Barbara Seybold is a 73-year-old resident of Eagle River. She raised six children and has long been separated from her husband. One of her daughters, a single mom, asked her to come to Alaska to help with her grandchildren. So in 1989, she made the trek.
Barbara found employment after she arrived and went to work. She was doing heavy manual labor at the age of 55 and got injured on the job. “I was doing work that men should do” she explained. The physical toil had taken its toll on her body.
Though she was injured, Barbara didn’t retire and go on disability. “I kept on working…I kept trying. I was used to hard times. It wasn’t hard to keep trying. But then it got to the point where my body couldn’t take it anymore.” She eventually did retire, disabled from her long-sustained injuries.
In 2016, she moved into her apartment in Eagle River and began going to the food pantry faithfully every month. She turned to the local pantry because she simply didn’t have enough money to eat and take care of her basic expenses, such as gas and insurance, utilities and rent. It wasn’t an extravagance, it was a necessity.
More than food
Like so many others, Barbara soon found that her experience at the pantry was far more than simply getting food. To her, the monthly trips to the Pantry have turned into a bright spot in her life, a time that she looks forward to. She explains, “That’s where I meet people. People who are having problems just like me, and where we can help each other. We pray for each other. We help others find the things that they need. We share life.”
The volunteers that work at the Pantry also hold a dear place in Barbara’s heart. For her, they do far more than just help with the food. Barbara explained that she was in the Pantry before having surgery on her arm, and the volunteers gathered around and prayed for her. With emotion, she said, “In fact, those volunteers…they inspire you to give. You see what it does for other people, and you see what it does for yourself. They just love you with no pressure. And they are always happy to see you. When the shifts change, guess what? You’ll get to make a new friend in not too long!”
After chatting awhile, Barbara thoughtfully noted, “It’s people helping people without the government doing it. It’s us doing it because we want to. It’s us wanting to help each other. That’s what this does for our community. It makes you want to give and be a part of who they are. It’s filled with love and it’s filled with caring. I go there because I’ve needed help. And, I’ll never forget it. I’ll always help back. And that’s what it’s taught me. It’s taught me to be a better human being.”
Larry Ledlow is an 87-year-old resident of Chugiak who has worked hard his entire life. He is a humble man, easy to talk to. His many years have been full of life and adventure. In 1949, he enlisted in the United States Air Force and was sent to Alaska to work on Elmendorf AFB and Adak Island as a radio operator. After his time in service, he went to school and earned two degrees, a bachelor of science and an associate’s degree in adult education. He has even made headway toward a master’s degree.
But after all of his investment in education, he soon recognized that his true love was flying. Soon he opened up his own air taxi business, flying people two and from the remote parts of Alaska. His work was rich and meaningful, cultivating relationships with the people and communities that he frequently served. As time advanced, his physical health also changed. No longer able to pass the flight physical, he was forced to sell his business in 1995 and partially retire.
In 2017, Larry left Alaska for a brief vacation in the lower 48. While he was gone, an acquaintance agreed to live in, and care for, his trailer in Chugiak. But it was not to be. One night while cooking at the stove, the acquaintance sat down to rest in a nearby chair. They soon fell asleep, forgetting the food entirely. The burning food begat flames, and soon the trailer caught fire. In a short time, Larry’s home of 25 years and everything he owned was utterly consumed in the flames.
Over his many years of flying into the bush, Larry had collected gifts and memorabilia from the Alaskans in the villages he flew to. Beautiful ivory carvings and walrus tusks, lovingly given him from friends, were all lost. The photographs, the history and the tokens of his many life adventures were all destroyed in a single day. And he wasn’t even there.
“It broke me,” said Larry, remembering anew the devastation of the fire. He returned to Alaska as a homeless man and was confronted with a myriad of financial obligations surrounding the event. The burned skeleton of the fire had to be removed, which included labor and disposal fees. It took him a full summer to get everything hauled away and cleaned up. Then he purchased another trailer in the same vicinity and began to build again. All of his savings were gone.
“When I was earning a living, I did not perceive myself falling into a hole like I’m in right now. The concept escaped me,” said Larry. Continuing in a reflective tone, “I could look at people in the same shape as me, and I didn’t have an appreciation for what drove them to this, or how they got there. “
Food pantry is a life-saver
Like many seniors, Larry was already living on a very limited income, mainly Social Security and food stamps. After losing his home, he is barely able to cover his necessary expenses. Renting his trailer’s space and paying his utilities and vehicle insurance, “just wipes out my income,” he says.
Larry readily speaks of how much he values the Chugiak/Eagle River Food Pantry, and the volunteers that work there. He does not take for granted the always-cheerful volunteers and the freedom he has to shop for the food that he wants. He says with sincere gratitude in his voice, “it’s a lifesaver for me.” It’s a service that this man could not live without.
The faces of need in our community are not always who you think they are. Walking into the local food pantry, I learned just how widely the comers vary. Manager Steve Worthington sees all kinds of people: young, married, single, homeless, educated, families with little children, and the elderly who are on fixed incomes without enough money for both basic life expenses and needed medications. But no matter what story brings them through the door, or how often, to Steve, they are just neighbors. And neighbors help neighbors. “Part of our mission is that nobody goes hungry,” he says warmly.
Indeed, the Pantry only serves residents from the Chugiak and Eagle River areas, so everyone who comes in is in truth, a neighbor. But they are not always who you might expect. Many, desiring to remain anonymous, gratefully receive the much-needed food they pick up and quietly go their different ways. “There is a stigma associated with coming here, and I don’t want my friends, co-workers, and neighbors to know that I need free food for my family” one college-educated mother of four said candidly. “My husband was in a terrible car accident and can’t work now. We have a ton of medical bills on top of it.” She noted in her own defense, “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t absolutely have to.” Many of the visitors echo this sentiment. They would not be able to make it without the help that the Pantry offers.
The effort/the impact
According to Steve Worthington, the Pantry now serves about 180 families per month, equating to roughly 500-600 people who rely on the food they provide. Outside of the Pantry’s regular hours of operation, there is also a separate food distribution managed by Joy Thompson every Saturday for fresh foods. Approximately 250 families, or 1,200 individuals, take advantage of these extra foods each week. Joy’s team makes regular rounds to Carrs-Safeway, Fred Meyer’s, Wal-Mart and Walgreens to collect donations for Saturday distribution.
All accounted for, it takes a crew of 60-70 faithful volunteers to keep the food pantry running. Steve and countless others credit the community’s support and the dedication of the volunteers for its success. Many hours of work are invested in the operation of the Pantry outside of its regular business hours. Volunteers pick up, deliver, and inventory every piece of food. Every item, both perishable and non-perishable, is inspected before it is stocked onto the shelves or is stored. The staff even works hard to ensure that nothing donated goes to waste. If produce goes bad, it is then re-donated for animal feed.
With great warmth, Steve points out, “It’s mainly our volunteers- they make it all happen. They make the people who come here feel better.” Finishing with a bit of levity, he says “That’s one of the main reasons I come in as often as I do. I need a little love and attention, too.” The herculean efforts of the supporters and volunteers who pour into the Chugiak/Eagle River Food Pantry have spread quite a lot of love and good-will towards our local community. God willing, they will continue to do so for many, many more years.
Editor’s Note: To see more photos and hear more about Barbra and the Chugiak/Eagle River Food Pantry go to echoak.com and watch photojournalist Daniel Shepard’s photo story.