“It’s got a bit of a homey atmosphere, and you walk in and you smell fresh coffee and some cookies baking, and you know we just love on ‘em like their family would,” said Bobbie Overgaard, who has helped outreach to the thousands of seasonal workers who call Naknek home for two months every summer.
“So this is The Net,” Bobbie Overgaard says as she opens the door to the atrium of the small building just up the road from downtown Naknek. The hard-to-miss front signage is written out in corks.
It’s the end of July, and Overgaard, from Santa Barbara, California, had just days before closed down operations after The Net’s fifth busy year. The all-volunteer staff gets organized in early June and opens the doors just as Naknek’s seasonal boom of seafood processors and fishermen stream into town.
“We stay open all day, and we set up a table with refreshments. We have coffee and tea, hot chocolate, lemonade, and we bake cookies and brownies and cupcakes like crazy,” she said.
Those baked goodies go by the thousands to the many visitors who stop in. Overgaard recalled a day they baked 80 dozen, “and that just barely” got them through the day.
The Net is a Christian outreach ministry associated with the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations, and locally with the Hilltop Christian Fellowship Church and KAKN Radio. It got its start in 2012 when Hilltop pastor Jeff Swanson dished out ice cream cones downtown as a way to connect with the thousands of seasonal newcomers to town. The church then moved the outreach ministry into the building that sits at the intersection with the school road, right along the main stretch hundreds walk up and down all day, every day.
“You know it’s got a bit of a homey atmosphere, and you walk in and you smell fresh coffee and some cookies baking, and you know we just love on ‘em like their family would,” said Overgaard. “They can come in, sit down and relax, sleep on the sofa if they want to, you know they just really kick back like this is their own little living room.”
Overgaard’s affection for her summer friends poured through the warm laughter that accompanied her descriptions.
Naknek’s labor force comes from around the world, evidenced by the thumb tacks she pointed to on a large wall map.
“United States, Mexico, Central America, we get quite a few people from Africa … Philippines is over here, we had a couple, New Zealand, American Samoa, one year we had a lot of Europeans here,” she said.
In this Bristol Bay fish town pot melts many cultures and many backgrounds. Last year she counted visitors from more than 40 states and more than 40 countries. Most workers are a long way from home, and some are (or end up) down and out. Others, Overgaard said, are clearly having the time of their lives. Many appreciate a place to use the internet or a phone, get a hot cup of coffee and a book to read, and maybe find new friends to converse, counsel, or pray with. The Net’s volunteers do their best to help when there are emergencies back home, or a person has lost his or her job and is suddenly homeless and penniless in Naknek.
It’s a daily challenge, but they are not tough customers.
“The people we meet are really interesting,” she beamed. “They’re very nice people. They’re kind and respectful, and thankful that we’re here.”
More than a dozen AFLC volunteers from Outside now help staff The Net each summer, taking turns and shifts through the summer months. They pass out books and Bibles, hundreds of homemade quits shipped up from churches around the country, help track down used clothing, or a “needle and thread, pair of eyeglasses, or anything we can do to make it easier on them” up here, said Overgaard.
How many come through the door each day, or during the “peak”? Overgaard’s only attempt at a count came when she once tallied up the number of disposable cups used from open till close.
“It was more than 300,” she said with a smile.
Naknek has internet available by the Borough building, and a soccer field by the school, bars to unwind at and a couple of eateries to grab a bite. But The Net has found its stride reaching out with Christian hospitality and charity to thousands of workers that are often otherwise overlooked, driven past, or not encountered during the busy summer. And the word is out.
“You know people will point them to us, and or to Pastor Jeff, and the police know about us, and so they’ve come with a couple of situations,” said Overgaard. “People kind of know, ‘well you can go to that church place,’ they think of us as kind of a church place, and come here for help.”
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