Emblem Club leader balances demands of family, service
Asked how she managed giving birth to twins twice, state Emblem Club president Michelle Stigen laughed and said, "It was easier the second time."
As she prepared for the state Emblem Club convention here this weekend, Stigen explained why the community service organization is important enough for her to fit it into a life that already includes managing a family of eight, bartending at the Elks Lodge, flagging for road construction projects, managing rental property and selling garage sale finds on eBay.
"It is important to do something for your community. Every time you do one thing, you find you can do a little more. If you’ve ever had kids who received a scholarship from the Emblem Club, or a friend whom we helped with a medical fundraiser or some home health equipment, you may want to join and ask what you can do."
Stigen finds time. At 46, the tall blonde is a self-described "neat freak" who keeps her downtown house tidy and maintains her appearance. "Michelle can sleep in a tent and wake up and her hair still looks good," said Leigh Horner, a teammate of Stigen’s on the Kluane to Chilkat International Bike Relay a few years ago.
A more recent adventure was jumping into Lynn Canal on New Year’s Day during the annual Polar Bear Dip. "That’s just Michelle," said husband Gary Stigen. "She does everything, just a little more."
Stigen recently returned from the group’s Supreme Convention in Nashville with prizes for publicity outreach, community service, drug awareness programs and literacy projects. The local club competed against 276 nationwide for the honors.
While in Nashville, Stigen visited Graceland, Loretta Lynn’s Dude Ranch and the Coyote Ugly bar. Kandus Strong, who’s on the local club’s community service committee and serves as the Emblem Club’s Alaska State Marshall, said Stigen is hard to keep up with.
"She’s a type-A personality and always on the go." She’s also good at motivating others and delegating duties so that everyone around her feels needed, Strong said.
Stigen watched a few Emblem Club meetings while bartending at the Elks, and when she and Gary were married there in 2000, the same women helped with the party. "I had all these ideas from bridal magazines, but was a little stressed, and the Emblem members were here, and they said, ‘Go home, we’ll take care of it.’"
While her initial impression was that the group was social, she quickly learned there’s more to it. "You don’t realize how much is involved in putting on the Community Service Auction, or the Christmas and Easter events for the kids," Stigen said. "It all takes a lot of teamwork."
She and others have planned this weekend’s convention for eight months, and the last month has kept her busy daily, she said. Her husband, she said, brings her coffee each morning in a to-go cup.
Stigen was born in Minnesota and raised in Arizona. Her father died when she was in kindergarten and her mother held the family together.
"She was a single mom who went to school at night and worked so that my brother and I had a house to live in and everything we needed. I learned a lot helping my mom with the housework and cooking and cleaning."
Stigen married young. She saw Haines for the first time in 1990 on a postcard from a family friend. Later that year, she arrived with her second husband and found work bartending. The marriage ended but Stigen stayed on, tending bar at the Fogcutter and raising her four boys. "I had all those kids. I couldn’t afford to go anywhere. I didn’t want to take all those kids to a city anyway. This was a better place for them to be."
Stigen met Gary Stigen when he arrived in Haines in 1994, although he had been traveling back and forth between Alaska and the Lower 48 for years, working in fishing and construction jobs. He had two daughters when they married in 2000. Together they added another set of twins to the family for a total of eight children.
"He got a boy and I got a girl... Nobody is ever lonely at our house," Stigen said. Looking back on nearly 30 years of parenting, Stigen said she’s pleased that all of her children have a strong sense of family and are hard workers. "They all get along pretty well; they are all there for each other whenever they need each other."
Stigen said Haines is a great place to bring up children, a place where they can play and be safe. "Kids get to do a lot of things (here) that kids down south don’t get to do. And if somebody is doing something wrong, usually you’re going to know about it before they get home, because somebody else in the community is going to be calling you... Everybody looks out for each other."
Gary Stigen works full time at the school, and volunteers his free time as well: coaching Little League and driving the bus for Rainbow Glacier Camp, as well as volunteering with both the Elks Lodge and the Emblem Club.
For the past 11 years, Michelle Stigen has also managed the Elks Club bar, where she works up to five nights per week.
When her younger children were small, she would bring them to the lodge while she worked. They would ride their tricycles around the big hall floor, and as they grew up, do their homework with the help of other Elks and Emblem members until Gary or an older sibling showed up to take them home. Now, her older sons are frequent volunteers at the lodge.
During her tenure as president of the state association of Emblem Clubs, Stigen will visit all the Emblem clubs in Alaska (Fairbanks, Anchorage, Homer, Seward, Valdez, Juneau, Wrangell, Skagway, Sitka) as well as travel for conventions, competitions and workshops in the Lower 48 throughout the year.
This weekend, the club will host the Alaska Association of Emblem Clubs’ fall meeting with some 80 guests expected from around the state. Stigen has organized a country western banquet and arranged a tour for the visitors at Takshanuk Trail.
If Stigen had a magic wand and could make anything happen, her wish for the community is for a recreation center for young people and adults. Stigen said if more people join the Emblem Club, that could be a project they take on.
Hanging decorations at the Elks Lodge this week, Stigen joked about future winters she’ll spend on a warm beach, drinking a margarita. From across the room, Kandua Strong rebutted, "Are you kidding? Twenty years from now she’ll be the Supreme President."
Stigen won’t rule that out. "I’d like to think I’ll always be involved in some way."
Asked why someone with a full load of family and work commitments would make an effort to volunteer in the community, Stigen points back to her family.
"A lot of the stuff we do is kid oriented. It’s helping kids in the community that don’t have some of the advantages that ours have. Our kids are involved, too. It’s good for them to see...that it’s not all about you and that you need to give back to your community to be something bigger than what you are by yourself. We are trying to get the kids to do the right thing… I suppose this has taken a lot of time from my family, but in the end they understand this is what makes communities."