DOWNINGTOWN >> Devin DiFranks went to a job fair in the spring of 2016, looking for a teaching position in the area, and ended up signing on for the adventure of a lifetime.
A graduate of Downingtown West and West Chester University, DiFranks spent the 2016-17 school year teaching and coaching basketball in a tiny Alaskan village that is accessible only by a single-engine airplane. The 23-year-old Downingtown native traveled 3,700 miles for the first job of her professional career, and wound up loving it so much, she has since signed on for another year.
“It was very different, but in a good way. I liked how different it was,” DiFranks said.
“I loved it right from the start. Before I went out there, I figured it would be for one year. But I enjoyed the lifestyle, the people, and the entire state is a community.”
For somebody who has played basketball since seventh grade and clearly loves the game, you could say, however, that this endeavor certainly wasn’t a slam dunk. There is the potential isolation of living and working in a 200-person village, dealing with the 20-hour nights in the dead of winter, and the headache of having to have most of your food shipped in.
In addition, DiFranks is a vegetarian, and White Mountain is primarily a hunting and fishing community. It is located about 70 miles east of Nome, on the eastern bank of the Fish River, not far from where it empties into Golovnin Bay and ultimately the Bering Sea.
GETTING A SNEAKER IN THE DOOR
There is little doubt that DiFranks’ background in basketball was a factor in leading her to Alaska. As a senior at Downingtown West, she helped the Whippets captured the Ches-Mont championship.
At WCU, she served as the head student manager for the women’s basketball team for four years under head coaches Deirdre Kane and later Kiera Wooden. And during that stretch, the Rams went 79-35 with two NCAA Tournament appearances.
“Basketball is my sport,” said DiFranks, who also earned her PIAA license to officiate games at the age of 18.
During her senior year, while student teaching at Octorara Middle School, DiFranks attended the job fair in King of Prussia.
“I was focusing mainly on Pennsylvania and Delaware positions, but I walked by (the Bering Strait School District) stand. I was looking at their pictures,” DiFranks recalled.
She handed her resume to recruiter John Concilus, which highlighted her teaching/basketball experience, and mentioned that she was a hiking leader as a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club.
“John mentioned that the Eskimos love basketball – it’s their favorite sport – and that he was really excited about finding me,” DiFranks said. “He gave me an interview right there.”
Concilus called her three times over the course of the next week to make sure DiFranks was serious about a job in Alaska. They initially talked about a position in Shishmaref, which is located on an island near the Bering Strait. The village does not have running water, and is in danger of falling into the Chukchi Sea due to the effects of global climate change.
“The job in Shishmaref was for a reading specialist and my certification in in middle school science and history,” DiFranks explained. “I wasn’t really comfortable with it. So he mentioned another opening he said was perfect, for a middle school in White Mountain.”
FROM THE BIG CITY TO A TINY VILLAGE
White Mountain is best known as the last of the three mandatory rest stops for teams competing in the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. There are no roads to the outside world, and the only way in or out is by via a nine-seat bush plane. Adventure seekers can get in and out of the Inupiat community by snowmobile in the winter or by boat in the summer by navigating the Fish River north to Council, where there is a harrowing trail to Nome.
“My last semester for student teaching I moved back home with my parents and my sister – who has two kids aged four and seven,” DiFranks said. “It was kind of craziness, so I really wanted to move out.
“It took me a long time to decide, but this was an opportunity to get out, have my own place, and I love traveling.”
Devin’s father, John, was a proponent of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and she signed on in late April, 2016. Three month later, she said goodbye to her long-time boyfriend, James, took her 10-year-old cat, Recee, and began the 15-hour journey to White Mountain. Four storage totes with her clothes and personal items were shipped ahead of time.
“I was moving into the same house as the woman who was the teacher before me, and she sold me a lot of her stuff because she didn’t want to ship it all to the lower 48,” DiFranks said. “So I got kitchen sets, towels and stuff like that.”
On July 26th, she left Philadelphia, had a layover in Dallas, and then was on to Anchorage, Alaska’s most populous city. The school district had a welcoming contingent waiting for DiFranks, and she spent a few days in Anchorage, getting assimilated (license, cell phone) and buying groceries to ship.
From there, it was a two-hour flight to Nome.
“I left Philly on a big jet plane to a huge airport in Dallas; then the Anchorage airport is relatively small with only a dozen gates,” DiFranks explained. “The flight to Nome is a much smaller commuter jet, and the Nome airport is one room. They call it an airport, but it’s very small.”
The final leg of the journey is a short bush plane ride from Nome to White Mountain, where there is a dirt landing strip on top of a hill south of the village.
“It doesn’t even have a building,” DiFranks said.
“Recee was sitting on my lap freaking out on the last leg,” she added. “But I didn’t want to go totally alone.”
GETTING USED TO ‘VILLAGE TIME’
DiFranks was in contact with two fellow teachers and the school principal prior to making the trip, which eased her introduction to the beautiful yet desolate village and surroundings.
“I was really nervous because I like to have people around me,” she said. “The second day I was there, one teacher took me out berry picking and fishing on his boat.”
In the middle of the summer, the Alaskan sun would set just after midnight, and promptly rise again around 4 a.m. DiFranks went a full week before experiencing the dark of night.
“I thought it was cool to have so much sunshine,” she said. “I went fishing at 11 o’clock at night one time. In the summer there is ‘village time.’ The people don’t go to bed until 3 a.m. and get up around noon.”
DiFranks moved into a two-bedroom house owned by the school district, and classes began on Aug. 17. White Mountain School goes from kindergarten to 12th grade, has a total of 50 students, and all are Alaskan natives.
DiFranks’ classroom included eight students ranging from grades six to eight. It was a complete departure from her day attending Downingtown Middle School.
“It was a challenge because I had three-grade levels in the room but you are teaching them all at once,” she pointed out. “You really have to be flexible and the kids have to work with you too.”
In addition, she was named the head coach for the girls’ high school basketball squad. There were nine high school aged girls in the school and all nine were on the team.
“It’s very different from my experience as a player,” DiFranks acknowledged. “Back home it’s a privilege to be on a team and you have to work to stay on it because there are a bunch of others who want your place. In Alaska, as a coach, I’m the one that needed them in order to field a team.
“As a result, I think they were less motivated, so I had to make it fun as opposed to running a bunch of basketball drills.”
ROAD TRIPS VIA BUSH PLANE
As the summer turned quickly to winter, the days grew shorter. In the middle of the basketball season, the sun would rise around noontime and set four hours later.
“I found that I was less motivated to do things other than go take a nap. It’s not like you could go for a hike in the dark,” DiFranks said.
“When winter approached, I started to worry about the long, dark winter that Devin was about to experience,” added her father, John. “We checked on her almost daily to make sure she was doing OK.”
The basketball season consists of a series of weekend tournaments held in different villages all around the Seward Peninsula and beyond. Road trips consisted of a bush plane ride on a Friday with a Sunday return.
“We would normally play two to three games and sleep in a classroom,” DiFranks said. “Our school bus was a bush plane, but that was probably the best part of it. I got to travel to all of the different villages. I made a lot of connections that way.
“That whole part of Alaska is like one big family, even though people live so far apart.”
The Lady Wolves struggled and then things got worse when the team’s top player, Felisha Ione, suffered a season-ending broken wrist at the midway point. White Mountain did not win a game, but the team was given a sportsmanship award.
When she wasn’t teaching or coaching, DiFranks enjoyed getting frequent visits to her home by her students or players. She went boating, hiking and ice fishing, and once took a 17-mile snowmobile ride to Golovnin village. In January, DiFranks actually went moose hunting, and she is planning even more adventurous excursions.
“One of the retiring teachers sold me her snowmobile and her four-wheel ATV,” she reported.
Vegetarian in a hunting/fishing community
The natives have a diet that includes caribou, Dall sheep, grizzly bear, moose, walrus, seal, whale and fish. As a result, DiFranks does a lot of grocery shopping on Amazon or at one of two grocery stores in Nome. The items — like canned, dried or frozen vegetables, rice, veggie burgers – are then shipped to White Mountain.
“It’s very expensive to get food in the village and there is only one tiny store,” DiFranks said. “They only get two or three kinds of fruit a month. It was really special when we got bananas. But mostly it’s apples and oranges, and for vegetables it’s mostly onions and potatoes.
“We don’t really see much else. One time we got avocados, and everybody got excited.”
She bought a camera and posted about 200 photos from her first year in Alaska that can be viewed at www.ddifranks.weebly.com. DiFranks also added a YouTube video of drone footage at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-uQWxQ28YOc&t=113s.
“I could just walk out my door and see a view that I would have to drive a long ways and then hike five miles to get to here in Pennsylvania,” she said. “We are surrounded by rivers, which are very beautiful, especially when the sun reflects off of it. There are wild flowers and willows on the tundra, and you see yellow, purple, pink colors with the mountains behind it.
“It’s just really beautiful.”
GOING BACK FOR MORE
The academic school year ended in late May, and DiFranks returned to Downingtown for the summer. But she signed up for another year back in March and will make the arduous trek back to Alaska on July 19.
“I hadn’t driven a car for almost 10 months. Everything in the village is at a much slower pace. Here it is a lot faster and is definitely more stressful,” she said.
“We could tell that Devin really bonded with the children in the school and they were a big part of her life in and out of the classroom,” added John DiFranks. “The people in her village look after one another and we took comfort in the fact that she’s embraced the village community.”