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Ella Craig, Interview 1, Part 2

This is a continuation of an interview with Ella Craig by Bill Schneider and Karen Brewster on November 13, 2008 at the Mental Health Trust Authority office in Anchorage, Alaska. 

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2006-15-13_PT.2

Project: Alaska Mental Health Trust History
Date of Interview: Nov 13, 2008
Narrator(s): Ella Craig
Interviewer(s): Karen Brewster, Bill Schneider
Transcriber: Carol McCue
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Alaska Humanities Forum, Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.
There is no slideshow for this person.

After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.


Section 1: Starting the National Association of Social Workers in Alaska, and her career after retiring from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Section 2: After retirement, getting involved with advocacy for elderly people in Alaska, and discusses her husband and family.

Section 3: The changes she's seen in mental health services, assessing her role in the development of social service programs in Alaska, and receiving an award from the National Association of Social Workers.

Section 4: Experiences working within the Native community.

Section 5: Contact with former patients, working in the Native community, and difficulty of having to make decisions about removing children from a home.

Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.

After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


This recording has been edited. Section 1: ELLA CRAIG: But ‑‑ and one of the reasons for that was the Third World Government at that time required that you have a masters degree in social work if you were going to work for them. The Territory of Alaska didn't. And they had any number of people, in fact, the majority of people on the staff were not trained social workers.

I know when we first started our chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, we couldn't get enough social workers to start a chapter. You had to have 20. And we finally agreed that we would accept a person who had been a member of a similar organization in the states but he didn't meet the requirements for the national organization, and we had to get special permission from the national organization, and they let us have a state chapter instead of a local Anchorage chapter so we could get 20 members. This was 20 social workers for the whole state.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah, it's amazing. ELLA CRAIG: Who were trained. BILL SCHNEIDER: It's amazing the growth of that profession. ELLA CRAIG: And so now I think we ‑‑ we have over 500 members. BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah, I would ‑‑ I would guess. Well, let's get to the rest of your career. ELLA CRAIG: Okay. BILL SCHNEIDER: So Kodiak ‑‑ ELLA CRAIG: Uh‑hum. BILL SCHNEIDER: ‑‑ and then back to Anchorage? ELLA CRAIG: Uh‑hum. BILL SCHNEIDER: And your responsibilities for Kodiak and the Chain. And then what?

ELLA CRAIG: Well, I stayed with the Bureau of Indian Affairs for 34 years, I think, or 32 years, or something like that. I got some extra time because I was non‑Native, and they didn't ‑‑ they reached a point when we started doing the contracting, the 638 contracting, that they wanted all of the staff to be Native.

And I was the longest tenured staff member and the only non‑Native member, so they offered me a really neat retirement package, so I retired. And then I ‑‑ KAREN BREWSTER: What year was that?

ELLA CRAIG: That was in '86, I think. Yeah, '86, I think. And then I went to work that same year for Charter North Hospital because at that point, they had an 80‑bed hospital, and of course, JCAH says if you have a hospital that large, you have to have a social work department.

So they needed somebody to set up a social work department, so they asked me to do it. So I stayed there until I was vested, which was 6 years. It was quite an experience, too. BILL SCHNEIDER: Really? KAREN BREWSTER: Can you describe Charter North Hospital? I'm not familiar with it.

ELLA CRAIG: Charter North is ‑‑ that's the old North Star Hospital. I mean, North Star used to be Charter North. KAREN BREWSTER: Is that a ‑‑ ELLA CRAIG: It's a psychiatric and substance abuse treatment facility. There's a children's unit. BILL SCHNEIDER: But it was particularly difficult?

ELLA CRAIG: Well, it's a for‑profit organization. BILL SCHNEIDER: Oh. ELLA CRAIG: And I had not worked for a for‑profit organization. And it was difficult for me to ‑‑ BILL SCHNEIDER: Let's ‑‑ ELLA CRAIG: ‑‑ just to be in that arena, I guess. BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. Uh‑hum.

ELLA CRAIG: I ‑‑ I enjoyed what I did, and it was a good experience for me, and I set up the social services department, had good staff and that sort of thing, but the ‑‑ it's just different working with a for‑profit outfit when you've been accustomed to non‑profits the majority of your life, and that sort of thing.

Because I had to wonder whether a patient needed to be in the hospital that long, if they had insurance, you know, this kind of thing. And there was just certain things that... BILL SCHNEIDER: You had to deal with? ELLA CRAIG: Uh‑hum.

Section 2: BILL SCHNEIDER: So that brings us up to ‑‑ ELLA CRAIG: Up to ‑‑ BILL SCHNEIDER: ‑‑ around 1992 or so. ELLA CRAIG: Uh‑hum. Uh‑hum. And then after that, you know, I retired again, and they were going through some really difficult financial situations and so I found that my retirement consisted, I think, of 43 cents.

And I also decided, okay, I'm old, I might as well be concerned about what's happening to the few seniors that we have in the community. And so I ‑‑ and as, of course, my peers were leaving me, so I started advocating to the best of my abilities through ‑‑ was concerned for senior programs that were in the process of developing.

And I had an opportunity to serve on the Alaska Commission on Aging, and I chaired the Pioneer Home board for several years. So I had an opportunity to see some of the problems and some of the issues that were popping up. And there was no reason that history should just repeat itself because I would go to meetings about concerns like, for example, transportation or medical care or something, and it would be the same thing we had discussed, you know, 50 years ago.

So and ‑‑ and there's a fair amount of ageism existing in Alaska, and rightfully so, because there are not many of us, and there were fewer of us earlier. I can recall our vacation that we took to the states with my youngster when he was four and a half years old, and of course, we went to St. Petersburg, Florida, on our tour, and he had never seen anyone with white hair, had never seen anyone on crutches or in a wheelchair. It just didn't exist in the public arena in Alaska.

And he was very, very interested and curious about all of this. And asked a lot of embarrassing questions to people. It ‑‑ it really gave me cause to think in terms of really there are no seniors to speak of in Alaska. So I became fairly active in that.

And then we were able to get the Geriatric Education Center at the university, so I've been working with them. They let me work as a consultant once in awhile. And I work as a volunteer there also and chair their advisory board. So it's been an interesting process.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, one thing we haven't talked about is your family. At some point along the line you got married and you had kids? ELLA CRAIG: At some point, I did. Uh‑hum. I married shortly after I moved to Anchorage, and my husband is ‑‑ was an engineer. And he was the project engineer for the Aleutian Homes in Kodiak, which was their first housing project that was built.

And I met him shortly after I arrived there because as I say, everybody knew who the single guys were and who the single women were, and so I met him at a Halloween party. And we were married after I moved to Kod ‑‑ to Anchorage. And I have four children.

And my oldest is a son, and he is with the Regulatory Commission for the State as the consumer representative of ‑‑ I've forgotten what the title of the position is. Anyway, he listens to complaints, you know that. I said, well, if you can't be a social worker, you know, that's pretty close.

And then I have a daughter next who is a physician's assistant. She worked for several years as a health aide in the ‑‑ out in the villages. BILL SCHNEIDER: Oh really. ELLA CRAIG: And then decided she wanted to be a health ‑‑ physician assistant.

So ‑‑ and then my third daughter ‑‑ I mean my second daughter is an occupational therapist. And she is employed with the school district, but currently is on leave because she has two and a half year old twin granddaughters, my only grandchildren. And so she'll go back to work next year. So...

And then I have my youngest daughter ‑‑ all of these live in Anchorage, but my youngest daughter is in Las Vegas. And she is in the hospitality industry with MGM. And ‑‑ BILL SCHNEIDER: So you're well taken care of.

ELLA CRAIG: Well, I'm not so sure. But she's ‑‑ they are all married and I still live in the same home that I moved into in the '50s when I ‑‑ shortly after I came to Anchorage, in the same neighborhood. So...

Section 3: BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, very good. ELLA CRAIG: Good experience. Actually, a great experience because along the way I've had an opportunity to, just because I'm ‑‑ I'm here and because of the experience that I have had, I've had an opportunity to be instrumental in moving a lot of things along that were well needed. And so I've enjoyed every minute of it.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, that ‑‑ that would be my next question is what are some of the changes you've seen in the delivery of mental health services? ELLA CRAIG: Well, see, we didn't have a mental health association. We didn't have people who were interested in the field. We sent everybody to Morningside; and then after we got Valdez , we sent all of our kids there.

And for a time we were labeling a lot of them and putting them at ‑‑ when Hope Cottages started, that started as a small facility that I helped find. The house is not too far from where I am. And the people who started it came over to my house one night and we were talking about vacant places that might be a good place to have ‑‑ for children, and it's about two blocks over, I think, something like that.

And I've seen just about all of the development of just about every community activity that ‑‑ that we have. And because of the position that I was in, was kind of a part of helping it move along. So it's been a really, really good experience for me, certainly.

And as a social worker, I certainly have no complaints. The national association selected 50 social workers nationwide who have made outstanding contributions during the last century, and so they included me, and I thought that was pretty nice to put me in with all my old professors and people I had known about.

They were all, you know, chair of the departments and this sort of thing, and I was one of the few practitioners who was included. So I felt that was quite an honor. So...

Section 4: BILL SCHNEIDER: Good. Good. Well, that's ‑‑ that's all the questions I have. Maybe Karen has ‑‑ KAREN BREWSTER: I always have ‑‑ I always have more questions. You had mentioned being the only non‑Native working at BIA, to go back beyond that for you, what it was like working in the Native communities when you were in Kodiak?

ELLA CRAIG: Well, it was good. And I'm ‑‑ I've tried to evaluate this because I still have really, I think, good connections with the Native people in the Native communities. And a part of it I think was, number one, I'm slow. And I listen. And I don't hurry up and wait kind of thing.

I had a lot of staff who were from the East Coast and New York and around big cities and what have you, they didn't do as well in the Native communities as those of us who were slower and took our time. And that sort of thing. And it worked pretty well.

I had ‑‑ I was director of the Department of Social Work, but the superintendent of the agency that I worked in, I think three or four of them were all Native men.

I think that ‑‑ and I do attribute a lot of it to growing up in a large family and in the South where the movement is much slower, and I think we are sometimes a little more hospitable to people and we understand that you go in, you recognize authority, and you drink your coffee, and you do all of these things that work out really well.

And I ‑‑ oh, I loved to visit the villages. I had a great time. They had a disaster, they had an earthquake up in Mentasta a few years ago, and I was sent up there as a Red Cross disaster worker. And it was just great to renew acquaintances with all the people that I had worked with up there during the time that I was, you know, working in that area.

So ‑‑ and I know a lot of it is the easy name, and that I was, you know, the BIA worker sort of thing, but I think a lot of it, too, is because the people know that I really do care about them and remember about them.

And I have generations of them, people that ‑‑ daughters of people that I worked with or who were clients who have married and live in the states, and when they come back to Anchorage, they bring their kids by to see me. Well, they will look in the phone book, if they find my name, they will call me, you know, this kind of thing.

Section 5: And that I had one really, really neat youngster that she was one of the first teenagers that I ever had to find a placement for Outside. And she had to go to a facility down in Utah for just about everything you could think of. But I was the only person that was ever consistent in her life. I mean, her parents were dead and others were dead, what have you.

And when my husband died, she saw it in the paper and she called me. And she was in the ‑‑ evidently her early 30s at this point, but she called me to see if I was okay. And she said, as she ended her conversation, she said, well, you took care of me, I just want to be sure you're all right now.

And I thought, well, what a neat thing. Few social workers ever get to see successful experiences from their work. And ‑‑ or their relationships because that's really the only tool that we have, relationships. And I felt so privileged that so many of them still do that.

And just recently, one of the people, Native people I had worked with, her mother died, and she called me the morning after her death and she said I just wanted you to know. And she said, will you please come to the funeral? And I said, well, of course, I would, if you'd like for me to be there. And so I did.

But it's ‑‑ it's that kind of thing, I think, that makes me comfortable in the Native community. And I feel that with the experiences that I'm having now with various committees and of boards and this sort of thing, I can bring some of the Native perspective and culture to their attention of the people who need to know about it and to explore it further. So I can sort of do that from my country experience.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, because you were talking before about some of the criticism that was made against social worker ‑‑ workers and taking people out of their community. ELLA CRAIG: Right. Uh‑hum. KAREN BREWSTER: And but how you, being part of those communities, if you had difficult moments with that kind of thing, of having to be responsible for sending some of their people away, and what that was like.

ELLA CRAIG: It was very difficult because it was always difficult for me to see someone have to leave home because your parents are your parents regardless of their problems or regardless of your problems. And there is a relationship and ‑‑ a closeness there that can't be substituted.

It's very difficult. I mean, it is substituted, certainly, but not at the same intensity that you have with the parent‑child relationship. It's a very different kind of relationship. And I had a youngster once tell me, he said, I know my mother and father drink too much and they could be called alcoholics. He said, but they are still my parents. And he says, I love them just the same.

So I think that kind of speaks for how they see their parents if they are difficult to be with. And I certainly have witnessed that in so many relationships, and to take children from that kind of situation is difficult. KAREN BREWSTER: Especially when you know the families and you're living in that community, I think that would be very difficult.

ELLA CRAIG: It's very difficult. Uh‑hum. So... BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, thank you very much. There's certainly lots more that we could go into, but I think we ‑‑ we better close this session and ‑‑ KAREN BREWSTER: Unless there's something else that's in your head that we haven't brought out yet. ELLA CRAIG: Oh, no. Oh, no. I think I've probably talked too much and it's been kind of rambling and what have you. BILL SCHNEIDER: No. It's been good. KAREN BREWSTER: No. Not at all. It's been wonderful. Okay. BILL SCHNEIDER: Yes.