During the summer of 1966 I spent a month at The Jesse Lee Home for children as part of a youth work camp. This was a new facility outside of Anchorage as the old home in Seward was damaged in the 1964 Earthquake.
There were 15 “campers” and two adult chaperones traveling from Jackson, Michigan representing the First Methodist Church. We stayed in one of the “cottages” down from the administration building. The girls were in bunk beds in the living room as near as I can remember and the boys bunked in the smaller rooms down the hall. Our meals were eaten in the “ad” building. We were in charge of breakfast and clean up of every meal. I’m not sure who prepared a simple lunch—usually sandwiches but dinner was always bigger and prepared by a staff member. New to me were moose steaks and fish (salmon & halibut) served whole with an eye looking at us!
Some of our accomplishments included building a skating warming shelter, leveling ground and preparing lawns for seeding, sculpting and building steps, cutting and hauling away logs and brush, and building sidewalks with rocks and stones. We needed to collect rocks to edge the walkways. Either Walter or Jim (always a boy!) would drive the pickup truck with a group of us in the back. We went along country roads stopping wherever we saw suitable sized rocks. We’d jump out, throw the rocks into the truck bed, jump back in and be on our way to look for more. Now it sounds totally unsafe and is most likely illegal.
Since my career goal was to be an elementary school teacher I had the opportunity to work with many of the children. In addition to working with them on “in house” activities Charlene and I were also designated as “trip assistants.” We accompanied the youths on field trips which included numerous trips to Goose Lake for swimming and volleyball, bowling with “the seniors”, and a trip to an art museum. On our way home from one of the trips we stopped at the Dimond Ranch where Jack worked and saw horses, 1 seal named Oli and an elephant named Anabelle! I remember touching the elephant and being amazed at how bristly it felt.
Weekends were our down time. We traveled to Seward and saw the old Jesse Lee Home and the earthquake damage. We slept on the floor of the Methodist Church there using borrowed sleeping bags. Sunday morning we sang “The Church is One Foundation” for the small congregation. I was the accompanist on the piano and remember being so embarrassed when I played a chord wrong. Another weekend trip, an extended one, was a camping trip to Mt. McKinley. Unfortunately it was hidden from view while we were there. We also visited Portage Glacier, the University in Anchorage, and took a ski lift ride up Mt. Alyeska. We also climbed Mt. Flat Top.
I remember the Gilberts, Clarabelle (a lovely housemother) and many of the children. I corresponded with Jack for quite a while and know he joined the military using his father’s last name of Ozenna rather than Bergamaschi. Charlene corresponded with Gave for a while too. Both Mr. & Mrs. Smith, our chaperones, have passed away. I kept in touch with them through the years but lost track of the other campers.
I have always had fond memories of my time at The Jesse Lee and always wanted to return. In August of 2017, I was able to do that. I was in Anchorage for just a day and Angie Rush graciously chauffeured my husband and me from our hotel to the Jesse Lee Campus. We were given a tour and updated on the changes. The campus had changed with the addition of a gymnasium/classroom building, a basketball/skating area, and a sweat lodge. The “Gilberts” house had a chapel meeting the needs of many religions. I loved the garden area and totem pole built by residents. “Our” stone sidewalks are now paved along the roads. The roads were actually paved not long after we left in 1966. The cottage interiors looked the same, but of course with different, older looking residents. The administration building no longer has a kitchen and large activity area. The changes I saw certainly added to the facility in a positive way.
My work camp experience in 1966 has always been a highlight in my life. When friends have asked me what my favorite part of last summer’s Alaska trip was, I immediately say “going back to see The Jesse Lee Home.” If I lived nearby I know I would just have to be involved with it in some way.
Keep up the good work!
Sally Ruby Zimmerman