Russian Mission post office closure threatens infant formula supplies

A snowy scene with a village visible through some trees
Russian Mission in 2018. (Dept. of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development)

Russian Mission’s post office has been closed on and off for nearly six months, and that’s made it difficult for parents to feed their babies.

Before August, if you were a new mother in Russian Mission, you were probably getting your baby’s formula through WIC, a federal option that helps boost food security for mothers and kids under five. It would have come through the mail. You also could have bought formula at the store, or ordered it online. Either way, it would arrive via the post office.

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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,” she said, “But they’re nice enough to share amongst each other.”

Changsak has two grandchildren 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 said she was working with those government entities to get formula up until two weeks ago, when they were called away to a different emergency: devastating landslides in Southeast Alaska. Luckily, other organizations stepped in.

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Word about babies without formula spread to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who contacted The Salvation Army. They 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.

While Changsak was waiting for the shipment, the tribe reached into its own bank account and purchased a small but costly emergency freight order of formula from the store in Aniak. Changsak hopes it arrives soon, before the formula from The Salvation Army runs out.

And the post office closure has delayed more than just baby formula. Residents have developed other temporary workarounds to access critical supplies: Some residents are receiving packages from private shipping company UPS. The regional tribal health corporation is sending prescriptions to the village clinic by small plane, 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 and sorts through the heap of new mail. The village council president helps distribute it. 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 Russian Mission does 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.