Tuesday, September 30, 2008

It's Getting Crowded in These Parts

The effects of the economic situation are more far-flung than many in the Lower 48 might realize. With the cost of electricity, gasoline, and heating oil rising by astronomical leaps and bounds, many Alaskan Bush communities are making tough decisions.

Gasoline in Anchorage is deplorably high; around $5.00 for diesel, $4.76 for regular. Gasoline in Bush areas like Ekuk, Kake, and St. Lawrence Island can range anywhere from $8.00 a gallon to almost $12.00; tough enough if you have a good job, almost impossible if you don't. The cost of heating oil is even more dire; $9.00 a gallon to heat the small oil-burning portable furnaces most Bush families use in their small, poorly insulated homes. It takes about 7 gallons to effectively provide heat overnight when outside temperatures hover between 15 and 25 degrees below zero.

Schools are closing; district superintendents cannot cut the budget any further to meet the critical demand for fuel. As one put it, "you can't turn on only half the lights, or heat only part of the building." As a result, children are flowing into the Anchorage School District like ice during Breakup. The district has had a 7% increase in student enrollment since August, and the numbers continue to grow. Many of these children did not come in the company of their moms and dads, instead, they were flown to Anchorage to be met by a relative or friend willing to board them for the school year.

For a child who has never been more than a few miles from his or her village, the culture shock can be overwhelming. Strange customs, sights and sounds demand their attention and distract from the job at hand, and the schools are doing all they can to support them through after school activities, tutoring, and even meals.

It is a lesson in grace, this influx of children. Families doing all they can to educate their children, in the best way they know how.

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