Early on in the pandemic in 2020, prior to Sitka’s first positive case (and subsequent masking requirements), volunteers like Meredith Redick were shopping on behalf of Sitka’s most vulnerable residents. The quick, coordinated response of Sitka’s nonprofits and Tribal government at the beginning of the pandemic was refined over the next year to incorporate Sitka’ municipal government, and the distribution of millions in CARES Act relief funds. (KCAW photo/Berett Wilber)

While Sitka — like many places — is struggling right now with the delta variant and an unexpected surge in coronavirus infections, over most of the last year it got the pandemic right: low infection rate, high support for vulnerable parts of the community. While there were some hard knocks along the way, Sitka proved to be a model of resiliency during the emergency — which is why around 80 policy researchers and government entities convened on Wednesday (7-28-21) to listen as three Sitkans explained how it was done.

The Pardee RAND Graduate School of public policy had its lens on Sitka prior to the pandemic. There’s a just-rightness to the community — something about its size, relative self-sufficiency-but-relative-isolation that make it worthy of study.

That was never more true than during the height of the pandemic, when the Sitka Conservation Society, the Sitka Tribe, and the Sitka Legacy Foundation — all helped to spearhead local relief efforts.

Katie Riley, Policy director for the Sitka Conservation Society, explained how her organization shifted gears, and adapted some of its existing programs like Fish to Schools into a widespread food delivery system called Sitka Mutual Aid.

She described many bureaucratic challenges in the program, not the least of which is that government-subsidized food programs tend to be top heavy with industrial food producers.

Riley recommended more investment in locally-based food security.

“Our organization should be brought into the response early on and experience increased communications during these times because we’re on the ground dealing directly with the folks that these programs and funding sources are trying to help,” Riley said. “And we can provide feedback when they’re missing the mark, such as the delivering of weekly dairy boxes to populations that experience high levels of lactose intolerance here in tech and throughout the region.”

There were 80 audience members on the call, many from the Pardee RAND Graduate School, but also a fair number from other universities, as well as representatives from government, including the US Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services (FNS), the Department of Homeland Security (CISA), the US Centers for Disease Control, the American Red Cross, and the Food Bank of Alaska.

The Rasmuson Foundation — the state’s largest philanthropy — moderated the call.

Participants peppered Riley and her fellow Sitka panelists, Camille Ferguson and Robin Sherman, with questions about the resources available during the pandemic, and how partnerships were formed to distribute them.

Ferguson is the Economic Development director for the Sitka Tribe. She said that while the STA’s Social Services Department stepped up to increase services to tribal citizens during the pandemic, her role wasn’t clear at first. Eventually, she began partnering with organizations in town to shelter homeless during the worst of the pandemic in local hotels, and providing other agencies — like the Sitka Conservation Society — with mini-grants to expand their existing programs.

“So that we knew that we were going to be able to provide funding for those who are already doing existing services so that we wouldn’t duplicate those services, but support those services,” said Ferguson.

In the middle of it all was the Sitka Legacy Foundation. One of a handful of grant funders in Sitka, the Legacy Foundation knew a lot about the individual capacity of Sitka’s nonprofits to help during a crisis. But director Robin Sherman said covid required a team effort.

“So right at the beginning of the pandemic,” she explained, “the two things that we did was we convened our nonprofits to say, what are you seeing among your clients and stakeholders? And what do you need. And then we also, right at the very beginning, started talking to our city assembly and city administrator and saying, when you are planning your municipal relief efforts, keep us in mind both in terms of what we need and how we can help.”

The coordination ultimately led to the prompt and equitable distribution of $14 million in CARES Act funds, toward everything from utility relief for households to direct payments to nonprofits and businesses.

And where there is communication, Sherman said, there is an exchange of ideas — not all of them about money.

“One great example was that in our conversations with human service providers, we heard that there were a lot of sick residents who had mental health needs that were going unmet because residents couldn’t afford to pay for mental health services,” said Sherman.

The takeaway message from the Sitka panelists was basically this: If Sitka is a model for government coordination, inter-agency communication, and community resiliency for the nation, that model could be improved. 

Camille Ferguson said that the pandemic brought food security into clear focus for the Tribe.

“Pandemics and catastrophes are something that we really need to be better prepared for, especially in an island community that we are,” Ferguson said. “We are victims of transportation. The only way on and off this island is by boat or by plane. And we know now what can happen when the planes quit coming.”

Katie Riley was also blunt. The coronavirus pandemic is not likely to be the only crisis to be faced by communities in the near future.

“And I emphasize investing in improving local systems because we as a Conservation Society don’t really see this pandemic as an anomaly,” Riley warned. “We’ve seen what the future holds as we experienced climate change here in Sitka, and the record wildfires and heat waves that have rocked the Pacific Northwest just this summer, as well as the spread of covid variants in Sitka and across the United States.”

Riley added that gathering feedback on programs “early and often” from communities, and adapting them to better respond to local needs “is really crucial for community resilience now and into the future.”