Leveraging TOTE and NAC’s resources, Milena Sevigny’s latest project put 30,000 books into the hands of children in Alaska’s most remote villages.
TOTE Alaska Community Relations Program Manager Milena Sevigny was born in Houston, Texas, where she lived until, at 18, she decided on college in Europe.
“I went on a trip to Switzerland after high school, and I just fell in love,” she said. “My parents had saved some money for my college education, and at the time, our dollar was a lot stronger. I didn’t have to take out any loans to go to college over there, but I would have had to here, so it was a win-win for everyone.”
Sevigny graduated in 2005 with a Bachelor of Arts in International Hospitality and Tourism Management from Bournemouth University through the International Hotel and Tourism Training Institute (IHTTI) in Switzerland. Her degree, she said, is similar to a general business degree, leading to a diverse range of employment opportunities that span multiple industries. Sevigny – who by that time spoke both French and Swiss German – stayed in Switzerland after graduation to work on a unique translation project for a small, remote hotel.
“They didn’t have anything for English-speaking audiences – everything was in either French or German. Their website, menu, procedural manuals…everything had to be translated.”
The following year, Sevigny moved into banquet sales, including weddings and other special events for the hotel. Then, on a Christmas visit to her family in Texas in 2007, she met her now-husband.
“I went to a friend’s party and met him, and we had almost an immediate connection,” she laughed. “I went back to Switzerland to keep working, but a few months later, I decided to move back to Texas. My mom was thrilled. She thought I would never come home.”
“When I moved back to Texas, I took a step out of my career path and went to work for Silverhill Financial, a commercial real estate lender, as a Sales Associate,” she said. “That’s where I found another passion.”
At Silverhill, Sevigny analyzed financial statements and tax documents to determine a borrower’s level of risk.
“When the financial crisis hit in 2008, everyone in my office was laid off,” she said.
Sevigny then took a job at Enterprise-Rent-A-Car as a Management Trainee to better understand how to run a business behind the scenes.
“I met a client bringing her car back, and she connected me to a job at Shell Oil in the Meeting and Event Planning department,” she said. “That’s what I did after I left Enterprise in 2009, planned and coordinated logistics of large scale conventions and events such as Shell Houston Open and New Orleans Jazz Fest.”
Sevigny and her husband were also married in 2009 and set up house in her childhood home. Her father spent most of the year in Costa Rica, and the couple was happy to watch the house. Sevigny’s work in event planning for Shell continued until 2011 when she shifted into a role more closely related to social investment.
“At that point, I was Shell’s advisor on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and community engagement, mitigating non-technical risks to operations – that was the start of the journey I’m on now. Shell’s CSR was done so well. It was there that I learned that there is a strategy, there is a focus to how you give money away.”
In June of 2015, Sevigny accepted a new position with Shell in Alaska.
“They thought they were going to be successful with the oil drilling on the North Slope, and they needed someone to live and work in the local community,” she said.
She planned to move in the fall, sold her house, and set off with her husband, friend, two-year-old, two dogs, and two cats in a motor home on a two-week trek up in October of that year to Alaska. On the road, nearing Alaska, she discovered that Shell had withdrawn from the North Slope project and was leaving the state. They asked her to stay on until March of 2016.
“I’d rented a house, a had a few months of work for Shell, going through the offices that had closed down, shipping back the furniture and donating things,” she said. “Everybody was trying to help each other find jobs. We knew we wanted to stay in Alaska. I love the mountains. I love nature. I love being outside. We didn’t ever get outside in Texas – it’s too hot and muggy.”
Sevigny’s husband got a job as a welder, and she heard of the job opening at TOTE.
“I knew (TOTE President) Grace Greene when she was at Shell. Grace’s husband was there with us too. I started in April of 2016, so I’m coming up on my fifth anniversary.”
Making ‘waves’ with the First Book project
A large part of Sevigny’s role at TOTE is to manage in-kind donation shipments that come up to Alaska.
“People call and say, ‘Hey. I want to ship this to Alaska. How do I get it there,’” Sevigny explained. “That’s where I come in. I always ask a lot of questions. The Transportation Institute contacted me to help a nonprofit, First Book, ship a container load of children’s books, and they wanted to know if we’d donate the shipping to get it up here.”
The answer is almost always, “of course,” Sevigny said. Still, she kept asking questions and found out the shipment was part of a project called Book Waves, a partnership between many different logistics companies to get books in the hands of readers in remote locations. First Book had already worked with TOTE in Puerto Rico to ship books to the island.
“Normally, they’d fly folks up who are experts in sorting the books,” she said. “They didn’t know how hard it is to get stuff out to the villages. Like, you can’t just send any box…it has to be a certain size, it has to be covered in plastic to protect it from the elements. There’s so much to consider.”
After explaining the lack of traditional access to Alaska’s villages, Sevigny stepped in and volunteered to lead the entire project in Alaska. She helped the nonprofit secure partnerships with Northern Air Cargo and Ryan Air to fly the books to rural Alaskan villages.
Then COVID hit.
“We had all the books delivered to the Alaska Communications Warehouse, and all the details and volunteers were lined up. The books were shipped in October of last year, and just as they got to the warehouse, the governor shut down the state,” she said. “It was unfortunate knowing all the kids on lockdown in their villages who needed books to read.”
Sevigny approached the team at TOTE for help. A majority of books were relocated to one of the outbuildings at the Port of Alaska in Anchorage. For the past four months, on Saturdays and after work, TOTE employees and their families signed up to sort the 30,000 books delivered into age groups and reading levels.
“We went through all the protocols to keep it safe; one family or household unit at a time came in to volunteer,” said Sevigny. “Our first set of boxes went to Bethel last month, and we’ve begun taking more boxes over to NAC to deliver to other villages.”
Sevigny said that in addition to sorting by age groups, the books must also be grouped by village.
“The books we send are very specifically based on how many kids are in each village at each grade level,” she said.
Sevigny used a list of every school in Alaska that showed how many students were in each grade. She then researched their reading level and how many were on free or reduced lunch to prioritize which villages would benefit from receiving the books. The state average number of students reading at grade level is 46 percent. Most villages accessible only by air were at 10 percent or below.
“Some villages are on the road, and some are off the road. For this project, the team decided to focus on villages off the road system.”
Sevigny said the clock is ticking to get the books delivered by mid-March.
“When the Iditarod happens, NAC needs to get the dogs in and out.”
In addition to the TOTE and NAC employees who’ve made the project possible, Sevigny said she’s indebted to a man named Gerry Dunegan from the Anchorage Independent Longshore Union (AILU) Teamsters.
“He’s such an angel,” she said. “The space where the books are being stored is where the guys usually take their union breaks. For months, he’s spent many lunch hours sorting books and even come in after work. I’ve heard he’s even had other team members come over to help – he’s gotten the union involved. He’s been instrumental to the success of the project.”
Without Dunegan’s help, Sevigny said, there’s no way the volunteers could complete the project on time.
“And that’s really the crux of what I love about this role,” she said. “It’s not TOTE in a bubble.”
Alaska’s hungry, homeless, and hopeful
In addition to the First Book project, Sevigny said there’s been a major increase in the company’s in-kind asks for both shipment over the water and refrigerated container loans.
“A lot of the increase comes from people in Alaska losing their jobs and needing food assistance,” she said. “There’s a lot more food being donated to Alaska right now.”
Sevigny pointed to a 75-percent increase in donation trailer loads TOTE has shipping up to the Food Bank of Alaska at the peak of the pandemic.
Beans Café in Anchorage cooks meals for the city’s homeless population. Since the pandemic began, the café has offered up 500,000 individual meals – all needing to be individually packaged as buffets are currently considered unsafe.
“We’ve also seen an increase in pandemic-related shipment donations, like PPE, hand sanitizer, bleach, and cleaning supplies,” she said. “We’ve had to step out of the idea of ‘in-kind’ and just work on building positive relationships with our community partners,” she said.
Beans Café, for example, Sevigny said, has a problem with clients being hit and killed outside its location where meals are served three times every day.
“It’s a busy road, and often it’s dark. People drive fast.”
Three years ago, Sevigny helped start a program that distributes safety vests to Beans clients.
“I met with the Executive Director of Beans, and we came up with a strategy for folks to wear safety vests, and at the same time partnered with nurses and mental health groups. Basically, when they come in to have their meal, they get a vest to wear, and they learn about some of the other benefits they can take advantage of to keep themselves safe.”
TOTE buys the non-branded vests for the Safety Vest Distribution Initiative, and employees show up to distribute them. They also apply reflective tape on wheelchairs, walkers, backpacks, and clothes to increase their visibility during the long dark winters.
Sevigny also manages a series of partnerships and projects related to nonprofit groups working on teaching youth about career opportunities in the maritime industries and has a vast garden where she grows hundreds of pounds of produce every year to donate to soup kitchens.
“I’ve been able to utilize the relationships I’ve developed at TOTE and strengthen them through my personal initiatives,” Sevigny said. “I think in this role, I have a really beautiful opportunity to build on my personal desire to give back to the community.”