Wasilla artist who died of COVID leaves legacy of kindness

Anna (left) and Jesse Lestenkof at Creative Paws, the art shop they opened with their mother’s artwork after she died. A portrait of their mother, Deb Lestenkof, hangs above them. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

On a clear afternoon last weekend, 27-year-old Jesse Lestenkof was waiting for customers at a small store tucked in a strip mall on the side of the Parks Highway in Wasilla. Colorful paintings — mostly of Alaska animals — hung on the walls. 

Lestenkof was there because it was his mom’s dream to open her own gallery. 

“I wish that she could have been here to see this,” he said. 

His mom, Deb Lestenkof, died in February at age 48. She was admitted to the hospital with serious complications from COVID-19 on the day she had hoped to open the shop: Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day.

She died a week later — one of the more than 1,200 Alaskans who has been killed by COVID-19. Family members remember her as being kind and a go-getter. 

“We often kind of described her as like a stir stick,” said her son, Jesse. “She was kind of the one who organized us and got us spending time together.”

To many others, like Anchorage resident Gene Okitkun, she was an inspiration for generosity as the quiet creator of a popular Facebook group called Anchorage Pay-it Forward. She started it a decade ago.

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Okitkun has leaned on the group in times of need, like in March when he needed a car seat. It was for his grandniece who was visiting from the Western Alaska community of Kotlik. He couldn’t afford to buy a new one. So, he asked the Anchorage Pay-it Forward group. 

Within 30 minutes, he got a response. And a few hours later, Okitkun had a car seat ready for his grandniece. At the time, Okitkun didn’t know who Lestenkof was but recognized the spirit of generosity her group inspired. He’s given and taken several items from the group over the past few years. 

“It’s supposed to be in each and every human’s nature to give something,” he said “And when you give something do not expect anything in return.”

Lestenkof started the Facebook group in 2013. At the time, she had four young kids and was in constant need of clothes, furniture and other supplies. It made her realize how much people needed, and also how willing people were to help each other when given the chance, said her ex-husband Innokenty Lestenkof. 

“People always want to give stuff and, you know, be nice and kind,” he said “So that’s how she started.”

The Facebook group now has more than 15,000 members. “We are a place that encourages help, support and compassion for others in our community,” says its description. Every week, the posts pour in. Recent ones range from an Alaskan offering 10-pound bags of potatoes to a woman asking for a prom dress for her niece to someone needing help changing a flat tire at the Dimond Mall parking lot. 

No money exchanges hands.

Lestenkof moderated the group for years — organizing Christmas gift drives and reminding people to keep their comments positive. Soon after the pandemic hit, she established hygiene rules for picking up and dropping off items. She also started another group with the same mission for the Mat-Su area.

Then this winter, she caught COVID from her family, her son said. It had run through the family before, but they had mild symptoms. This time it was different, he said. 

“She was just kind of saying nonsensical things. So eventually we called paramedics,” he said. “They came to the house, and they administered her oxygen.”

She’d long suffered from chronic kidney disease and had two kidney transplants, putting her at a much higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, even though she was fully vaccinated.

A week after she was admitted to the hospital, a post on Pay-it Forward announced Deb Lestenkof had died. 

Memories and condolences flooded in on the post and on Lestenkof’s personal Facebook page. A guest book in the entryway of her art shop is also filled with handwritten memories from her friends, classmates and even from The Alaska SeaLife Center, which she donated to. 

A guestbook at the entrance of the art shop, Creative Paws. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Her son, Jesse, said he hopes her kindness and generosity live on through the Facebook groups — as Alaskans continue to help each other out.

“I think she would like — not just for her artwork to be known — but just her caring and giving spirit,” he said. “Just to continue to help the community around her in any way possible.”

In other words, to inspire people to keep paying it forward.

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Lex Treinen covers culture, homelessness, politics and corrections for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@alaskapublic.org.

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