Sullivan Honors Alaskan of the Week: Kara Nelson

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) last week recognized Kara Nelson, the Director of Haven House in Juneau, for her continued advocacy and work on behalf of those on their path to addiction recovery. Kara was honored as part of the “Alaskan of the Week” series.

Alaskan of the Week

Senator Sullivan Honoring Kara Nelson as Alaskan of the Week (Click image or here to watch, click here to download).

SENATE FLOOR TRIBUTE TO KARA NELSON -- (U.S. Senate - August 16, 2018):

Mr. President, it is Thursday. Even though we had a short week here in the Senate, it is one of my favorite times of the week because I get to talk about the Alaskan of the Week, which is a recognition we give to somebody who is doing something important in our State. I can see by the smile on the pages’ faces that it is their favorite time of the week, too, because we talk about Alaska and we talk about somebody who is making a difference. Maybe, it is a difference just in their local community. Maybe, it is in the State. Maybe, it is nationwide. What I really enjoy doing in this speech every week is not just highlighting my great State. Of course, we all think our States are great. I know the Presiding Officer thinks his State is great, and I encourage people watching on TV or in the Galleries to come on up to Alaska. You will have the trip of a lifetime. There is great fishing right now and wonderful, beautiful scenery, but the reason you will love it so much is the people—strong, tough, resilient, wonderful people. That is what we do in terms of the Alaskan of the Week. We talk about the people.

Today, I want to talk about someone very special, a woman who has become a good friend of mine, named Kara Nelson. She is our Alaskan of the Week. Kara calls Juneau home. Sometimes our Alaskans of the Week are unsung heroes. Maybe they have been working on something for years— decades, really—and not a lot of people know what they are doing. Other times, their efforts go from something hardly noticed to somebody who is really noticed. I would say that Kara is somebody who, over the last couple of years, is really noticed. She is kind of a rock star in the State, and to be honest, she deserves the attention that she is given. Kara works with women who have been in trouble, who have struggled with the issues of addiction, and have gone to prison sometimes for it. She is working with women who are trying to get a new start in life. There is nothing more important, I think—whether it is in Alaska or Louisiana, or anywhere in the country—than to give people a new start.

Here is a little bit about Kara, who has been generous enough to share her story openly, because it can be a difficult story to tell. She was born and raised mostly in Ketchikan—‘‘logging camps,’’ she calls them. She was a good student. She was a good athlete. She got good grades. But then, unfortunately, like too many of our young people today—whether in Alaska or anywhere across the country—she started using drugs. Eventually drugs took over her life completely. She dropped out of high school, and, in her words, ‘‘lived the life of an addict’’ for 20 years. For two decades, she was addicted to heroin and other drugs. She was arrested in 2005 for drug-related charges. For years— again, like so many people who we are seeing in our country—she ping-ponged in and out of prison until she was released on June 1, 2011. It has been a tough life with tough experiences, but here is the good news. What has she done with that life since? She has been clean and sober ever since, which we all know is not easy. It takes courage. It takes discipline. She credits her faith and the peer support community she was able to find once she was released from prison. It is the kind of support she is now offering to hundreds of women across Alaska.

Shortly after her release from prison, Kara began to attend meetings led by two women she knew had been part of prison ministries. These women, Ellen Campbell and Ramona Ignell, had an idea of opening up a place for women who were getting out of prison and needed help transitioning into freedom. They needed help. Many were going through their own addiction challenges. They thought Kara would be the perfect person to direct the program. As all Alaskans know now, they thought right because she was that person. In 2015, the transition house that Kara and others founded, called Haven House, in Juneau, AK, opened its doors. So far, 33 women have gone through the program and only 2 have reoffended, which is a remarkable record and success story. Kara is also involved in so many other programs throughout the State. There are actually too many to name, but let me give you a few highlights. These are just a few of the highlights of what she has done. She is the co-chair of the Juneau Reentry Coalition and the cofounder of the Juneau Recovery Community Organization.

In 2016, she was a fellow of Just Leadership USA. She is an active member of the Juneau Homeless and Housing Coalition, Juneau’s Disability Abuse Response Team, Juneau’s Recovery Coaches Advisory Board, and Alaska’s Statewide Recidivism Reduction Task Force. The list is a lot longer than that. That gives you a sense of how involved she is and how much she cares about these issues. Last year, for all her work, she was awarded the prestigious Director’s Community Leadership Award from the FBI in recognition of her outstanding service to the advancement of justice. In the middle of all of this hard work, she went back to school to finish her associate’s degree and was able to be reunited with her three children. On paper and in a speech like this, this certainly all looks impressive, but I am here to tell you there is nothing like hearing her story in person. Let me take you back to a meeting I had in 2015. I had just been elected. Kara and seven other women—three of whom were recently out of prison and the first residents of Haven House— came to my office. They were in DC to attend a march to combat addiction. They were trying to get Members of the Senate and the House to support the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, cosponsored and led by my good friend Senator ROB PORTMAN, from Ohio, and my good friend from Rhode Island, Senator WHITEHOUSE. They came to my office. On this day, I had certainly one of the most impactful meetings I have had in the Senate. It was a meeting where they were all very honest and open about what they had been through, and, to be perfectly blunt, these women have been through hell.

They talked about it with courage, grace, and dignity. They talked about how Alaskans were suffering through this addiction—opioid and heroin addiction, in particular— and how they needed help and how they needed Federal legislation. Their honesty, resiliency, and courage were something I was so impressed by, so moved by. In many ways, it was a gift for me as a Senator to see this and to try, just a little bit, to understand this. This meeting went very long. After I heard these stories,

I started reading more about this crisis. It is impacting all of our States, and certainly many parts of Alaska. I told my staff that we have to focus on this. For 2 years, we convened a summit in our State. It was called the Alaska Wellness Summit: Conquering the Opioid Crisis. Kara and her colleagues who came to see me inspired all of us to do this. In many ways, they were the stars of this event. They told the Alaskans who gathered their stories and their challenges. We talked about all kinds of issues—Federal, State, and local. We brought Federal officials to this summit. The Surgeon General of the United States came. The Deputy Secretary of HHS came. Statewide and local officials were all there gathering together, saying: We can do this. We can tackle this. Let’s work together. There is hope. There is hope because of people like Kara. I have a big State in terms of territory, but it is not a big State in terms of population.

Over 500 people showed up at this summit, with several hundred more online to listen and to get ideas and to give us ideas and to get inspiration from people like Kara. Inspired by that summit and people like Kara, we are organizing another summit—actually, tomorrow—in Anchorage: the Alaska Wellness Summit 2.0. This event will also bring together, like we did before, a number of Federal, State, and local stakeholders to discuss not only the addiction epidemic but also issues relating to drug trafficking and, unfortunately, the associated crime wave that is hitting many of the communities in Alaska and victimizing many Alaskans.

Kara will be one of the people in front of hundreds presenting at the summit. Again, she will likely talk about her own experiences and inspire people and give them courage that they can get through what they are going through, and she will talk about how successful peer-to-peer work has been for her and the other women she has been working with. Whatever she talks about tomorrow, I know that she will bring courage, insight, and internal fire because she has it. She has been through a lot. She is a leader, and she is a leader by example. I want to conclude by saying that her work and the work of so many others on tackling this crisis and all of the difficult side effects is so important. Kara, please keep it up. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for all the work you have done, for your courage, your commitment, and your inspiration, and, of course, congratulations to you on being our Alaskan of the Week. I yield the floor.