This summer, my friend Alicia and I spent two weeks in the small Athabaskan village of Galena, Alaska with the CSJ Volunteers in Mission. When I set myself up to enter a new place and a new culture, it was difficult to know what to expect. Now, after months to think about my experience, it is equally as difficult to express in words what it truly meant to me. After over a year of planning, meetings, and fund-raising, this voyage became a reality in a tiny seat on a tiny plane.
The propellers roared and I clutched my backpack, hoping that my nervousness wouldn’t draw any more attention from the rest of the passengers. A few minutes earlier, a young native girl asked us quite bluntly what everyone might have been thinking, “why are you going to Galena?” I never realized how much I had “blended in” my whole life. I took in the Alaskan landscape over the wing of the plane, and when I saw the huge winding Yukon River below me, I knew we were getting close. We were welcomed by Father Case’s wide and friendly smile at the Galena airport, which was a small log cabin on a dirt road.
Father Case helped us adjust to our new surroundings. He introduced us to the town, the people, and the culture. He welcomed us into his parish, community, and home. We had the amazing opportunity to join a Potlatch, which is a cultural memorial for certain people who have passed. I discovered that moose is rather tasty and whale blubber and fish ice cream are not my favorite dishes. I sat in awe as the elders sang and the entire community performed a ceremonial dance. I received gifts even though I was an outsider. The celebration lasts one weekend out of the summer, and I felt so blessed to be a part of it.
We attended morning worship with Father Case, and, as two of the five parishioners that day, we experienced what I felt was the most real and heartfelt masses I had ever been to. I soon discovered what this church means to the entire town. It is not only a place of prayer, but a place of community. For the two weeks I was in Galena, I prayed, sang, laughed, and interacted with the people of Galena in a way that made me want to stay forever.
I became more and more thankful for this community as I learned of the hardships of this tiny town. I realized that God gave this town a place to join hands and hearts and escape the sad realities of the Alaskan wilderness. I witnessed the elders fighting to keep a rich native culture alive and young children deal with exposure to drug and alcohol abuse in the village. I refuse to reveal only the romantic and beautiful side of Galena, because the people face very real and serious problems every day, problems that some people will never face in a lifetime. For this reason, I am inspired to spread awareness about native cultures in the United States and abroad, and do whatever I can to continue my mission.
While we were in Galena, we made a decision not to focus on one project, but to help in any way we were needed. We set up a small camp for children in grades 1-6. The kids spent time with us creating crafts, baking cookies, playing games, and discussing simple Bible stories. We organized a reception for our campers, and each elder received a homemade invitation. We helped set up a Kid’s Day with the Boys and Girls Club by organizing, decorating, and running some of the events. We also spent time with the elders, listening to stories about the Athabaskan culture and even trading recipes. Our most surprising call for help came running towards us one morning as we walked to church. I should say six calls for help… six puppies that didn’t have homes, and would unfortunately face death without us finding homes for them. So we did. Two found homes in the village, and we brought four to a shelter in Anchorage. I wondered how anyone could want to get rid of these lives when I loved them so much after only a few days.
While holding the littlest puppy as she slept off an infection that nearly killed her, I thought about how it was probably the first time in her life that she could really sleep. Every once in a while, she would glance at me, and then fall fast asleep again. There I realized, with this warm bundle in my arms and tears in my eyes, she didn’t have to say thank you. No one does. When provided with an opportunity to contribute, whether it is for another person, a community, or even a tiny canine soul, the experience is the reward. Being part of Galena for only two weeks is an experience I will never forget, and the rewards didn’t end when I got back on that plane. My experience and my memories have opened up a new place in my heart and have inspired new goals in my life. In the end, I’m the one who will say thank you.