WILKES-BARRE — The 3,714-mile trip from West Pittston to the small village of Kongiganak, Alaska, is probably not on your travel itinerary.
But for Brittani Shearer, it’s No. 1 on her destination list.
Shearer, 23, of West Pittston, is preparing to trade in her family’s ice cream scoop — the Shearers own The Snack Shack in Wilkes-Barre Township — for a snowmobile. In early August, she heads back to Alaska for her second year of teaching preschoolers.
How did she get there in the first place, you may wonder?
Shearer graduated from Bloomsburg University in 2017 with a degree in early childhood and special education.
“When I initially spoke to my adviser, I didn’t want to work nothing more than an hour away from home,” Shearer said. “I went to the job fair (and) I saw two schools from Alaska, and they interviewed me on the spot.”
As fate would have it, Shearer ended up accepting a contract offer at the end of April 2017, which started her faraway adventure.
Despite the distance, she was able to rely on one local link.
“When I moved to Alaska in 2017, I only knew one family,” Shearer said.
That was the family of Tim Wallace, an Anchorage, Alaska, native and one-time Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguin. Shearer says his family “picked me up from the airport in Anchorage.”
From there, Shearer traveled to the town of Bethel, where she boarded a four-seater plane to the small village of Kongiganak.
The village nicknamed “Kong” was formed in the 1960s after another village started to erode. The village has two stores, two churches, a laundromat, a health clinic, a post office and residential housing.
“It’s certainly not anything like Wilkes-Barre,” Shearer laughed.
“With only a few stores and the expense for goods being so high, you really get to know the difference between ‘wants’ and ‘needs’.”
She also noticed how independent children are in what’s known as The Last Frontier state.
“I’ll get photos from my students who are 3 and 4 years old, helping their parents cut a moose,” Shearer said. “There are kids here ( in Pa.) that can’t even cut their own food.”
Non-verbal communication is also very different in Alaska.
“Natives use more hand motions and gestures,” Shearer said. “I can tell how my students are by their facial expressions.”
“It didn’t sink in until one day I squinted at one of my students and he began to cry,” Shearer mentioned. “I wasn’t mad at him, but because non-verbal cues are part of the culture, he misinterpreted my facial reaction. That just took some getting used to.”
Shearer works at a dual-language school that teaches English and the native Yup’ik.
Although she has enjoyed her time in Alaska, there are drawbacks.
“I think the hardest part is missing holidays and family events,” Shearer said.
But she has gained another family: the villagers of Kong.
“Despite the laid-back atmosphere and lack of technology, I’ve become a close-knit family member to the community,” Shearer said.
And after witnessing life in a village where there isn’t always reliable internet service, she offers some advice.
“Family is important,” said Shearer. “We should put away the phones and laptops and engage in more face-to-face communications with our family.”
Shearer heads back for her second year of teaching Aug. 6.
“I’m excited to see the energy from the kids and I can’t wait to interact with the community again,” she said.