Tawonga teens go to work in Alaska adventure

Tamar Boussina wanted to do something different this summer. Though the San Carlos teen had spent the last four summers at Camp Tawonga, she was torn between going back to the camp near Yosemite and trying something different.

In a way, she was able to do both. The 15-year-old was one of 15 Tawonga campers who went on a social service trip to Alaska last month.

“It was a great experience and really rewarding,” said Boussina.

Last summer, Tawonga teamed up with American Jewish World Service to offer its campers a trip to El Salvador. Nina Kaufman, the Tawonga staffer who organized the Alaska trip, just returned from El Salvador with a second Tawonga group.

“Even before that, we had wanted to offer a domestic trip,” said Dan Harris, a Tawonga staffer who was one of the group leaders. Tawonga offered an Alaska wilderness trip in 1998, but this year’s journey focused on service, rather than hiking and backpacking.

“Not only did we go to a native Alaskan village but we got a mixture of Fairbanks and Juneau, which is a little different than the lower 48 states,” said Harris. “The learning for the kids was unique in that we were in a completely new setting.”

It wasn’t only unique for the kids. Harris described their first staff meeting after their late-night arrival to Fairbanks. It was after midnight, and the staffers were exhausted, having traveled all day.

“It was the middle of the night, but it was totally bright out,” said Harris. “We had to take a picture.” In the northernmost reaches of the state, the sun does not set in the summertime.

During the three-week trip, the group spent time in Fairbanks, Juneau and Arctic Village, a remote community of Native Americans, population 150.

They flew in on tiny planes, each carrying just a few passengers. The village is so remote that the group members were shocked to see how almost everything must be flown in.

“It felt like a gift-giving ceremony,” said Harris, describing how they stood on the runway to see how goods are distributed. “Everyone would show up and pick up their mail, and their bananas and eggs.”

While there, the group spent most of the daytime hours helping to rebuild a church. They stayed at the school there, a facility that had running water and heat, which many of the private homes lack.

“They held a ceremony for us, with traditional music and dancing. They were so welcoming,” said Boussina.

“It was really amazing to see how grateful the people were, that we came and did a little thing,” said Rachel Zinn, a participant from Mountain View. “They were so happy to see us. It was really cool to feel that.”

In Fairbanks, the group helped repaint a youth shelter, and in Juneau, where the Jewish community recently bought a daycare facility to turn it into a Jewish community center, the teens helped clear it out, from top to bottom.

Zinn, 16, said that filling dumpsters in Juneau was one of the highlights of the trip. “We had to be very careful in building things before, so smushing things at the end of the trip was kind of fun.”

In both Juneau and Fairbanks, the group spent time with the local Jewish communities. (In Fairbanks, they call themselves the “Frozen Chosen.”)

In fact, as soon as the campers arrived in Juneau, they went straight to one Jewish family’s house, where they were greeted with a barbecue.

“It’s so welcoming to show up in a town, and right when you get there, you go to someone’s house,” said Harris.

Overall, while participants said the scenery was unforgettable, they mostly raved about the work they did and the way they were welcomed.

Working together with the group was so much fun, Boussina concluded. “It was like it wasn’t hard work at all.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."