Village of Eyak embraces Baby Boxes

Photo/Nell Alk/Courtesy

CORDOVA — Growing up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and residing since college in New York City, Alaska always felt far away, almost foreign. While during high school summers I traveled to nearly every U.S. state in search of a future four-year university, both Hawaii and Alaska were conspicuously missing from my to-visit list.

Though I had vacationed in Hawaii once for fun, “The Last Frontier” remained a mystery to me, a territory I was not eager to explore.

If you’d asked me in January what the biggest state in America was all about, I likely would have rattled off a dozen generalizations, based solely on what limited trivia I’d absorbed over the course of my life. Much if not the entirety of my response would be steeped in stereotypes. Igloos? Eskimos? Sled dogs? Cruise ships? Oil spills? Dr. Fleischman?

Enter February. The Baby Box Co., begun by acquaintances in L.A., was working closely with the Native Village of Eyak in a city called Cordova to bolster support for expectant parents and, by extension, their local community collectively. Was I interested in crossing the country for a few days to report on the program’s progress?

Four of five families who in February received Baby Boxes from The Native Village of Eyak in anticipation of their forthcoming newest additions. At the Ilanka Community Health Center from left to right: Sydney Songer, Shannon Polhemus, Jennifer Pallas, Jessica Hristov, Blaine Gallagher, Micah Polhemus, John Whissel, Lara Whissel. (Photo/Nell Alk)

As a freelance writer with a flexible schedule, I could hardly bypass a chance to check out this distant land. Moreover, I reasoned, the itinerary had me in and out in no time; I’d return to “The City That Never Sleeps” in less than a week.

Little did I know then that after a brief stay I would legitimately lament my departure. But more on that in a moment.

Back to The Baby Box Co., this female-founded company is modeled after the Finnish tradition: Credited with curbing infant mortality, the government of this Nordic state exhibits support for all mothers — regardless of social status or income, first child or fifth — by bestowing each with something called a Baby Box.

For 75 years, families in Finland have relied upon and benefitted from this mandated donation, a starter kit for wee ones containing clothes, blankets and other newborn necessities. Aptly titled, the Baby Box is itself functional, lined with a mattress for use as a safe sleeping space.

Lifelong friends Jennifer Clary and Michelle Vick, a mother herself, were together compelled by the concept, and so in 2013 decided to embark on a socially conscious commercial endeavor to address the very real need for these baby bundles, beyond the borders of a singular pioneering parliamentary republic.

Shannon Polhemus and son Micah explore the contents of their new Baby Box at the Native Village of Eyak's Ilanka Community Health Center. (Photo/Nell Alk)

The pair got to work, and now various versions of the Baby Box at differing price points can be purchased directly from their site. But the brand’s benevolence is not rooted in retail, amazing as it is to click and buy a Baby Box.

Visible strides are being made by their partnering with NGOs and other organizations around the globe to deliver these early life essentials to areas afflicted by high incidence of SIDS and other threats to safe and healthy development, such as neglect, abuse and abandonment.

In researching Alaska prior to my trip, I discovered several surprising things: It’s a dangerous place to live, alcoholism proves prevalent, cost of living is high, it’s been said to have the highest per capita suicide rate of any U.S. state, and it even made the top ten list of most corrupt U.S. states. Ouch, that smarts.

Add to that the fact that I follow a whole foods plant-based diet  —  which I predicted might be difficult to uphold in the remote Cordova  —  and I was confronting cold feet before I even touched down. (Spoiler alert: Veganism is entirely viable in Alaska, if a lot less diverse than NYC…)

Imagine my delight when I witnessed firsthand how wonderful this corner of our nation is. How welcoming its residents; accommodating its eateries; majestic its scenery; prepared its parents; eclectic its citizens; charming its amenities; enchanting its wildlife; adorable its dogs (and sheep!). The list goes on.

While my experience by no means negates the stark stats, it certainly lifted my own veil of ignorance. I will remember this state — and return to it — for all the right reasons: fascinating traditions, an awe-inspiring emphasis on family, and community pursuits designed to foster pride and maintain morale.

My sojourn was scheduled during Cordova’s 55th annual Iceworm Festival. Comprising among other things a parade, a philanthropic pancake breakfast, a variety show (complete with Miss Iceworm coronation), and a fireworks display, I could not have gone at a better time. I had the privilege to not only observe mores and folkways, but also participate in the unique events.

Beyond the myriad diversions arranged in honor of Iceworm, I had a chance to slow down and speak with Cordovans  —  born-and-raised and transplants, permanent and transient  —  about their experience in the sparsely populated region.

The 55th Iceworm Festival featuring a parade, a pancake breakfast, a variety show (complete with Miss Iceworm coronation) and a fireworks display made February a perfect time to visit Cordova. (Photo/Nell Alk)

Indeed, Cordova is home to roughly 2,200 individuals, though that number contracts and expands depending on the season. I met mothers and fathers, teens and toddlers. I mined the minds of Eyak tribal members and members of the Coast Guard. Not to mention a man so invested in Iceworm’s success that he’s earned the title of Mr. Iceworm. Fancy that.

My greatest takeaway? Single or married, with or without children, Cordova summons its strength through an undeniable togetherness.

It’s not every man for himself or survival of the fittest; it’s a back scratching scenario, where a kinship exists among every person who so chooses to put down roots and participate.

Either you grew up there and decided to stay or you hail from elsewhere and made a deliberate decision to emigrate. Or, as many I met had done, you boomerang. And the allure lies largely with family, be it raising one or fashioning an alternative version made up of friends and neighbors.

As for the youth, they are in a way watched like hawks. While there’s space aplenty to roam, everyone knows everyone in Cordova, so word travels fast. If someone’s making mischief, the damning details may get back to your family before you do. And that’s what parents appreciate about the insulated city, reachable only by boat and airplane.

Because of this, it’s also remarkably self-sufficient. If the community calls for something, said something evolves where perhaps nothing once was. One mom runs a daycare out of the back of her ice cream and pizza parlor. Another mom established an early learning center.

While Cordovans must a month before their due date travel to Anchorage to give birth and take a ferry with their vehicle to shop at big box stores, they survive and even thrive with what they have, and improve upon or create what is lacking or absent. The essentials are accounted for. More so now that The Baby Box Co. program has begun.

Cordova doesn’t simply champion families that already exist —  they have taken a progressive stand on behalf of parents-to-be to help reduce infant mortality and generally improve maternal health conditions.

As part of a more comprehensive effort (which includes, among other things, a local Le Leche League group), the Baby Box program —  spearheaded by the Native Village of Eyak in conjunction with the Ilanka Community Health Center —  is in place to ensure moms and dads know they are not alone in welcoming a mini addition to their household and the greater community.

And, besides the accoutrements already included in the Baby Boxes delivered to Cordova, such as a first aid kit and clothing, the Baby Boxes distributed so far have taken on a life of their own, insomuch as contributions from local groups go. Girl Scouts and tribal elders knitted hats, the Cordova Public Library donated bibs and the Native Village of Eklunta Housing Department donated indoor air quality test kits. Still more items tailored to local families are featured as well. The support is widespread and generous, personal and significant.

I left Cordova with a heavy heart. Having spent a whirlwind three days admiring the mountains, surveying the town and its environs, reveling in the sighting of otters in the water and meeting and getting to know locals (over beers or Baby Boxes), I’d be lying if I claimed I was ready to head home. I’d inserted myself into a handful of overlapping social circles and, truth be told, I feel like no one found fault with that. I managed to fit in.

Whether tagging along with the volunteer fire department for an EMT class at the Cordova Community Medical Center or tossing back a few at Anchor Bar, a local watering hole; marveling at the aurora borealis from a new friend’s back porch during her house party or borrowing snow pants from a nice nurse for an afternoon hike to see Sheridan Glacier, I took advantage of every opportunity to immerse myself in the goings on — something that would have been wholly prohibitive were Cordovans not so incredibly inclusive. I even shocked myself, embracing without reservation things I initially perceived as sort of corny.

I bonded with my host — who doubled as a chauffer-meets-tour-guide and pseudo parent, arming me with homemade preserves before my flight — and engaged in stimulating conversations about animal rights with diehard hunters, folks who live off the land.

A fishing town, I encountered seafood at every turn, but enjoyed falafel, cheese-free pizza, salads, French fries, rice cakes, crudités and fruit. Meal-wise, I got by; it was fine. In fact, it was liberating to temporarily shelve the exhaustive element of choice I’m entitled to in New York. To for once set my palate preferences aside and adjust to what was available. Vegan? Yes. Cuisine? No.

It was pleasantly limiting and didn’t distract from the trip’s true purpose: to get to know
gorgeous Cordova and its extraordinary inhabitants, human and otherwise.

Whatever apprehensions and assumptions I harbored prior to entering my 50th state ever visited evaporated the moment I awoke on the plane passing over Juneau. From my iPhone I snapped pictures of the breathtaking topography, anticipating what awaited me on the ground in Cordova. Who knew 80 hours could impact someone so sincerely, and likewise leave them itching to fly back on their own dime for July’s Salmon Jam — hold the salmon.

This summer or another, I know Cordova doesn’t exist exclusively in the rearview. There’s now one more place on the planet I can confidently call home. While I have zero illusions of time standing still, I am hopeful I can pick up with Cordova where I left off.

Nell Alk is a freelance writer based in New York City.

11/19/2016 - 6:01pm