How we help

These stories tell how we are working together to meet community needs and keep people healthy.

Feeding the dream ››
Peer Language Navigators help ESL patients cope ››
Compassionate care behind walls ››
Back on their feet ››
Providing care with dignity ››
Books for early readers ››
Strong minds, happy hearts ››
Easing into elder care ››  

Feeding the dream

On a snowy Friday morning, patrons at the St. Francis House Food Pantry come to receive the food that helps them get by. They come in all shapes and sizes, all ethnicities and nationalities. Here, they are simply hard-working people trying to make ends meet, and the Food Pantry helps them do this with dignity.

St. Francis House Food Pantry volunteer Joanne Ackerman and home health care worker Rex Minabowan, with the food he is able to provide to the clients he serves.

“These are the working poor,” says Linda Bond, director of operations for the Pantry, which is run by Catholic Social Services. “For them, it is making a decision of paying for their rent or for their food.”

The St. Francis House Food Pantry serves roughly 115 people a day, four days a week – with 10 to 12 new patrons each day. A $200,000 donation by Providence Health & Services Alaska has helped keep the doors open. Qualified recipients receive a once-a-month, two-and-a-half day supply of food, including fresh vegetables, meats and breads. 

“We are so grateful to Providence for their help,” says Lisa Aquino, Catholic Social Services’ executive director. “Their assistance helps us to continue to offer high-quality food and the staff to help run the pantry.”

Indeed, the donation is much needed. After one of the pantry’s primary funding sources expired last year, organizers were not sure what the future held. Catholic Social Services, turned to Providence, and was not turned away. This donation funds a full-time pantry position as well as continued purchasing of fresh produce and other healthy foods.

On this particular snowy day, volunteers greet customers at the check-in station and help them fill their carts in a tidy room set up like a mini grocery store. Canned goods line the shelves and frozen salmon steaks and other meats are stored in a freezer. Fresh produce is kept chilled in refrigerators and even a few treats are stashed at the end of one aisle, offering those with a sweet tooth a special purchase.

Home health aide Rex Minabowan wheeled a cart into the pantry’s wide aisles with a volunteer escorting him. Volunteers help recipients keep track of the amounts and types of foods they are allowed to purchase and assist with the paperwork involved in keeping track of the operation.

“The services they provide here are almost a miracle,” said Minabowan, who shops for two of his homebound, low-income patients. “A lot of people struggle and a lot of people don’t know about this. I wish they did. This helps people save a lot of money.”

Providence Health & Services Alaska and Catholic Social Services continually strive to fulfill their goal of helping those in need, especially at critical times, through the St. Francis House Food Pantry. In Alaska, no one should go hungry, and when organizations come together to assist the poor and vulnerable, it only strengthens the community.

“Providence’s funding is a vital part of St. Francis House because we have only three-and-a-half positions to run everything,” Bond says. “The rest are volunteers.”

“Those positions translate to people being served,” Aquino says. “And that’s what we aim to do.” 

Peer Language Navigators help ESL patients cope

Imagine landing in a country where the language is not your own. Soon after arriving, you begin feeling ill but don’t know how or where to get help. When you finally do receive medical attention, you don’t understand the instructions given to you as you leave the doctor’s office.

Linda Shepard with the Anchorage Health Literacy Collaborative, uses a model to show how sugar is processed in cells as Peer Language Navigators Ngone Vaught of Senegal, Tuka Mishra of Nepal, Marisol Varga of Mexico and Zabeeba Mohamed of Ethiopia, look on.

This scenario is all too common for the large number of people of international origin who now live in Anchorage. Fortunately, a growing group of advocates has recognized their need for assistance.

With the help of a generous contribution from Providence Health & Services Alaska, the Anchorage Health Literacy Collaborative helps those with limited English and little understanding of American culture to navigate Alaska’s health system.

Anchorage is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the country. According to 2012 statistics, Anchorage has had a 25 percent increase of foreign-born children in the last 10 years. They speak such languages as Nepali, Somali, Spanish and any host of Southeast Asian languages. As such, the collaborative’s goal is to build a cadre of bilingual and cultural Peer Language Navigators, or PLNs.

“These people are sharing information about health and health care, and teaching their community members how to find reliable health information online,” said Providence employee Linda Shepard, RN, who helps coordinate the PLN training for the collaborative. “They’re the cultural brokers. They really want to help their communities.”

The PLNs who have been trained thus far represent diverse languages – Russian, Korean, Hmong, Thai, Nuer, Somali, Lao, Wolof, Nepali, Spanish, Mandarin and more. New PLNs are being recruited each year.

At one training session, Shepard worked with women from Mexico, Senegal, Nepal and Ethiopia on how to create disaster preparedness kits.

“If you are in a building when an earthquake starts, you want to drop, cover and hold on, and if possible, get close to an inside wall,”  Shepard said, as they shared information together from a document provided by the State of Alaska. “Do not go outside.”

Marisol Vargas, from Mexico City seemed stunned.

“Don’t go outside?” she asked. “In Mexico, they always say go outside.”

Therein lies the challenge of making a transition from one country to the next, Shepard pointed out. Not only does the language barrier present a challenge, but also the cultural norms to which one is accustomed.

Ngone Vaught, another PLN, is from Senegal. In her country, people use soda as “medicine,” but here in the United States, people are encouraged to avoid a lot of sugary drinks and told that there are more healthful choices.

“This is hard,” Vaught said, “to tell people ‘no, this is not the way to do this, soda is bad.’ ” 

Shepard said with Providence’s continued support, the Anchorage Health Literacy Collaborative has made great strides. Their post-training assessments have shown that participants’ health knowledge has increased dramatically, and that PLNs are more readily able to access the health information they need.

“We are giving people the information they need, in a way they understand it, to make good decisions, and that is what health literacy is all about,” Shepard said. “It’s on us as a health care community to make sure health information is culturally relevant and that everyone has this sort of access.” 

Compassionate care behind walls

Therapy services offered for Seward prison inmates

It takes a sort of courage to walk down the long, enclosed hallway that leads to the Spring Creek Correctional Facility in Seward. Multiple locked doors require passcodes or permissions to enter, and the grounds of this state-run maximum-security prison are surrounded by razor-sharp loops of wire atop tall chain link alleyways where prisoners walk laps outside in the sea-breezed wind. Despite its beautiful surroundings, this is a harsh place, housing up to 500 convicted criminals.

Still, the people living within these walls are human, too, and as such often suffer the aches and pains of age or injuries. When this happens, Providence Health & Services Alaska helps.

“They’re people with neck and back problems like anyone else,” says Kim Dahlby, a physical therapist at Providence in Seward. Part of Dahlby’s job is evaluating patients at the prison once a week. The services are offered at a quarter of the hourly rate that is traditionally charged. Prisoners pay a small sum, too, out of their allowances, to ensure their visits are justified.

At Spring Creek Correctional Facility, physical therapist Kim Dahlby  says he just does his job and doesn’t spend time thinking about what his patient’s crime might be or asking personal questions. His only desire is to help ease his patients’ aches and pains.

Dahlby says he never knows who he is going to see week to week. He often will examine three or four new patients per visit; other times he just checks in on existing patients.

“My focus is primarily on education,” Dahlby says. “It’s hard to convince a big tough guy to do kegel exercises or work on their core, but I try.”

Many people might balk at offering reduced rates to the inmates at the prison, says Lila Hurst, supervisor of Rehabilitation services at Providence Seward Medical & Care Center and Providence Seward Mountain Haven. But, she says, Spring Creek, as the largest employer in Seward, benefits from the program, and Providence lives out its mission of serving anyone in need, regardless of their circumstances. This work is possible via the $58 million in community benefit contributions by Providence Health & Services Alaska in 2014.

At Spring Creek, Dahlby says he just does his job and doesn’t spend time thinking about what his patient’s crime might be or asking personal questions. His only desire is to help ease his patients’ aches and pains.

“I treat them with respect, and they treat me with respect,” he says. “After explaining to them something like body mechanics and then see them stand up and have good posture is rewarding. You just try to do your best to help.”

Dahlby enters the prison, the doors slamming behind him with a resounding thud. The inmates were due to be walking around the grounds outside, but a lockdown has canceled their free time and they are nowhere to be seen. A sole inmate, who’s earned privileges to clean floors, sweeps his wet mop across the room, keeping his eyes on his job but peeking to get a view of the snow-capped mountains outside the windows.

Dahlby continues on, alone, toward the security screening area that will take him even deeper into the prison. He’s going alone; no additional visitors are allowed.

“I think anything that helps people get better is a good thing,” he says. “And they are people, no matter what they’ve done to get here.” 

Back on their feet

Ice-cleat distribution prevents injuries

An imposing man dressed in many layers enters the Bean’s Cafe dining area, bringing in a blast of cold air as he sits down. His jacket is threadbare but serviceable, and his hat is pulled down over his ears. He wears scuffed, white Bunny Boots and they, too, are huge. At more than 6 feet tall, the man is commanding in stature, but in the most polite voice he asks, “Do you have extra large?”

A volunteer digs in a box and out comes a pair of ice cleats that she deftly straps to the worn boots. Meant to prevent slips and falls in winter weather, the cleats are part of a larger effort to help Anchorage’s at-risk populations stay healthy and safe.

“Yeah, that’ll work,” the man says. “Thank you.”

Meant to prevent slips and falls in winter weather, these ice cleats are part of an effort to help Anchorage’s at-risk populations stay healthy and safe.

Sara Penisten, RN, injury prevention outreach coordinator for Providence Health & Services Alaska, says the cleat distribution effort is a simple solution to reducing injuries in vulnerable populations. Thanks to a $5,500 donation, more than 225 pairs of cleats were provided at Bean’s Cafe, while others were distributed to Covenant House’s Passage House, a temporary refuge for pregnant teens, and Clare House, which provides housing for mothers and children to help them get back on their feet. Purchase and distribution of the ice cleats was just one of many efforts to help Alaskans as part of the $58 million in community benefit in 2014.

Many of Anchorage’s homeless spend the majority of their days outside, walking the often-icy streets and sidewalks and sometimes wearing inadequate footwear.

“Our trauma registry tracks the injury category of every trauma patient we care for at Providence Alaska Medical Center,” Penisten says. “Falls are the most common mode of injury. Based on our trauma data, we are addressing our highest risk area.”

During the Bean’s Cafe distribution, held on a cold, icy day in February, scores of vulnerable citizens entered the building to wait for and receive their free cleats. One man, as he sat to be fitted, said he broke his collarbone and ankle after falling on ice the year before. He didn’t have ice cleats then; he wouldn’t make that mistake again.

By the end of the day, 225 pairs of cleats were distributed and fitted onto the patrons. Penisten says she left 40 pairs behind, to be provided on an as-needed basis.

“This year, we will start a fall campaign to get these to people earlier,” Penisten says. “We have had such an odd winter, but we still always have ice.”

Of the 119 people who were surveyed before the cleat distribution, only six already owned a pair. A couple of weeks after the distribution, 82 of 122 people surveyed had cleats. “So for pre distribution, 5 percent of patrons had ice cleats,” Penisten says. “And post distribution, 67 percent had them.”

Michael Collins, Beans Cafe operations manager, says since the ice cleats were distributed, he has continued to see clients use them, and the additional pairs Penisten left behind were put into use rapidly.

“Our clients really benefit from them,” he says. “We quickly ran out and even purchased some more ourselves.”

The cleats are such a small safety effort, yet seem to yield big results – and for someone struggling to get by, even a $10 pair would be out of their reach, Penisten says. Additional cleats were provided to Clare House and Covenant House’s Passage House.

“As part of our outreach efforts, we train the staff on how to properly fit the cleats,” she says.

“Ice cleats are a simple way to build healthy communities together.” 

Providing care with dignity

Kodiak Hospice programs fills need in community

When John Finley was diagnosed with cancer, he made a not-so-common decision: No radiation, no chemotherapy. He wanted to treat himself at home.

The decision might not be typical, says the 73-year-old lifelong commercial fisherman, but it allows him to be where he is most comfortable – at home, with his cat named Bear and surrounded by the things that make him feel most at ease.

Finley is mostly on his own. His grown son Locke, also a commercial fisherman, helps when he’s home but that’s not often.

“I was in really bad shape,” Finley says, recalling the days leading up to his diagnosis. “I was hurting, and I couldn’t walk very far. I didn’t know if I was going to need any help or not, but I knew I wanted to be home.”

That’s where Kodiak’s Volunteer Hospice Program stepped in. Funded in part by Providence Health & Services Alaska, Hospice & Palliative Care of Kodiak is a growing group of volunteer caregivers who help those in need.

“Providence has been very instrumental in the startup of Hospice,” said Kathy Nussbaum, Palliative Care coordinator at Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center. Providence spent $58 million on community benefit programs in 2014. Of that, Providence has provided several $50,000 grants to help fund two part-time positions, needed office space, and collaboration between the hospital’s Palliative Care program and hospice volunteers.

When John Finley was diagnosed with cancer, he made a not-so-common decision: No radiation, no chemotherapy. He wanted to treat himself at home. That’s where Kodiak’s Volunteer Hospice Program - funded in part by Providence Health & Services Alaska - stepped in.

Deb Houlden-Engvall joined the hospice program shortly after its inception nearly five years ago. She visits Finley, and other patients, weekly. Her job, she says, is to simply be a supportive presence.

“I just feel that we spend, as a society, so much energy on bringing people into this world,” she says. “I think we should likewise provide as much comfort and care during our final days of life.”

Tuesdays are her days to visit Finley, and Houlden-Engvall brings split pea soup with her. She makes large batches so Finley can put leftovers in the refrigerator for reheating later.

“We just share stories and talk,” Houlden-Engvall says. “I feel like my job is to educate, give comfort and listen. We’re there to say, ‘It’s OK.’”

Finley says he has come to depend on the visits he receives.

“I had never heard of hospice,” he says. “When I got back from Anchorage they came and saw me right away, and everything they said sounded good so I signed up for it.

“I can’t imagine how much worse off I’d have been without them. They fill the void. Friends have a way of not being worth a darn when you have cancer. They don’t want to talk about it.”

Houlden-Engvall says that is normal. Loved ones’ attachments are so much deeper, and that can make it difficult to face a terminal illness.

“For us, we can be that calm presence,” she says. “It’s a deeply personal time when you or a family member are facing the end of life. I feel so blessed and honored that people will allow me into this very intimate time in their life.” 

Books for early readers

Best Beginnings fosters vibrant vocabularies

Cimmie White doesn’t remember much about the hours after her son, Nickolas’ birth. Like many new moms, she was exhausted and recovering, getting as much sleep as possible before the challenging yet precious moments ahead.

Her husband, however, was alert. So when a Providence Alaska Medical Center volunteer told him about a program called Imagination Library, in which Nickolas would receive one free book a month – as long as they’d read it to him – the new father asked, “Where do I sign up?”

Imagination Library is one of several programs operating under the auspices of Best Beginnings, an Alaska-based public-private partnership that encourages parents and caregivers to introduce their children to reading as early as possible.

After all, says Abbe Hensley, executive director of Best Beginnings, “The first three years is a time of great brain growth.”

Supported by Providence, Imagination Library is one of several programs operating under the auspices of Best Beginnings, an Alaska-based public-private partnership that encourages parents and caregivers to introduce their children to reading as early as possible.National research has repeatedly shown that children who are read to do better at school, increase their vocabulary at a faster rate and have higher test scores than their peers with a smaller vocabulary. Literacy advocates have tracked similar progress across Alaska.

“In 2009 and 2011, University of Alaska Anchorage researchers found that parents of children in the program longer than one year read with their children more often, reported their children had more books, and said their children were more enthusiastic about books and reading,” Hensley said. “They also felt their children were better prepared for school.”

This is where Providence Health & Services Alaska demonstrates its support. As advocates for the poor and vulnerable, including its youngest patients, Providence saw a way to partner with Best Beginnings so that every child born at Providence would have access to the Imagination Library program. Best Beginnings also does outreach to other areas outside Providence.

“Our relationship with Providence has been quite fabulous,” Hensley said. In 2014, she said Providence’s $25,000 donation helped Imagination Library continue offering high-quality, age-appropriate books to children from birth to age 5. The donation was part of Providence Health & Services Alaska’s $58 million in community benefit in 2014.

For White, the program has not only allowed her to enjoy new books with Nickolas, now 11 months, and her daughter, Isabel, 2 ½, but also has enhanced family time in the White household.

“That attention and that bonding time, when the kids get to sit together and have that brother-sister time, is great,” White said. “It brings the whole family together because we are doing it together. After a long and busy day, it’s a relief to just sit down as a family and read a book together.”

Hensley said Imagination Library’s enrollments have grown dramatically since Best Beginnings became the statewide sponsor in 2009. During that year, it signed up 3,673 children up to age 5. By 2014, that number had jumped to 23,603. Imagination Libraries have expanded to 113 communities across the state, and with local support are thriving. But Providence’s continued support is part of the backbone of the program.

“As the program grows, we want it to be richer throughout,” Hensley said. As such, not only do children who are registered in the program receive free monthly books, but there also are what Hensley calls “Family Engagement Activities,” events throughout the state that help parents learn fun and interesting ways to better engage with their children.

“For Providence to support us as it has is an example of how they work to fulfill their mission to serve,” Hensley said. 

Strong minds, happy hearts

Covenant House clients benefit from psychiatric services

Covenant House now has an on-site psychiatrist, trained in both pediatric and adult psychiatry, available to visit with clients each week, thanks to Community Benefit support from Providence.

Family nurse practitioner Melanie Pergiel, ANP, MSN, examines teens and young adults every day at Anchorage’s Covenant House, but most often their aches and pains are not visible.

Many of the homeless youth come from broken homes, have suffered incredible losses, have been abused, neglected – the list goes on. It’s why Covenant House exists – to offer refuge for youth ages 13 to 21 who have nowhere else to turn. What these young people need most, Pergiel says, is access to behavioral health care.

When Pergiel mentioned this to a fellow medical professional who works in mental health, it took just a few months before her wish was granted. A request was made to Providence Health & Services Alaska, and in February 2014 as part of the $58 million in community benefit funds, Covenant House received an on-site psychiatrist, trained in both pediatric and adult psychiatry, available to visit with clients each week.

“The hard part here is that there are all these services to help kids up to age 18, but we serve clients from age 13 to 21,” Pergiel says. “So a lot of our clients don’t get the help they need. When I found out that we were getting someone who had expertise in both age groups, I was so happy.”

Ronald Solberg, MD, comes to Covenant House for two hours, once a week, to see the most critical clients. He provides a sort of triage, seeing two to eight patients a week but generally averaging three or four. Really, he said, he could be there full time and still have more work to do; he estimates that 95 percent of Covenant House’s clients have some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“My heart is really in serving the homeless youth,” Dr. Solberg says, so when he was asked to contribute time each week to Covenant House, he readily agreed. Providence Health & Services Alaska covers his billable hours, and he continues to serve some of the most underprivileged population of Anchorage.

Dr. Solberg says many of the patients he sees through his inpatient work at the hospital are often the same Covenant House clients – and it helps them to see a familiar, and trusting, face. The patients recognize him, and he is already familiar with their treatment history, which benefits both.

Another beneficial aspect of evaluating clients at Covenant House, Dr. Solberg says, is that he is able to record his evaluations in a medical charting system that links with the hospital so their records are in the system.

“When the ER sees that they have a medical history already, they can get the treatment they need,” he says.

Pergiel says Dr. Solberg’s care is a critical component to serving the needs of Covenant House’s clients and she already has seen it make a difference.

“I think without Providence a lot more of our kids would have fallen through the cracks,” she says. “I think we literally have saved lives with this care.” 

Easing into elder care

Resource manual prepares Valdez families for long-term care

Facing a life-threatening diagnosis or realizing that someone you love needs long-term medical care is not only heartbreaking but can also be intimidating.

That’s why a group of medical professionals at Providence Valdez Medical & Care Center undertook a yearlong effort to create a resource manual to spell out just what it takes to provide extended care for family members.

Thanks to the efforts of medical professionals at Providence Valdez Medical & Care Center, residents in Valdez now have a resource manual to spell out just what it takes to provide extended care for family members.

“We had individuals coming to us who didn't have long-term care insurance or weren't Medicaid-eligible,” said Pauline Doucet, assistant administrator at Providence Valdez. “You have to navigate a complicated process to get there, and many individuals weren’t aware of this.”

The manual, funded in part by the $58 million in community benefit contributions from Providence Health & Services Alaska in 2014, is called “Transitions: A Manual for our Senior Years,” and features five information packets that start with how to gather medical information and conclude with information on preparing for end-of-life decisions. The manuals focus on how best to help those facing medical crises of their own or for someone to whom they give care.

Providence covered the approximate $1,500 cost of the production of 100 manuals, the man hours of those involved in creating them and the cost of bringing in attorneys and legal experts who advised during the process.

The result, Doucet says, is a publication that helps patients and families prepare for the possibility of long-term care, including how to become properly insured to receive care within their home community.

Gay Wellman, education specialist with the Alzheimer’s Resource of Alaska in Copper Center, agrees. The manuals were distributed in her community, and since then, she is receiving fewer calls from local clients asking Medicaid and insurance-related questions.

“I think these manuals are helping to fill a need in our community,” Wellman says.

In Valdez, Doucet says more and more patients are coming to Valdez’s long-term care facility with their paperwork in order.

In fact, Doucet says, the idea for the manual was born after one particular family experienced complications in getting care for their loved one.

“I would like to tell her, ‘Because of your voice, this has come about.’”