MASST opens doors for Fairbanks advocate

Linda Webb escorted me into a conference room at Access Alaska in Fairbanks. There were photographs on the walls and a Christmas tree in the corner. Outside, it was still an hour before sunrise; the temperature hovered at -15 degrees, and ice fog hung above the roads. Inside, Linda talked warmly and easily about her journey from Georgia to Alaska.

She came to Fairbanks in late summer of 1999 to help her daughter-in-law while her son was on military duty in South Korea. She decided to stay because she "fell in love with weather we don't have in Georgia." There was something familiar about Fairbanks, too. It was slow-paced, and it reminded her of home. She never felt like a stranger.

In 2018, after she had already retired, she heard about the MASST program, Mature Alaskans Seeking Skills Training, and she signed up because she wanted to see if she could learn how to use the new-fangled computers. Tom Howard, the MASST coordinator, thought she should give it a shot, so she took classes and started her first community assignment with the Division of Public Assistance. Most of the work involved filing, sorting and archiving records, but Linda enjoyed getting out to help DPA customers with their paperwork. She started to ask herself, "what do I do next?" She knew she wanted to keep learning, and she liked people more than paperwork.

Tom saw the drive and human touch in Linda, and he asked her to move to Access Alaska, a nonprofit center that supports individuals experiencing disabilities who are striving to live independently in the communities of their choice. Linda started as a morning receptionist, welcoming all kinds of people into the downtown office to have a cup of coffee, warm up, think about their next step. Very soon, the staff at Access Alaska saw what Tom saw. As Linda explains, "They saw more in me than I saw in myself."

Within a few short months, Access Alaska asked Linda to take a regular staff position. Once again, she started as a part-time receptionist, but they kept pushing her. Soon she was full-time, and that kept her busy during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic eased, she took on a new job, heading the core service of Information and Referral in Fairbanks and the Interior. Her job was to meet potential customers, listen to their needs, and offer them the resources to meet those needs. Some of that was on the phone, some in person. She would assess the needs of the clients, help them with referrals to other agencies, tell them about the Loan Closet, providing free durable medical equipment to the community. And she would joke with them, "like talking to your mama or grandmama."

Nowadays, Linda has added a third position, Independent Living Advocate. She meets clients, from teenagers to seniors, veterans and young adults, all who experience various disabilities. Always, she is helping folks, listening to what they need, showing them how they can be independent and stay independent. She thinks of herself as an advocate, and she tries to show her clients how to be advocates for themselves.

About a year ago, Linda realized that she had always been an advocate. She had made a good life by advocating for herself all her life. And she had always been an advocate for those in need. "Our doors are open," she says, "to anybody and everybody."

For me, Linda is another kind of advocate. She shows how MASST participants and host agencies can advocate for one another. She shows how to listen and how to talk. She shows how to see more in people than they see in themselves. She shows how to keep the doors open.

Jim Warren is the MASST Coordinator for the Northern and Interior regions in Alaska.