Russian Mission’s post office has been closed on and off for nearly half a year, and that’s made it difficult for parents to feed their infants.
If you were a mother in Russian Mission before August, you were probably getting your baby’s formula through WIC, a federal option that helps get proper nutrition to young children. It would have come through the mail. You also could have bought formula at the store, or ordered it online. Either way, it was arriving in town via the post office.
But ever since the postmaster resigned, mothers have been left to scramble for new options. Tribal Administrator Olga Changsak has been trying to get formula to Russian Mission for months. “The mamas are getting very stressed out, but they're nice enough to share amongst each other,” she said.
Changsak has two grandchildren who are on formula, so she did what any concerned grandmother and tribal administrator would do: “I called and got a hold of National Guard and Homeland Security,” she said.
Changsak was working with the State of Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management up until two weeks ago, when they had to switch their focus to the devastating mudslides in southeastern Alaska. The state contacted The Salvation Army, and The Salvation Army got in touch with Changsak and shipped 120 pounds of baby food and formula to Russian Mission via cargo plane. It was briefly lost in transit, but finally arrived late last week.
When Changsak was waiting for the shipment, the tribe reached into its own bank account and purchased a small but costly emergency freight order for formula with the store in Aniak. Changsak hopes that it arrives soon, before the formula from The Salvation Army runs out.
The post office closure has delayed more than just baby formula, and residents have developed other temporary workarounds to access critical supplies. Some residents are receiving packages from the private shipping company UPS. The regional tribal health corporation is sending prescription medications on small planes to the village clinic rather than through the mail.
Occasionally, the village is able to borrow a postmaster from the downriver community of Mountain Village, who comes every few weeks to sort through the heap of new mail. The village council president helps distribute it himself. But until Russian Mission gets a permanent postmaster, problems will remain. There are some things the tribe can only do through the mail.
“The thing that hurts us as a business is we have checks we have to send out for our bills and stuff. And with no post office, we're gonna get penalized, you know?” Changsak said.
But all these solutions are temporary. What is Changsak really hoping for? “I think I should write to Santa and ask him for a postmaster for Christmas,” she said.
Changsak said that they have one applicant for the position of postmaster, but the hiring process is slow. The United States Postal Service and Alaska's U.S. Senators did not respond to our requests for comment for this story.
Correction: A previous version of this story said that FEMA contacted The Salvation Army about the shortage of baby formula in Russian Mission due to the town’s post office closure. That is incorrect. The Alaska Department of Homeland Security and Emergency management contacted The Salvation Army about the shortage.