How little organizations make a big difference through collaboration

A community mural in the Chickaloon clinic. (Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

The Solutions Desk looks beyond Alaska’s problems and reports on its solutions – the people and programs working to make Alaska communities stronger. Listen to more solutions journalism stories and conversations, and share your own ideas here.

It’s lunchtime on a Thursday in midsummer in Sutton. In the small community center, at the weekly Elders Lunch people of all ages gather for food and conversation. As the meal winds down, local people make community announcements about upcoming events and soon-to-be-born grandchildren. Kids celebrate their summer camp accomplishments like making a cloud in a jar.

Lisa Wade, the Health, Education, and Social Services Director with the Chickaloon Tribal Council, said in winter, the events are standing room only, every week. But the Elders Lunches in Chickaloon weren’t always such a success. They required lots of collaboration to get going – just like the rest of the services in the community.

Wade said the Chickaloon Tribal Council started the lunches about a decade ago because elders said they wanted places to come together, talk, and tell stories.

“We would all bring food. We used to have a one little burner stove with broken burners over here,” she said, pointing to the small kitchen. “So we would just make something and bring a pot of something. And we’d ask other people to bring a dish. For two years we had people donating food and bringing food here.”

[Related: To feed elders, traditional foods take untraditional route]

Eventually, the tribe got small grants to provide food and to improve the kitchen. Slowly lunches expanded from a handful of folks to dozens. Now it’s a place for community news and education.

The Elders Lunches are just a small example of how community leaders are leveraging partnerships to strengthen the village of 1,500 people and beyond. Wade says Chickaloon is a relatively small tribe, so they only receive limited funding from the federal government.

“We are masters of figuring out how to spread a dollar a long way,” she said. “It’s like a being from a big family and making a meal, you know, you stretch that meal out. Well, we do that a lot.”

They can’t do everything that larger cities and organizations can. But on the flip side, larger groups have to follow more guidelines and can’t be everywhere. So working in tandem, they can meet people’s needs.

“A lot of the larger entities don’t have the boots on the ground to actually do the local work that needs to be done, and we can do things in a little bit more of a flexible way that actually meets more of the needs I think of the community directly,” she said.

And they don’t do it alone.

[Related: Working together to prevent child abuse]

Take, for example, health and wellness. The tribal council can create community events and provide social workers, but they don’t have the technical skills and infrastructure to provide medical care.

So they hired Southcentral Foundation to help run the clinic. But rather than just supplying the community with medical expertise, Southcentral Vice President of Medical Services Doug Eby said his organization works collaboratively with the tribe and with a local advisory board to make sure what they are doing fits local needs.

“We want to follow their lead and partner with them when there’s difficult issues or difficult situations because it’s their community,” he said. “We are a guest in their community.”

Chickaloon isn’t just supporting partnerships for its own benefits, Wade said. They also try to build capacity and support the initiatives of other tribes, like the Knik Tribal Council.

Knik Tribal Council Executive Director Richard Porter said the two tribes, which serve similar areas, partner on nearly everything and try to avoid providing redundant services. Instead of competing against each other for grants, they collaborate.

“Our mission statement has a dimension of us being a Sovereign Nation, but it also says that we’re striving for a healthy community and making sure that happens means with working very closely with our neighbors,” Porter said. “And if your neighbors aren’t healthy then you have a tendency not to be healthy also.”

[Related: When traditional banking isn’t an option, try this out instead]

That doesn’t mean the tribes always agree. Porter said they have very different ideas about topics like energy development. They support each other, but sometimes they just have to agree to disagree. They’re like siblings, he said. Family.

And it’s that feeling of family and support that brings folks like Frances Thiele back to the Chickaloon Elders Lunch week after week — for years.

“The people,” she said. “They’re so wonderful. Friendly, loving atmosphere. Couldn’t go anywhere else and find it.”

As the lunch winds down and the announcements end, an elder pulls out his guitar and invites people to join him.

“So just sit by my side if you love me,” he croons, kids and others jumping in.

Want to hear more Solutions Desk stories? Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or NPR. Help others find the podcast by rating it or marking it “interesting.”

After being told innumerable times that maybe she asked too many questions, Anne Hillman decided to pursue a career in journalism. She's reported from around Alaska since 2007 and briefly worked as a community radio journalism trainer in rural South Sudan.
ahillman (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8447  |  About Anne

Previous articleInternational group gathers in Unalaska to talk Arctic biodiversity
Next articleNew Trooper report shows Alaska drug problem worsening