Come together now
Paul Chythlook plays gospel piano at the Dillingham Senior Center, and afterward I feel like I've been to church. People call Chythlook "Elvis" for his baritone impersonation of the King. Seventy-one years old, blind in one eye and arthritic, he plays by ear from a mental catalog of classics, barreling from Presley's "Don't Leave Me Now" to the hymn "Crying in the Chapel." I request to hear the latter again. Chythlook's audience leans in, listening to the lyrics, all about coming together in fellowship. "Elvis" rocks a pair of gold chrome shades and pounds out songs he's played all his life. Across the keyboard, I make eye contact with a man I don't know. We can't help but smile.
High school night at the Dillingham Christian Youth Center looks like a roomful of siblings relaxing at home.
"We're closer to being a family at the youth center than my own family is sometimes," 17-year-old Noah Theurer said. The Theurers moved to Dillingham this summer, and Noah's a regular at the youth center now. "We all pray together, we eat together, laugh together, you know it's the whole nine yards of being a family," he said. Jasmine and Tyler Romo run the organization and raise their kids in the same building. Tonight they work in the kitchen, while a game of foosball, music, and young voices fill the center. Their children, 4-year-old Mischaell and 1-year-old Giuseppe, are doted on like everyone's little brother and sister.
"My brothers and sisters, I haven't seen them in a couple years," Frank Nicholson said, shuffling cards and waiting for the lunch bell. He visits with folks at the senior center more than some members of his family. Philip Andrew joins us at the card table. "Old timer," Nicholson said, "tell your life story." Andrew guffaws, clearly used to the teasing, and takes a seat. The two men are neighbors and good friends. I comment on a hole in Andrew's shirt that's comically positioned right over his belly button. He pats his stomach and grins. "Every time I go over to his house he's feeding his face," Nicholson jabs. "Take a steam, feeding his face again." Nicholson and I burst into laughter. "Typical day around here," he said.
An elder told Ida Noonkesser, "that if you treat people the way you want to be treated... you'll have a bigger family." She didn't understand at first, but now she's the director of the Dillingham Senior Center, and has "a big whole family" apart from her biological one. Noonkesser's worked here for 17 years and she said, "It gives me joy to come to work Monday through Friday, because I get to spend time with the elders." She takes comfort in their friendship when she doesn't see her parents or her 97-year-old grandmother as frequently. "I can always feel the love from them," Noonkesser said. Many of the elders speak Yup'ik, Noonkesser's first language, and "they have wisdom and give out advice."
She likes to imagine they are all her adopted grandparents, and enjoys feeding them every day. In the morning she cooks a meal with her staff, and when the lunch bell sounds at noon, she communes with her makeshift family of elders in the cafeteria.
Similarly, at the Dillingham Christian Youth Center, the "ideal result of coming together is sharing joy," Jasmine Romo said. Kids ages 10-18 are hosted on a foundation of faith, of "God's love" and "bearing each other's burdens." Young people like 17-year-old Sara Fuller assist the Romos at the center's coffee corner, which serves beverages to the wider community for donations. Behind the customer counter, Fuller referred to her cross necklace, saying she believes in "good lattes and God." More seriously, she said, "this youth center has changed lives." I ask her how, and she tells me about friends, who instead of sitting around at home, are finally eager to be somewhere after school. "They're getting out there and getting to know new people and having fun," Fuller says, and I suspect she'll be spending lots of time here in the coming school year.
Anastasia Heyano is in Fuller's graduating class at Dillingham High School, and she's usually the youngest in the senior center at any given time. She corrects me when I ask her what she likes about working with old people. "Elders," she said, "have stories to tell and they're really smart. Some of them have been everywhere." Heyano didn't plan to work at the senior center this summer, but now she said, "I like it a lot... they're funny, they're chill, I mean, there's no drama around them or anything." Her uncle "John John" Heyano is a regular, and he fist bumps her on his way to the cafeteria.?After lunch, I catch him chatting at the card table. When I ask him what he thinks of the senior center, he reminiscences about a time when more people got together to "just enjoy each other,"?like the elders do here. John John is right. Simple, present-minded togetherness like this doesn't exist in most places and for most people. Maybe that's why it feels so rare and wonderful.
Little Mischaell Romo hands me a brush and invites me to paint. The youth center is quiet before the usual rush of kids at 3 p.m. I sit alongside Mischaell and we paint a princess who wears shorts, a t-shirt and a crown. When she's finished, I suggest that our princess needs a mantra. Mischaell asks me what a mantra is, and I explain it's something you say over and over because you believe it. She decides I should choose one. I pull a lyric from "You Gotta Be" by Des'ree. The song came into my mind all week, walking between the two centers and meeting kind Dillingham people, old and young. I paint the words and speak them as they appear on the page. "Love will save the day," I say. Mischaell follows the line of my brush with her eyes and repeats our mantra aloud. "Love will save the day."