NEIGHBORS WITH SANTA

Alumna goes from WNC to the North Pole

After a successful career working with youngsters, Kathy Dudek ’91 MS ’92 knows what dreams are made of. Now, in North Pole, Alaska, she’s living one.

Dudek, a speech and language pathologist with Cherokee County Schools and Cherokee Central Schools for the past 21 years, began a new job this school year in the town of North Pole. It’s not far from Santa’s House, a large store selling all sorts of things related to Santa and Christmas. She works with the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, serving students in kindergarten through grade 12.

Kathy Dudek

Her life-changing decision to start a new career 4,000 miles away was a long time in the making. Years ago, Dudek found out about a program that placed summer volunteers in parks all over the U.S. She hoped to participate eventually, but work commitments prevented extended travel. Finally, when her school system had a longer than usual summer break in 2013, Dudek accepted a volunteer opening at Birch Lake State Park, 60 miles south of Fairbanks.

The experience turned out to be a great adventure. While in Alaska, she explored the region, met people from all over the world, and quickly adapted to living in a small cabin with no electricity or running water. “I learned how much I can live without,” she said. “It was a wonderful summer and had everything to do with my deciding later to apply for a position with the Fairbanks school system.”

After returning to WNC, Dudek received an offer from the Alaskan school system within a few months. Last spring, she prepared for the big move by selling all her extra household items at yard sales. In June, she packed essential belongings in a U-Haul truck and drove to Alaska.

Dudek is employed at Salcha Elementary, a small school that enrolls 70 students. She also works with students in schools at the Eielson Air Force Base. In her spare time, she has traveled to Denali Park to see Mount McKinley, attended music concerts and is learning to contra-dance. She prepared for the winter, when temperatures can plummet to 40 below, by equipping her car with remote keyless start-up, a good set of snow tires and a warming plug. Her upcoming plans include train rides, ice sculptures contests, sled dog rides, bird-watching and returning to Birch Lake State Park as a volunteer next summer.

“Every day is a new adventure,” she said.