Adventure Ahead in Kako, Alaska

This perfect weather makes it hard to sit at my computer and faithfully churn out blog posts, although I’ve tried. Half-a-dozen posts wait to be finished and shared with you. I promise, I’ll post this one. I want you to know about Kako Retreat Center. Hank and I are looking forward to the adventure of our lives this month when we fly to Alaska for the annual Ladies’ Berry Picking Retreat.

Where in the world is Kako? Well, Kako Retreat Center is in Alaska, about 400 miles from the nearest road that could connect it to the rest of the world. It’s on the site of an old gold mine six miles from the Yukon River, on the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta. Barges bring supplies up the Yukon in summer, but otherwise the only way to get there, or to reach the 56 villages within Kako’s one hundred sixty-mile radius of influence, is to fly by bush plane.

Kako has been the home of missionaries Dave and Vera Penz for thirty years. Since their marriage in1983, these faithful servants of God have been developing this oasis of hope in the wilds of Alaska. With the help of volunteers from all over the U.S.A., they’ve been reaching out to approximately 31,000 Eskimo, 1,000 Indian and 3,500 white people within Kako’s circle of influence. Dave and volunteer pilots from both Alaska and the lower forty-eight have spent countless hours flying young people to Kako for summer camps. They also bring adults and families in for Christ-centered retreats, workshops, leadership training classes, seminars and counseling throughout the year.

Hank and I will be serving in any way we can while we’re there. Hank is even willing to wash dishes! I’ll be doing research for a book about the Penzes and Kako.

 We’ll get acquainted with the women who will spend the days berry picking in the hills near the center. In the evenings, they’ll listen to Dave’s daughter Jeanne Rodkey talk about “What a Friend we Have in Jesus.” Jeanne grew up in the villages and understands their culture first hand.

 Some of these women know Jesus as Friend, some don’t know him yet. But they need a friend like Jesus. It’s estimated that over ninety percent of Native women have suffered some kind of abuse in their home villages: alcohol, drugs, sexual and physical abuse…the whole gamut. Suicide rates are much higher in the villages than in the rest of the country. Even the Christian young people find it hard to resist pervasive cultural influences that cause them to bring babies into this same abusive environment. Many girls are single moms by the time they are fifteen or sixteen.

Kako Retreat Center is faith-based and completely independent. At Kako, people find hope. It’s a safe place for the people to come and rest, away from the noise and chaos of village life. They learn from God’s word, and receive encouragement to help them live godly lives back in their villages.

 Lives are being turned around because of what happens at the retreat center, but the enemy always fights back when evil is challenged. Because of that, Kako and all those involved with it need the prayers of God’s people.

For more about the Penzes, see Sun Breaks for Feb. 12, 2013 (Two Heroes); Jan. 9, 2013 (Bad Decision); Jan. 7/13 (A Memorable Moose Hunt)

Vera (center) and two friends

Two Heroes

I just talked to my friend Vera Penz, who helps her husband Dave run the Kako retreat center for villagers in the vast, lightly populated Yukon-Kuskokwim delta of western Alaska. In summer, the Penzes get their supplies via Yukon River barge or by air. Winter travel is by bush plane or snowmobile.

The Penzes have help from volunteers who come from other areas of Alaska and across the lower forty-eight, but “winter is hard,” Vera says. They are mostly alone then. At age eighty, she is the sole bookkeeper, letter writer and paperwork person for the mission enterprise. Dave is battling a form of leukemia. When I called, he’d been out all day plowing snow from the runway and clearing paths between the buildings. It had “warmed up” to 11 degrees from last night’s 16 below zero. As we talked, I stood at our window, looking out at a light mist falling and rubbing goosebumps. It was 40 degrees outside our house. And I thought I was cold?

Within a radius of 160 miles of Kako there are fifty villages. Many are afflicted with alcoholism and attendant social evils. The subsistence lifestyle is as hard as it ever was, and there are few paying jobs, so many people live below the poverty level. Kako offers hope, through summer camps for children, teacher’s retreats, marriage seminars, men’s and women’s retreats, and short term Bible seminars. Most of the attendees are flown in, as are workers, speakers, and everything needed for their stays.

“In two weeks, we have a speaker from Moody coming to teach about forgiveness,” Vera told me. 

 Forgiveness is an appropriate topic in a place where abuse goes hand in hand with alcoholism.

“We’re so glad for the warmer weather and plenty of snow. The trails are good for those close enough to come by snowmobile, but we’ll have to fly people in from farther out.”

Dave and Vera both came to Alaska in the early ‘60s. They married after having lost their respective spouses and have since spent the last thirty years at Kako, reaching out to the people of the delta. Did I mention that they are two of my heroes?