we are a part of Jesuit Volunteer Corps, this was the first retreat this year (besides orientation) where Jesuit priests were in our company which offered a delightful reminder of why I loved them so much during my time at Gonzaga.

Bethel serves as the YK region’s largest population center, offering a grocery store and health care (among other things) to hundreds who live in outlying villages. There are no roads that connect Bethel to any major population centers, so boats on the Kuskokwim River, planes, and snow machines in winter are the only ways in and out. The river becomes a large frozen highway in winter, carrying snow machine traffic to villages that are otherwise unreachable during summer. Father Ted mentioned that in past years there has been talk of building a road to Nome, but ultimately the people conclude that they are satisfied with their way of life and don’t want that sort of development. With just six miles of paved road, at times Bethel reminded me of my trips to Mexico in high school or my travels to Zambia (though the infrastructure was noticeably better).

Bethel is dusty in summer with plenty of bugs flying around, big city cell phones don’t work (AT&T, Verizon, etc.), boardwalks connect most places because the ground is so swampy, the buildings stand on stilts to avoid flood damage, the sewer and water pipes are above ground to avoid freezing in winter, kids walked around town somewhat aimlessly, and the BABS playground was full of basketball players and neighborhood kids until midnight or later. Bethel is clearly a town built for winter: the small windows, heavily insulated buildings, and double entry-ways everywhere serve as reminders of the negative temperatures that rest in the tundra all winter. Currently for residents of the region, many have traveled up the river to “fish camp” where king salmon fishing is the top priority as they stock up on food for the coming cooler months. The pace of life is much different than even the similarly-sized town of Sitka and it was refreshing! Who really knows how late I was out on the playground myself or how much sleep I actually got this past weekend, because I lost all sense of time with the nearly 24-hour daylight. Eleven in the evening looked like sunset on my porch in Seattle at about 8 p.m., and dusk lasted for hours.

JVC began at the Copper Valley School in Glennallen, Alaska in 1956 and has since become JVC Northwest, JVC Domestic, and JVC International. As JVs in Alaska, we like to think we’re pretty special being so close to the breeding grounds of such an incredible program,  but last weekend we got even closer to the core of the Corps; Bethel is now JVC’s longest standing placement site still in existence. This weekend, outside of my Sitka bubble, I caught a glimpse of what originally brought the volunteers to this state: the need for education, accessibility to social services in rural areas, and the growing influence of Jesuit missionaries in Alaska. The volunteers have since left St. Mary’s, as well as other communities they once served including Nome and Fairbanks, but the JVs have maintained their reputation in Alaska and are generally greatly respected.

As I headed toward security at the airport on my way out of town, I showed my I.D. to the TSA agent who asked if I was with the large group of JVs flying out. I replied that I was and he proceeded to quiz me on JVC history asking where and when it started. I replied with the correct answers (we had recently reviewed at retreat) to which he praised my knowledge and remarked that he had been a student at the Copper Valley School when the JVs ran it! He thanked me for my year of service with JVC as I headed through security. I have to say that for all the times I’ve seen people from the military fly and be thanked publicly on planes and throughout the airport while they are in uniform, it felt pretty great to be recognized for the service I do, too.

So we said many goodbyes last weekend, to our Area Director who has listened to and supported our journey through this year and to the other community members in Alaska, as we travel in 27 different directions come July 31 when our JVC contracts end. After such a nice conclusion, it was a bit strange to return to work in Sitka with everything running as normal. The year is not over yet, and the summer has just begun!

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