Two months into this strange and unsettling time, we try to navigate a new normal that, as one of our partners said, is anything but. We are in it with you, and it may be a long haul.
On Saturday, we mark our 65th year as a family foundation working to improve life in Alaska. That is when Jenny Olson created Rasmuson Foundation in honor of her late husband, E.A. Rasmuson. Their son, Elmer Rasmuson, was by her side from the beginning as our first chairman.
Elmer was a multi-talented man, a banker, university regent and, just after the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964, Anchorage mayor. That was a very different disaster. Yet substitute “virus” for “quake” in one of his campaign speeches that fall, and he could have been talking about this time.
“Do you share my conviction that the quake did not cause our problems? It merely intensified them and pointed up our need for redirection,” Elmer the candidate said. No one was talented enough to fix all the problems alone, he said, but through an orderly program, each issue could be broken down into pieces so everyone could work on a solution. “This emphasis on the sharing of the work and the responsibility is the crux of my philosophy of life and management.”
That’s our approach to the pandemic. The State of Alaska has $50 million in federal CARES Act dollars to distribute to nonprofits here. We joined with other funders to recommend a strategy to put the money toward biggest needs by the December spending deadline. Alaska Housing and Finance Corp., The Alaska Community Foundation, Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, Bethel Community Services Foundation, Bristol Bay Native Corp., Mat-Su Health Foundation and Sealaska all took part. The group recommends that relief dollars go to organizations providing essential frontline service to the most vulnerable citizens. Effective leadership, geographic reach and innovation should be considerations.
One thing for sure. Hunker down doesn’t mean slow down. While our routine grantmaking is paused, we are redirecting funds to meet needs. During this time of shutdown, we are reallocating funds to direct support of artists. Our Tier 1 small grant program will target operational expenses when normally we fund capital projects.
Of the $2 million our board approved for COVID-19 response, we have committed $771,000 so far. Counting various redirected dollars, we’ve spent almost $1.5 million. That includes support for AK Can Do, the statewide coronavirus-response fund being managed by The Alaska Community Foundation and the United Way of Anchorage. Donations to that fund just topped $2 million. While much of that is from businesses, people who have never donated before are giving what they can, even just a few dollars. The money helps individuals as well as nonprofits. Michele Brown, president and CEO of the United Way of Anchorage, recently provided a snapshot of households that have received help with housing due to the pandemic. People in all the economic sectors are impacted. Food services, with 129 households getting help. Retail: 31. Healthcare: 23. Hair stylists/nails: 23. Hospitality: 18. Go down the list: construction and oil, lending and housecleaning, law and dental.
Some of our redirected funds are going to Catholic Social Services to get people not just sheltered but housed. During this time of coronavirus, between March 20 and May 1, the agency has moved 131 individuals from homelessness into safe housing and has provided supports to prevent another 164 from falling into homelessness.
One elder from rural Alaska was in Anchorage for medical treatment when the virus hit. He ended up at Brother Francis Shelter while Catholic Social Services tried to get him home. His village community wanted him back. But air travel was shut down. He needed more medical care. For months, he stayed safely at the shelter and a motel, Lisa Aquino, CEO of Catholic Social Services, told us. The agency was able to coordinate his travel. You’ll be happy to hear he made it home with full support of his family and community. He is in quarantine with food provided by Catholic Social Services.
Meanwhile, we are finding new ways to carry on. We are convening virtual panels of artists and art experts to evaluate hundreds of applications for our Individual Artist Awards. We expect to announce the awardees in June. We already named the 2020 Distinguished Artist, Wayne Price of Haines, and celebrated him virtually as an artist — and a person who gives back. Watch it here. You also may like to see our documentary film on his work.
The day after the 1964 earthquake, Rasmuson family members were salvaging what they could from their wrecked house. Elmer spotted some city officials on the bluff and called to them that everyone should immediately join with best efforts to rebuild.
In the time of coronavirus, many Alaskans are doing things right. With masks, we show we care. With donations, we help our neighbors. We won’t ever be the same. Let’s do as Elmer wanted and make life in Alaska better than it ever was. And when things settle down, we will celebrate our 65th year.