With ‘baskets of love’ Anchorage woman marks 17th year of 9/11 memorial project

Four air force firemen stand with a woman in front of the rear of a fire truck
Donna Baker (middle) delivers an appreciation basket to the crew at Fire Station 5. “It’s dessert for after your lunch,” Donna told them. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

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The smell of chocolate, peanut butter and blueberries fills Donna Baker’s home in Northeast Anchorage. She’s baked hundreds of different kinds of brownies, cookies, and candies over the course of several days, preparing to fill 21 baskets and hand deliver them to firefighters across Anchorage. 

“They lost a lot of people in 2001, and they remember it every day, but the public seems to not remember, and kids couldn’t even tell you what year it happened,” Baker said. “I like to keep this going on just as a thank you to them and in memory of the 343 first responders that passed away.”

It’s been 19 years since the terror attacks at the World Trade Center in New York killed 2,753 people, including 343 firefighters. An additional 184 people were killed when a hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and another 40 were killed when a plane crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. 

“I’m from Oklahoma City, and so I know what it’s like to have my hometown attacked,” Baker said. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing

Baker said she started the basket project with a friend who was originally from New York and living in Anchorage when the attacks happened. When she heard the news, she didn’t know what to do.

A woman with a mask over her face and wearing gloves places cookies into a small plastic bag
Donna Baker places about two no bake chocolate, peanut butter, and oatmeal cookies into individual plastic bags to put in her gift baskets. “It’s not a secret. It’s on Pinterest. I find it on allrecipes.com. That’s where I get my recipes for both the snickerdoodles and the no bake cookies. They’re super easy.” (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

“So she just went to her local fire station, it was Station 12, and knocked on the door and when they opened the door and she said ‘I’m from New York’ and they just kind of took her in,” Baker said. 

In remembrance of 9/11 and that kind gesture, the two friends began the project when Baker moved to Anchorage in 2003 with the military. Baker’s friend has since moved away but Baker has kept up the tradition.  

“There’s fewer people every year that say thank you, and with the world today, it’s just really ugly,” Baker said. “So it’s a nice ‘thank you’ to them for what they do every day.”

Lovingly known as the ‘cookie lady,’ Baker has become a familiar face at fire stations from Rabbit Creek Road to Eagle River. 

Troy Anthis, a firefighter at Fire Station 3 on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, said he’s eaten from many baskets of love over the 15 years that he’s been with the station. His favorite is the fudge. 

A man and a woman talk over a gift basket
Donna Baker (right) drops off one of her ‘baskets of love’ to firefighter Troy Anthis (left) who’s been enjoying Donna’s gifts for the past 15 years. Anthis says the fudge and banana bread treats are his favorite. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

A brand new firefighter when 9/11 happened, Anthis said it’s a day that’s ingrained in his memory. “I remember it to a tee. So it’s nice to actually have other people remember and give us a morale boost and keep us going every year,” said Anthis.

Staff Sergeant Eric Paul, is a newer firefighter. He graduated from the Fire Academy in 2014. Paul said 9/11 is a date that carries a lot of weight for everyone in the service. “9/11 is a huge thing for all firefighters, whether they’ve served [as a] volunteer one year, two year, however many, and it’s taught the fire department, the fire service all around the world, tons of lessons,” Paul said. 

Paul, a crew chief at Fire Station 5 on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, said he’s completed the 9/11 stair climb, in which firefighters climb 110 flights of stairs in their uniforms while carrying their gear in memory of those who died in the attack. He said the event gave him a new respect for what happened that day. 

“Out of all my military experience, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done physically. Hands down.” Paul said. “And those guys had to do that. And then, they had to fight fire.” 

A woman holds a gift basket while talking with a military officer
Donna Baker (middle) delivers an appreciation basket to the crew at Fire Station 5. She explained the whole basket is disposable this year to observe COVID-19 precautions. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

As Baker handed the basket to Paul and the three other members of his firefighting crew, she pointed out the hand-written thank you note and the stuffed Tommy Moose toys donated by the local Moose Lodge for firefighters to have on hand when they come across emergencies involving children. She explained that everything this year is individually wrapped and disposable to observe COVID-19 health precautions. But she noted, next year she’s planning something really special for the 20th anniversary and hopes they’ll look forward to it. 

For Baker, the baskets of love mean just as much to her as she hopes it means to them. 

“They know I’m coming every year so they open their door to me, which is just, I’m really grateful for that.”