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Contagious community: spreading the word for Sitka's Sheldon Jackson campus, partners

Posted: May 6, 2012 - 12:09am
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This photo, estimated to be from around 1915, shows the Sheldon Jackson campus, which dates back to 1882.   Alaska State Library Historical Archives
Alaska State Library Historical Archives
This photo, estimated to be from around 1915, shows the Sheldon Jackson campus, which dates back to 1882.

It’s been said that it’s a small world, and nowhere does it ring more true than in Southeast Alaska. With an overall population smaller than many cities, the region is closely connected by boat, plane, family ties and friendships. And what do we do when a friend or neighbor needs a hand? We lend one.

The Sheldon Jackson campus, with a history more than 125 years in the making, is now owned by a partnership of organizations with a variety of purposes, including Sitka Fine Arts Camp, Hames Wellness Center, Sitka Summer Music Festival, Sitka Sound Science Center, the Island Institute and the Alaska State Library, Archives and Museums and Sheldon Jackson Museum. After the university closed in 2007, a number of buildings were sold to many of these organizations and the rest were given to the Sitka Fine Arts Camp for $1.

“When the SJ Campus went bankrupt five years ago, the entire town of Sitka sat in dismay as we watched the campus sit in the rain, rooms unheated, roofs leaking, wondering what would become of the oldest school of higher learning in Alaska. It’s on the National Historic register.” filmmaker and SFAC board member Hannah Guggenheim said.

Since the transfer of ownership, more than 20,000 hours of volunteer work have gone into renovation the campus, which had been boarded up and had fallen into a state of disrepair.

Sitka residents organized and, one project, one building at a time, have been revitalizing the campus so it can once again serve the community.

Sitka Fine Arts Camp (SFAC), which many Juneau students attend each summer, isn’t all that is offered at the campus. There are a number of other programs offered year-round now.

Guggenheim, who taught filmmaking at SFAC in 2005 and 2006 and who moved from the Bay Area of California to Sitka out of love of the town, she said, is hoping to bring more attention to the renovation of the campus and its role in arts, as well as history. She is finishing up a second short film about the campus, camp and renovations with a plan to have at least 1,000 Sitka and Alaska residents share it on Wednesday.

“When I found out the loans were forgiven and the campus was literally given to Sitka Fine Arts Camp for $1, my heart soared. I thought, now this is a story I need to tell.” Guggenheim said.

Her film from 2011, as well as the one in its final stages, focuses on the volunteerism and community spirit in refurbishing the campus.

“Only in a special town like Sitka could this happen,” she said, “Or maybe not, maybe this is a larger narrative about what we can all do for our communities. We can all make a difference.”

“(I think) the media savvy millennials are the best bet to get Sitkans and Alaskans to spread the word.” Guggenheim said of her strategy to get the video to go “viral” on the web. “(It) will give much needed national support to the campus. The film is a portrait of an American town trying to make a difference.”

SFAC, which benefits from national grants, among other sources of funding, and the campus can only benefit from increased attention, Guggenheim believes. As a filmmaker and social media strategist, she is applying her skills to help.

Guggenheim encourages all to log onto their Facebook and Twitter accounts (or create accounts if you haven’t yet) and to get ready to share the video with connections and, ultimately, the world.

The first video is viewable at sitkacampus.org, as well as on youtube, and the second video should launch Wednesday at 2:30 p.m., ready for a world-wide audience on the web.

To keep up, visit facebook.com/sitkafineartscamp and ‘like’ the page. Remember to share the video Wednesday to help it go viral.

• Contact Neighbors editor Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at melissa.griffiths@juneauempire.com.

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