After months of preparation, Project Homeless Connect was finally underway. Men, women and children queued up inside Wasilla’s sports complex, welcomed by red-aproned hosts who connected them with answers or services they needed.
The one-day, one-stop event provided people experiencing homelessness with access to a range of services: health and wellness screenings, legal services, employment assistance, toiletries, and a fresh, hot lunch. Loaves of fragrant, freshly baked bread covered the surface of one table; little children played in a supervised area as their parents found the services they needed.
In the midst of the crowd walked Staci Manier, a UAA alumna (B.A. Human Services ’13, with minors in psychology and history) who became community impact director for United Way of Mat-Su in 2014.
Staci said Alaska Housing Finance Corp., Mat-Su Coalition on Housing & Homelessness, Mat-Su Health Foundation and the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority made the PHC event possible.
But when Staci stopped to chat with one of the visitors, another United Way employee—Makenna Wyatt, a UAA student who’s also studying human services—confided that Staci played a key role.
“She [helped] organize the whole thing,” said Wyatt of the event. “This is Staci Manier’s baby. She called everyone; she made the maps . She’ll say other people are more involved, but she’s the one they all call.”
(As expected, Staci later hastened to clarify that she coordinates Project Homeless Connect with Beth Westland of Palmer Senior Services and Katie Rose of the Mat-Su Borough School District, and that Valley Residential Services’ Ron Fassett makes the PHC maps with agency information she provides.)
From Southeast to Southcentral
Staci grew up in Ketchikan and moved with her family to Palmer in 2004. She dove deep into the life and activities of her adopted community, helming the organization of Palmer Little League baseball, managing or volunteering with youth hockey teams, and volunteering her time with youth volleyball and 4H.
Along the way, Staci enrolled at UAA and began studying human services and psychology. She earned her bachelor’s degree after serving two practicums with United Way of Mat-Su.
While at United Way, she’s launched into work with Thrive Mat-Su, a substance abuse prevention coalition that—among other things—grows resilience in kids by getting them together for healthy, fun activities and providing opportunities for them to volunteer in their communities.
“She cares so much about people,” said Stephanie Allen, executive director of United Way of Mat-Su. “It’s genuine, authentic. She goes out of her way to help, takes all angles into account. She’s diplomatic. If there’s conflict or drama—from baseball to hockey to 4H—she’ll stand firm but be really nice about it.” Staci’s response? “I try to be really nice about it. One time during my [Palmer Little League] days, I was definitely a grouch about a matter!”
Staci also serves as an alternate on the Mat-Su Borough’s marijuana advisory board and chairs Mat-Su COAD—Community Organizations Active in Disasters, as a response to the 2015 Sockeye wildfire.
“When Sockeye happened, we committed to Willow,” Allen said. “She was just the first to volunteer, herself—‘I will be in Willow today to talk to this neighborhood.’ She talked to them, listened to them, learned what help was going to look like for them.”
United Way played a prominent role in responding to community needs after the disastrous 1996 Millers Reach Fire, but the agency’s staff had changed over the following 20 years.
“Staci saw a need for something ongoing, rather than waiting until a disaster occurs to figure it out,” Allen said. “She put together a group to identify gaps and assets in the community, do more strategic planning for flood, fire, volcano ash, a human disaster. Her [hope] was to bring everybody to the table and get stuff figured out ahead of time—debris removal, organizing volunteers and donations, even portapotties.”
Back at the Mat-Su Project Homeless Connect event, Staci strolled from table to table, always with a radiant smile or laugh at the ready. She appeared to know—really know—every person staffing every one of the dozens of booths at the event.
“We want to remove the stigma and barriers,” Staci said. “This is a friendly place where everyone is treated with dignity and can eat a hot lunch.”
Staci praised her community partners, who smiled and waved at her as she passed. She found out that Janice Weiss of Mat-Su Reentry Coalition was a UAA alumna (M.F.A. Creative Writing, ’86) and that Weiss has two daughters who are also UAA alumni.
Staci learned about UAA’s connections with Safe Families for Children after Makenna completed a practicum there last semester: a UAA nursing student works as an intern with its parent company, Beacon Hill, and a Mat-Su College adjunct instructor is married to a woman who works as a family coach supervisor for SFFC.
And Staci talked enthusiastically about the Journey program at Mat-Su College, which promotes mental health and career skills training.
“I did most of my education at Mat-Su College,” Staci added as an aside.
(What Staci didn’t say, Allen said later, is that Staci’s on the leadership team that helps organize speakers and trainings, in an effort to ignite engagement among MSC students.)
As Staci circled the floor, among the many visitors and booths, she pointed out Julia Luey, a UAA student involved with Akeela and Thrive Mat-Su’s opioid task force; Alli Madison, another UAA alumna, who played basketball and earned a psychology degree before joining Akeela; UAA student Karl Soderstrom, founder of Fiend2Clean peer mentoring; MSC academic adviser (and history student) Michael Swanson and UAA alumnus Harry Goodnight of Mat-Su Youth Facility and the Positive Alternatives for Continued Education (PACE) program for suspended and expelled kids. She knew before about two of the UAA connections—typical for her, however, Staci made the effort to learn who else in her Mat-Su network was connected to UAA in some way.
Why does she love her work as much as she obviously does? What propels her?
“I just like to visit with people,” she said. “I’m a relationship person.”
Allen says Staci is one of her favorite people.
“She does her work with such compassion, conviction and energy,” Allen said. “It’s an honor to work with her.”
Written by Tracy Kalytiak, University of Alaska Anchorage