Community rallies to aid furloughed workers

With the end of the government shutdown temporary, food bank remains open

Federal employees and their families attend the Feed-A-Fed lasagna dinner at Mt. Eccles Elementary School on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. (Photo by Emily Mesner/The Cordova Times)

Heidi Ritter and a group of U.S. Coast Guard spouses gathered in Coast Guard housing Jan. 25 for a conference call with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, just minutes after the longest federal government shutdown was temporarily ended.

Ritter, the ombudsman for Cordova’s USCG, acts as the family liaison, helping bridge the gap of communications between the ship’s crew/captain and the families. Although she has held this role in numerous locations for a decade, this proved a very exhausting and unusual time to be an ombudsman.

During the shutdown, Murkowski spoke with Coast Guard spouses around the state to listen to the effect the shutdown has had on families, Ritter said. “She was super empathetic. She apologized profusely about what was going on.”

Spouses shared stories with Murkowski of hardships resulting from missed paychecks, amplified by Cordova’s rural location and expensive necessities.

Combining all units, there are 29 USCG families in Cordova, including 49 members of the Cutter Sycamore, five members outside of the ship and 30 children, plus two on the way.

“There was one family who just transferred here from Puerto Rico who are still recovering from the hurricane,” Ritter said.

That family is currently renting their Puerto Rico home out to air traffic controllers who were also not getting paid during the shutdown, adding to the financial strain of the cross-country move and cost of living in Cordova.

Another spouse spoke of a dream home they built in Alabama before her husband was promoted and relocated to Cordova. They too rent out their house to federal employees and were struggling to make mortgage payments during the shutdown.

“It’s hard to prepare for something when you don’t even know it’s coming at you,” Ritter said. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else going through this than in Cordova because of the help that we did receive.”

The end of the shutdown is just temporary though.

President Donald Trump has threatened to shut down the government again on Feb. 15, unless he gets the deal he wants from Congress, over $5 billion for a wall at the US/Mexico border.

Three weeks ago, Dixie Lambert became the face of the volunteers in the community who rallied together to support federal employees.

“Above all, to know that Cordova doesn’t want to see us sink, that makes a big difference to have a community who supports you and who doesn’t want to see you fall,” Ritter said.

Lambert and numerous volunteers worked tirelessly during the Feed-A-Fed lasagna dinner at Mt. Eccles Elementary School; the idea for the dinner presented by Jessicca MorningStar.

“It’s not federal employees, it’s Joe or Mary or Cody…,” Lambert said, after everyone was fed. “We have names to those faces. They’re not just statistics to us.  They’re people and they keep talking about this humanitarian crisis at the border. No, we have a humanitarian crisis inside our borders…”

AC donated the fixings for the homemade lasagna, as well as their specialty garlic bread, said Lambert, who also bought frozen lasagna from AC with monetary donations. Leftovers were brought to the makeshift food bank for federal employees at the Coast Guard housing recreation center.

“…she was not going to take “no” for an answer from anybody, especially us, when we were trying to be really humble about receiving any kind of help,” Ritter said of Lambert.

The historic 35-day long shutdown affected numerous Cordova households, as well as the local economy, Lambert said.

“It’s just a snowball effect…Cordova’s entire economy is affected,” she said, “And we’re slow anyway in the winter and this is killing us.”

Transportation Security Administration officer Katherine Mead stopped by the dinner and grabbed a plate to go. “The community should not have to do this…there should have been a solution before now,” she said.

All nine TSA employees in Cordova worked throughout the shutdown, something that says a lot about the type of people that work there, said Mead.

Local landlords also pitched in, giving extensions on rent due to federal employees.

Lambert also helped coordinate the food bank and handed out AC gift cards to federal employees shopping there.

On behalf of all federal agencies, Lt. Cmdr Collin Bronson, commander of the Sycamore, gifted USCG coins to volunteers Jessicca MorningStar, Penny Oswalt, Ritter and Lambert, as well as a painted Chart Art of the Sycamore to Lambert.

Lt. Cmdr Collin Bronson, Commander of the Sycamore, right, and BM3 Nathan Kennedy present Dixie Lambert with Chart Art on behalf of all federal agencies as thanks for her volunteer efforts in helping federal employees during the federal government shutdown. (Photo by Emily Mesner/The Cordova Times)

“Cordova’s just got that extra something where they really make an effort,” Bronson said. “I feel honored and privileged to be around and to serve here.”

The food bank at Coast Guard housing will remain open for the next three weeks. Once the government is permanently open, remaining items will be returned to the local food pantry.

“No amount of cans of soup back to another food pantry is going to say enough thanks…,” Ritter said. “It’s so much bigger than that. The Coast Guard families are eternally grateful for the support that we’ve received.”