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May 10, 2022: The Bright Lights Book Project: Getting Books into the Hands of Village Readers

This dispatch was originally an article in the People’s Paper.

Last January I sent twenty boxes of books to the Kiita Learning Community, an alternative high school for eleventh and twelfth graders in Utqiagvik.

After, Pamella Simpson (the then acting principal), and I kept the lines of communication open. She one day remarked that that the school could also use library shelving.

The seldom used fifth wheel in my head began turning. Pete Praetorius and I had acquired library shelving from the Willow Community Center in November and stored it in our hay barn.  

Kids at the Kiita Learning Community book fair

I told Pamella that we could ship the disassembled shelving north, along with more books.  I added that I’d also like to visit Utqiagvik. She offered to buy me a ticket, using her Alaska Airlines air miles. She suggested, and I agreed, that Kiita could then host a book fair.

In April, Northern Air Cargo donated three pallets of cargo space to the BLBP. Getting the 1,600 pounds of goods into and on top of our Toyota Tundra was no easy feat. Checking the materials in was by comparison, relatively simple.

Alaska Airlines provided also me with a baggage waiver. I was accompanied by videographer Raymond Chapman (Chappie) who . works for Nomad Cinematics. The local video production company is currently making a project documentary so it seemed fitting to include him on this adventure. We left Palmer on Thursday, May 5, and we returned home on Saturday, May 7.

Chappie and I arrived in Utqiagvik and retrieved the four boxes of books and his tripod. There was considerable jostling as the other passengers retrieved bins, totes, boxes, and suitcases. Chappie remarked that the Will Rogers Airport was unlike other airports in which passengers are encouraged to stand back until their baggage is in sight. This, Chappie remarked, is indicative of the fact there’s a strong sense of community in Utqiagvik. We agreed that the weather also has a great deal to do with this. Even in early May, temperatures are in the 20s, there’s snow on the ground, and moderate winds, meaning that year around, survival is a group effort.

No pun intended, but we were greeted warmly by the staff and students and by Jeff Buerger, the Kiita Alternative Learning Community principal.  Jeff first introduced himself and then introduced Thunder Bun, the resident rabbit. Jeff, holding him close, said that he’s provided students with an incentive to keep coming to school.

We followed Jeff and teacher Pamella Simpson into the main classroom. There, spread out on tables, were the BLBP children and young adult books that were donated to us by the Anchorage School District.

Pamella next showed us the new library room. She added that the students had assisted in putting up the library shelves and unpacking the boxes. “These books will be a part of the curriculum,” she said, pointing to the donated BLBP geography and social studies books.

We spent the first of two nights in Itinerant Housing.  The one-story building has several rooms and a communal kitchen. The absence of windows gave the place a cave-like feeling. I found a kid’s scooter and zipped up and down the long hallways.

On the morning of our second day, Jeff contacted several representatives in North Slope villages. I sat at his desk and told a dozen educators about our project.  Most said that they’d welcome book donations. As always, I wondered if we’d be able to come up with the funds needed in order to get BLBP books to their destination.  Another Kiita staff member gave me the name of a representative of the North Slope Regional Corporation, perhaps making it possible to continue our good work.

That afternoon, Jeff drove us out the peninsula, four miles from the furthest point north in North America. We saw, on the far side of snow berms, faded, tattered flags flapping in the stiff breeze. They flew high above umiaks, sealskin dories that are used by the whaling crews. On our return trip to town, we met Tommy Oleman, a whaling captain, who with his crew, had just finished a successful hunt. Tommy explained that the meat from this and the other ten harvested whales had been divided among community members.

On the morning of our third day, Cheryl Heitman, a Kiita staff member, escorted us to the Native Heritage Center where we watched a Native elder fashion a handle for an ulu from a whale rib.

The book fair was held that afternoon. Pamella cautioned that because it was high school graduation day, that there might be a low turnout. I didn’t say that I’d be disappointed for she’d put considerable time and effort into putting together the book fair.  My fears mounted, as for the first fifteen minutes, the staff, Chappie, and I hung out and talked.

Then they came in droves, mothers and children looking for books.  Chappie, who is tall, but fortunately agile, moved about, getting footage. Then, there they went, BLBP books, out the door, in the bags that Pamella had given them.

It was difficult to leave Utqiagvik, for I felt as though the Kiita Learning Community members were now family. My final words to Pamella were, “I’ll be back.” And my final words to Jeff were, “take care of Bun Bun.”

Next: 129. 5/11/22: Round and Round we Go

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