By Jenny Neyman
Saturday morning at the Kenai Peninsula Association for Family and Community Education retreat was ostensibly spent learning crafts.
The ladies attending, from Homer, Willow and the Nikiski area, did learn how to create an Alaska pin ribbon and an Alaska flag beaded pin, in line with the retreat’s theme celebrating Alaska’s 50th anniversary of statehood. But they learned a lot more about each other in the process.
As they sewed, cut, beaded and glued, they chatted, renewing old bonds established at prior years’ retreats, and cementing new friendships.
A list of trivia of what things cost 50 years ago set Rieta Walker, of Homer, off on a few stories.
“I paid $72 a quarter in Montana University (compared to $1,250 to attend Harvard University for a year a half century ago). Now you’re lucky if you can buy a book for 72 bucks. I’m so old I remember when a penny postcard actually cost a penny,” she said.
Margaret Dubber, of North Kenai, had a tale of costs of her own to share, about her move to Alaska from Oklahoma after marrying her husband, Rodger.
“He didn’t introduce me as his wife. He said I was his Okie souvenir. I said I’m the most expensive souvenir he ever bought. And he’s been paying for it for 35 years,” she said.
The retreat Friday and Saturday at the Aspen Hotel in Soldotna hit on a little of everything that the Family and Community Education program is about — creating crafts, sharing knowledge, raising money for charitable projects and socializing in order to form and maintain a net of ties that bind a community.
The program has been around since the 1930s in the United States, though groups used to be called homemakers clubs. Farmers wives would gather to work on craft projects, share information — about sewing techniques, home health remedies and the like — and organize efforts toward a greater cause, like pushing for child immunizations.
The original Nikiski club, the Redoubt Homemakers, has been around since the 1960s, and was responsible for raising enough money to get Nikiski’s first ambulance.
Since then membership has waxed and waned, as members aged, moved or got caught up in the increasingly hectic pace of life and new modern conveniences that conveniently contribute to people being more isolated. For one four-year stretch, Joy Carew, who’s been a member for 45 years, held every post in the club because there wasn’t anyone else to do it.
Nowadays the Redoubt Homemakers is up to 12 members and is active year-round. They make craft items to donate to various causes, sell homemade items at bazaars and festivals to raise money for the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank and the Nikiski Neighbors program that sponsors families for Christmas, clean up trash in the spring, take field trips and hold their retreat once a year. This year’s was attended by the Homer FCE group and the She-Mon-Sun group from Willow.
“We love these ladies,” said Donella Otter, of Willow, about why they attended the retreat.
“It’s a long winter, we need a break,” said Mary Olson, of Nikiski. She’s largely responsible for the Willow group’s presence. She and Bonnie Shurtleff, of the Willow group, have built a friendship through FCE activities and were happy for a reason to visit each other.
“And there’s such a thing as the Kenai fabric store. All the reasons kind of blend together,” Shurtleff said.
The Nikiski group meets twice a month throughout the year at Nikiski Fire Department Station 1. The program agenda is a scaled-down version of the retreat, with potluck food, some sort of speaker or demonstration, crafts and a business meeting — which is as short as possible to leave the majority of the time for crafts and socializing.
The group’s open to anyone to join — even men, although none have taken the plunge beyond husbands helping haul supplies or other supporting duties.
It’s that spirit of inclusiveness that Nancy Whiting, with the Redoubt group, found so inviting. She talked her husband into indulging her 10-year dream of living in Alaska by moving to Nikiski in 2005. She wanted to live in Nikiski because of its rural feel, where houses are spread out and there’s just woods around you. But that same sense of natural isolation can lead to social isolation when you don’t know anyone.
“For me, they were some of the first people I met. I have to say it boosted my confidence in being accepted here. They accepted me wholeheartedly. I wasn’t the new kid. It was like, ‘Welcome,’ and my newness here wasn’t an issue,” Whiting said. “I’ve not been a joiner in my life, but I was really happy to join this one.”
Many of the group’s activities center on crafts, like sewing, quilting or cooking, but one need not be knowledgeable in those areas to be involved. Novices play a special role in the organization, since much of its purpose is to pass on expertise.
“There’s a lot of wisdom, knowledge and information that is heartily and readily and easily shared,” Whiting said.
Beyond that, the group forms a safety net, for the community in all the charitable work it does, and also for each other.
“I have to say, first and foremost, it probably offers friendship. Not that everybody always agrees 100 percent with everything and everybody else’s ideas, but we’re like sisters. It’s kind of like we get to know each other, we’re personal with each other. It’s like, if you have a problem or an issue, you can call.”