A map of Alaska with the Southcentral / Kenai Peninsula Borough region highlighted.
Organization: Ionia, Inc.
City: Kasilof
Region: Southcentral / Kenai Peninsula Borough
Program Area: Health \ Mental health
Grants Received:
2012: $9,766  2004: $25,000
2011: $20,092  2001: $146,460
2009: $14,356  1999: $5,000
2006: $250,000

Cooperation, creativity, and simplicity are therapeutic

Mission Statement

To be a place where mentally and developmentally disabled people and their families can create for themselves a full and satisfying way of life in Alaska. This includes promoting the conservation of Alaska's natural beauty, growing grains and vegetables for organic food, protecting a relaxed and happy life for children, and helping others to do the same.
In the summer of 1999, my idea of a healthy meal was a Quarter Pounder without cheese. The only way I consumed barley was through its byproduct, beer. Oatmeal, when I ate it, was a vehicle for butter and brown sugar. I was about 25 pounds overweight, actually sick from eating junk food and didn't know it.

Maybe that's why I had such a hard time figuring these Ionia people out.

Ionia is a village on the southern side of the Kasilof River, only a 15-minute drive from my house on the north side of the river. The place is actually just a subdivision, but well off the main road, in more ways than one. Its inhabitants are iconoclasts who, for mental health therapeutic reasons, have rejected most modern American foods and traditions, replacing them
with their own organic, whole food diet and customs. I was there to drum up a story about them for the Anchorage Daily News.

A photo of Ionia residents in front of the facility.Spacer Image At the time, whole foods were as foreign to me as the word Ionia. The name is coined from an ancient Greek city-state praised by astronomer Carl Sagan as the birthplace of scientific thought. It appealed to these settlers because it implies cooperation, creativity and free thinking. Everything at Ionia is done by consensus. Everything is questioned. That which is useful and perceived as healthy is kept, and all else is shunned.

Ionia started as a tight clan of like-minded families that fled from Boston in the late 1980s, anxious to insulate themselves from blaring American culture and its fatty, refined foods, or "the amusement park," as one of the founders, Barry Creighton, calls it. They ended up, like a lot of misfits, in Alaska. They built tepees, log houses, greenhouses and planted big gardens. Their baggy clothes, introverted lifestyle and penchant for particular foods left them open to ridicule in the Lower 48, but in Kasilof, locals just shrugged and called them "the tepee people." They became part of the neighborhood fabric, like the guy who built a house out of car tires.

A photo of the Ionia facility interior.Spacer Image Sitting cross-legged on the floor of Creighton's log house, I tried vainly to understand why his family and a handful of others would choose to eat only whole grains, beans, vegetables and seaweed gathered in Kachemak Bay. I couldn't imagine life without simple pleasures like nachos. It took most of the morning for the Ionians to explain that they felt better when their lives were simplified and closer to the earth, and their diet was stripped clean of anything processed or refined.

Lunch and dinner might be a seaweed soup seasoned with miso and sesame seeds, with a side of brown rice and boiled leeks, broccoli and carrots; and breakfast, a bowl of oatmeal topped with sesame seeds.

For many at Ionia, food is not a cure exactly, but a key in self treatment of mental illness. Creighton, my friendly host, so talkative and outgoing today, said he'd been wound like a cruelly coiled spring back home in Boston. He had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Others without such clinical diagnoses also feel drawn to live there.

Now numbering about 50, Ionia is plowing forward with its grain project. They own 130 acres, with 26 acres painstakingly cleared for planting. The acidic Alaska soil is responding well to their carefully nurtured compost. A strain of barley is growing well in Alaska's short, wet summers. They've also added a huge community hall and have plans for a barn to park the tractor.

Meanwhile, a change happened to me independently of Ionia, or maybe that visit planted a seed. I have since all but given up beer. I'm eating less refined sugars. My wife and I are switching over to whole grains and organically grown foods. We want to raise more of what we eat, and hunt and fish for more of our protein. In the process of eating better, aside from shedding a few pounds, we've discovered that Ionia has a point. A natural, unrefined diet sets us on a more even keel. Good things happen to both body and mind, even if all you believe you're battling is a little heartburn.

Jon Little is a journalist, writer and distance sled dog racer. A five-time Iditarod veteran, he posts stories and photos about the race. In 2005, he will run the 1,100-mile Yukon Quest, nap for about a week, then fly up the Iditarod trail as a reporter. Little lives in Kasilof with his wife, Brandi, and 33 Alaskan huskies.