By Shea Brenneman, United Way of the Tanana Valley '20-21
They say that the only thing we can truly count on is that nothing is 100% certain. We do our best to calculate cause and effect to predict the future, but the best we can do is work with probability. Scientists and the likes of Bill Gates have been saying for quite some time that the greatest potential threat the world currently faces is likely to be a pandemic, but I probably speak for most of us in that COVID19 still came as something of a shock. The virus didn’t seem real until it did.
All of us AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers here in Fairbanks, Alaska had plans for the months of March, April, and May put on hold as the world shut down in response to COVID19. But all of us VISTA’s, presented with the unprecedented stay-at-home mandate, continue to find creative ways to support and care for the Fairbanks community.
I’m proud to be part of a team with people like Zak Mitchell who creates regular, uplifting, and insightful videos that make the online Fairbanks community feel more alive and supported. Or Brynn Butler on the front lines, pouring her energy day in and day out on behalf of Fairbanks’ homeless population at the temporary Warming Center. Even those whose roles here have suddenly felt far less defined are embracing the humility and patience it takes to just be available and show daily kindness to themselves and those immediately around them.
As for me, I slid under the door into Fairbanks Indiana-Jones-style before everything shut down. I had three days to explore the city before businesses started to close.
Thankfully, I was able to meet the other VISTA’s one time face-to-face over a pickle pizza lunch ordered from the local restaurant Hungry Robot (that was surprisingly good?) before social distancing ramped up. Despite having arrived in Fairbanks like this, my move to Alaska was by far the smoothest transition I have ever had – and I have moved a lot. Between Ashton Varner, our current VISTA leader who has stayed well past her service end date due to the virus, and Meagan Scheer, a previous VISTA leader still living here in Fairbanks, I had tremendous support finding a very affordable apartment. They donated all the furnishings I currently own and haven’t let up in their humbling generosities and kindness towards me to this day.
With this backbone of support and community, I haven’t experienced the “fish-out-of-water” feeling one might expect moving to a new state during a pandemic, and I have enjoyed starting work with United Way of Tanana Valley. I am on a team with three strong, incredible women - Brenda Riley, Sarah Canoy, and Heidi Kampwerth - who have been nothing but inspiring to work with, and I can’t tell you how powerful it is to see them take on the needs of Fairbanks with high-level efficiency and communication – all while maintaining a healthy sense of humor and camaraderie. I have only met one of the three in person as all our interactions are virtual through programs like Slack and Zoom. I truly can’t imagine this pandemic without technology, as 100% of my work depends on it.
My original project under United Way was to create a Volunteer Action Center (VAC) for the city as a way to consolidate resources, needs, and volunteers into one, collaborative system or platform. However, my project has since taken on a different angle to become coordinating and transcribing volunteer and donation needs from Fairbanks agencies during COVID19 and communicating largely through Fairbanks’ favorite medium: Facebook.
After a true crash course on all the different nonprofits in the city, I took over the "Volunteer Fairbanks" page on Facebook. We designed a short needs-assessment survey that went out to all the active agencies in the city, which I then transcribed onto our United Way site for volunteer needs and resources. My job has been to raise daily awareness and to rally donations on behalf of a group of dedicated nonprofits that continue to provide heartfelt, incredible services to its community despite the pandemic.
It’s been incredible to see this community respond to the needs of others during all of this uncertainty, and in my eyes, Fairbanks does live up to its name as the Golden Heart of Alaska.
In an uncertain world, perhaps one of the best qualities to practice and instill is that of adaptability. In that way, no matter what curve balls life throws at us, at least we can count on our abilities to adapt and to be creative. Although COVID19 has been a strong reminder that nothing is 100% certain for us, it sure does seem like VISTA’s can rely on each other, and that Fairbanks can rely on its community to adapt and support one another.