Books and reading are big in Nanwalek, with Imagination Library both a reflection of and a catalyst for all their focus on literacy.
Nanwalek Imagination Library launched last spring with solid local support from the Nanwalek IRA Council, North Pacific Rim Housing Authority, Chugachmiut Head Start, and Project GRAD Kenai Peninsula (a school support and scholarship program for high school students). Then, in just two days, they signed up every eligible child in Nanwalek. Granted, it was only 34 children, but still.
Nanwalek didn’t even stop there.
They raised the funds to enroll all village children for the next five years! They approached the airlines that serve Nanwalek for recommendations of prospective contributors. They went to accountants, attorneys, banks – anyone who worked with the community – 48 organizations total. And last November, they went to bingo. Nanwalek Imagination Library purchased $300 worth of books from the Scholastic Book Fair, earning free books for the school. The night of “Bingo for Books,” the prizes were books for the winners to take home and read to their children.
The powerhouses behind all this book business are Wanda Kvasnikoff, bookkeeper at the Nanwalek Tribal Council, and Emilie Swenning, with the North Pacific Rim Housing Authority. Outside their day jobs, both do lots of volunteer work.
One of Swenning’s volunteer jobs is to help supervise a summer youth program in which the Tribal Council hires teenagers and young adults to do odd jobs throughout the community.
“The summer youth program kids went looking for things to do to add to their work list,” Swenning said. “We were approached by the school principal a couple of years ago and she asked if we could do a summer reading program. The school lent us the 125 books to use. A bunch of people donated more books, and now we’re at over 2,000 books. And we still have tons more in storage.”
For now, those books are housed in a makeshift library in the North Pacific Rim Housing Authority Office.
The school used to have its own library but as student enrollment skyrocketed, the library was taken over for much-needed classroom space. A new library may be in the works. The community has requested funding for a youth center, which would include a community library.
The lack of a real library space hasn’t kept Elders, families, and students from checking out books.
“Little kids are always asking whether there are new books. When our kids have Scholastic orders through the school, we order more to throw in the library, so we have constant change. We have one little girl who has probably checked out every single book. Her parents read to her every single day,” Swenning said.
Nanwalek has received books from the Alaska Literacy Council in Fairbanks. The makeshift library is slowly getting in some Alaska history books and books about Native cultures. The Native people of Nanwalek are Sugpiaq.
Every May, the community has Sea Week when they study marine life, gather and prepare traditional foods, and hold a big potluck for the community. To go along with Sea Week, Swenning recently submitted a request to the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences for books and videos.
Swenning isn’t daunted by asking for things; it’s essential if you want to get things done. During her fund raising for Imagination Library, she says, “We got a lot of responses that said they couldn’t help at the time, but invited us to write back within a couple of months. We keep track, write or call again, and money comes in. You just have to ask.”